Permit me to begin by saying that we are living at a time of great need for hope and great hope for faith. As our new century evolves, we have witnessed unprecedented pursuit of material wealth and are experiencing equally large challenges as a result of such pursuits. As when we faced the temptations of greed, when we confront the fear of uncertain times, our love for God, humanity and peace gives us hope and inspires us to action.
This faith was present and palpable when thousands, from a variety of faith groups across the world, convened in Washington DC earlier this month at the 57th National Prayer Breakfast. A number of world leaders also attended, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who delivered the keynote address.
As Blair so eloquently put it, "for billions of people, faith motivates, galvanizes, compels and inspires, not to exclude but to embrace; not to provoke conflict but to try to do good. This is faith in action. You can see it in countless local communities where those from churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, tend the sick, care for the afflicted, work long hours in bad conditions to bring hope to the despairing and salvation to the lost. You can see it in the arousing of the world's conscience to the plight of Africa." In Canada, which is seen internationally as a land of many vibrant spiritual communities, faith groups are making a positive difference in communities across the nation. This is reflected in the political, civil society and cultural dimensions of virtually every part of this country.
For example, there is now a multi-faith, all-party committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, which meets quite regularly and is well-attended by representatives of numerous spiritual groups. All faith communities represented at its meetings to date appear to accept that there will never be sustainable peace in the world until its large and small religions can learn to live in harmony.
In a number of communities across Canada, faith groups hold joint inter-faith events. In March 2008, over 200 people attended a multi-faith prayer breakfast on Parliament Hill. Faith groups have also come together to help tackle economic challenges facing vulnerable members in communities. The relatively new Multi-faith Housing Project in Ottawa has been able to alleviate the sufferings of families and individuals by providing some affordable housing by combining resources and skills of members of various faiths,
If I could borrow from Blair again, "What inspires such people? Ritual or doctrine or the finer points of theology? The answer is 'no.' ... There are a million good deeds done every day by people of faith. These are those for whom, in the parable of the sower, the seed fell on good soil and yielded sixty or a hundredfold."
In my opinion, what has inspired us and will continue to inspire us is our shared love for humanity and common aspiration for peace. We believe and therefore we do God's work. We do God's work and therefore we have faith.
Blair again: "Today, religion is under attack from without and from within. From within, it is corroded by extremists who use their faith as a means of excluding the other. I am what I am in opposition to you. If you do not believe as I believe, you are a lesser human being. From without, religious faith is assailed by an increasingly aggressive secularism, which derides faith as contrary to reason and defines faith by conflict. Thus do the extreme believers and the aggressive non-believers come together in unholy alliance."
Indeed, spirituality thrives when we extend God's unconditional love to all of humanity. True faith, like the love of God, does not discriminate. It contains neither prejudice nor conditions. On the contrary, our spirituality suffers when ritual or doctrine is used to find excuses for exclusion of others.
Harvey Milk once argued: "More people have been slaughtered in the name of religion than any other single reason."
Examples abound in history where atrocities were committed by various religious extremists, who adhere to the doctrine that religions are exclusive and deny with violence the rights of others whose beliefs or non-beliefs are different from their own.
A seminar at the National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa was told several years ago that one of the major causes of violence in the Middle East was the widespread view that Jews and Muslims do not worship the same God. This misunderstanding, we were told, encourages members of both faith communities to dehumanize and thus to demonize followers of the other. When added to other regional issues, the result is terrible murders, bloodshed and mayhem often involving children and mothers.
In reality, we Jews, Muslims and Christians worship the same God, albeit in very different ways and with differing emphases. Each of the three great monotheistic faiths believes that life has profound value and meaning. The widespread profound ignorance about each other is a major obstacle to mutual respect and building harmony. All of us must work harder in this new century to eliminate this knowledge deficit.
There is another important area of misunderstanding among all three religions: the large differences of viewpoints within each of them. No one has written about this sensitive issue more perceptively than Karen Armstrong in her book, The Battle for God, which examines why fundamentalism has grown in all three faiths. The Arab-Israeli conflict is one example she cites. It began as a secularist dispute on both sides, but today is seen through an almost exclusively faith prism by both sides. By the late 1970's, each of the three faiths in fact saw fundamentalism among its followers take centre stage.
