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Losing our religion

Why the Sea to Sky is now the most non-religious region in British Columbia

On Dec. 31, 2022, the old Zion United Church I attended as a child in Ashcroft, B.C. officially shuttered its doors. Built in 1892, just after the gold rush poured through the region, the historic church served as one of the small village’s central places of worship for 131 years. 

The difficult decision to close the church came about because of an aging congregation and waning attendance. The entire church, with a hall, office space and neighbouring two-bedroom house, is now listed for sale with an asking price of $639,000

While my family and I moved away from the little village on the shores of the Thompson River when I was still quite young, I will always have long-lasting memories from my time there. I’ll never forget the potlucks that followed services, homemade cakes and treats stacked up in rows reaching to the heavens. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the riveting biblical story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale, or the gnawing boredom that came while waiting for Sunday school. 

Yet, in these times, Zion United’s fate is neither unique nor limited to small towns. It’s a story that is becoming increasingly common across Canada as dozens of Christian churches, cathedrals and worship centres of nearly every denomination have closed over the last few decades, many after being in service for hundreds of years. 

In Maple Ridge, Webster’s Whonnock United Church closed in December after 110 years in operation. North Vancouver’s Upper Lonsdale St. Martin’s Anglican Church closed after 122 years last fall, while the the 163-year-old Queens Avenue United Church in New Westminster closed is mulling dissolution. 

This trend is also not limited to British Columbia, either. According to a 2019 report by the National Conservation Trust, more than 9,000 places of worship across the country could close by 2029, roughly a third of all faith-owned buildings in the country. 

The Statistics 

Religious decline in Canada is an indisputable fact, and it’s part of a years-long trend. Census data released last October by Statistics Canada reveals that 34.6 per cent of all Canadians either declared no religious affiliation or having a “secular perspective,” a 10.6-per-cent increase from 2011. (That includes those identifying as atheist, agnostic, humanist, and other secular points of view.) 

Leading the pack among the provinces in non-religiosity is, without question, British Columbia, where 52.1 per cent of people identify as non-religious, up from 44.1 per cent in 2011. This trend means, for the first time in history, there are more British Columbians identifying as non-religious than religious.  

Even within the most irreligious province in Canada, the Sea to Sky stands out. By municipality, Pemberton is the most non-religious in the corridor. Of the 3,395 people that call the village home, 2,705—or 79.7 per cent—identified as atheist/non-religious. Whistler and Squamish followed close behind at 72.7 and 70.1 per cent, respectively. 

In the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD), 70.5 per cent of people identified as non-religious/atheist. The only other regions of the province remotely close to that rate are both on Vancouver Island: Mount Waddington Regional District, which reported a non-religious rate of 70.3 per cent, and Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District at 66.4 per cent. 

The rural areas of the regional district mirrored these percentages to varying degrees. In Area C, 72 per cent identified as non-religious; in Area D, 59 per cent; and Area B, 48 per cent, with the highest percentage coming from Area A (the Bridge River Region), where 84 per cent of people identified as non-religious. Residents of Mount Currie are substantially more religious than their neighbours in Pemberton; of the 1,209 people that live on reservation, 64.9 per cent identified as atheists/non-religious in the census. 

Despite the decline, Christians continue to make up the majority of those identifying as religious in the region, with Catholicism being the most popular denomination. There are, of course, notable Sikh, Jewish, Islamic and Indigenous Spiritual communities sprinkled across the region, many of which are growing. 

What’s behind the decline? 

According to Sabina Magliocco, chair of the University of British Columbia’s Department of Religious Studies and a professor in the Department of Anthropology, the religious decline in the province can be traced to several complex factors, including shifts in group identities, expressions of political ideals, and the growth of secular spirituality.   

“The decline in religious adherence is a product of a number of factors. One is simply the decline in group affiliation for all kinds of groups, not only religious ones,” Magliocco says. “Whereas previous generations were generally group joiners, Gen Xers, Millenials and Zoomers are more individualistic, preferring to avoid the commitments and constraints of being part of a group.” 

Another factor is the growing politicization of religious beliefs, particularly in certain Christian circles. 

“One factor specifically affecting religious affiliation is that mainstream religions, especially Christianity, have become associated with political positions many people find objectionable,” Magliocco adds. 

“The condemnation of LGBTQ+ identities, opposition to women’s bodily autonomy, COVID and vaccine denial have driven some people away from traditional religions for which those positions are an important part of identity.”  

On a local level, the religious and political lines have blurred in their own ways. Last year, a small group of parishioners at Whistler’s only Catholic church, Our Lady of the Mountains, defected over concerns around the church’s plans for a splashy new $5-million building and its association with a U.S.-based Catholic traditionalist group called the Napa Institute, formed in 2010 to fight what it sees as the growing secularization of American society. The Institute has influenced policy changes across the country designed to better align with its specific interpretation of Catholicism, including last year’s landmark overturning of Roe v. Wade.

[Our Lady of the Mountains’ priest Andrew L’Heureux declined to comment unless he was able to see the finished article before publication.] 

In a September interview with Pique, outgoing Whistler Community Church Pastor Jon Pasiuk discussed the challenges of leading a congregation in a “post-Christian” era. 

“We are less than one per cent of the community,” Pasiuk said at the time. (In fact, while this doesn’t necessarily denote practising Christians, those identifying as Christian made up roughly 24 per cent of Whistler’s permanent population in the 2021 census.) “When I tell people I’m a pastor that usually provokes some kind of reaction. It can be outright hostility; it can be suspicion. Sometimes it’s just indifference. But we do feel like we’re on the outside.” 

