Canadians are growing more comfortable with a range of different faiths, according to a February 2017 Angus Reid Institute opinion poll on six major religions.
The three religions most favourably viewed by Canadians are Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism, while Islam is more often viewed skeptically, though increasingly less so.
The Angus Reid Institute conducted the national online survey in a representative sample of 1,515 adult members of the Angus Reid Forum, a web-based market research community consisting of nearly 130,000 Canadian households. Although this was not a scientific telephone-based poll, a probability sample of this size in a scientific poll would carry a margin of error of +/- 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
In 2017, 68% of Canadians hold a favourable opinion of Christianity, while 58% and 53% view Buddhism and Judaism, respectively, in a positive light. Approval for Hinduism is 49% and for Sikhism 38%. Islam is viewed positively by 34%, up from 24% in 2013 and 31% in 2009. And in Quebec—the province that saw lethal shootings at a Quebec City Islamic cultural centre in January—32% view the Muslim faith favourably, an increase from 16% in 2013 and 17% in 2009.
“The most surprising aspect of the study was the uptick in favourability within Quebec,” said Dave Korzinski, an Angus Reid research associate, in an interview with the Anglican Journal. “Amid discussions of Islamophobia in Parliament and the shootings in Sainte Foy, Quebec, it was hard to predict how public opinion would react.”
Despite that positive note, perhaps in the context of contemporary geopolitical conflicts, almost half (46%) of Canadians view Islam negatively. “The lower levels of favourability are likely the result of the fact that Islam is almost the exclusive focus of media attention in Canada and internationally,” said Paul Bramadat, PhD, director of and professor at the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society and in the history department at the University of Victoria, B.C., in an interview with the Journal.
To some degree, he added, this reflects actual conflicts within the Islamic world and between the Islamic and the non-Islamic world. “However, this focus also reflects the fact that in Europe, especially, Muslim newcomers are perceived by many otherwise rational people to represent an existential threat to European liberal democratic values, and some people in Canada have picked up on this anxiety.”
As for visible symbols associated with religions, only 29% of poll respondents support the wearing of the Islam-associated burka, and 32% the niqab. In contrast, strong majorities approve of the Christian nun’s habit (88%), the Jewish kippah (85%), the Sikh turban (77%) and the Islamic hijab (75%). And while approval is 90% for public displays of the crucifix and 87% for the Star of David, just 33% approve of the kirpan, the ceremonial sword worn by Sikhs.
“I would say that clothing identified with Muslims has come to be identified with separateness, as though what a Muslim wears is the most important aspect of an individual’s religious identity and as though the main purpose of this clothing is to make non-Muslims feel spurned,” said Bramadat. “We don’t assume that a Jew’s kippah is the most important part of what it means for that person to be a Jew.”
In particular, Bramadat called out the obsession with Muslim garb for women. “What is it about North American or European societies that makes their majority populations so interested in the ways Muslim women dress themselves?” he said.
Age and opinion
Not surprisingly, a generational divide emerges in the poll. Canadians age 55 and older show the highest approval for both Christianity and Judaism at 77% and 64%, respectively, but that support drops to 62% and 52% in millennials ages 18 to 34. Millennials also show higher support than older Canadians for non-Judeo-Christian belief systems: Buddhism (61%), Hinduism (54%), Sikhism (45%) and Islam (40%).
Interestingly, middle-aged people 35 to 54 years show the least support for any of the six religions studied.
In another area explored by the poll, Canadians appear to be getting more comfortable with interfaith marriage. More than eight in 10 (85%) would find it acceptable for a child of theirs to marry a practitioner of Christianity, 64% a follower of Buddhism and 62% an adherent of Judaism. Acceptance for intermarriage, however, falls to 54% for followers of Hinduism, 48% for adherents of Sikhism and 43% for practitioners of Islam.
But Canadians age 44 and younger are more likely to see intermarriage with a Muslim as acceptable, with 62% of those 18 to 24 approving. Of those age 65 and older, 42% oppose the idea.
And interestingly, across all six religions, more respondents seem to approve of the concept of interfaith marriage than hold favourable views of the specific religions themselves: 85% versus 68% for Christianity, for example, and 48% versus 38% for Sikhism.
To Bramadat, these data suggest that despite general concerns about particular religious groups, people are becoming more accepting of particular individuals within them. “So, some people might be concerned, in a general sense, with Sikhism, but then they think to themselves, ‘Well, I do like my dentist or my workmate Amarjit, and so if my son and Amarjit fell in love, perhaps that would be okay,’ ” he said.
Bramadat is struck at how well Buddhism almost always fares in such studies. “Here I think we see the impact of celebrity Buddhists, such as the Dalai Lama, Uma Thurman and Richard Gere, as well as the success of mindfulness practices that are linked loosely with a Buddhist sensibility but that do not ask practitioners to adopt many formal Buddhist beliefs or practices.” The fairly high approval rate for Hinduism may also reflect the influence of famous musicians such as George Harrison, Ravi Shankar and Jerry Garcia.
Political leanings help shape views, with past Conservative Party voters less favourable to faiths other than Christianity (80% approve) and Judaism (62% approve). Liberal- and NDP-aligned Canadians are almost twice as likely as Conservatives to hold a favourable view of Islam: 45% and 42%, respectively, versus 24% of Conservatives.
NDP supporters hold the least favourable view of Christianity at 67%. Liberals, perhaps echoing the party’s name, are the most likely to have a positive view of faiths other than Judaism and Christianity: Buddhism 67%, Islam 45%, Sikhism 48% and Hinduism 57%.
Calling the data set “interesting and rich,” Bramadat said it suggests that in the context of Canada’s growing religious diversity, our increasing experience of particular individuals may be helping to shape our general perspectives on other faiths. “To see a bump in positive opinions of all religions outside of Christianity, where the number was steady, was surprising on this end,” said Korzinski. “And it’s tough to surprise us over here!”