Sunday, June 1, 2008

Restless Gods

Dear Professor Bibby,

I recently finished your 2002 book Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada. I can't offer a good excuse for the delay other than the usual claim that there's always more books to read than there is time to read them.

I realize you had training in the ministry and your religious leanings are confessed near the end of the book, but I can't help but feel that your theological orientation has led you to miss some of the interesting sociological implications of your research.

Throughout is a strange kind of triumphalism that Marx and Freud were wrong in predicting the complete downfall of organized religion, or that the secularist bent of sociology in the 1960s has been proven incorrect; I wasn't alive in the 1960s but I can't help but feel that these are old battles that have been fought and won several times since and that, in any event, anyone who sincerely thought religion would completely disappear from the West was the sort of person who thought that by now science would eliminate all disease, robots would be doing our housecleaning, and we'd all live in socialist communes. In other words, the ideological secularism theorists have been vanquished long ago and it's time to move on to more interesting subjects.

That being said, the finding in your book that seems the most startling and worthy of further study is the "Religious Nones" category. As you indicate, the percentage of the population claiming no religious affiliation grew from less to 1% in 1971 to 12% in 1991 and finally to 20% in 2002 (pages 37 and 63). Twenty percent of the population, almost doubling in a single decade. In other words, far behind Catholics and just a little behind Protestants ("Mainline" and "Conservative" combined), the next highest affiliation for Canadians is "No Religion". See also "Nonbelief in Canada: Characteristics and Origins of Religious Nones" by Merlin Brinkerhoff and Marlene Mackie in The Sociology of Religion: A Canadian Focus (W.E. Hewitt, ed.).

Yet the "Religious Nones" are largely ignored throughout your book other than a dismissive couple of paragraphs (pp. 64-65) where you note that some members of the category will shift out (just like religiously-identified persons may shift to other religions or to the Religious None category) and that between 1/5 and 1/3 of the Religious Nones will still use a religious organization for funerals, weddings, and the like. The implication seems to be that Religious Nones either do not hold their beliefs as strongly as the religious or that they secretly have religious beliefs. Either of these propositions could be true, of course, but they would require further study to know one way or the other.

I'm confident you didn't intend the book to be biased in this way; your work is clearly fair and balanced in almost every other respect. All I ask is that if your work continues to be marketed as serious sociology, you strive to be objective towards the significant percentage of your readers who are non-religious.


Jeremy Patrick

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