Twenty years after Mount Cashel, Canada’s most secular generation ever prepares for centre stage

It was 1989, and revolution was in the air. The Berlin Wall was being torn down and the Communist governments of eastern Europe were, for the most part, peacefully deposed. South Africa had woken up to the fact that white-rule had reached the end of the road. In China, protesters occupied Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to take on the country’s repressive rulers head-on.

Another revolution was unfolding in Canada.

For decades, the young residents of the Mount Cashel Orphanage in Newfoundland, run by a religious organization known as the Irish Christian Brothers, had been subject to physical, sexual and emotional abuse. An investigation into allegations of abuse had been started in 1975, but then suddenly abandoned by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary under political pressure.

By the time the file was re-opened in 1989, Newfoundland was a different place. Politicians were no longer willing to cover up what had happened at Mount Cashel, as they had done 14 years earlier.

Details about the abuse at “Newfoundland’s House of Horrors” exploded across the country in October, 1989.

Just as the end of repression in one or two eastern European countries encouraged other countries to quickly follow suit, the end of the suppression of the facts concerning what had happened at Mount Cashel caused other Canadians to come forward with details about similar abuses at other orphanages and residential schools throughout the country.

For the churches that had run the schools and orphanages, it was a public relations nightmare that they were ill-equipped to deal with as they found themselves open for the first time to external scrutiny and unprecedented criticism.

Over the years, as more and more details came out to show that Mount Cashel was anything but an isolated incident – that abuse had been widespread, and routinely covered up as a matter of policy with little corrective action being taken – priests and ministers watched as long-time members of their congregations left and never came back.

Twenty years later, we now have the ability to see how the children of those disillusioned worshippers differ from previous generations of Canadians in their religious views and behaviours.

What it suggests is that young Canadians born between 1980 and 1989 are the most secular generation of Canadians ever – the first generation where a majority say that religion is “not very” or “not at all important” in their lives, and where one out of every seven is an atheist.

The oldest of them will be entering their thirties in a few months’ time, and will begin to make their influence felt as parents, executives and politicians.

The first graph below shows the results of the Canadian wave of the World Values Survey, taken in 2006, organized by the decade in which each of 2,106 respondents was born.*

On the left hand side of the graph, you can see that religion is quite important for those Canadians born in the ‘20s and ’30s: 76% of those born 1920-29 and 77% of those born 1930-39 described religion as being “very” or at least “rather important” in their lives. Only about one-quarter described religion as being “not very” or “not at all important”.

By the time you get to the ‘70s generation, you can see that these thirty-something year old Canadians are almost evenly split between those who say that religion is important to them personally, and those who say it isn’t.

The ‘80s generation, however, is less ambivalent. For the first time in Canadian history, we have a generation where the majority – 57 percent – considers religion to be of relatively little importance.

Importance of religion in Canadians' lives in 2006, by year of birth

Importance of religion in Canadians' lives in 2006, by year of birth

The second graph shows the results of a question where respondents were asked to choose which moniker best describes them: a religious person, not a religious person, or a convinced atheist.

Among those Canadians born before 1960, solid majorities in excess of two-thirds described themselves as being religious. The ‘70s generation was the last one to date in which a majority described themselves as religious, and the ‘80s generation was the first generation in which fewer than half would describe themselves as such.

What’s noteworthy about this graph is the sharp rise in atheism among young Canadians.

Among those born in the ‘20s and ‘30s, very few consider themselves atheists. Even among those born in the turbulent ‘60s, no more than five percent described themselves as atheists. But of those born in the ‘70s, nearly one-in-ten call themselves atheists. Among those born in the ‘80s, one-in-seven describe themselves as atheists. While 15 percent is still very much a minority, it’s no longer a fringe group.

Canadians' religious self-description in 2006, by year of birth

Canadians' religious self-description in 2006, by year of birth

If the third graph is any indication, many religious congregations in Canada are dependent on weekly parishioners born before World War II – a generation now in their seventies and eighties.

Among those born between 1920 and 1929, 51 percent were weekly parishioners as of 2006. Among those born 1930-39, the corresponding figure was 36 percent. But among those born after 1960, fewer than one-in-five attend religious services on a weekly basis, compared to about 40 percent who never attend.

Given the fact that many congregations are dependent on weekly parishioners for financial support, this suggests that as the pre-WWII generation ceases to attend regularly due to age and as the Boomers begin to reduce their attendance further down the road, their children and grandchildren are unlikely to be there to take their place. Marginally viable congregations that struggle to make ends meet today face a particularly grim future.

Canadians' attendance at religious services in 2006, by year of birth

Canadians' attendance at religious services in 2006, by year of birth

The final graph is probably the clearest indicator of the legacy of the Mount Cashel scandals of 20 years ago. This graph is based on a question in which Canadians were asked to rate the importance of God in their lives on a scale of 1 to 10, with a “1” meaning that God is “not at all important” and a “10” meaning that God is “very important” in their lives.

Among those Canadians born before World War II, God is clearly an important part of their lives, with an average rating of 8.4 out of 10 among those born 1920-29 and 8.3 among those born 1930-39.

Among those born during the next three decades, there is little change in the importance of God in their lives, with average scores in the low-to-mid sevens. However, the average rating dips to 6.7 out of 10 among those born in the ‘70s and to just 5.9 among those born in the ‘80s.

Importance of God in Canadians' lives in 2006; average rating on a 1-to-10 scale by year of birth. (1 - Not at all important, 10 - Very important)

Importance of God in Canadians' lives in 2006; average rating on a 1-to-10 scale by year of birth. (1 - Not at all important, 10 - Very important)

Twenty years ago, we watched in amazement as revolution seemed to sweep the world. But throughout history, many of the most important revolutions were not those that took place at gunpoint, but those that were driven by changing demographics.

If the religious attitudes and behaviours of those born in the ‘80s are any indication, Canada’s next generation of leaders are poised to take the country in a much more secular direction, treating religion as being a personal lifestyle choice in which governments will remain neutral – no one will hold it against you if you opt in, and no one will hold it against you if you opt out.

That is the legacy of Mount Cashel.

* – Weighted by gender and province

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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