Good religion has always been a positive and binding
force, and there is still plenty of that around, writes Ian
Is the ebbing tide of Christianity in New Zealand a cause for
rejoicing or regret? A sign of social progress, decline, or
cultural amnesia? At the very least, it is worthy of
The latest census reinforces trends that have been apparent
for decades. A country whose national and social life has
been shaped by its European Christian traditions is drawing
on that heritage less and less as it moves into an unknown
We are not alone in this, of course. Churches in the West
generally have been caught by the force of the secular
tsunami sweeping over large areas of the modern world.
For the churches, the 2013 census statistics released last
month are sobering. At 1.93 million, those who self-identify
as Christians have dropped below half of our 4.24 million
population, and sit at 49.1% of census responses. Catholics
(492,324) have eclipsed Anglicans (459,771) for the first
time, while Presbyterians and Methodists (436,215 combined)
have slipped again.
Newcomers from Asia and the Pacific boost those numbers,
masking a sharper decline in Pakeha allegiance to the
churches which their forebears worked so hard to transplant
into New Zealand soil. And the figures give no hint of active
participation in church life, as opposed to a vague past
Meanwhile a welcoming immigration policy since the 1980s has
established Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh communities as a
growing religious presence. Last year they totalled 213,843,
or 5.5% of the census tally.
While Christianity has been eroding and the religious
landscape diversifying, the ranks of those who own no
religion continue to swell, rising 26% over 2006 to 1.63
million, or 41.5% of responses.
There are various reasons for this. For many people,
religious participation has moved from being a family or
social tradition to an optional leisure-time activity, and it
is easy these days to opt right out. Parents who tick the
''no religion'' box record their children likewise, and with
every generation there are thousands more of them.
Also, the churches generally have failed to adapt to the
modern world, resisting the rethinking of creeds and
traditions forged in and for a pre-secular age.
Their voice in the public domain has become muted and in most
news media ignored - unless, of course, a view is wacky or
way-out. Taken together, that leaves Christian faith open to
sustained attack by militant atheists, who seem unable to see
beyond the fundamentalist end of a very wide spectrum.
Sensing a kill, the Association of Rationalists and Humanists
has set its sights on pushing religion further outside the
mainstream, with campaigns to eliminate the last vestige of
religion in schools and to eject God from the New Zealand
Does the decline in religious understanding and adherence
matter? Some would say society would be better off without
any religion at all, ushering in a brave new atheistic,
agnostic or apathetic world.
Society would certainly be better without bad religion. But
good religion has always been a positive and binding force,
and despite the adverse trend there is still plenty of that
Nor should religion be confused with belief in a theistic
God, for religious understanding is possible without that.
Even where a concept of God is accepted as essential to
religion, there are other ways of thinking about God.
It will take another 100 years before anyone knows for sure
the effects of the erosion of Christianity in national life.
Will New Zealand society be better or worse for that?
Or will Buddhism, or Islam, or new expressions of Christian
faith quicken the imaginations of children and grandchildren
still to be born?
Worth considering is an observation attributed to Alexander
Tytler, a Scottish history professor of the late 1700s.
He said the average age of the world's greatest civilisations
was about 200 years, during which nations had always
progressed through the same sequence: From bondage to
spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from
courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance
to selfishness; from selfishness to complacency; from
complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependence; and from
dependence back into bondage.
The positive role of spiritual faith in this is striking. So
is what happens when it decays. Judging by the latest census,
New Zealand appears to have entered the phase of apathy.
I cannot cheer, as some do, the decline of the faith that
helped mould us. On Tytler's analysis, the last state might
well be worse than the first.
Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.