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Those with faith are far more likely to help their fellow man

By Ray Pennings
and Andrew Bennett

Christmas is one of the few times in Canada that religion makes a public appearance. Nativity scenes depicting the birth of Jesus Christ pop up on lawns. Radio stations belt out sacred music among generic holiday tunes. News media may even report on a church’s special Christmas meal.

By Boxing Day, we typically consign religion to its usual place behind closed doors in private homes or houses of worship.

Ray Penning

Ray Pennings

Andrew Bennett

Andrew Bennett

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However, perhaps in 2023 we can move toward a better way: deep pluralism, where Canadians can publicly be their authentic selves, religious or not.

Many might instinctively reject such an idea, fearing it would sow division. In fact, there’s good evidence it would do the opposite.

In a winter survey, think tank Cardus partnered with the Angus Reid Institute to ask Canadians whether they’d donated to charity, volunteered their time, or helped a stranger in the last few months. We also asked whether they read (or otherwise engaged with) a sacred text. For most, that would mean the Christian Bible, but it also includes the Jewish Torah, Muslim Qur’an, and other books.

The numbers were revealing.

Of Canadians who had read, heard, or otherwise engaged with a sacred text in the last 12 months, almost seven in 10 had donated to a charity recently, 48 percent had volunteered, and 65 percent had helped a stranger in need. Jews, Muslims, and Evangelical Christians stood out particularly on all three scores. Among Canadians who hadn’t engaged with a sacred text, charitable giving went down to 53 percent, volunteering fell to 33 percent, and helping strangers dropped to 51 percent.

Far from dividing Canadians, faith communities help create a generous culture inspired by what their sacred texts proclaim about ministering to the world. A deeply pluralist society makes room for those communities, as well as those of no faith, to live out their beliefs fully and publicly.

This is precisely where Canada has an opportunity to shine as a diverse society, though it will take some work. Most of us seem to have bought into the myth that faith is solely a private matter. So, 52 percent of Canadians say they don’t want sacred texts to play any role in helping define our laws or how we live. And 65 percent say teachers should not expose students to the Bible in standard school curriculum, while 79 percent say the same about the Qur’an or other sacred texts.

But faith that isn’t lived – and isn’t lived publicly – isn’t faith at all. All sectors of society, including schools, governments, and media, need to remain open to public expressions of faith that are part of our common life.

This means we’ll need to lay to rest the mistaken notion that secularism is neutral. It is not. There’s nothing neutral, for example, in Quebec’s attempt to ban government and government-affiliated employees from wearing religious symbols. Forcing people to privatize their faith in order to advance secularism, which is also a system of belief with its own creeds and rituals, undermines deep pluralism.

Neither can we pretend that all faiths essentially teach the same things, which our survey suggests 63 percent of Canadians believe. Despite some possible overlap in morality or ethics, faiths differ in very significant ways. For example, apart from their belief in the oneness of God, Jews and Muslims believe something very different from Christians when it comes to who Jesus Christ is.

So, we’ll need to learn to navigate differences. A deeply pluralist Canada makes room for and respects differences and disagreements on a range of public policies, including the charitable sector, education, families and parenting, and even foreign aid.

We have a diverse society where we see sacred texts inspire the best in us. So in 2023, let’s neither hide nor ignore Canada’s faith communities. Let’s learn from them instead.

Ray Pennings is executive vice-president of think tank Cardus and Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett is faith communities program director at Cardus.

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