Raymond Breton, one of the most distinguished Canadian scholars in the field of ethnic group relations, published a new book entitled Different Gods: Integrating Non-Christian Minorities into a Primarily Christian Society (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012).

He agreed to sit down with us for a Q&A session to talk about his findings.


The role of religious institutions in the integration of immigrants is not a new subject for you, as you examined it in your seminal article on “Institutional Completeness” back in 1964. How did you come to revisit this topic in relation to Muslim immigrants?

Churches are an important institution for ethnic minorities, but as some authors point out, their actual role in the community and in the integration of immigrants has not been studied extensively.  My interest was perhaps piqued by the recent controversies about non-Christian minorities and the question of “reasonable accommodations”.

I decided to review the literature to see if there was any research on the role of ethnic churches in general. Most of the literature in the past twenty years has to do with Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus – non-Christian minorities. Not the Jewish, because the Jewish has been established in North America for a long, long time; there is some literature that I mention in the book, but the literature mostly focused on non-Judeo-Christian churches, or religions. So, the book is really an analysis of the research literature.

The research led me to look at whether there is any peculiarity to Muslim integration in North American society. I focused primarily on research in Canada and the United States, although I do bring in some research from Europe. I don’t pretend to be exhaustive. But I think that findings in North America apply to a certain extent to all Western societies.

 Why do you think the role of religion in the integration of ethnic minorities has been understudied?

That’s a good question. I think that the main focus was on the socio-economic integration of immigrants, in terms of their job, occupational distribution, income, residential segregation or dispersion. Community volunteer associations have been studied and that includes some religious ones. But I read one author saying that sociologists, or social scientists, are so secularized that they don’t think of religion as something so important. This lack of research is surprising because churches play an important role in the communities, of not only in non-Christians but also in Christian minorities.

 And yet, after 9/11, religion has become more of a focal point.

There are more public issues associated with religion, mostly in Quebec; in the rest of Canada also, but in a different way. There was the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, as a result of outcries among certain groups in Quebec about religious accommodations that were made for Muslims or for Jews. One of the outcries was that Quebec as a legal apparatus has been made more and more secularized. For instance, “Religion” is not taught in schools anymore. In its place is “Religious History”, which looks at different kinds of religions. So, some traditionally-oriented parents say, “We are being asked to abandon our own religion and institutions, and now you want to make accommodations for these foreigners. That’s not fair!” This kind of criticism seems to have died down to a certain extent in recent years, but that’s why the commission was set up, and that’s what diffused the criticism to a considerable extent.

Tell us about the key findings of your research. What were the most intriguing, surprising things that you found from your review of the literature?

I found that, contrary to what some people may think, integration takes place, albeit slowly, for minorities today as it did for earlier cohorts of immigrants. The book tries to look at what we mean when we say that integration takes place.

The thing that surprised me the most is the progressive dissociation between religion and ethnicity for non-Christian minorities, that does not occur as much for Christian minorities All religions are embedded in a culture and they incorporate secular elements from that culture. Earlier waves of immigrants experienced the same basic religious and secular cultures, although there were differences in language, national cultures and denominational affiliations. Also, their religious and secular cultures were similar to those that already existed in North America.

Non-Christian minorities who also tend to be non-Western in culture, they have to adapt to a different culture. In the process, the issue of what is secular and what is religious emerges. This occurs, for example, with regard to the norms and customs pertaining to the role of women, gender relationships, and dietary prescriptions. Are they prescribed by the religion or are they part of the secular tradition in which the group existed before migrating?

Another important factor in the process of dissociation occurs in the case of multi-ethnic religions, such as Islam. Once in a Western country, they are likely to observe others of their own religion, but who came from different countries or regions of the world. As a result they may be led to ask themselves what is religious in their beliefs and practices and what is due to the fact that they come from a particular national culture..

Another process is set in motion by the children of immigrants. They become integrated in a Western way of life when they go to school and start challenging certain religiously-sanctioned practices. In response, parents may come to ask themselves what are essential elements of their religion and what is part of the secular culture of their country of origin.

Religious leaders also play a role in this connection because they feel the need to adapt the religious norms and rituals to the Western culture. They also have to deal with the fact that frequently the members of their congregations are of different ethnic origins: they practice the same religion but follow different cultural practices. Confronted with such situations, religious leaders are led to make a distinction between the religious and secular by emphasizing the fundamentals of the religion.

Also, as in the case of people with a Christian background, the religious practices and patterns of religiosity of non-Christian immigrants are progressively becoming more privatized. People practice privately, as opposed to going to church. The data analysis conducted by my assistant Mai Phan finds that attendance at religious observances is lower among Muslims than it is among Christians (if we control for level of education and other demographic characteristics).

Were you surprised?

Yes I was. It is really surprising. However, we have to realize that many of people who come to North America or Europe do so to get away from what they consider as cultural constraints to which they are exposed in their home country. Often, they’ve already begun the process of privatization and the secularization in their country before emigrating. In other words, many were prepared to make the changes and accommodations that were necessary to be able to succeed in the North American or European contexts.

Does social class or the level of education have an impact on how immigrants will integrate once they come to the host society?

The higher the level of education, the more people become secularized, or the more they dissociate ethnicity from religion. This doesn’t mean that religion loses its significance, but it is expressed and practiced in different ways. Unfortunately, there is not much research on that.

You mention in the introduction of your book that for Muslim immigrants, external factors that are related to where they come from matter more than what happens after they arrive in the host society in terms of integration.

 Yes, events on the international scene play a role in shaping attitudes vis-à-vis ethnic-religious groups. And the media don’t help in that regard. They present a picture of Muslims frequently in a negative and generalizing way, which offends the members and leaders of these churches. For example, in the Toronto Star’s recent article “Stop hounding Muslims and mosques over terrorism: Siddiqui” (Haroon Siddiqui, Toronto Star, April 4, 2013) about the three terrorists from London, the columnist mentioned that “two of them went to a mosque”.  The Imam of this mosque was offended because the mosque did not radicalize them; rather, members urged them to integrate into society.

