“Buckle of the Bible Belt”? Part 3

Alberta’s Evangelical Reality: A Wasteland, Not A Heartland

In my first article, and in my second article on the case of William Aberhart, I argued that because of the unique political culture and history in Alberta, because of the influential but biased perspective of a national political, cultural and media establishment rooted in a more secular and postmodern part of the country, because of the outsized impact Western-based and particularly Albertan evangelical Protestants have had in Canadian politics, and because of Canadians’ natural suspicion of American culture combined with the historically close ties Alberta has enjoyed with the more religiously and culturally conservative parts of the United States, Canadians find it all too easy to generalize and assume that Alberta is a Canadian “Bible Belt” and Calgary is its “buckle.”

In this article, I plan to show that, sadly, this perception is not reality.

LOSING OUR RELIGION

The Government of Canada’s statistical agency, Statistics Canada, tracks religious attendance across the country. While unfortunately (for our purposes) they do not distinguish between adherents of different denominations or even of different religions, their figures can provide us an initial snapshot of how “religious,” in general, Alberta is compared to the rest of the country.

Below is a table extracted from a Winter 2000 article in Statistics Canada’s magazine, Canadian Social Trends:

Canadian Religious Attendance by Province

Before discussing these data, a couple of qualifications are in order. First, like I said, no attempt is made to distinguish between adherents of different religions or denominations. So remember: this is a measurement of Canadians’ commitment to religion in general. This is not a measurement of evangelical Christian attendance.

Second, this is a measurement of church attendance for adults 15 and over. This minimizes the impact that conservative religious families, who tend to have more children, would otherwise have on these statistics; a family of 6 young children will not “pad” these stats! On the other hand, it also implies that Canada’s falling birthrates (versus its growing immigrant population) are not the reason for these declines, either.

Third, the date given here is 1998. I was unable to find anything broken down by province that is more recent (if you know of any such data, please let me know where in the comments!). So these data are 15 years old. In that time, various social trends and pressures would have influenced religious attendance. Urbanization has continued since then, as I noted in the first article, and higher urbanization shows some correlation with lower religious attendance. The Catholic church, especially in Quebec, has seen its attendance plummet even as its membership grew due to immigration. The mainline Protestant churches have seen significant decline in their attendance, while evangelical churches have actually shown growth overall at their expense, at least nationally. And don’t forget the increasing numbers of adherents of other religions in Canada, particularly Muslims.

So I would expect the trends represented in this table to have continued somewhat, though there is a “hard floor” of religious commitment that Canadian religious attendance will eventually hit as older mainline churches have no more members to hemorrhage…

However, for our purposes in this series, these data work nicely. For those who simply assume that Alberta is a nest of fervent religious zealots, these figures are, put plainly, shocking. 

Of Canada’s ten provinces, Alberta rates second lowest for the percentage of adults attending religious services regularly. Alberta is tied with ardently secular Quebec, of all places. The only province worse than Alberta is another Western province often viewed as a religious heartland, British Columbia (I would theorize that British Columbia’s significant population of immigrants from East Asia and their descendants, who do not have a cultural tradition of religious attendance–I don’t think many Eastern religions have weekly services–might have something to do with this). Ontario is actually better off than Alberta.

Again, this is not a measurement of evangelical commitment. In theory, the share of evangelicals in Alberta’s population could actually be rising and these numbers would fall if all other religious traditions collapsed. I don’t think that’s the case, however.

UNCHURCHED CITIES

So how can we gauge the strength of Alberta’s (and Calgary’s) evangelical community? Religious attendance isn’t the only “proxy” for religious belief. The number of religious congregations is also an indication of a belief system’s strength.

I work part-time as a corporate chaplain with a Canadian evangelical ministry called Outreach Canada (OC). This ministry has, among other things, gathered some very interesting data on the state of Christianity in Canada, which I’ve placed below. Like the religious attendance statistics above, for many Canadians, some of OC’s statistical conclusions may be surprising. However, for those of us engaged in ministry in Alberta–and in Calgary in particular–OC’s figures are illuminating.

Selected Canadian Metro Areas With Evangelical Church to Pop. Ratios

METRO AREA PROVINCE EVANGELICAL CHURCH TO POPULATION RATIO
Quebec City Quebec 1:23,331
Saguenay Quebec 1:21,733
Trois-Rivieres Quebec 1:9508
Montreal Quebec 1:8688
Sherbrooke Quebec 1:8668
St. John’s Newfoundland 1:6718
Ottawa-Gatineau Ontario 1:6129
Oshawa Ontario 1:5381
Toronto Ontario 1:5229
Great Sudbury Ontario 1:4764
Calgary Alberta 1:3818
Windsor Ontario 1:3773
Victoria British Columbia 1:3674
Hamilton Ontario 1:3654
Kingston Ontario 1:3604
Halifax Nova Scotia 1:3539
Edmonton Alberta 1:3420
London Ontario 1:3351
Vancouver British Columbia 1:3269
Thunder Bay Ontario 1:3214
Winnipeg Manitoba 1:3169
Regina Saskatchewan 1:3148
St. Catherine’s-Niagara Ontario 1:2390
Saskatoon Saskatchewan 1:2331
St. John New Brunswick 1:2099

The original table is found here at J.D. Payne’s blog.

