If any one religious congregation disappeared from your city, would your community and city be better or worse off?
There are Canadians who think it would be better if they did disappear, like old relics that have become burdensome, even embarrassing.
The think tank Cardus published the results of research that examined the question through the Halo Project report in 2016. That research suggests that any Canadian city would be worse off, quite a bit worse.
Although a given congregation’s individual impact might seem small, when all aspects of their work or the work of many congregations are added together, the common-good effect can be significant. In fact, the research suggests it would cost municipal coffers about $4.77 to replace the common-good value produced by every $1 in a local congregation’s budget.
Applying that ratio to Canada’s biggest cities, it would cost an estimated $19.9 billion to replace religious congregations’ common-good contributions — such as soup kitchens, child care, suicide prevention and even community event space.
The many common-good contributions of local faith communities means that they may well be among the most socially productive settings in cities.
What might this mean for city planners, developers, educators, business owners, entrepreneurs and arts leaders?
What if faith communities are more than some ancient crustaceans, the horseshoe crabs of community life that might have co-existed with the dinosaurs but which survive only because of some fortuitous evolutionary glitch?
Those who are genuinely interested in addressing issues such as disparity, social isolation, access to work, environmental degradation, justice, human trafficking or any of the other ills that plague us will have to be careful neither to overlook nor caricature religious communities.
In some circles, religious communities and their beliefs can be dismissed with a few favourite anecdotes that point out failings without any recognition of contributions.
Understanding and appreciating the work of religious communities doesn’t imply that everyone needs to join a congregation. Someone without religious commitments can learn to appreciate their common-good contributions. As an example, I have tremendous respect for the arduous work of becoming a ballerina without making any pretence of strapping ballet slippers on my size-12 basketball-gnarled feet.
Many of the issues and challenges we face aren’t the type that will be remedied by things such as unrestrained economic growth.
If the recent past is any indication, it’s likely that global dynamics will generate new ills out of, and complimentary to, the existing cocktail of struggles we face daily.
Religious identity can create real and sustained difficulties, but it is also the well of some of our deepest creativity, care and continuity. Like Homer Simpson washing his socks in the last precious bit of canteen water while adrift in the lifeboat, famously misquoting Samuel Taylor Coleridge with “Water, water everywhere and lots and lots to drink,” we might recognize, too late, how critical religious communities are for civil society.
Excluding religious communities from real participation, either directly or implicitly, is short-sighted and ill advised, regardless of our personal beliefs.
Better that we understand them, even if that understanding begins with drawing on Statistics Canada’s basic descriptions of how many and what type of congregations exist in which locations.
Religious illiteracy isn’t simply about ignorance of beliefs, habits and practices. It’s a form of scientific illiteracy, a failure to carefully observe and understand what’s present and obvious alongside a deeper curiosity about what gives rise to dynamics such as civic engagement, deeper citizenship, social cohesion and our search for meaning.
There’s increasing consensus on social isolation as a public-health concern, the needs of an aging population and the hard work of enabling new Canadians to engage fully with our communities. These few examples represent great challenges, but religious communities are, quite simply, integral to that mix.
In a time when social stresses are increasing alongside relational scarcity, the types of social contexts that generate common-good resources, including religious communities, might be worth our respectful, and ongoing, attention.
Milton Friesen is social-cities program director at the think tank Cardus.