So the media give the impression that the mosques are centres of radicalism, which is irresponsible journalism. There are probably a few Muslim leaders here and there who are extremists, but by and large, they want their members to become part of Canadian society. In fact, some research shows that mosques are active in discouraging radical attitudes and behaviour.

Integration occurs at two levels: the integration of individuals on the one hand, and the integration of institutions of the minority, on the other hand. Some studies have shown how Judaism as an institution became part of North American society. Well, the same process will eventually take place with the non-Christian minorities: eventually, they will be perceives a part of the religious mosaic.

Another factor that struck me about the integration of individuals is that early on after arrival – that was true for Christian minorities too – the leaders of the institutions had quite a bit of influence on these individuals. But with time, their influence diminishes. If they try to constrain people in their behavior, they’re going to lose them. There have been many studies that show that they go in the opposite direction: they try to help their members to integrate. They have courses to teach English, or how to use computers, or how to find a job, etc.—very secular things. And one of the reasons for this is that they want their members to keep on coming to their places of worship.

What can you tell us about the accommodation process and how that is related to integration?

According to some of the research that came out of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, accommodation, just like the integration, occurs on a day-to-day basis. Government policies are important in the sense that we have a Constitution, a Bill of Rights against discrimination; these institutional frameworks are very important. But accommodation and integration take place on a day-to-day basis in the course of dealing with the tasks that need to be done if the organizations (schools, workplace, hospitals, community associations, etc.) are to function effectively..

Some studies in Quebec (carried out for the Commission) showed that the religious practices of the Muslims or Hindus were dealt with by finding out what was practical in a particular situation. For example, professionals in the hospitals want to provide the services they’ve been hired to provide. Their philosophy seems to be that everybody’s different and these differences have to be taken into account.

Generally, when issues are defined in terms of identity – we are a Judeo-Christian society and they’re going to mess up our identity – they are more likely to generate tension and conflict than if they are defined as practical arrangements that need to be negotiated.

Are there any implications from a policy standpoint?

From a policy standpoint, I would say that it is essential to respect the constitutional and legal framework established in our society. Beyond that, issues need to be defined as practical arrangements to be negotiated at the local level. If the issues are defined as regional or national, accommodations will be much more difficult to negotiate.

If they are defined as identity issues, the situation becomes very difficult, largely because identities are not matters that are negotiable. The research I have reviewed shows that accommodation is really a day-to-day issue that takes place at the grassroots level

For example, we had a serviceman who came to our house to do some kind of maintenance work. After he had done his work he said, “You know, I don’t have time to go to the mosque today. Do you mind if I get my carpet and I go down to your basement to pray?”, and we said “Of course not, by all means”. So this Muslim man went downstairs, for five, six minutes and he prayed and he said thank you very much, and then he left. This guy is more integrated into society because of little gestures like that. People take into account their differences, so at the workplace or in the neighborhood is the level at which the integration of immigrants generally takes place.

What topics need further research?

There is a need for further research in all the areas examined in the book. However, comparative studies would be very useful. For instance, do the processes of integration of non-Christian and non-European minorities differ in any significant ways from those that take place among Christian, European minorities?

There may well be significant differences. Non-Christian immigrants come to a society in which their religion is not culturally and institutionally established. Thus they face challenged of institutional and social recognition which may be more likely to involve cultural clashes and thus raise particular problems of accommodation. Comparative-historical studies may reveal that earlier waves of immigrants were also had to deal with such issues. In other words, to what extent are the processes of integration affected by differences in cultural traditions?

The question of the dissociation of ethnicity and religion may be more of an issue when the religious traditions of the immigrants differ from that of the receiving society. Indeed, the religion of the majority in North America has been embedded in a particular culture for a long period of time. Thus, the issue of what is religious and what is secular in their religious norms, practices and  rituals may not appear as an issue for most Christians in our society.

Finally, as seen in the research reviewed, tensions do occur between groups from different religious traditions. However, there appears to be efforts to negotiate accommodations, attempts at collaboration on common projects and other cohesion-building efforts. More research is needed on such inter-group endeavors.


Professor Raymond Breton

Professor Raymond Breton

Raymond Breton was born in Montmartre, Saskatchewan. He obtained his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Manitoba, his Master’s degree from the University of Chicago and his doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University.

He is a Professor Emeritus of sociology at the University of Toronto. Over the years, he has been a professor at other universities: Montréal, McGill, Johns Hopkins and Harvard (as Visiting Professor of Canadian Studies in 1996-97).

His research interests focus on immigration, ethnicity, language and inter-group relations. His recent publications include Different Gods: Integrating non-Christian Minorities into a Primarily Christian Society (2012); Ethnic Relations in Canada: Institutional Dynamics (2005); The Governance of Ethnic Communities: Political Structures and Processes in Canada (1991). He is co-author of A Fragile Social Fabric? Fairness, Trust and Commitment in Canada (2004); The Illusion of Difference: Realities of Ethnicity in Canada and the United States(1994); Ethnic Identity and Equality: Varieties of Experience in a Canadian City (1990); Cultural Boundaries and the Cohesion of Canada (1980) and of Why disunity? An Analysis of Linguistic and Regional Cleavages in Canada (1980).

He is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1990, he received an Outstanding Contribution Award from the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association. In 2005, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Ethnic Studies Association.

He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Guelph in 1994, from the University of Waterloo in 2000, an honorary degree of Law from the University of Manitoba in 2002 and an honorary University Doctorate from the University of Ottawa in 2006