Nanaimo is Canada’s least religious metropolitan area, the latest census shows.
Statistics Canada released 2021 census data last week examining religion and Nanaimo is among the least religious communities in the country.
In the Nanaimo census metro area, 62.9 per cent of respondents reported no religious affiliation, compared with 52.1 per cent for B.C. and 34.6 per cent for Canada.
Canada’s six most non-religious census metropolitan areas are all in B.C.: after Nanaimo at No. 1, Kamloops is next at 60.8 per cent, then Victoria (60.5), Kelowna (54.4), Chilliwack (49.4), and Vancouver (47.1). Rounding out the top 10 are Red Deer, Alta., Belleville, Ont., Peterborough, Ont., and Kingston, Ont.
Outside of census metropolitan areas, Canada’s most non-religious community is Squamish at 70.1 per cent.
In Nanaimo, 31.5 per cent of census respondents said they are Christian: 9.2 per cent are Catholic, 7.7 per cent consider themselves not-otherwise-specified Christians, 3.7 per cent are Anglican, and another 3.7 per cent are affiliated with the United Church. Among non-Christian religions in Nanaimo, the Sikh population is the highest at 1.2 per cent.
Father Harrison Ayre of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church was asked if the data surprised him and he said yes and no.
“I didn’t know the numbers, so in that sense it hit hard, but there is also something in the air in Nanaimo, more locally, that didn’t shock me to read that we were the most disaffiliated city in the country,” he said in an e-mail interview.
Ayre said when considering the data, the terms ‘affiliation’ and ‘religion’ can be problematic. Someone is Catholic by virtue of their baptism, for example, but someone who attests to being Catholic – or any religion for that matter – might not necessarily be “attempting to live what they believe,” he pointed out. Comparing the census data to the size of Nanaimo’s Catholic church congregations, he estimated 10 per cent attend mass every week.
The B.C. Humanist Association, a non-profit that seeks to provide a community and voice for humanists, atheists, agnostics and other non-religious people, is also keenly interested in what the numbers represent. Ian Bushfield, executive director, said while the census data is accurate, the question about religious affiliation is open to interpretation.
“We do think it undercounts the number of non-religious and it paints a picture that shows people as being more actively religious than is necessarily the case,” he said.
A StatsCan study from last year found that 18 per cent of Canadians say they have a religious affiliation but don’t participate in religious or spiritual activities and consider their religious or spiritual beliefs “to be of little or no importance to how they live their lives.”
Bushfield said it’s important to have the best available data because of “government entanglement with religion” with funding for religious private schools, health-care facilities and homeless shelters, for example.
“They may be more open to funding religious ones on a perception that there are lots of religious people who would be able to access that, but in reality, those can often discriminate or be barriers for people who are non-religious or of minority faith communities,” he said.
Bushfield said British Columbia surpassing the 50-per cent non-religious threshold is “very symbolic” and worthy of attention, but stressed that the majority shouldn’t necessarily direct government policy because even small minority beliefs should have their place.
“We should be taking a secular approach because it’s the best way to make sure we’re reflecting a neutrality that makes space for everyone and doesn’t privilege one viewpoint over another,” he said.
Morality and meaning found in churches and secular society
If Nanaimo is Canada’s most non-religious metro area, it isn’t evident in the pews at St. Peter’s, where there is a sort of “counter trend” to the census data’s trajectory.
Ayre said church attendance is at pre-pandemic levels and there is “a spectrum of ages and cultures” that he attributes in part to Vancouver Island University attracting young adults from around the world. Broadly, there has “obviously” been a decline in church participation over the years that has been discussed and studied by church leaders at various levels.
“People think it is a pragmatic question and thus deal with it in a pragmatic way – rather, it is the question of culture and human nature,” Ayre said.
He suggested the “secular culture” is itself a sort of religion, as “there is no such thing as a culture that doesn’t attempt to answer the questions of human existence” such as “why am I here? Who am I? Is there a purpose to existence? Is there something more to life?”
Ayre said truth has a universal hold on people, so if Christians aren’t making the claim that what they believe is the truth, that’s a failing of the churches. However, he added that they can only propose, never impose.
“If the ‘religious question’ is really a public question, if religion is really a universal human phenomenon … then it is also the fault of culture and society to refuse to take these questions seriously,” he said.
He thinks the decreased rate of people who are religious has brought with it some decrease in “moral reason or moral truth.” If human beings are soulless products of chance, the priest said, then they lose worth.
“If humanity has no value, then living itself becomes meaningless. So why should I treat others well? At best, we do it because it is politically or socially expedient, but even that crumbles over time,” Ayre said.
Bushfield argued that cultures develop in different ways, and in places like Vancouver Island, where traditional religions aren’t for most people, residents look elsewhere for their morality and their sense of community. He noted that in B.C., environmental groups are “foundational” and the province also the home of important civil liberties and human rights work.
“We can easily see that people can be good without God in British Columbia. Lots of people care deeply about the state of the world…” he said. “There is a deep commitment that’s not necessarily tied to religion but is tied to creating a better world.”