Survey Says!! A Chat With Dr. Reginald Bibby

As his website will tell you Dr. Reginald Bibby holds the Board of Governors Research Chair in the Department of Sociology at the University of Lethbridge. Over the past four decades, he has been monitoring social trends in Canada through a series of well- known national surveys of adults and teenagers, in the process gathering pioneering and historic data on religion and youth. He has presented his findings in North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan, lecturing at universities including British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, McMaster, Queen’s, Toronto, Acadia, Oxford, Notre Dame, and Harvard. He is the author of fifteen books, numerous monographs, and some one hundred journal and magazine articles. To date, more than 160,000 copies of his books have been sold. His latest book is Canada’s Catholics.

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Bibby on a number of occasions. I didn’t know what to expect on my first go-round. I’m always apprehensive about talking to academics. It may come as a surprise to many of you that I have never been on a Ph.D. track and to carry on a conversation with someone who clearly has a far superior developed brain can be intimidating. Dr. Bibby has the ability to “dumb it down” for people like me and can explain his research findings in a way that even I find interesting and understandable. He’s also just a really nice guy who loves sports and Disneyland. So he’s easy to talk to. Dr. Bibby is a very busy man so I was thrilled when he agreed to take on the onslaught of questions that I had for him.

Tell us how you ended up coming to Lethbridge.

I taught two summer school courses here as I completed my PhD at Washington State way back before you were born in 1974, and then headed off to York University in Toronto for a one-year appointment. Couldn’t believe it when I was forwarded an ad from the U of L Sociology Department saying they were looking for a tenure-track person in areas that included two of my budding specialties – Religion and Deviance. An extremely rare combination. Loved the thought of working in Alberta; I was raised in Edmonton and had attended both the U of A (BA) and U of C (MA). Came here for an interview in December when it was about 20 below (Fahrenheit/30 or so Celsius; either way = darn cold!). Didn’t really mind the cold; in Edmonton we hoped it would get up to about 10 below so we could play hockey. …But no one told me about the wind….

Has it been a conscious decision to stay here all these years or have you wanted to test the waters in a different city?

The short answer is that I didn’t expect to stay more than about three or four years and definitely looked forward to living in a couple of other possible places, led by Ottawa and Vancouver. But I soon discovered that, with the job market so tight, I was lucky to have a tenure-track position anywhere. Second, I also discovered that the ole cliché that “you can publish your way out of a school” was only partly true: “you can also publish yourself into a school.” I rose to Associate Professor after being here four years and to Full Professor after ten. By the mid-80s, moving laterally at either of those ranks had become extremely rare. But on the plus side, the U of L was proving to be a great place for me. I had the resources and tranquility to do pretty much anything I wanted to do – from here. As long as I could get out from the coulees with a measure of regularity, being in Lethbridge was not holding back my career. And besides, it kept me in Alberta, about the right distance from my relatives!

Was there a moment in your life where it became clear what your career path was going to be or did it continually change as you gained more education?

A great question in my case. When I started at the U of A, my great dream was to be a Baptist minister. I needed a B.A. and a B.D. (divinity) to do that. I was totally intimidated by university; heck, I was the only one in my family of seven kids to even matriculate from high school. But my great debt to the Baptists is that they introduced me to higher education. Over time, I went from being scared to death to enjoying studies to realizing I was pretty good at passing courses and writing papers. I never dreamed I would get a Master’s degree, let alone a PhD. But by the time I started teaching at York, I had begun to realize that to think, teach, and write “on company time” was a remarkable – if unexpected – gift. When my father turned 50, he was very disillusioned with his life and work. I realized that I had the chance to spend my life doing things that I loved doing. I was immensely grateful to the gods for that.

I suspect with the kind of research you do you have to have a lot of patience. You can’t compile your data overnight. Does that get frustrating or have you learned to accept that that’s the way it’s going to be?

You’re right. People who haven’t carried out large-scale, national surveys often glibly taught about “quick and dirty surveys.” My seven national adult surveys, carried out every five years from 1975 through 2005 – and my four national youth surveys (1984, 1992, 2000, 2008) were anything but quick. On average, the eleven surveys each took more than a year to carry out. With the passage of time, surveys in general have become increasingly difficult to conduct. In the case of adults, people simply are less inclined to participate. The youth surveys were carried out in classrooms across the country. With growing litigiousness, they have become bureaucratic nightmares.