One of the cruelest myths believers of all faiths have to dispel is the one that being religious makes one bigoted. Somehow, there is an assumption among too many people that the more spiritual one is the more closed-minded you become. Pollster George Gallup demonstrated years ago that practising Christians, for example, are much more tolerant of other creeds, philosophies and ethno-cultural communities than non-believers. His study indicated that people of what he called "strong" religious conviction demonstrated through extensive testing that they were in fact more ethical in personal dealings, more tolerant of persons with different backgrounds, more apt to perform charitable acts, and more concerned about the betterment of society than others. Gallup also found they were happier than others.
Like you and millions of other spiritual people of every faith around the world, I'd urge all of the world religions to build a global spirituality. Robert Muller, the former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, believes that it is through the world's religions and their common conviction that life is sacred that many global problems can be solved. For example, His Highness the Aga Khan, Imam of Ismaili Muslims, has noted as well: "A shared sound ethic, underwritten by Africa's faiths, can help resolve many of the problems afflicting Africa today."
Spirituality in Canada
Thankfully in Canada, over the last few decades the concerted efforts of various levels of governments, NGOS and faith groups have helped to build a country where religious freedom is protected, not only by our constitution but also by society in general. As a result, we have exciting results to report.
Canada bears the imprint of differing beliefs in the existence of God, each of which in their own way molded Canada's character. Our society has the values, ways of thinking and living inspired by numerous religions. Our national character owes its roots to a pluralist religious education based on various concepts and attendant ethical systems. I pay tribute here to those many pioneers who, basing their work on the tested values of various spiritual traditions, founded towns, cities, universities and a host of other institutions and breathed into them the inspiration that sustains them still.
Much of Canadian society continues to reflect these principles. They have lost none of their validity. We might, therefore, in adapting them to current conditions, encourage people to understand what our country is and what its creative energy is founded upon.
The 2001 national census by Statistics Canada dealt in part with the state of religion across the country; its conclusions released in mid-2003 provide many interesting insights. Despite large immigration from mostly non-Christian countries since the 1970s, seven out of ten Canadians as of five years ago still identified themselves as Catholic or Protestant. Almost 13 million claimed to be Catholic; 8.7 million self-identified as Protestants. Those who said that they were simply "Christian" more than doubled from the 1991 census to 784,000.
Vibrant Faith Communities
In The Churching of America: 1776-1990, authors Rodney Stack and Roger Finke assert that fewer than one-fifth of Americans were active in churches in 1976, compared to more than 60 percent in 1990. The ongoing link between faith involvement and "the American way" of life remains very strong. Weekly church attendance in the 1990s among Americans—40 percent nationally—is higher than in the 1930s (35 percent). Congregational membership at 69 percent is only slightly lower than in, say, the 1950s (73 percent).
Reg Bibby of the University of Lethbridge notes that about 30 percent of Americans belong to conservative Protestant churches, which manage to stay in close touch with the spiritual concerns of their members—compared to only about 7 percent of Canadians. He notes the now well-known phenomenon that both attendance and religious belief are stronger in countries like Canada and the U.S. where there are numerous competing churches.
Just over seven in ten Canadians nationally continue to believe in God. The Project Canada survey conducted by Reg Bibby found that about 70 percent of Canadians across the land, as of 1990, believed there is life after death, with only 14 percent ruling out the possibility completely. The same percentage—70 percent—said that there is a heaven and almost half—46 percent—of Canadians say there is a hell.
In 2001,16 percent of Canadians, or about 4.8 million individuals, reported having no religion. The country of origin was no doubt a factor because a fifth of the immigrants who came to Canada between 1991 and 2001 reported having no religion, particularly those born in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Interestingly, males were more likely to report no religion than females. The jurisdictions with the highest proportion of "none" were Yukon (37 percent), British Columbia (35 percent), and Alberta (23 percent), which contrasted noticeably to Newfoundland and Labrador (2 percent) and Quebec (6 percent).
Statistics Canada went further to sample persons over 15 living in private households in all 10 provinces on their frequency of attendance at religious services. Nationally, one-fifth of those sampled—or about 6.4 million individuals, assuming, no doubt to err on the high side, that the same attendance level applies to those under 15 as over—attend religious services on a weekly basis. Even if there is exaggeration in the total of those reporting weekly attendance, no other voluntary activity across the country would appear to attract anything like this number of regular participants. Most of our media unfortunately continue to overlook this phenomenon.
