Declining religious belief deserving of consideration

Good religion has always been a positive and binding force, and there is still plenty of that around, writes Ian Harris.

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 reflection.

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 future.

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 association.

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 anthem.

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 around.

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.

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