Quebecers’ ‘antipathy’ to religion may be bottoming out, survey suggests

St. John the Apostle church on Sainte-Catherine Street in Montreal. (CBC Photo)The Roman Catholic Church has been a major player in the development of Canada but no where was its influence stronger than in Quebec, where until after the Second World War it dominated almost every aspect of life.

But the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s helped loosen that connection to the point that church attendance among Quebecers had been among the lowest in Canada. Priests preached to empty pews and many churches were sold as congregations dwindled.

However a newly published survey suggests the decades-long trend may be bottoming out, Postmedia News reports.

A Leger Marketing poll done for the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies suggests that the sense of "attachment to religion" among Quebecers has edged upwards in the last two years while waning in the rest of Canada, Postmedia News said.

"Quebecers have tended to be more averse to organized religion," the survey said in its introduction. "Recent data shows that Quebec’s antipathy to religion may have bottomed while parts of Canada, notably out West, have seen drops in attachment and favourable sentiment towards religion that have rendered the Quebec difference when it comes to this expression of identity near insignificant."

The online survey of 2,200 Canadians was done early last November, well before news that Quebec Cardinal Marc Ouellet was among the frontrunners to replace Pope Benedict XVI, who announced last week he was resigning at the end of this month. It has an error margin of 2.9 per cent 19 times out of 20.

[ Related: Stephen Colbert mocks Quebec cardinal as being 'too polite' to be pope ]

Association executive-director Jack Jedwab speculated last October's elevation of 17th-century aboriginal woman Kateri Tekakwitha to sainthood may have given Catholicism a bit of a bounce in her native province, Postmedia News said, adding Ouellet's potential to become Pope could further bolster the trend.

Quebecers also favour retaining certain symbols of Catholicism, such as the large crucifix in the national assembly, even as the Parti Quebecois government moved ahead with plans to introduce a so-called charter of secularism that would bar the display of overt religious symbols in public institutions or by government workers.

"Religion has been spun, in terms of the (traditional) Quebec narrative, as something that’s hostile to Quebec’s identity," Jedwab told Postmedia News.

"So if you can find a way to change the dynamics, and say, 'Wait a second, there's something about religion that connects with Quebec identity' – like sending a Quebecer to the Vatican — it's going against this narrative where religion is the antithesis or is problematic with respect to Quebec's identity."

Jedwab said a strong sense of attachment to religion among immigrant communities could also account for the poll results.

The poll indicated 36 per cent of respondents across Canada considered themselves "very" or "somewhat" attached to religion, down slightly from the association's September 2010 survey.

But in Quebec, the proportion rose to 34 per cent last November from 26 per cent in 2010.

There was also an increase in Atlantic Canada, where self-professed religiousity rose to 39 per cent from 33 per cent, Postmedia News reported. It rose slightly in British Columbia, too — 34 per cent from 31 per cent.

But it dropped sharply in Alberta to 31 per cent last fall from 49 per cent in 2010, something Jedwab said could be a statistical aberration. The poll also recorded a drop in Manitoba/Saskatchewan to 43 per cent from 48 per cent.

Demographically, only Canadians 65 and older retain a fairly strong attachment to religion — steady at 52 per cent.