This shift isn’t limited to just Whistler or even Canada, Magliocco explains, as many other Western countries are experiencing a relative decline in religious affiliation, with Christianity, in particular, declining by a significant margin in the last few decades. 

“The decline in religious affiliation and the growth of individualized spirituality is not unique to B.C., but is characteristic of all of North America,” she says. “In fact, the ‘nones’ (those with no religious affiliation) are the fastest-growing category of religious identity. It mirrors the secularization of Western society, as already evident in Europe, which is much less religiously observant than North America.” 

The growing secularization of society doesn’t necessarily translate into a decline in spirituality, however. 

“Many ‘nones’ prefer to create their own individualized systems of practice and belief by combining elements from different spiritual traditions. They might believe in God, angels, and ghosts, practise Zen Buddhist meditation, and celebrate the summer and winter solstices with friends,” Magliocco says. 

Another explanation for the relative decline could be the region’s youthful demographics. According to Stats Canada, “recent generations are less likely than the generations that came before them to report a religious affiliation, to participate in group or individual religious activities, or to place a high value on religious and spiritual beliefs in how they live their lives.”

The Sea to Sky is home to some of the youngest communities in the province. The average age in both Whistler and Squamish, for instance, is 37.9 years old, compared to the provincial average of 43.1 and a national average of 41.9. Pemberton is the youngest community in the corridor, with an average age of 35.4.  

Olivia Jensen is the interim executive director of the BC Humanist Association, an organization based in Vancouver that advocates for non-religious people, secularist government policies, and the separation of church and state. She believes a generational change is taking place across the country as families shift away from organized religion. 

“I think we’re seeing a transition in generational beliefs and a shift of what holds importance as this trend of non-religious continues, and we see it carry down,” she says. “Family structures of the younger generations are growing up with parents who are non-religious and grandparents who are non-religious.

“I think this allows the space for young minds to pave a path of their own and shape and create values that they wish to uphold and realizing that good values can exist even without the presence of religion,” adds Jensen.  

“I can’t speak for your parents, but I know a lot of my friends and I grew up with parents who weren’t strict about going to church or having that kind of structure where that was really ingrained in us … And I think that’s different compared to maybe how some of our parents grew up with our grandparents.”

How are things looking locally?

The number of worship centres in Whistler and the Sea to Sky hasn’t changed much since the early 1970s. For most of Whistler’s early decades, the community had only one faith-owned building, the Whistler Skiers’ Chapel, a small A-Frame building constructed in 1966 at the bottom of the original Creekside ski lifts.

Canada’s first interdenominational church, the small building served as the heart of the young village’s budding religious community. It became the foundation upon which Whistler’s two main Christian churches grew out of, and served the community for 34 years until it was torn down in 2000. 

Despite the region’s relative religious decline, the number of worshippers in the corridor has plateaued at the same level or, in some cases, increased at some of the houses of worship in Whistler and Pemberton. 

The Mennonite Brethren Whistler Community Church opened its brand new, $4.2-million building at the tail end of 2021 in White Gold and has a growing congregation. 

Plans for Our Lady of the Mountains’ $5-million upgrade include a new sanctuary, a refreshed interior design, and a columbarium on the church’s exterior. This upgrade, if approved, will increase the seating capacity by more than 200 and provide space for conferences. 

The Sea to Sky’s fast-growing population may help explain these churches’ growth despite declining religiosity, with the corridor counting one of the fastest growth rates in the country. So, while the percentage of religious folk declined, the overall population rose at such a rate that most local places of worship have still seen some slight but noticeable growth. 

Pemberton’s population expanded at the fastest rate of any village in the province, for instance, rising 32 per cent between 2016 and 2021, while Whistler and Squamish grew by 19 and 22 per cent, respectively. 

Phil Cann is the lead pastor of the Pemberton Community Church, and has noticed some growth in his congregation, which he believes is due to several factors, but boils down to being a welcoming place for people looking for community, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We grew a lot during COVID because people were starved for meeting people,” Cann says. “People wanted to go somewhere they could meet with somebody. I think COVID taught us a bunch of stuff if we want to listen. COVID taught us that people are desperate for a real community, and a screen doesn’t cut it … People want real, tangible, touchable communities. So for us, that’s why people come here.” 

Cann went on to describe the various reasons why people come to church in general, from searching for solace to finding a place they feel accepted. “They may come because tragedies touched their family. They may come because their child died or their child’s sick. They may come because they want their kid to go to Sunday school; they may come because they want somebody to accept them as they are. They can do that here, and that’s what the Bible is actually about,” Cann said. 

In 2018, the Pemberton Community Church purchased the faltering St. David’s United Church, and is undergoing significant renovations to add additional space and a modern elevator to the building. Since moving into its permanent building, the church has grown and increasingly serves as a centre that community members from all walks of life can use. 

Cann is not sure why the level of religiosity is declining in British Columbia so rapidly, but believes the increasing pressures from work, lack of time off, and tight schedules for families play a significant role. 

“I think there are a bunch of contributing factors, none of them on their own are the answer… I think there are way more demands on people’s time,” Cann says. “If you’re going to drop money on a sled that costs you 20 grand and it’s snowing on a Sunday, you’re going to be on the sled, not going to be at church, right? There’s more pull on our time for work. People are stressed. There’s more demand on our time for leisure.”