Religion reporter Douglas Todd discusses faith and culture in British Columbia’s largest city.
Interview by David Warkentin
There aren’t many people, if any, who have spent more time reflecting on religion and culture in Cascadia than Douglas Todd. As a lifelong resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, and a journalist in the area of North American spirituality and culture, Todd has a passion to explore the deepest human experiences while paying attention to the nuances of culture as well. He edited Cascadia: An Elusive Utopia and has been a columnist for The Vancouver Sun in the area of spirituality, diversity, and migration for over 30 years.
Vancouver is “in my bones” Todd reflects, as he recently chatted with regional editor David Warkentin about some of the complex dynamics of religion and culture in Vancouver today. Todd brings a wealth of insight to our conversation at Christ and Cascadia, and we’re excited to have his voice join our dialogue.
How did you develop an interest in religion and culture?
I was brought up in Vancouver in an atheist family who always thought religion was kooky. And over the years I started realizing, yes, there are a lot of religious kooks out there. But some of them are actually quite fascinating and even have a few things to offer – like hope and sophistication. I’ve always been an artsy guy, someone who tries to keep track of what’s going on in culture, including religion. Having travelled a fair amount, I realized early on that Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest is just different. Yet a lot of people who live here don’t know that. You say, “Oh no, Vancouver has no culture.” But really, it’s quite distinctive… a free culture, generally, but that is part of its distinctiveness.
Does Vancouver have an identity that is unique within Cascadia?
Vancouver has a “live and let live” approach. Polls show it’s a place that prizes freedom and tolerance. Individualism is stronger here than most parts of North America. Yet while B.C. has a vocal left wing faction that is pretty strong, it rarely wins elections except in some select urban areas. It’s mostly a center-right province emphasizing individualism and doing your own thing. As a result, there’s a sort-of laissez faire approach to everything, which ends up serving capitalism. Money often prevails, not cultural values.
I have kids and I’m worried they are going to get shoved right out of the city because they can’t keep up with foreign capital from thousands and thousands of millionaires.
We see this happening right now with housing. We have an economic crisis that is a sign of our inequality as a city. And I don’t see it getting better any time soon. I’m getting quite depressed by it to be honest. I have kids and I’m worried they are going to get shoved right out of the city because they can’t keep up with foreign capital from thousands and thousands of millionaires.
How has immigration impacted Vancouver?
Theologian John Stackhouse says, and I think he could be right, that Metro Vancouver is almost becoming less Cascadian then the rest of Cascadia. Forty-five percent of the population are foreign born. Other than Toronto, you don’t see that anywhere in the world. That’s a powerful factor. John suggests that Vancouver may be changed more by migration than Vancouver is changing the people who come here. While it’s extremely hard to measure that, you could at least say that there’s no guarantee that Vancouver and Cascadian culture, as it’s been in the past decades, will prevail. We’re getting something completely new, which nobody can predict. The housing crisis, then, is a symptom of this reality.
How has the religious landscape of Vancouver changed over the years you’ve covered religion here?
At the beginning of my career, I was ignorant about what the churches were doing. This actually gives me a helpful perspective because I’m not angry about my church upbringing. I like Patricia O’Connell Killen’s assessment that the Pacific Northwest is not a post-Christian society because it never was Christian. Obviously Christianity is the biggest religion by numbers, but it just wasn’t pervasive – it didn’t structure society. And yes, attendance has gone down, but it was never super high to begin with. Christianity ends up being fairly creative and inventive then. People don’t show up just because they’ve always shown up.
Christianity ends up being fairly creative and inventive then. People don’t show up just because they’ve always shown up.
In this current context, then, what is the general perception of religion in Vancouver?
On a certain level, there is an antireligious bigotry here and people don’t want to get caught in the cross-hairs of it.
Very suspicious. Half my friends are nonreligious. They are suspicious, negative, or non-interested. Many of my religious friends get frustrated by how hard it is for the public to see the authenticity and integrity in many aspects of spiritual and religious life. But Vancouver residents don’t have much connection to religious people, at least that they’re aware of. People just see prominent Christians being jerks, or they hear about the abuse by Catholic priests, and it doesn’t take much before the negative stuff starts to dominate in their minds. I also think a lot of religious people here are very shy and quiet about their religious beliefs and practices. On a certain level, there is an antireligious bigotry here and people don’t want to get caught in the cross-hairs of it.
What does the word “evangelical” mean to people in Vancouver?
It’s mostly negative. But this is partly unfair. Evangelicals make up 8-12% of the population based on Reginald Bibby and others’ analyses. This is pretty good, holding its own as a percentage, unlike mainline Protestants. There’s some vibrant evangelical churches doing really well in size and influence. Their reaching out and marketing is 10 times better than the mainline churches. They offer a more distinctive product in terms of belief and lifestyle. For example, offering of small groups – a community centre kind of atmosphere – is enticing to people who want to belong to something. They might even question some of the theology but they love the friendliness – a place for their kids and a chance to feel part of something bigger than themselves.
Some of the marketing is superficial. Some churches consider themselves a hip place. Young people think, “Oh, this is so cool. I can look my Bible up on my app and the pastor keeps using street language – he’s super hip.” But then they realize six months later that this approach is ultra conservative, at times even a kind of naïve theology, that is over simplified and too supernaturalistic.
Yet there are also lots of sophisticated evangelicals out there who are thoughtful. I admire the kind of things they are struggling with. They have a willingness to look at bigger issues and feelings with a sense of wonder instead of writing things off so quickly as some in Vancouver are prone to do. Really, I’m interested in people who are willing to cross boundaries and look at stuff they are not always comfortable with. And there are lots of evangelicals doing that. I think they are doing that more and more as they get tired of simplistic answers from certain evangelical leaders.
What gives you hope for religion in Vancouver?
Well, it’s mostly in pockets of people – people who are building bridges and keeping alive the spirit. I think anybody who starts asking a few serious questions about the nature of reality should be drawn to some of the kind of thoughtful options that are available to people in the city and in the region. I also think that maybe the anti-religious sentiment in Vancouver has bottomed out. The anger towards peoples’ church upbringings is dissipating, partly because this aging population is no longer the majority anymore.
I can’t help but think more people will be drawn to these creative expressions of Christianity with integrity than in the past.
Really, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen in the next 20 years in Vancouver. I can’t help but think more people will be drawn to these creative expressions of Christianity with integrity than in the past.
Every year that goes by these questions are more important to me, these spiritual and biblical issues. I do get discouraged when people write religion off so quickly, as happens easily in Cascadia. I like how Patricia O’Connell Killen’s puts it: “The value of being part of a wisdom tradition helps remind you how you aren’t at the center of universe.”
Douglas Todd writes about spirituality, diversity and migration for The Vancouver Sun and Postmedia. Although raised in a family of strict atheists, Douglas Todd has gone on to become one of the most decorated spirituality and diversity writers in North America. His lively and popular blog, The Search, has been cited by The New York Times. Todd is also the author and editor of three successful books, including the latest: Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia – Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest (Ronsdale Press).