This table arranges the urban areas of Canada by their ratio of population to number of evangelical churches. The 25 cities with the lowest ratio are shown, so cities with higher numbers of churches compared to overall population are not listed. In other words, this is a list of the most “un-churched” cities in Canada, arranged from “most un-churched” at the top to “25th-most un-churched” at the bottom (I know, clunky grammar, but it makes the table more understandable!)

Now, it’s important to note that, culturally speaking, English-speaking Canada and French-speaking Quebec are profoundly different. They speak different languages, but also have different histories, being settled by different nations, living under different versions of civil law, and having different religious heritages. Quebec was once heavily Catholic, but has become so ardently secular that it is one of the least “Christian” places on Earth. Again, I need to note that, because Quebec exercises such a large cultural and political influence on the Canadian national conversation, the profound secularism of Quebec makes the greater religiosity of other regions appear more fervent by way of comparison in the Canadian mind.

It’s more informative, then, to count the Quebec cities out of this comparison. When we do, the result is staggering. Of all the English-speaking urban areas in Canada, measured by ratio of evangelical churches to population, Calgary is the sixth-worst.

I’ll say that again, differently. Calgary has fewer evangelical churches compared to its population than all but five English-speaking cities in Canada.

Who’s worse? St. John’s, Newfoundland is the lowest English-speaking city; it’s a port city and also, like Quebec, has a long Catholic heritage (even today, almost half the city considers itself Catholic). The next area, Ottawa-Gatineau, is actually misleading; Gatineau is located in Quebec, across the river from the capital, and is French-speaking. I would suspect that Ottawa’s ratio is skewed by Gatineau’s inclusion and that the English-speaking part of the metro area should be listed further down the table, while Gatineau might actually be comparable to other Quebec cities. The other three cities are in Ontario. Besides Toronto, Oshawa is actually the eastern anchor of the Greater Toronto Area, while Sudbury is an industrial city located in a more remote area of Ontario.

So you could say that, other than a heavily Catholic and isolated port city in Newfoundland and three industrial cities in Ontario, Calgary is actually the most secular English-speaking city in Canada.

Calgary has one evangelical church for every 3818 inhabitants, according to the table. Actually, I think the situation is even worse. These data date from 2006. Calgary experienced a population boom up till the economic crash in 2008. Calgary’s population in 2006 was 988,193. As of 2013, the city’s population is 1,149,552. That’s a 16% increase in just seven years.

I haven’t done any market research or surveys myself. But having served in pastoral ministry in Calgary since 2006, I would be highly surprised if there has been a 16% increase in the number of established evangelical churches. I’m aware of quite a few failed church plants, but I doubt the number of surviving churches planted since then would have been enough to improve the ratio.

Note, too, that our sister/rival city to the north, Edmonton, is six places further down with a ratio of one church to every 3420 inhabitants. They aren’t really much better off, either.

SUMMARY

So is Alberta a “Bible Belt?” Well, here’s what the numbers tell us.

Far from being a religious heartland, Alberta is, when measured by religious attendance, the second-least religious province in the country.

And far from being the vaunted “Buckle of the Bible Belt,” Calgary actually has fewer evangelical churches (for its population) than all but five other English-speaking cities in Canada.

Alberta’s no evangelical heartland, folks. It’s more of a wasteland.

I’ll close this article here. Next time, in Part 4, I plan to look at some indicators of the health of the evangelical churches we do have in Alberta. That will push the discussion of Canada’s true “Bible Belt” to a later article.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to ““Buckle of the Bible Belt”? Part 3

  1. Hey Jeff.
    Great articles so far. I’m a huge history buff (was my major for the first two years of University until I switched to science), and so I do appreciate the historical aspects you have brought in. Your articles remind me of a conversation I had with a Baptist pastor from Texas. I informed him that he was sitting in the so-called “Bible belt of Canada.” He seemed shocked by that, as he should have been. If one were to look at the current state of the evangelical church in Alberta as you are doing, it doesn’t take long to see that we are a ‘wasteland’ indeed!

    Looking forward to more articles.

  2. Pingback: “Buckle of the Bible Belt”? Part 1 | Cutting It Straight

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