Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


(1943-) Beginning his career as a Baptist minister, Bibby completed his Ph.D. in sociology under Armand Mauss at the University of Washington with a study of a skid road mission in Seattle. Since 1975, he has held a position in the Department of Sociology at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta.

A major and a minor direction have dominated his research and publications: Since 1975, he has conducted quinquennial national social surveys of Canadian social and religious trends under the heading Project Canada ; and, with its roots in his master's research at the University of Calgary, he has addressed (in collaboration with Merlin B. Brinkerhoff) the question of why conservative Christian churches are growing through the idea of the "circulation of the saints."

The importance of the Project Canada longitudinal studies for the sociology of Canadian religion is considerable. They represent the hitherto only national surveys of Canadian religious attitudes and behaviors beyond the limited data emanating from the governmental Statistics Canada and from the Gallup poll. As well, during the two decades since its beginning, Bibby has extended this core research into various related directions, which include studies of Canadian teenagers (in collaboration with Donald C. Posterski), the United Church of Canada, and the Anglican Church of Canada.

The religious trends that this research has revealed are quite consistent. Canadians, much like the people of other Western countries, are still overwhelmingly Christian by identification; they still believe in God and even in the divinity of Jesus. Yet fewer and fewer of them are members of religious organizations or participate regularly in religious rituals. In two volumes, Fragmented Gods: The Poverty and Potential of Religion in Canada (Irwin 1987) and Unknown Gods: The Ongoing Story of Religion in Canada (Stoddard 1993), Bibby analyzes these trends, pointing out how Canadians pick and choose "fragments" of religious items (e.g., rites of passage, specific beliefs) or treat religion like a consumer item, partaking of it " la carte" rather than remaining full practicing members of their traditional denominations. In this, his work tends to confirm the view of religion in the modern world that Thomas Luckmann represents in The Invisible Religion (Macmillan 1967).

The work on the "circulation of the saints" shows a related manifestation. Although the conservative Christian churches in Canada are recruiting some new members from the liberal mainline churches, largely their growth has come from a greater ability to keep more existing members and their children. They are growing as religious organizations but have had little success in halting or reversing the more general fragmentation and decline. The early and recent versions of the thesis are in Bibby and Brinkerhoff, "The Circulation of the Saints: A Study of People Who Join Conservative Churches" (1973) and "Circulation of the Saints, 1966-1990: New Data, New Reflections" (1994).

Bibby has not viewed the trends his research shows with indifference. Increasingly since the publication of Fragmented Gods , he has explicitly lamented what is happening. As a cultural parallel, Bibby also decries the cultural fragmentation of late-twentieth-century Canadian society. Here as well, he uses the data from his Project Canada series to make his points. These two aspects of Bibby's work are most clear in Mosaic Madness: The Poverty and Potential of Life in Canada (Stoddard 1990) and There's Got to Be More: Connecting Churches and Canadians (Wood Lake Books 1995).

Peter Beyer


R. W. Bibby and M. B. Brinkerhoff, "The Circulation of the Saints," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion , 12(1973):273-283

R. W. Bibby and M. B. Brinkerhoff, "Circulation of the Saints, 1966-1990," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion , 33(1994):273-280.

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500