Leaving Christianity

Changing Allegiances in Canada since 1945

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Brian Clarke, Stuart Macdonald
Advancing Studies in Religion Series
  • Montreal, Quebec: 
    McGill-Queen's University Press
    , November
     2017.
     304 pages.
     $32.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780773550872.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Leaving Christianity is a comprehensive, empirically-driven study of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism among the Canadian population over the latter half of the 20th century. Spoiler alert: the authors convincingly show that most Christian traditions that once encompassed the vast majority of Canadians have experienced significant declines in terms of their numbers, even among some conservative Protestant groups and older adults. This knowledge as a whole is not new: others have shown this decline before through a variety of indicators, and many church leaders and members have experienced it on the ground. What is new is the authors’ argument that the cultural shifts of the 1960s, not prior societal changes (do not be fooled by the book’s subtitle mentioning 1945), were key to the beginnings of this decline. 

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in religion in Canada, and brings much to the table. First and foremost, the authors are part of only a very small handful of researchers analyzing the extensive quantitative data on church membership, Sunday School participation, rites of passage, and more collected and archived by Canadian churches. This data has been severely underutilized by those studying religious trends in the country, and nowhere will you find a more comprehensive analysis of this data spanning eight decades and over a dozen denominations and groups than in Leaving Christianity

The authors also expand their review of the existing literature on religion in Canada beyond what is written in English to include work done in French-speaking Quebec. Too many times have I banged my head against a wall, knowing that studies on religion in Quebec and Canada would be vastly improved if English-speaking Canadian authors had read the rich body of research coming from Quebec, and vice versa. I tip my hat to the authors of this book who have the necessary linguistic skills and who made this effort; their book’s argument is all the richer for it. 

Overall, I do think the authors present a strong argument in the book: Christianity is in decline due to structural societal changes in Canada, and the 1960s, with their sexual and gender roles revolution, growing individualism, and shift in national identities, were a crucial time for this change. In so doing, the authors provide an important critique to supply-side theories of religion. The authors in this book convincingly argue, in my opinion, that Christianity’s decline is not being primarily driven by what specific faith groups are doing or not doing on Sundays, and that population-wide trends will most likely not be reversed with a simple adjustment in what faith groups are supplying in term of liturgy, events, and services. Neither are the authors presenting a classic form of secularization theory, but rather a more nuanced theory of decline happening in stages across generations and triggered by specific societal shifts in the 1960s. 

Whereas I do think this book makes important contributions to the study of religion in Canada (the major ones having been listed above) I also think it has a few weaknesses, and as such the conversation surrounding religious trends in the country continues. First, I strongly recommend researchers move away from the traditional Quebec/Rest of Canada (ROC) regional divide that is used in this book to a more detailed regional breakdown of the country. When it comes to Christianity, trends in British Columbia are so different from Atlantic Canada, which are so different from the Northern Territories, which are so different from the Prairies, which are also different from Ontario. Grouping all of these regions together into the ROC means that we only see what is going on in Ontario due to its population weight (not that Ontarians are overweight, but there are just more of them). For example, historians such as Tina Block and Lynne Marks have shown that organized Christianity west of the Rockies began to decline much earlier than the 1960s, whereas in many areas of Atlantic Canada my research has shown that it was arguably quite strong until the 1990s. The 1960s argument put forward in Leaving Christianity does not work in the same way for these distinct regional contexts as it does for Ontario and Quebec. 

Additionally, even after reading this book I am still not convinced that the decline of organized Christianity began in Canada in the 1960s, as the authors seem to argue. In fact, I am still not clear on whether the authors see the conditions of the 1960s as triggering decline that began abruptly during this period (the impression I get in the first half of the book), or whether they see the 1960s as a crucial moment for this phenomenon, but maybe not the very beginning of it (the impression I get in the second half of the book). Many of the numbers presented in the book began to turn downwards in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I could debate how the authors chose to construct some of their indicators, but even if we fully go with these measures they are still delayed indicators. Research that I and others have done shows that religious decline happens for the most part gradually among individuals and across generations. The person who is removed from a membership roll probably stopped regularly attending religious services a while ago. Religion usually stops being salient for a parent long before they choose not to baptize their child or not to send them to Sunday School. People usually disaffiliate long after they have stopped practicing their religion. The 1960s are a crucial period when people start to take notice and cultural conditions for non-religion become more entrenched for those coming from a Protestant background in Canada, but as with many of the cultural changes in the 1960s, their roots go further back in time. 

These weaker points in the book’s argument do not, however, eclipse the important contributions it makes to the study of Christianity in the country. I encourage all those who have an interest in Canadian religion to get yourselves a copy and read Leaving Christianity if you have not already done so.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme is Assitant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo.

Date of Review: 
September 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian Clarke teaches in the Toronto School of Theology and Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto.

Stuart Macdonald is Professor at Knox College and Instructor in the Toronto School of Theology at the University of Toronto.

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