A quarter of Canadians think religious diversity is a bad thing

November 20, 2017

By Craeme Hamilton, Vancouver Sun |

Canadians are divided over whether religious diversity is healthy for the country, but they consider Islam in particular to be a negative force, a new poll has found.

In the survey, conducted the same week Quebec adopted a law prohibiting niqab-wearing women from receiving government services, 26 per cent of respondents said increasing religious diversity is a good thing while 23 per cent said it is bad. Nearly half — 44 per cent — said diversity brings a mix of good and bad; the remaining seven per cent were unsure.

When the pollsters sought respondents’ views on particular religious groups, anti-Islam sentiment stood out. Forty-six per cent of the people polled said Islam is damaging Canada compared with 13 per cent who said it is beneficial. The others either did not know (20 per cent) or said it has no real impact (21 per cent.)

The Angus Reid Institute, which conducted the poll in partnership with Faith in Canada 150, said the results are in keeping with “a well documented pattern” in recent years. “Namely, if Islam is involved, a significant segment of Canadians will react negatively,” the institute said in its analysis of the numbers.

The only other religion with an overall negative score was Sikhism, with 22 per cent calling it damaging and 13 per cent beneficial. Catholicism, Protestantism, evangelical Christianity and Judaism all had overall positive ratings.

Angus Reid, the founder and president of the institute, said he found it disheartening that Canadians are not more committed to the freedom of religion enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

A slight majority — 55 per cent — of respondents said freedom of religion makes Canada a better country, while 14 per cent said the freedom makes Canada worse and 21 per cent it has no impact.

“I think the low number of Canadians who celebrate the fact that we have religious freedom is very troubling and really speaks to the forces of secularization that are at work in Canadian society,” Reid said in an interview.

He sees in the results a “potential for intolerance” toward the faithful, especially adherents of minority religions. Asked whether various groups’ influence was growing or shrinking in Canada, respondents identified Islam, Sikhism and Hinduism as growing. Canada’s more established religious groups were all seen to have a shrinking influence.

The poll is part of Faith in Canada 150, a multi-faith initiative of the think tank Cardus to highlight the role religion has played historically and continues to play in Canada.

Ray Pennings, executive vice-president of Cardus, noted that roughly three per cent of Canadians are Muslim and less than two per cent are Sikh, so the chances of a poll respondent having a Muslim or Sikh neighbor are slim.

“I don’t think the people answering this poll are answering from the consequence of day-to-day experience. I think what we’re talking about is a public narrative,” he said.

He said it is telling that the two groups seen negatively are also those with visible religious symbols such as the hijab and turban. “Is it a discomfort with the particulars of their faith? Or is it a discomfort with the fact that they’re different than us?”

The poll asked about cases where religious practice intersects with the public sphere. There was solid opposition to the niqab — a garment worn by some Muslim women that covers the entire face except the eyes. Forty-nine per cent of respondents said a woman in a niqab should be prohibited from visiting a government office and 29 per cent said she should be discouraged but tolerated. Twenty-two per cent said the woman should be welcomed.

There was greater tolerance for the idea of opening a council meeting with a non-denominational prayer to God — just 25 per cent said the practice should be prohibited. Opinion was divided on whether organized religions should continue to receive special tax consideration, with 55 per cent saying yes and 45 per cent saying no.

The same split — 55 per cent yes and 45 per cent no — emerged on the question of whether a religiously affiliated nursing home should be able to refuse the practice of physician-assisted death.

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