Beyond the Gods and Back
Statistical analysis is not usually for the faint of heart. However, both for those who enjoy raw statistical data, and those who prefer to skip right to the application of those stats, University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby has written an important book for our Canadian religious culture.
With the Canadian conference executive director issuing a renewed call to reach our own country for Christ, Beyond the Gods and Back is a helpful tool. Bibby explains the historical dimension behind Canadian pluralism. He locates our religious behaviour in larger movements of immigration into a host aboriginal population. He enlarges our understanding of various religious denominations.
Organizing the material well, Bibby frontloads each chapter with data. Information is laid out in accessible charts and graphs together with written analysis, and he ends each chapter with an assessment of the information – translating the numbers into clear implications.
Bibby is refreshingly unafraid of changing his mind based on new information. His previous books established the trend of secularization, and then saw the possibility of a revitalized religious culture in Canada. This book sees a new reality – a culture polarized between a strong new secularism and a resurging religiously committed population.
The three key factors Bibby uses to measure religious behaviour are service attendance, identification, and belief in God. All three areas give evidence to support Bibby’s thesis of polarization – compared to earlier surveys, a higher percentage of the population never attends services, a higher percentage of the population indicate that they have no religion, and a higher percentage declare themselves to be atheists. This polarization becomes the central organizing principle of the book, as Bibby seeks to discover its implications on various dynamics of Canadian society.
Perhaps the strength of secularization is seen most clearly in its power to redraw the lines of reference. Rather than mapping the religious reality of the country with lines dividing the various religions, secularization manages to be strong enough to challenge all religious belief, placing all religion into the opposition camp, lumped together into the same behavioural category. We are not asked which god we believe in, where we attend, or with which religious group we identify. In order to understand our behaviour, we are asked simply about the strength of our commitment to whatever religion we have chosen. This is a significant reality of Bibby’s perspective.
The book ends with a hopeful challenge. Instead of concluding with the previous inevitable trajectories of increasing secularism, Bibby gives a sense that this secularism is breeding a new thirst for the things religion has the potential to provide. He speaks the language of business as he identifies that there is a market share available for those who provide what the market is seeking.
The statistics are at times daunting. However, Beyond the Gods and Back offers a wealth of information and insight that we would be wise to understand.