But there is a happy ending to such problems. These days, large-scale surveys are being carried out primarily using the Internet. Miraculously, they can be conducted in a matter of days, with the whole process of design and data collection taking maybe a month or less. Now we actually have time to think about what we are finding and time to write things up at a pace I personally have never known before.

How do you determine what type of research you want to do?

One of the terrific things about Sociology is that it provides a set of glasses for looking at pretty much anything one want to look at. One has the freedom to focus on one’s interests – both ongoing and new.

And so, over time, I have zeroed in on religious and social trends, along the way giving a fair amount of attention to youth. But I also have had the freedom to focus on some specific things that interest me, including interest in pro sports, the role of the Internet, and the personal and social significance of social media. So, in short, I have been able to combine curiosity with flexibility – looking at just about anything and everything I want.

When you’re delving into some new research do you have a sense that you’re going to know what you’re going to get or does it often surprise you when the results come back?

I sometimes describe myself as having “a chipmunk mentality.” I have this image of a chipmunk who scrambles along a tree branch, stops, and stands up, looking around to see what is going on. I see myself as almost excessively curious about life.

Consequently, it’s a joy and fairly unique privilege to be able to write questions into a survey for which I don’t have the answers – but want some. As a result, I literally can’t wait to see what people have to say – rather than knowing in advance what they are going to say. Of course I have my hunches about responses. But the reason I ask most of the questions is because I don’t have the answers. That’s what makes the whole thing fun.

You’ve done a lot of work on the state of religion. Are we as spiritual as we ever were or have we become more cynical?

Another good and tough question. My latest surveys – carried out in partnership with Angus Reid since 2013 – show that a solid core of about 30% of Canadians continue to “embrace” religion. But a growing core of around another 30% are now saying that they reject religion. The balance – about 40% – tell us they are somewhere in between. That succinct snapshot indicates the majority of Canadians continue to either be what I call “pro-religious” or “low religious,” with most of these people not cutting their ties with organized religion and also valuing spirituality. That said, there is no question that a significant minority – the “no religious” – are being more overt than ever in turning their backs on religion.

Your latest book is Canada’s Catholics. I’m a once devout Catholic who stopped going to church regularly. Where would I fit in the grand scheme of most Catholics today?

Actually, Mark, you are not lacking for company. Catholic attendance, as you know, declined significantly from the 1960s through about 2000. But one of the fascinating things about Catholics across the country – including, of course, Quebec – is that they go on thinking of themselves as Catholic. The “staying power” is remarkable. We have found that they continue to show up at least occasionally, believe in God, life after death, and even things like guardian angels. When it comes to social teachings, they have a “pick and choose,” religion ala carte style. But some 9 in 10 who were raised Catholic continue to say they are Catholic. Relatively few, physically and spiritually, are actually saying goodbye to the Catholic faith.

Can you say at this time what kind of an impact Pope Francis has made on the Catholic Church?

Our Canadian polls are consistent with those in the U.S. Pope Francis has made a very favourable impression on Catholics and others. He is seen as having a compassionate outlook toward people on the margins of the Church, championing the needs of immigrants, the poor, and refugees, and decrying thinks like sexual abuse and economic exploitation. From a PR point of view, it has done much to improve the image of the Catholic Church. To be fair to him, it is not clear how much more he tangibly can do when it comes to “bringing people back”. Much of that task lies with local parish ministries.

You’ve traveled all over North America giving lectures. Are there any places that are more memorable than others?

Probably the most memorable have been Harvard and Notre Dame in the U.S. and St. Francis Xavier and Queen’s in Canada. Never ever dreamed I would be presenting research findings in such places.

Where’s the best beer – in Canada or the US?

Ha! You asked the wrong guy. I don’t like beer! But my wise friends say Canadians think their beer is better and stronger – but in reality it is just as watered down as that on the other side of the border. The bottom line: Canadians get drunker faster.

You’re a very sought after man by the media and you’ve appeared everywhere on radio and TV. Do you like doing those interviews or does it become tedious and annoying.

