“When one looks back at the 1950s,” writes historian Doug Owram, “religion stands as one of the great gulfs separating that age from the present.” In that era, Christianity occupied a privileged place in Canadian public life, appearing in most public schools across the country, in the speeches of politicians, and even in the official mandate of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The decade and a half following World War II was a time of significant growth for Canada’s Christian churches: church membership levels increased, new churches were built at a rapid rate, and Sunday schools burst at the seams.
Despite clear indicators of church growth, there were also signs that Christianity was losing its hold on Canadian life during the 1950s. Consumer culture was on the rise, and Canadians seemed more preoccupied with material than with spiritual concerns. In cities across Canada, there was a growing demand for professional sporting events on Sundays, challenging older patterns of Sabbath observance. Religious holidays, such as Easter and Christmas, became increasingly commercialized. The church pews were filled on Sundays, but religious knowledge, interest, and enthusiasm appeared to be fading. Christian leaders feared that postwar churchgoing had less to do with genuine religious commitment, and more to do with a desire for stability and security after years of economic depression and war.
Dechristianization and the Sixties
As it turns out, Christian leaders had reason to be concerned. Levels of church involvement fell across Canada during the 1960s (the ‘sixties). Moreover, the proportion of Canadians claiming to have no religion grew from 0.4% in 1951 to 4.3% in 1971 — a sharper increase than at any other time in this country’s history. The changes were especially dramatic in Quebec. As the Quiet Revolution unfolded in that province, many clergy left religious orders and the influence of the Roman Catholic Church waned. Across the country, there were growing challenges to the longstanding notion of Canada as a Christian nation. It was during the 1960s, according to historian Gary Miedema, “that the historic privileging of Christianity in Canadian national public life began very visibly to crumble.”
Several factors account for the dechristianization of Canada during the sixties. In that decade, the Christian churches in Canada and beyond came under attack from people both within and outside their congregations. For example, in his 1965 bestseller The Comfortable Pew, Pierre Berton lambasted the mainstream churches as complacent and out of touch with the critical issues of the day. Charged with irrelevancy, Canada’s Christian churches were also edged out, by an expanding state, of their traditional domains of health, education, and welfare. Furthermore, a postwar wave of immigration that included many non-Christian newcomers made the notion of a uniformly Christian Canada untenable. As Canada became more religiously diverse, its public schools came under increasing scrutiny for privileging the Christian faith. In the public realm, Canada started to be represented as a multi-faith nation (rather than exclusively Christian) at state-sponsored events such as the 1967 Centennial celebrations.
At the close of the turbulent sixties, Canada was a different place, religiously, than it had been when it emerged from World War II. It had not become a wholly secular country — most Canadians still maintained some religious beliefs and affiliation. However, Christianity’s position of unquestioned power and privilege in Canadian culture had come to an end, and the churches were no longer widely recognized as the cornerstones of moral authority.
- At mid-century, materialism supplanted spirituality as a defining feature of Canadian life.
- Church-going declined in the Cold War era, and a growing share of Canadians claimed to be atheists or otherwise without religious beliefs.
- Dechristianization has been explained by a failing of the mainstream churches, the arrival of newcomers with different belief systems, and the rise of multiculturalism (which challenged the automatic pre-eminence of Christianity).
- The role of the church as arbiters and leaders in moral authority was no longer intact by the 1970s.
- Doug Owram, Born at the Right Time: A History of the Baby Boom Generation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 103. ↵
- Gary Miedema, For Canada’s Sake: Public Religion, Centennial Celebrations, and the Re-making of Canada in the 1960s (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), xv. ↵
- Brian Clarke, “English Speaking Canada from 1854,” in Terrence Murphy and Roberto Perin (eds.), A Concise History of Christianity in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1996): 357. ↵
- Mark Noll, “What Happened to Christian Canada?,” Church History 75:2 (June 2006): 248. ↵
- Miedema, For Canada’s Sake, 4. ↵
- Pierre Berton, The Comfortable Pew: A Critical Look at Christianity and the Religious Establishment in the New Age (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1965). ↵
- Miedema, For Canada’s Sake, 4. ↵