Spirit of the West
Vancouver may be Canada's least formally religious city, but faith still flourishes here
March 2, 2008
By Tyee Bridge / Photo: John Sinal
My father grew up in New Westminster, and on Sundays he and his brothers would trudge to the Protestant pews nearest their latest address—Knox Presbyterian in Sapperton, or Olivet Baptist on Queens Avenue. My grandparents were not devout, but this was the late 1940s, and among Scottish Canadians the seventh day was reserved for Sunday clothes, Sunday school, and Sunday roast. For my father, Salvation Army Sunday school involved cornet lessons, but he was performance shy and quit before he could be placed on a street corner with a donation basket. This was the end of his association with faith communities. By age 12 he was as churched as the next kid, but the experience failed to take. “The assumption was that you’d just grow into it, as if your parents’ religion would automatically rub off if you went every Sunday,” he said of his lapsed Protestantism. “But none of it had any lasting impression on me, except the smells of church basements, the complete dissonance of the hymn singing, and the waxlike women with their dusty men.”
The same was true for my mother. As seven-year-olds, she and her twin sister liked playing Sunday school games and memorizing Bible passages at the Anglican church. But when given the choice at age 12 whether to attend church or not, they both opted for Sunday morning ice-skating at the PNE over sitting in the pews. By the time I was born, revealed religion and houses of worship were a distant memory for my parents. Except for the odd wedding, my sisters and I grew up never setting foot in church. Where the family Bible might have sat in Christian homes—sandwiched among a few other select books on the living room hutch—in our house there was a boxed copy of Paul Reps’s Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.
My parents were pebbles in a secular landslide. In 1945, 60 percent of Canadians attended church weekly. But as the Boomer generation came of age, they stayed away from church in droves; Reginald Bibby, a sociologist of religion at the University of Lethbridge, notes that by 1975 the fraction of Canadians attending weekly religious services had dropped to 30 percent; and by the turn of the millennium, to 20.
To a sociologist like Bibby, my parents are “religious nones”—those who tick off the “No Religion” box on Statistics Canada surveys. This makes them not just lapsed Protestants, but typical Vancouverites. Our city, it turns out, is a special case when it comes to religion. British Columbia is the only province in Canada where “No Religion” is the top census response—religious nones amount to 35 percent of the population here, as opposed to 23 percent in Alberta and only 16 in Ontario. In Vancouver, we’re above the provincial average, at 39 percent. All of which apparently leads to an interesting conclusion: we live in the most godless city in Canada.
While this is a tasty little bon mot, it’s perhaps not quite true. Unpack the “religious none” category and instead of a voting bloc of atheists you find legions of what might be called formless believers. According to Bibby, 40 percent of adult religious nones say they believe not only in a God of some sort, but a God who cares about them. Thirty-five percent pray in private. Many more are, like my parents, agnostics who have little affection for “the desert religions,” as my father calls them, yet retain an appreciation of the cosmic mystery. So while the high proportion of religious nones makes Vancouver sound like Gomorrah on the Pacific, there’s another way of reading it: our city includes large numbers of what we might call the pewless faithful. Rather than simply spiking the sin index, this puts us on the leading edge of religious innovation.
“Because it’s so secular here, the church experienced the crisis of disinterest 20 years before the rest of Canada,” says Bruce Sanguin, minister of Canadian Memorial, a United Church on the west side. “We started doing culture-shifting stuff long before the rest of the country. And so there’s a sense in which we’re ahead of the game. Vancouver’s a tough gig, but we’re blazing a trail to new expressions of what it means to be religious.”
Faith leaders like Sanguin, and the other progressive spirits you see on these pages, find themselves at the helm of burgeoning congregations. Equal footing for women, ecological ethics, and interfaith dialogue are common themes of the new faith communities, as are contemplative forms of prayer, yoga, and meditation. Many formless believers—once alienated by the patriarchal crustiness and my-god-is-better-than-your-god exclusivity of traditional religion—are being wooed back to newly imagined temples and pews. Vancouver now includes a fascinating array of spiritual leaders who have opened the basement windows of their traditions and started what might be called—ironically, in this secular city—a religious renaissance.
Over honey-sweetened tea and a tray of pistachios, cake, and mandarin oranges, Imam Fode Drame explains the name of his congregation. “Zawiyah in Arabic means corner — where two lines meet. This is what we want to create. A place of connection between Earth and heaven, and a place where East meets West.” Descended from a line of Senegalese Muslim clerics, Drame moved to Vancouver in 1999. Until 2005 he was head of a mosque in East Vancouver; during his tenure it was the only B.C. mosque to allow women to attend and study the Koran.* It was also one of the few to invite other religious leaders to talk about their traditions. This made him controversial. The B.C. Muslim Association locked him out, and Drame moved on to establish Zawiyah. On Fridays the foundation attracts hundreds of Shia, Sunni, and Ismaili Muslims, and a smattering of curious non-Muslims. The congregation is young and progressive, drawn to the imam’s egalitarian teachings and emphasis on tasawwuf — Islamic spiritual disciplines by which “the individual discovers his own soul, his own realities, and who the Creator of his soul is.” He believes that “enrichment comes through dialogue. From past history, both Muslims and Jews engaged in dialogue in Andalusia to the great benefit of both traditions on one hand, and Islam and Christianity on the other. Vancouver presents the opportunity of another Spain.”