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© 2015, Tony Harwood-Jones
You are expected to contact the author for permission
to reproduce this article in whole or in part.

Home-made Religion – a Belief in ‘no Accountability’

According to the Canadian government’s official 2011 census, Christians comprise the largest religious grouping in the country.  Evidently Christians, in all their various denominations, make up 67% of the Canadian population. 1 

The next largest religious grouping in Canada, after Christianity, according to that same census, is “No Religious Affiliation.”  Persons with this self-designation comprise 24% of Canadians.

No other religious grouping comes close. 
Muslims?  They’re only 3.21% of the population.  Hindus are 1.52%, and Buddhists are 1%

Even more significant is how the numbers are evolving.

Let’s go back twenty years to the census of 1991.  At that time, Canada did not calculate the total number of Christians – census officials merely reported by denomination, so let’s look at the three biggest Christian denominations in the country, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and United Church:

Between 1991 and 2011, while the general population was increasing by 20%...
Roman Catholics increased by 5%
Anglicans decreased by 25%, and...
the United Church decreased by 35%.

Meanwhile: persons with no religious affiliation increased by 135%!

Which, paradoxically, makes “No Religion” the fastest growing religion in Canada!

The fastest-growing religion?

Well, actually, this isn’t quite true.  In the same period, Islam increased by 300%, and Hinduism increased by 200%.  However, these two religious groupings combined still only comprise 2% of the Canadian population, so – numerically – more people with “no religious affiliation” have appeared within the population, than people who see themselves as Hindu or Muslim or anything else.

Moreover, increases in the number of Hindu or Muslim Canadians are not because people are being converted to these faiths – though there certainly are some conversions (especially to Islam).  Mostly, the growing number of Hindu and Muslim Canadians is simply the result of immigration.

But “No Religion,” on the other hand, is not increasing by immigration.  We are looking at actual conversions here – people who were once Christian, or Jewish, or Hindu, or Muslim, who have changed their minds, and now declare that they have no religious connection.

Is belief in God decreasing too?

That is more difficult to assess.  As you probably know, many people who call themselves “Anglican” or “Roman Catholic,” don’t subscribe to much of the actual doctrine, or attend religious services.  They say this more as an indicator of family heritage, the way one might say, “I’m German,” or “I’m Ukrainian,” or “I’m Irish.”  In effect it is, “I’m Anglican because my mother sent me to Anglican Sunday School.”

The opposite may be the case for persons who admit to no religious affiliation.  They may be officially of no religion, but they might still tell you that they “believe in God,” or have some deeply meaningful experience of the Divine, or at least of the supernatural.

I suspect, however, that while many such folks might believe in God – in the sense that a divine being exists – their belief might not be very substantial.

A Humanist funeral 2

Recently a documentary was aired on CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), in which the family of a deceased person decided to invite a Humanist speaker to lead the funeral.  Simon Parcher, an officiant with Humanist Canada, came and led a very respectful ceremony, in which he said, “Life exists in the time period between birth and death.  Life’s significance lies in the experiences and satisfactions in that span of time.  Its permanence lies in the memories of those who knew us.” In other words, this life of ours is all there is.  When we’re dead, we’re done.  The camera then turned to the woman who organized the event – whose husband’s death was being marked.  She read some poetry, and then spoke, as it were, directly to her late husband: “You are my guardian angel.  I don’t want to say good bye.  But we will meet again one day.”  Later she said to the CBC reporter, speaking of her late husband, “He didn’t believe in the afterlife.  I do.  I hope he’ll be with me till my dying day.” 3

Her personal conviction that her husband is still somehow alive was so strong that she had no qualms about contradicting the carefully developed humanist teachings of Mr. Parcher.

I can assure you that beliefs such as hers are widespread.  Some years ago it was quite common for people, who had not attended any sort of church for most of their lives, to ask the undertaker if he knew of any clergy who might preside at a funeral for them.  After I retired from full time parish ministry, I was often called by various undertakers in the city to lead such funerals.  And invariably someone giving the eulogy would say that the late loved one was “looking down on us,” usually with a smile.

This belief is deeply ingrained, and is not the result of some doctrine or dogma being promoted by a religious organization.  Perhaps it is a hangover from the era when Christianity dominated our culture, but now it is simply out there, widespread and deeply-felt.

I have less opportunity to observe it in person now, for calls to clergy to preside at the funerals of people with no church are becoming quite few and far between.  An undertaker who is my good friend tells me that he himself is often asked by clients to lead some sort of non-religious ceremony for them.  And my neighbour, who has done civil weddings for years, has now become certified to lead funerals.  “No religious affiliation” is growing by leaps and bounds.

