Canadian Census Reports 24% of Citizens Have No Religious Affiliation

Yesterday, Canada’s National Household Survey (similar to the U.S. Census) released analysis of the demographics in 2011 [Insert joke about how long that took] and it turns out Nones are on the rise (PDF) up north, too:

(via Canadian Atheist)

Roughly 7,850,600 people, or nearly one-quarter of Canada’s population (23.9%), had no religious affiliation. This was up from 16.5% a decade earlier, as recorded in the 2001 Census.

Part of the upswing is explained by the influx of immigrants, many of whom have no religious affiliation.

Keep in mind these numbers may also be artificially low. The Centre For Inquiry wasn’t happy with the wording of the religion question and explained why years ago:

22. What is this person’s religion?

Indicate a specific denomination or religion even if this person is not currently a practising member of that group.

For example, Roman Catholic, Ukrainian Catholic, United Church, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Islam, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, etc.

Specify one denomination or religion only __________

No religion __________

The wording of this question is biased towards artificially inflating the number or religious Canadians. It prompts “non-practising” members to write down the religion of their parents or community, even if they themselves no longer believe. Basically, it measures religion as something that is “affiliation-based” rather than “belief-based”.

Mark Gibbs at Canadian Atheist offers a takeaway message focusing on the immigrant Nones:

… we need to give more focus to new Canadians. We need to focus more particularly on reaching Muslims, as well as Hindus and Sikhs. We don’t seem to be having as much success reaching people from the Middle East and South Asia, and that appears to be where much of future of Canada will find its roots. But other than that, we seem to be doing alright!

Indeed they are. And who knows how much higher the numbers would be if the question was phrased a little better.

(Thanks to Derek for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Christine

    The numbers are meaningless, due to the fact that we didn’t do a census. (And that’s aside from the fact that the question is asking for how a person identifies, rather than what they believe.)

  • Anon

    I used to write protestant on ours, but now that only two people ( the minority) in the household *kinda sorta believe*, I write no religion. There are changes in the home-grown Canadians too!

  • Stev84

    You need to add a “Help! We’re oppressed” speech bubble for the Christians.

  • Tim

    “Part of the upswing is explained by the influx of immigrants, many of whom have no religious affiliation.”
    I find that interesting. In the UK immigrants are much more likely to be religious. Mainly because immigrants tend to come from poorer countries and poorer countries tend to be more religious.
    Where does Canada get all its non-religeous immigrants from?

  • dave

    To clarify what Christine said: Canada’s census was changed in 2011; a short part of it is mandatory and a longer part is a voluntary poll of a few million households. It represents people who are motivated to answer and may undercount certain communities.

  • Tim

    shouldn’t every person fill in their own answer in private?

  • ortcutt

    Identification and belief are two different axes of religion. That doesn’t make the numbers meaningless.

  • Anon

    I only filled out household ones..

  • Emily Fleming

    I think what Christine’s referring to is that this wasn’t a census. Instead of actually getting data from everyone, there was a sample surveyed of a (significant, but not very large) fraction of the population, and the survey was non-compulsory; that is, it wasn’t required to be filled out and returned. This opens it up to reporter bias as well – are certain groups more likely to fill out the survey? Are they more likely to return it? Etc. It doesn’t make the numbers meaningless, but it does mean they come with a lot more caveats. Personally I’d have preferred a census.

  • ortcutt

    Are you suggesting that the people who work at Statistics Canada are completely incompetent at their jobs?

    You can read the guide to the methodology here if you would like.

    They took steps to measure non-response bias.

  • Ibis3

    The head of Statistics Canada resigned over this poor excuse for a “census”. It’s not much more reliable than an Internet poll.

  • tim

    Well having the “head of household” answer for everyone is another reason for the results to overstate religiousity.

  • Emily Fleming

    Nope! I read the report, and they did account for bias. I’m just saying that a even a significant sample size of <100% self-selected-to-a-degree people is not as accurate as a sample size of 100%, no matter how well-designed the survey. That'd be the caveats I mentioned; I did say that the numbers weren't meaningless. I didn't mean to come across as saying folks were incompetent, and I'm not sure how my phrasing came across that way. It seems an extreme interpretation, like if I said "I don't like nuts because ______" and someone thought I meant that everyone who serves nuts in food is automatically a terrible cook. I regret that any of my phrasing led to that conclusion.

  • Emily Fleming

    Asia, if you take a look at the part of the survey measuring foreign-born residents. At least, that’s where the majority of our immigrants come from. (I say this as one of the foreign-born residents, having moved here from Canada from the UK and become a citizen at the age of three and a half. Obviously I didn’t have any opinions on religion when I moved at the age of three months, but I had one religious parent and one atheist parent)

    I’m not sure where the majority of UK immigrants come from, but from what I remember from studying migration and demographics in geography in college a few years back, you tend to get enclaves because folks from one country move to the same general area as their buddy/cousin/co-worker did. Even if most of the UK immigrants also come from Asia (which seems likely. Most people on the planet come from Asia period, and there’re a lot of highly-educated people there who’d have no problem getting immigration permission to Canada, so I imagine they’d get into the UK), Asia’s a pretty varied place with more and less religious regions.

    *EDIT: As per wikipedia (standard caveats apply), atheism’s actually dominant in East Asia. Per wikipedia as well, most immigrants from Asia to the UK come from South Asia (India, Bangladesh, etc.), Africa, and the Carribean, which tend to be more religious.

  • Alan Eckert

    “released analysis of the demographics in 2011 [Insert joke about how long that took] ”

    They were too busy sending out personalized thank you cards to everyone who responded.

  • McAtheist

    When I receive a Canadian census, in the space where it asks “Specify one denomination or religion only”, I always write ‘Hockey’. To date I have received no negative feedback from my government.

  • McAtheist

    Mainly China, also Japan, Russia and Europe/UK. Canada also accepts scientists, university professors and other highly educated individuals, they are more likely to be ‘non-believers’. It may also be possible that ‘non believers’ choose to relocate to Canada because we don’t really give a shit if you are an atheist. I am not sure all immigrants tend to be ‘poor’ nor that being poor prevents one from being atheist.

  • Mark Hunter

    Ultimately it comes down to how many are at church. I’m living n Canada and I was helping out a charity event in a church basement a number of weeks ago (no connection with the church) and the woman beside me asked if I went to church. I said no. She replied she didn’t know anyone who did.

  • Mark Hunter

    Are you celebrating the high holy days (the playoffs) too then,. Terrible loss Toronto had last night.

  • Mark W.

    I was disappointed that Stats Canada released the now non-mandatory Census and it showed that Jedi had fallen by about a percent…where did all my fellow force users go? I personally think that the Sith have started infiltrations Alberta and Saskatchewan.

  • Mark W.

    If only the people who were actually responsible (Harper and his band of anti-science flunkies) would resign, it would be a happy day in Canada.

  • Christine

    In fairness, the old long-form “census” wasn’t actually a census – I think it was only 10% of the population. But because it was mandatory the statisticians were better able to actually extrapolate to the entire population.