Lisa Richmond: The Decline of Religion Has Socio-Economic Implications for All Canadians

The small Anglican church in my neighborhood is sponsoring a Ukrainian family to settle in Canada. Under the Government of Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees program, the congregation has pledged to cover all of the family’s expenses and provide social and emotional support for the first 12 months of their new life in Canada.

Sponsoring refugees is just one of the countless ways in which religious congregations – Christian, Muslim, Jewish and others – contribute to Canadian society. (For a fascinating history of religious Canadian involvement in refugee resettlement, see Geoffrey Cameron’s article Send Them Here: Religion, Politics, and Refugee Resettlement in North America, recently published by McGill-Queen’s University Press). Researchers have long studied the social, psychological, and civic benefits that flow from religious beliefs and religiously motivated behaviors. But how much does the existence and activity of religious congregations contribute annually to the Canadian economy? The Halo to Cardus project is an effort to answer that question in terms of dollars and cents.

Our latest research suggests that the activity of more than 20,000 religious congregations in Canada generates $18.2 billion in benefits for society. We use a method originally developed by researchers at the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, which we have adapted to the Canadian context. The economic impact of a congregation can be evaluated on the basis of 41 variables, in the following categories:

  • Open space, used for recreation or providing environmental benefits
  • Direct expenditures on salaries, operations and facilities
  • Education through an on-site school or daycare, among other programs
  • The “magnet effect” of attracting attendees to bar/bat mitzvahs, funerals, concerts, weddings, etc., who then spend their money on hotels, restaurants and other businesses
  • Activities that benefit individuals, such as counseling, refugee resettlement, and other forms of assistance
  • Community development, including housing initiatives and job training programs
  • Social capital and care, such as food banks and A.A. meeting space

Details of our methodology can be found in our 2016 report, which was a pilot study of ten Toronto-area congregations. Since then, researcher Mike Wood Daly has applied the methodology to 76 congregations across Canada and 100 congregations in unpublished research.

The latest work suggests that direct spending accounts for an average of 26% of a congregation’s total Halo impact. This finding allowed us to create a Halo calculator powered by congregational expenditure data that we obtained from the T3010 Registered Charity Information Return that congregations file with the Canada Revenue Agency. . Calculator users can enter the name of a congregation, city, or other geographic area, and receive its corresponding Halo estimate.

There are significant limitations to our methodology. First, some of the variables require self-declaration by the congregation which we are unable to independently verify. Second, our research does not seek to account negative the economic impact that congregations can generate. To take an important example, some people have been abused in congregations. The costs of recovering them or prosecuting the offender are not included in Halo studies. And finally, I want to point out that the calculator only provides a valued Halo value for congregations that have not been directly studied. To get the actual Halo impact, a congregation should apply its own data to each of the 41 variables.

Yet the Halo Project provides a valuable lens through which to view the contribution of religious communities to our common life. In my city of Hamilton, Ontario, for example, the calculator reveals that there are 236 congregations producing an estimated economic activity of $347 million. While Hamilton is similar to other places where Halo studies have been conducted, nearly nine out of ten people benefiting from the programs and services of these congregations are not members of these congregations.

Certain religious groups in Canada have an outsized impact on Halo. Jewish congregations make up only one percent of the congregations in the dataset, but produce three percent of Halo’s total impact. Mennonite Christians have three percent of the congregations but control four percent of the impact. Congregations in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario have a disproportionately higher Halo impact than those in other provinces.

Congregations across Canada are working every day to contribute to a stronger and more resilient social fabric, and the impact of religiously motivated activities is enormous. The Halo Project focuses only on congregations, but other religiously motivated nonprofits are also active. Cardus described the work of some of them: Ve’ahavta provides food and services to those most in need. The Spiritual Accompaniment Service for Sick and Elderly People at Home (SASMAD) helps to make the lives of sick and elderly people a little less lonely. Ismaili CIVIC mobilizes volunteers to contribute to all kinds of good causes.

Of course, Canadians and non-religious groups are also active in giving and volunteering. But the fact is that religious Canadians contribute disproportionately more, both to religious and non-religious causes. Forty-five percent of the country’s total giving comes from the 14 percent of Canadians who attend church services each week, as do 29 percent of total volunteer hours. Going back to the example of refugee resettlement, my cursory review of the names of the 130 sponsorship agreement holders suggests that 94 of them are religious organizations.

As the percentage of Canadians who participate in religiously motivated activities decreases, these contributions will also decrease. The socio-economic effect will be felt by all of us. Can other civil society institutions, or different levels of government, increase their contributions to fill the gap? The Halo project demonstrates how huge a challenge that will be, in terms of dollars. If the trend continues, all Canadians, religious or not, will be poorer.

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