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New research shows a widening gap between doctrinal teachings and common Christian beliefs (Photograph by Aaron Burden/Unsplash)

Topics: Spirituality | Religion

New survey looks at what Canadian Christians actually believe

The survey's author sees its findings as cause for concern, while others are unsurprised


A new study finds that many committed Canadian Christians’ beliefs don’t line up with traditional doctrinal teachings.

In partnership with Angus Reid Institute and with support from the Canadian Bible Society, Christian think tank Cardus surveyed 493 Roman Catholics, 266 mainline Protestants, and 204 evangelicals deemed “religiously committed.”  

Catholics and mainline Protestants were largely aligned, with evangelicals polling relatively more pious. For instance, 20 percent of evangelicals agree that all religions are equally true versus 54 and 57 percent of Catholics and mainline Protestants respectively. Other highlights include that 51 percent of Catholics and 57 percent of mainline Protestants believe in one true God and the Trinity compared to 89 percent of evangelicals. Moreover, 48 percent of Catholics and 55 percent of mainline Protestants believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a historical event versus 81 percent of evangelicals.

The majority of Catholics (72 percent) and mainline Protestants (61 percent) also agree that Christian moral teachings should evolve with society while 65 percent of evangelicals disagree.

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“This really demonstrates to church leaders that we have a crisis,” said the survey’s author, Rev. Andrew Bennett. “There are, over many years, trends that show that Canadian Christians are not often on board with what the churches and denominations are professing. So I think it provides a little wake-up call.” 

Bennett said he intends to engage with a variety of faith leaders across the country to discuss the results and what is being or can be done. He points to a lack of actual evangelism in churches as a potential cause, as well as the impact of secularism and the idea that truth is relative and subjective. “When [Christians] go into the world, they’re being told ‘oh, but that’s just one perspective,’” he explained, “but that, of course, is not what Christianity teaches, certainly not traditional forms of Christianity.”

David Seljak, a professor of religious studies at St. Jerome’s University, a Catholic institution in Waterloo, Ont., doesn’t see the gap between doctrine and belief as a novel trend. “This has been going on since day one,” he said. “There has been a multitude of interpretations of what Christianity is and should be, and there’s always been a difference between what leadership says and what people are actually practising.” 

Seljak said he thinks that the rise of individualism — which also impacts Evangelicals — has played a role in widening the gap between doctrine and practice, in part because it allows people to make judgments about their own lives rather than having to submit to the “paternalism” of the church.

“Conservative evangelicals are more likely to agree with the official teachings of their church, but that is because those teachings resonate with them,” Seljak said, “not because they’re submitting to the authority of the church.” He referenced an evangelical friend who said she had to submit to her husband’s authority, pointing out that this was indeed her choice given her equal legal standing under Canadian law — very different from the position of Christian women even half a century ago.

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“The good side of it is that people are more authentic,” said Seljak. “On the negative side, it can degenerate into a kind of consumerist approach to religion… that’s a danger, because then religion always becomes something that confirms your life choices and never challenges you.” 

As for faith leaders, Rev. Daniel Scott — a Presbyterian minister and associate professor at Tyndale University, a private evangelical school in Toronto — suggested de-escalating any panic and working with what’s in common. “I would fully adhere to the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed,” he said, “but it doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t recognize someone from another tradition or from another perspective as still being Christian.”

“Assent to beliefs and creeds is important,” added Scott, “but living out what Jesus taught is also important: love God, love your neighbour.”


Drew-Anne Glennie is an intern at Broadview.

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  • says:

    Why do we keep focusing church and denomination instead of Jesus' teachings?

  • says:

    My conference told me I needed a B.A. and an M. Dive to be a minister. University taught me to think critically and that means thinking about scripture, who wrote it, when it was written, who it was written for and for what reason. I have studied the writings of many religious and spiritual authors and professors and have come to my own feelings on religion. I've also learned a small amount about the quantum field and what we are made of and I have come to conclusions, though not absolute, about my own sense of spirituality. It works for me. That's about all I can say. When we follow other people's ways we are not using our own minds. We are on a microscopic ball in the vast universe. How can we ever know what truth is. We must come to our own decisions but from time to time there are teachings that are meaningful and I find that I do adhere to the teachings of Jesus, who, by the way, was Jewish.

  • says:

    The survey results reflect reality, because many people who sit in the pews and listen to Christian doctrine use the Sunday worship service as an intellectual exercise only. What is taught about God does not affect many people's daily lives. Having worked as one who preaches the gospel, I have experienced people coming to church to hear but not living the gospel as if it should become a serious way to live. Of course, there are some who do [who are the people who keep preachers preaching], but much of the effort preachers spend creating an inspirational message is wasted. The serious demands of Christianity present too much of a challenge for many people.