Religious revival

The Bible, it’s often said, is the world’s all-time best-selling book. Yet today if you peruse the shelves of Canada’s major bookstores, you’ll find texts on atheism are providing the Good Book with some stiff competition.

Three much-discussed books championing atheism – Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great; Michael Onfray’s In Defense of Atheism and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion – hit the bestseller lists in the past year, their robust sales proving that while denying God’s existence may get you into trouble in the afterlife, it can nevertheless be a lucrative pursuit right here on earth.

Despite the fact it’s such a hot topic, it seems atheism hasn’t gained as strong a foothold among 50-plus Canadians as its literary popularity would suggest. Recent surveys show that even with ever-dwindling church attendance and the ongoing secularization of society, most Canadians aren’t yet ready to break out in John Lennon’s 1971 hymn to atheism:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky.

In fact, according to a 2001 census, the last year Statistics Canada tracked our spiritual beliefs, 80 per cent of Canadians were convinced there’s more above us than sky. This figure includes more than 10 million people over the age of 45 who claim some sort of religious affiliation, either Christian, Jewish, Muslim or one of the varieties of eastern faiths. The number of these believers dwarfed the fewer than 6,000 people over 45 who, on the same census, identified themselves as atheists.

While these figures don’t necessarily prove the existence of God, they do illustrate that to the vast majority of Canada’s mature population, spirituality does matter. Not surprisingly, many of the census respondents aligned themselves with one of the mainstream faiths, with Roman Catholics leading the way. For many, these traditional religions help to organize the universe, providing answers to difficult questions and offering useful guidelines, which help us navigate safely through this often stormy world.

The church, synagogue, mosque or temple remain a significant part of our lives, not only as places we celebrate births and weddings or mourn at funerals but as sanctuaries where we can escape the noise and complexities of our lives and experience a moment of quiet introspection. Religious houses serve as a focal point of the community – places we turn to in times of grief, despair or loneliness. They’re also great hubs of socialization and centres for charitable and humanitarian works.

But besides those who belong to mainstream churches, sociologists are now tracking a somewhat unexpected new phenomenon, namely people 50 and over who abandoned religion in their 20s and 30s but are now slowly trickling back to the fold. It seems that a congregation of baby boomers that once severed ties with all religions is experiencing a sort of religious renewal, looking for ways to fill a spiritual void.

What triggers the search for spirituality?
Their reasons for doing so are varied, but Peter Emberley, a political science and philosophy professor at Carleton University in Ottawa who has done extensive research on the spiritual habits of boomers, believes part of the answer is disillusionment with the very society they had a hand in creating.

“The ’60s and ’70s were a time of liberation from institutional religious authority and an undermining of the morals and beliefs on which traditional religion had been grounded,” says Emberley. “These decades saw an explosion in economic wealth and social reorganization. Anything seemed possible. As a consequence, many people thought that the energetic pursuit of worldly possibilities was an alternative to the spiritual life. They felt that the wholeness we all seek could be fulfilled in the here and now.”

But the promise of the ’60s and ’70s seemed to fade out in the ’80s and ’90s, when notions of peace and love were replaced by global consumerism and anything-goes behaviour. And as the dreams of the ’60s crumbled and social structures began to falter, Emberley suggests a number of disappointed and disillusioned 50-plus Canadians began poking around religion and spirituality, trying to find something to fill the vacuum.

Many began what he calls a “spiritual walkabout,” which saw them sample various traditional and non-traditional religions, looking to restore some order. And while a few found their way back to the church down the street, others eschewed mainstream religion and undertook much longer journeys, devising a do-it-yourself spirituality.

Take the example of the 64-year-old public relations executive from Vancouver whose spiritual search took her all the way to Tibet where she finally found inner peace with the eastern mysticism of Buddhism. “I was raised in a secular Jewish family and I never really practised the faith,” says Pema Yangzom (her Buddhist name). “When I was older, I met some Tibetan monks and was so impressed by their spirituality. I was attracted to it because it wasn’t institutional or judgmental. My newfound spirituality is a very personal one, which lets me get in touch with something beyond the ordinary and provides me with the tools to handle damaging emotions, such as job stress, blame or anger.”

So why are some boomers suddenly rejecting their humanistic beliefs and commencing a journey that seeks to awaken the long-dormant spirit that lies within? Demographically speaking, this wealthy and healthy cohort is often portrayed as being more interested in the almighty dollar than an almighty God.

It seems there’s a major factor that eludes our control – age. Nothing triggers spiritual awareness like the realization of one’s own mortality. “When we’re young, we think we can live forever,” says 55-year-old Deb Fortin Brown of Oakville, Ont., who belongs to Munn’s United Church. “But in the past few years, I thought maybe I needed to have some sort of structure in my life. I’m more aware now of my mortality, and my faith in God has helped me through some personal losses and challenges.”

Emberley suggests there are larger forces at play beyond recognition of one’s own mortality that are spurring 50-plus Canadians to take a walk on the spiritual side. He contends our feelings of powerlessness in the face of massive global economic, political and technological influences may have been the breeding ground for a religious rebirth among the mature generation. Ironically, the very forces that pulled us away from pursuing spirituality are now responsible for drawing us back.

“The scale of technological power that has been unleashed since the ’60s has given people a sense of their meaningless and vulnerability to extraordinary, powerful forces that we didn’t fully understand,” he says.

Carol Colombo, 52, who works for the Ministry of Natural Resources in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., agrees. “When I was young my parents took care of me, and the world seemed a lot smaller then. Now it’s just me and this global village we live in. To me, it’s important to see the simple message: God’s love.”

Turbulent times
This wholesale technological and economic unrest, coupled with the ever-present threat of terrorism, is unnerving. Experts say this fear gives people the sense they are adrift in the world and spirituality acts as a life raft, something to help them survive the stormy conditions the world seems to be undergoing at the moment.

Some commence their search for spirituality after going into a tailspin of depression, grief or confusion brought on by an unhappy experience. The death of a loved one, loss of a job, chronic sickness or a divorce might get us searching for ways in which we might cope with an unfortunate or tragic experience.

Elizabeth Savoie, a retired elementary school teacher from Fredericton, credits her faith in helping her deal with painful circumstances that crop up in life, such as the death of her mother and the inevitable frustrations of chronic illness. “My faith is very important to me. I can’t imagine a world without God,” she says. “I developed Crohn’s disease in my early 20s, and my faith has helped me deal with the illness.”

And Doug Richards, 69, of Woodstock, Ont., finds that when things around him are falling apart, his faith is always there. “There have been times when I reached a level of sadness and loss, where my faith has enabled me to climb back out of the pit.”

Improving the world
And finally, religion often provides a home for those who want to better the world and help those who live in it. There are so many who suffer from loneliness, poverty or live in areas where natural disasters or political unrest are prevalent. Church groups and lay missions offer us the chance to build schools in South America, raise money for victims of natural disasters to improve social conditions or provide immediate food and shelter to the poor in our own midst.

Besides being surprised by the unexpected rebirth of spirituality among mature Canadians, Emberley and others contend that it’s healthy for both the individual and society, providing a moral ballast, which has long been lost. “People want to organize their lives, to give them more structure and meaning,” he suggests. “They want to tap into the recognition that we’re called to something higher than the social, economic and political environment that we live in.”

As we hit this stage in life, Emberley says we all must come to terms with the age-old questions: “Who am I? What am I truly striving for? What is the legacy I will leave for the next generation?” It seems that lately many mature Canadians are looking heavenward for answers.

Sacred journeys