When I was 10, I broadcast 10 minutes of an Edmonton Oil Kings hockey game on CFRN in Edmonton with Al Shaver (who went on to be the play-by-play announcer with the Minnesota North Stars). I was terrified. At 14, my brother and I began singing Everly-like songs on television in Edmonton. My mother said we looked like “scared rabbits.” Rather than finding interviews tedious or annoying, my evolution has been from finding them excruciating to actually finding them somewhat enjoyable. A long time ago I realized how important the media was to getting my research findings out to people everywhere. Now that the pain and anguish levels have dropped a bit, I am considerably more comfortable – but still always a bit on edge. …Remember our interviews?! (Of course I do-Mark)

Any favorite shows you like to do?

Over the years, particularly valued doing the now-defunct Canada AM. Peter Gzowski was also special, along with CBC’s Cross Country Checkup. Regionally, I reached the point of really enjoying Bill Good with CKNW in Vancouver, and the old programs with Ron Collister in Edmonton and Dave Rutherford in Calgary. Oh, and those noon show interviews with Mark Campbell. With a few new books in the works, need to uncover some new programs and new hosts – if they in fact are emerging.

You received the Order of Canada from then Governor General Michaëlle Jean. Take us through that experience and just how beautiful is she?

It obviously was an extraordinary experience – one of the highlights of my life. Unlike some appointees who are aware of major efforts to have them recognized, I simply picked up an envelope that had been sent by courier – and somehow ended up at our west side post office – and learned, pretty much as news out of nowhere, that I had been appointed at the prestigious Officer level.

As for the Governor General, she was gracious, unpretentious, and generous with her time. My wife, who was present for the ceremony and banquet, tells me that the G-G was “not bad looking.”

You’re an Oilers fan. Discuss.

Growing up in Edmonton, I watched as stars like Johnny Bucyk, and Norm Ullman, who played for the Oil Kings and our pro-team, the Flyers, went on to the NHL. One of the Flyers’ stars, incidentally, was none other than Lethbridge’s Vic Stasiuk. I genuinely dreamed of the possibility of Edmonton’s team being part of the NHL – where we could keep our players, because over time it would have added up to a star-studded team (others had included people like Glenn Hall, Bronco Horvath, and Al Arbour).

When the Oilers were formed and played in the WHA, the dream was partly realized. When they moved to the NHL, the dream came true – symbolized in around 1983 when the Detroit Red Wings, no less, played an exhibition game in Edmonton.

That’s why I’m an Oilers fan!

What sort of things do you like to do outside of your research?

That’s simple. Follow sports as my retreat from reality, love eating out, love travel – especially, over the last few years – regularly to southern California and Anaheim. People think I go there primarily because of my young daughter, Sahara, now 14. Actually, I love going to “Disney” as my regular retreat from reality. A tip-off: when it comes to life-long favourites, my photo with Michaëlle Jean barely eases out the shot of my shaking hands with my childhood buddy (gasp!) Donald Duck….


Do you have any sociological thoughts about what is going on in the US with the Presidential race?

Like most other sociologists – including more than a few who claim to know – I am baffled, but only initially. What’s intriguing about Americans is their inclination to embrace extremes – conventional marriage and a fascination with infidelity, the embracing of peace and the experience of violence, the endorsement of the American Dream of prosperity and the failure to deal with widespread poverty, the ideal of equality and reality of racism – for just a few illustrative starters.

The apparent polarization and paradoxes that characterize US life similarly emerge in the realm of politics and political parties. Hence an unlikely long-shot like Donald Trump can know a significant following, precisely at the same time when he is vigorously dismissed by a large number of Americans. In short, it seems to me that people like Trump and Hillary Clinton personify the polarized segments of American society.

What’s more exciting for you: Finishing a book or figuring out what the next one is going to be about?

That’s easy. The two experiences know a photo finish. All I ask of people is that they read the one I just finished before they ask what I am going to do next! Gotta at least have a short breather in between.

Totally unrelated to anything: Can you name your top 5 movies of all time?

  1. Annie Hall
  2. Gone with the Wind
  3. Grease
  4. Annie Get Your Gun
  5. Bambi (!)

What are your top 5 concerts of all time?

  1. Everly Brothers, Edmonton, 1986
  2. Smothers Brothers: Calgary, 2007
  3. Willie Nelson: Lethbridge, 2005
  4. Elton John, Lethbridge 2012
  5. Neil Diamond: Calgary, 1992

“Canada’s Catholics”the latest book by Dr. Bibby.


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