Every day, Mohamed Hadi wakes up before sunrise for morning prayer. The 19-year-old then boards a bus for the 90-minute ride from his home in Richmond, B.C., to the campus of Simon Fraser University, where he’s studying to become a physiotherapist. He’s involved in the Muslim Students’ Association, and with Rich in Faith, a Muslim youth group he founded that offers tutoring and mentoring services. Hadi’s a busy guy, yet he always finds time for his religion, including prayer five times a day. “It helps me stay composed,” he says, “and to maintain balance in my life.”
Such devotion is rare among teens these days—or at least, among those from Protestant and Catholic households. Just as the younger generation is abandoning the Christian faith, though, non-Western religions, such as Islam and Buddhism, are growing in Canada at a surprising speed. According to new data from Project Teen Canada, more teens now identify as Muslim than Anglican, United Church of Canada and Baptist combined. As a group, the percentage who adhere to so-called “other faiths”—including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism—has grown fivefold since Project Teen began its surveys in 1984, while the percentage of teens who identify as Roman Catholic has declined by one third, and the percentage who identify as Protestant is down by almost two-thirds.
A side effect of this trend is a hollowing-out of the religious middle ground in Canada. Reginald Bibby, the University of Lethbridge sociologist who heads up Project Teen, says the grey zone of those who believe in God, but don’t regularly practise an established religion, is rapidly emptying out, leaving behind two distinct camps: teens who are very religious and actively practise their religion, and those who don’t believe in God at all. “For years I have been saying that, for all the problems of organized religion in Canada, God has continued to do well in the polls,” Bibby writes in The Emerging Millennials, a new book based on Project Teen’s latest findings. “That’s no longer the case.”
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The growth in popularity of faiths such as Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism can largely be attributed to immigration, Bibby says. Indeed, there are more new Canadians than ever—immigrants made up 20 per cent of the population in 2006, according to Statistics Canada, up from 16 per cent in 1981. And the majority of new Canadians now hail from the Middle East and Asia, whereas most came from Europe a decade before.
Foreign-born teens are more likely to be religious when they arrive, but whether that faith will persist over the coming generations remains to be seen. “Because these faith groups are so small, they often can’t hang on to their kids,” Bibby explains. “They have this maddening tendency to socialize with Protestant, Catholic, and ‘no religion’ friends, and marry out of their parents’ groups.” But immigration will continue to supply fresh believers, so it’s likely that their community support will grow too. That’s been Hadi’s experience. Amongst his friends, many of whom are Muslim, “we all know when it’s time to pray. If we forget, we’ll remind each other,” he says. “Community is an integral part of the equation.”
For Canada’s Christian teens, meanwhile, the community is shrinking like never before. Since 1984, the percentage of teens who call themselves Christian has almost been cut in half while the number who call themselves atheist has grown to 16 per cent, up from just six per cent in the mid-1980s. Just as the boomers shifted toward agnosticism, teens are now going a step further and rejecting religion entirely. “Belief is learned, pretty much like the multiplication table,” Bibby writes. “So is non-belief.”
It’s a huge shift, and Bibby says it may be a worrying one. While it’s true that today’s teens seem to be more responsible and mature than previous generations, the surveys still find that teens who belong to an organized religion—including Christianity, Islam and other faiths—tend to put a higher value on trust, honesty and concern for others. Religion has long been a “source of stability,” he says, not to mention a moral compass of sorts. For instance, 95 per cent of young people who “definitely” believe in God or a higher power also think this entity “expects us to be good to each other,” while just three per cent of atheists agree. As the percentage of religious teens falls, Bibby wonders just how that will affect our ethics and behaviour. “We may well find Canadian society doesn’t need belief in God to hold onto our values. But right now, it appears to be a source,” he says. “The question is, do we have any functional alternatives in place?”