Other faith communities, including Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, have also added numbers since the 1960s, presumably in part because of enlarged immigration by newcomers from Asia and the Middle East. These groups, combined with Eastern Orthodox and Jewish immigrants, have caused the numbers in other religions to grow from less than 500,000 in the mid-1950s to approximately two million across Canada by 2000.
Bibby has explored how faith communities can attract more Canadians. He quotes the late Queen's University historian George Rawlyk, using national polling data gathered a decade ago: "A large number of Canadians would return to the Church if they were given specific guidance on how to live their lives—two or three specific things they could remember from a church service concerning how they should live their lives. A large percentage (also) would return if they felt that their spiritual needs would be met in the church. When you get down to it, they're looking for guidance and there is this aching for spirituality."
This is consistent, asserts Bibby, with factors detected about 15 years ago in the U.S. by pollster George Gallup. The veteran American pollster concluded then that the future vitality of American faith communities would depend largely on their response to several basic needs of the American people. He listed them as the need to believe that life has a purpose; a sense of community and deeper relationships; the wish to be respected; the need to be heard and listened to; the need to mature spiritually; the need to obtain help in closing the deficit between belief and practice. Gallup reminded Americans in the early 1990s that most of their churches and synagogues were not then effective in helping their members to "find meaning in life…the fact is, significant numbers of people find churches irrelevant, unfulfilling and boring."
Optimism of Bibby
In the final chapter of his book, Restless Gods, Bibby notes that a majority of Canadians now say faith groups have a role to play in their spiritual, personal, and relationship needs—"precisely the three emphases that have been central to religion throughout history. Religion has much to say to people who are trying to come to grips with spiritual restlessness, who are looking for personal hope, resources, and the possibility of new beginnings. Religious groups also have much to say about how interpersonal relations at all levels of social life can be enriched…It sounds like a match made in heaven." It is difficult for anyone but the most jaundiced to disagree.
Bibby's surveys and resulting prescriptions for growth among all religious communities across Canada can be summarized in two parts: First, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud and many other proponents of the "God is dead—or should be" school, have now been proven wrong by history. The vast majority of Canadians, along with ones of varying sizes in much of the world, continue to hold supernatural beliefs.
Second, on which religions will flourish in the 21st century in Canada, Bibby thinks the ones that have been around for a long time are best positioned. Recent evidence is strong that, for better or worse, the 21st century will be one of enormous religious activity, requiring real attention by all who seek peace in the world. For example, Bibby thinks that the Catholic Church in Quebec, while obviously now in a difficult period, will survive. So will the national branches of other multinational churches, including the United Church, which has 4,000 congregations across Canada and "a core of staunch supporters, an enviable pool of affiliates, a real tradition, and young and upcoming leaders who are determined to see congregations flourish. Denominations that are smaller will have tougher times, but only a handful will actually disappear altogether."
Bibby thinks that established religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism will also be able to avoid assimilation and acculturation and to flourish in parts of Canada. I agree with him too and others that the congregations of any faith that seem likely to thrive the most are those that champion both a love of God and genuine compassion for people. Members of all faith institutions, however, will have to work hard to enjoy the renaissance foreseen by Bibby.
In Restless Gods not encouraging to believers of many faiths? The work concludes that God is very much alive in the hearts and minds of Canadians and that if our various faith groups do the right thing they are primed for renewal. Fully 81 per cent of Bibby's respondents across Canada attested to their belief in God. Three out of four Canadians say they pray at least occasionally and nearly half claim to have personally experienced God. His 2000 survey, moreover, indicates that for the first time in years church attendance among teens is on the rise.
It is therefore with great personally optimism that I say that our own and many other faiths will flourish in this new century. Justin Long, a researcher working on the Christian Encyclopedia, estimates that by 2025 the Christian population will rise to about 2.6 billion from the current estimate of about two billion. Other faiths will grow too, partly because we are all helped by the collapse after 1989 of human-made gods, including communism, etc.
Grace – God's love for all humanity even though undeserving – deserves the final word. It is the one thing that only the church can provide in a world which craves it the most. Grace can bring transformation and hope.
As Philip Yancey, who is probably the most persuasive writer in English for the Christian cause alive today, put it in his book, What's So Amazing About Grace?, it is hunger for grace that brings people to any church. "I rejected the church for a time because I found so little grace there," he writes. "I returned because I found grace nowhere else." In a world full of too much 'ungrace,' we believers should seek to dispense grace in every city, town and village of Canada.
