Event Report: MEET THE AUTHOR – BRIAN CLARKE AND STUART MACDONALD


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In this post, Hannah McKillop reports on the NCF’s “Meet the Author” session with Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald held on 23 February, 2021. Hannah draws attention to the main points Clarke and Macdonald raised when discussing their 2017 book “Leaving Christianity: Changing Allegiances in Canada Since 1945”. Hannah also discusses some of the points made by discussion panelists.


On 23 February 2021, the Nonreligion in a Complex Future (NCF) project hosted a “Meet the Author” session with Dr. Brian Clarke and Dr. Stuart Macdonald concerning their book Leaving Christianity: Changing Allegiances in Canada Since 1945 (2017). Featured panelists for the discussion included Dr. Callum Brown (University of Glasgow), Dr. Christine Mitchell (University of Saskatchewan), and Dr. Peter Beyer (University of Ottawa). The session explored the impact Leaving Christianity has had on the study of religion and nonreligion and highlighted avenues for future research into religious disaffiliation in Canada. This event report outlines some key points from the lecture and panel discussion. The session can be watched in full on the NCF YouTube channel

Macdonald opened the session with an exploration into why they began research into declining church attendance among Canadian congregations. He explored the ways in which the portrait that was being painted of religious affiliation in Canada was not representative of what Macdonald and Clarke were observing in the data. Despite 16% of the Canadian population checking the “no religion” box in the 2001 Canadian Census, newspapers and media outlets in Canada were suggesting that no changes to Canada’s religious affiliation rates were occurring.

In Leaving Christianity, Clarke and Macdonald argue that Christian congregations in Canada were thriving up until the 1950/60s. They argue that, starting in the 1960s, a sharp change in religious affiliation can be traced in the data highlighting patterns that challenge secularization theory and rational choice theory. Clarke and Macdonald sought to explore why these theories were inaccurate for describing what they were seeing in Canada. In the “Meet the Author” session, Clarke and Macdonald theorized that perhaps rhetoric surrounding communism had an impact on Canada’s affiliation rates – though Macdonald is clear to note that such discussions are lacking in the book itself.

Macdonald outlined how, prior to the congregation shifts seen after 1960, the Presbyterian Church of Canada was confident about their place in Canadian society. The Church was expanding by building new congregations and welcoming immigrants (particularly, Ukrainian and Hungarian immigrants). As Macdonald made clear, however, the 1960s marked the beginning of a decline in this religious vitality that is present in earlier decades.

The dominant conversation in Canada about religious disaffiliation was one that often emphasized Canadians eventually returning to religion. Scholarship at the time, such as the work of Reginald W. Bibby, assumed disaffiliation was a cyclical process. Those promoting this cyclical process of disaffiliation thought that as disaffiliates grew older and had their own children, they would return to church. As Clarke explained, however, this is not the trend that the data showed. Rather, the data highlights an increase in nonreligious affiliation, even as the population ages. Clarke also noted how, despite popular opinions, it was not just young people leaving the church. Baby Boomers also began disaffiliating from their congregations. In this way, two strong age groups were contributing to the growth of nonreligious affiliation in Canada.

Leaving Christianity aimed to: (1) provide an explanation for why individuals were leaving their congregations and to highlight who these people were (i.e., the demographics of the disaffiliated); (2) to help better understand the scale and scope of this move away from religious congregations in Canada; and (3) to posit how durable this trend was in order to perhaps predict the state of Canada’s future affiliation rates.  

Interesting comparisons were made between disaffiliation in Europe and Canada. Disaffiliation has taken place more gradually in Europe. Trends of disaffiliation in Europe, for example, suggest that prior to the 1960s many “adults” had generally stopped attending church. Many parents in Europe, however, may still send their children to church for Sunday school despite themselves not attending church. In Canada, however, disaffiliation took place much quicker and on a larger scale. Canadian church members began leaving the church suddenly during the 1960s and onwards. Clarke and Macdonald argue that disaffiliation represents a type of “cultural revolution” in Canada that has largely gone unnoticed.

Lori Beaman offered some comments following Clarke and Macdonald’s discussion. She emphasized the importance of Leaving Christianity to the Sociology of Religion. She called the book a “game-changer” and highlighted the ways in which the book is an incredibly important retelling of the story that has been told in the media for decades. She noted that Macdonald and Clarke offer a realistic picture of the state of religious affiliation in Canada, which is paramount for future conversations about Canada’s disaffiliation rates.

The panel discussion began with comments from Callum Brown. Critiquing the life cycle theories cited above, Brown highlighted how Leaving Christianity places Canada within the international story of religion and disaffiliation around the globe. He affirmed that the book highlighted strong parallels between the Canadian and European experience. He cited Chapter Four of Leaving Christianity as offering a thorough statistical analysis of nonreligion in Canada. Brown affirmed Clarke and Macdonald’s assumptions around the impact of communism on church affiliation in the West.

Christine Mitchell offered an alternative perspective from the theological field. She outlined the impact that disaffiliation has had on future clergy members. She explored the impact that disaffiliation has had on the general lack of biblical illiteracy she sees among her students. She explained how, in the 1990s, she was able to assume a basic amount of biblical literacy from incoming students that is lacking today. She noted, however, that despite a general decline in religious literacy among her students, the Bible has continued to be relevant in Canadian culture in general (especially in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the role of churches in its calls to actions). She argues that Leaving Christianity is mandatory reading for graduate students. She concluded by highlighting changes in views towards the clergy collar among incoming clergy members. Whereas older members may see the collar as oppressive, younger members seem to be reclaiming the collar as an important symbol that is not oppressive.

Peter Beyer concluded the panel discussion. He reaffirmed the need for future research into disaffiliation in Canada. He highlighted the ways in which the book outlined a larger story of a gradual shift, and indeed a gradual loss of identity, among Canadian Christians. Beyer raised the notion of “fuzzy fidelity,” highlighting the uncertainty many scholars feel towards the future of religious affiliation in Canada. Beyer concluded by asking, “what’s next? What’s going to happen?”


Hannah McKillop is a PhD student in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her research focuses on the intersections between nonreligion, ethics, and popular culture in North America. Her MA work explored the ritual use of the Harry Potter series on the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.” She is a member of the Student Caucus of the Nonreligion in a Complex Future project.

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