Ray PenningsThroughout autumn, the soup of our multicultural society has almost boiled over with questions about secularism and religion – of what is and isn’t allowed in contemporary public and common Canadian life. Efforts to relegate religious expression and thought to the margins have been ramped up. Those efforts, however, are out of step with broader Canadian society.

So, what evidence is there of the secularist push? In September, some openly questioned whether a turban-wearing Sikh who heads a major political party is an acceptable national leader. In the same month, niqab and burka-wearing Muslims felt targeted by a Quebec law that seeks to expunge public spaces of their particular religious expression. Just a couple of weeks ago, Governor General Julie Payette mocked those who believe life is a divine creation. And at the end of November, Trinity Western University will appear before the Supreme Court of Canada as law societies challenge the private Christian school’s right to set religious standards for its faculty and student community.

But the push for secular supremacy – often done in the name of inclusion or neutrality – doesn’t mesh well with Canadian society. In fact, the latest Angus Reid Institute (ARI) poll conducted in partnership with the think-tank Cardus suggests those who are anti-religious are the outliers.

Almost half of Canadians (48 percent) tell ARI the overall contribution of religion and faith communities to Canada is a mix of good and bad. Another 38 percent say their contribution is either very good or more good than bad. Only 14 percent take a negative view overall. And the same poll suggests almost half of Canadians are open to religious communities having influence on Canadian public life.

Where things get dicier is when Canadians are asked to gauge the overall presence of a particular religious community as benefiting or damaging the country overall. Here, Canadians in general have a net positive view of the country’s various streams of Christianity, as well as Judaism. They’re neutral on Hinduism and atheism, somewhat negative on Sikhism, and heavily negative on Islam. However, when the poll examines the attitudes of religiously committed Canadians (most of whom identify as Christians of one sort or another) it reveals a net positive view of every religious community save Islam – and even then, they’re a lot less negative than Canadians in general. They save the strongest negative response for atheism. It’s those in the category of non-believers (those who reject religious belief) who overwhelmingly believe every religious community in Canada, especially Muslims and evangelical Christians, hurt the country. They only feel good only about atheists.

It seems those who are most tolerant of various faith community voices, including those they disagree with, are religiously committed Canadians. By contrast, the nonbelievers hold that those who espouse a faith are hurting the country. But we know from previous ARI polling that this intolerance belongs to the minority. Only 19 percent of Canadians identify as non-believers.

Worryingly, the minority belief that religion is harmful to Canada carries over into other policy areas. ARI found that 55 percent of Canadians support tax exempt status for organized religion, which exists partly because of the religious role in charity. However, almost eight in 10 non-believers say they’d rather see churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and other religious entities taxed. Similarly, 55 percent of Canadians say workers at a religiously affiliated nursing home should have the right, on moral grounds, not to participate in doctor-assisted death. Almost two-thirds of nonbelievers would deny them conscience rights.

Could it be that this same anti-religious intolerance is behind the same public issues we’ve been debating over the last months? As alarming as it is to see such intolerance, it’s heartening to know that such voices are the outliers. The polling confirms most Canadians are tolerant and welcoming. If we’re to keep the multicultural pot from boiling over, it seems we’ll need to double down on dialogue and understanding – even with those whose religion we do not share.

Ray Pennings is co-founder and executive vice-president of the think-tank Cardus.

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