Quest for God
Can societies remain democratic without maintaining a religious base? Religious and political freedoms appear to walk hand-in-hand. The strength and values of democratic government and institutions appear to depend upon and come from religion at least in many democracies. Equally important is the religious critique of laws and programs in such areas as economic policy, the human rights dimension of foreign policy, and so forth. Contrary to the notion that religion is somehow merely a purely private affair, it is also central to the life of a community or nation. Religion sets forth norms and their applications as standards against which to measure public policies. This is not to say that religion dictates all public policy, but it can and should scrutinize measures which seem inconsistent with the teaching of any faith (for example, child pornography or racial discrimination).
In his The Quest for God, the British historian Paul Johnson starts with the point that the existence or non-existence of God is the most important question humans are called to answer. "In a Godless world, there is no obvious basis for altruism of any kind; moral anarchy takes over and the rules of self prevails."
For Johnson, one of the extraordinary things about the twentieth century was the failure of God to be driven out of our consciousness. Despite the best efforts of Marx, Hagel, Huxley, Nietzsche, Russell, Shaw, Sartre and many other writers not to mention Stalin, Hitler and the many other very bad leaders, belief in God continued amongst most of humanity.
He notes human evil/brutality has cost the lives of more than 150 million people in the century we just left. Both the Nazi Reich and the Soviet Union were "Godless constructs: modern paganism in the first case and openly proclaimed atheist materialism in the second." After some good years for freedom of spirituality after 1991, it is most unfortunate that 72 religious bodies of various kinds were proscribed by the Kremlin in recent months. I might mention here too the independent report that David Matas and I did on organ pillaging in China from Falun Gong practitioners has also been banned (You can access it in 19 languages at www.david-kilgour.com).
Johnson explains why he thinks our Creation is a God of beauty: "It was Wordsworth who pointed out that a poor man is just as capable of enjoying beauty and putting it high in his scale of values, as a rich man. The people of West Africa, who have little but their national pride, may well be happy that their small country is capable of creating a cathedral on the scale of Europe's largest, and that the black African can pay his or her tribute to Almighty God just as magnificently as the white Westerner."
Billy Graham in his book Peace with God states that everyone is on a "Great Quest." We live in countries full of people who are searching for something and most of us are unsure of what that is, says Graham.
We fill in that void in various ways – education, science, marriage, and wealth – but for the most part we are still left empty. The truth is we are searching for a spiritual connection; something that binds us to the truth and the eternal; the soul of mankind and the mind of God. Interfaith groups demonstrate that you are united in your belief in God and your quest for spiritual connection regardless of your own religion.
The Dalai Lama in his "Thoughts on September 11" says: "A central teaching in most spiritual traditions is: What you wish to experience, provide for another. If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another. If you wish to heal your own sadness or anger, seek to heal the sadness or anger of another." How true! Many believe that if we can learn to fully understand what the Dalai Lama means and what it entails, it will mark that start of our journey to fill the spiritual vacuum that exists within so many today.
The American criminologist, James Q. Wilson, attempted some years ago to identify the root causes of the violence in American cities. Many blame unemployment and poverty for violent behaviour among a minority of young people. Wilson discovered that in the great period of the industrial revolution in the second half of the 19th century there was actually a decrease in crime, contrary to what he expected to find. He looked at the years of the Great Depression; again there was a significant drop in crime. Frustrated by these findings, which negated so much conventional wisdom, Wilson decided to search for a single factor. The one he found was religious faith. In times of economic or other crises, people banded together and their faith and values sustained them.
President Barack Obama, who also spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, noted:
"In different ways and different forms, it is that spirit and sense of purpose that drew friends and neighbors to that first prayer breakfast in Seattle all those years ago, during another trying time for our nation. It is what led friends and neighbors from so many faiths and nations here today. We come to break bread and give thanks and seek guidance, but also to rededicate ourselves to the mission of love and service that lies at the heart of all humanity. As St. Augustine once said, 'Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.' "
As we face the challenges inside our spiritual world, compounded especially now by the ones posed by the worldwide economic crisis, it is our duty to embrace fully all the opportunities created by God's love. Let us truly surrender to God and become instruments of His promise by extending his love to all members of the human family.