But even though I am no longer at the front of a funeral parlour listening to people give their loving remembrances, I saw it once again, loud and clear, in that CBC documentary.  The family wanted a Humanist funeral, but in fact had their own ideas of what is true and likely about life after death.

I propose that belief in God is something similar to belief in life beyond the grave.  It is a belief that is simply held, and not questioned, by many people.  If they have learned it from someone, they no longer know or care when or from whom they learned it.  It is their own belief, and no one else’s.

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Belief in Heather Dixon

Belief that God exists, however, is quite superficial.  It’s rather like belief that Mount Everest exists.  Such a belief will have almost no effect on your life unless and until you decide to try and climb Everest!  When you attempt that, it is almost always life-changing.

Or, to use a much more personal and immediate example, I can tell you that a woman named Heather Ann Dixon exists.  You will probably assume that I am telling you the truth, and will be quite comfortable accepting that such a person truly exists and is not a fiction.  But it won’t affect your life in any way.

However, many years ago I met, fell in love with, and married that woman, and raised a family with her.  We have had forty years of good times and bad times together, and when I tell you that I “believe in her” you know that means something much more than my conviction that she exists.  I trust her, I admire her, I count on her.  I have faith in her, that she will do what she says, that she will function as my other half, my partner, my friend.

Genuine belief in God – or, more correctly, faith in God – is like that.  It’s a relationship – and a trusting one.  You count on God’s active participation in your life.

Faith in God requires accountability

So, there are many people who do not admit to a religious affiliation, who nonetheless have some kind of belief in a God, or in a life after death, or in some sort of value system where certain things are believed to be “good” and certain other things are believed to be “bad.”

Some of these people may even have an active and ongoing relationship with the God in whom they say they believe...

But here we must be careful.

My relationship with my wife is concrete – but my relationship with the invisible Creator of the Universe is quite another thing altogether.

If I merely believe such a Creator exists, with no actual effect on my life, there is no problem.  But what if I pray, and think that I receive an “answer” to my prayer?  What if I start to believe that God is “guiding” me to do this or that?  Certainly this is the beginning of having a “relationship” with God but it also brings with it all sorts of risks.

Is it really God? or am I having some sort of delusion?  If I suspect delusion, I’d be well advised to see a psychiatrist!  But who do you see when you are certain that you are not delusional, and are in relationship with a fully real divine being?

If I refuse to turn to someone outside myself – whether priest, rabbi, guru or shaman; whether church, mosque, dojo or sacred circle 4 – if I am the only and final decider of what experience is a God experience and what isn’t – then in effect I am my own God.

Our dealings with God have to be worked through in community – where there is a history and a tradition of how and when God answers prayer, and real live people to consult when you think you have had a genuine encounter with the Creator and Ruler of All.

If I wonder whether or not to marry that person, or accept that job, or beget a child, and I think that I’m getting some guidance and help from my Maker, I would be foolish indeed not to take it to a reliable and established and trustworthy resource outside myself to confirm or correct my sense of what God wants me to do.

And so, when I am accountable – when I am not a know-it-all – when I have a community of faith that teaches me how life with God actually works... THEN my faith in God will be a useful tool and give meaning and purpose to my life.

And if my country is not to become a nation of independent, unaccountable philosophical egoists, each one practicing his or her own home-made religion, “religious affiliation” must increase on the next census forms.

See you in church.

Tony Harwood-Jones
June 1, 2015

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1  The 2011 religion and population numbers can be found here.  Results from ten years earlier, the 2001 census, can be found here.  Information from 1991 in this article has been manually extrapolated from the ‘Percentage change (1991-2001)’ column in the 2001 census page.
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2  Humanism is a well-developed philosophy with a long history.  Recently associations of Humanists have been formed in several countries, arguably because they endorse the general thrust of this article – that whatever our beliefs we ought to be within a community, and accountable for the ways we might apply those beliefs.  You can find such associations on the Internet, many of which now offer to have someone preside at a funeral for you.
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3  The CBC has posted an account of the Humanist funeral online.  It is not in video format, but it is the same journalistic project, and indeed the words quoted here may be found there.  Click here to read it.
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4  Some might ask, “How about consulting a holy book, such as the Bible, the Qu’ran, the Bhagavad Gita?”  To which I would answer, “A book might convert you, or inspire you, but it doesn’t give you a specific response to your specific life circumstance.  You need the community that upholds the sacredness of that book to help you apply it to your daily life.
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