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April 23, 2007 | by  | in Features |
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Lest We Forget

A question for you:
Do you believe in God?

Don’t be shy. It might be a socially embarrassing question in 21st century New Zealand – but since no one can see your answer, you can go right ahead.

So, what’s your response? According to a recent New Zealand survey, there’s about a 1 in 2 chance that you answered “yes”. About 1 in 4 of you will have answered “no”, and about another 1 in 4 of you will be sitting on the fence.1

By themselves, statistics like this don’t tell us much. While 55.2% of New Zealanders might tell a secret surveyer that they believe in God, does this kind of belief actually make any difference to the way they live? Does it have any impact on day-to-day stuff, like whether they write better poetry, or cheat the tax-man, or grow their own vegetables, or put money in the Women’s Refuge bucket?

At this particular point in history, answers to those questions seem all jumbled up – for at least two reasons. For one thing, when asked if “New Zealand is still a Christian country”, more than half of New Zealanders answer “yes”, whatever their own religious beliefs. Secondly, our society is now sufficiently diverse that our beliefs are going to be pushing us in all sorts of different religious directions. Let’s consider that second reason first.

Why God is No Longer a White Male

As our population diversifies, it’s becoming increasingly obvious to us that the meaning of ‘God’ is not self-evident. Any two people using the ‘God’ word can mean completely different things by it, which was not always so. Once upon a time, singing ‘God Defend New Zealand’ was a straightforward business. Pretty much all of us presumed that God was like us – white or (at a pinch) brown, but certainly not yellow. He might have packed down on the blindside of the scrum in his youth, though he’d long since retired and moved to the High Court bench. If we had bothered to consider his religious affiliation, it would surely have been Christian. He was certainly a “he” and he was here to protect the status quo.

When Henderson’s purple river of wine won’t flow and the waving wheat carpets of Canterbury don’t grow, when the fruit machine of juicy Nelson breaks down and bobby-calf trucks buzz off from one-horse towns, God defend New Zealand.2

Now that post-modernism and multi-culturalism have arrived, we realise how ridiculously parochial that attitude is. If, as the 2006 census tells us, 350,000 New Zealanders are of Asian extraction and a further 35,000 are Latin Americans, Africans, or Middle Easterners – then the God Defending New Zealand now has, to say the least, a much more diverse clientele.

Of course, in addition to the cultural diversity that shapes our view of God, there is a further question of religious diversity. Alongside the 31% of New Zealanders who reported themselves to have “no religion” in the 2006 census, 1.25% of us are now Buddhist, 1.52% Hindu, and nearly 1% Muslim.3 In addition, there’s a melting pot of others – including significant numbers of Bahai, Spiritualists, Wiccans, and Satanists – not to mention potential Jedi. Only the most reductionist of all secularists would say that these groups all believe the same thing. Thus, if our culture’s popular image of God comes from a corporate sense of our common aspirations, it’s no wonder that the new religious diversity means that our nation has no clear sense who we’re addressing when we ask Him, Her or It to Defend New Zealand.

This shouldn’t be surprising. You don’t need to think very long about religion before realising that a view of God derived from the culture surrounding you is problematic. Such a belief is likely to reinforce the status quo and so can be used to legitimate apartheid, Nazism or slavery. Arguably, a similar tendency lies behind the soft-focus religious narcissism pedalled by mega-churches in suburban America, spread throughout the world in glossy publishing catalogues and on cable TV. At its worst, such religion spawns strange combinations of Christian teaching and self-help rhetoric – guaranteed to soothe the ennui of the over-capitalised middle classes, and to stimulate the consumerist aspirations of the working classes. Some mega-churches in the United States apparently feed their congregants Krispy Kreme doughnuts and supply bored kids with X-Boxes during services.4 In such circumstances, it’s easy to see why God starts to lose the characteristics of universal creator who challenges people to reach out in love to strangers, aliens and neighbours – and instead becomes a sort of cosmic Ronald McDonald figure. In contrast, the best expressions of religion often challenge the status quo. Hence, history records key names to represent thousands of anonymous religious agitators – William Wilberforce, who worked strenuously for the abolition of slavery; Desmond Tutu, for the abolition of apartheid; the Earl of Shaftesbury, for the abolition of child labour; Susanne Aubert, for the care of Aotearoa’s disadvantaged…

Of course, the masters of suspicion – nineteenth century theorists like Feuerbach and Freud – suggested that all belief in God simply involves projection from our own insecurities or aspirations. Yet this seems to be an overly reductive point of view. Left to our own devices, I think humans are inclined to go the way of the Krispy Kreme doughnut. By contrast, it may be a sign of true religion when people are driven by the worship of God to resist the dog-eat-dog logic of natural selection, and instead expand their horizons of what humans can be, by actually caring for one another.

Why New Zealand was probably never a ‘Christian country’, anyway (whatever than means).

The Buzz-the-People Survey quoted the above participants on whether they thought New Zealand was ‘still’ a Christian country. Personally, I’m surprised that 51.3% of people answered “yes” to that question (although, less surprisingly, the figures were much lower for people under 20 and between 20 and 40 years old – 38% and 41% respectively). Even more, though, I’m more surprised that the question was asked, because it presumes that New Zealand was at some stage Christian – even if that status is now in decline.

Yet things have never been as simple as that. While it’s always difficult to take the religious temperature of a nation, it seems that pakeha New Zealand was never particularly devout. Unlike the United States – many of whose first European settlers were pious enthusiasts in search of religious freedom – nineteenth century immigrants to New Zealand came from a continent wrestling with a climate of increasing religious scepticism. Average church attendance in nineteenth century New Zealand hovered around the 25% mark.5 An attitude of religious ‘free thinking’ was evident in legislations such as the Education Act of 1877, which included the famous ‘secular clause’ which required all primary education to be “of a secular character”. Many free thinking and spiritualist societies were active; the driving force behind the foundation of our own University, Sir Robert Stout, was a prominent freethinker. In contrast to most European countries, there has never been a formal relationship in New Zealand between church and state.

However, there’s another issue here. Quite apart from counting the religious preferences of the New Zealand population, it should probably be impossible to have a ‘Christian country’. Such an idea presumes that Christian beliefs and behaviour can be forced on people. This presumption is an old one. It arose in Europe after 312 AD, once the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and began to require Christian belief across his empire. Yet the more you think about trying to require Christian behaviour of people, the crazier it is. Commenting on how the idea has manifested itself, from Constantine to the present, theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues thus: “Servanthood, and love of enemy, contentment and monogamy, cannot be expected of everyone”.6

Read that quotation again, slowly. Hauerwas is surely right. Putting others first, loving your enemies, being content with what you have, staying true to your marriage vows – pretty hardcore stuff. They’re matters of the heart, or perhaps of the spirit. They only make sense in the context of a hard and laborious commitment to a leader, who warned that following him meant sacrificing one’s own interests. Of which a desire for Krispy Kreme doughnuts will be the least. Legislation that seeks to enforce these values is not likely to be very effective – if it takes behaviour like that to be a Christian country, nobody is ever likely to qualify.

Yet, for all that, these qualities of kindness and self-sacrifice remain attractive. Most of us would rather live in a society where at least some of them were common. Maybe we could do without the monogamy, and it’s always nice to have more stuff, but it sure is heart-warming when we put the needs of others first. Surely that’s the reason why half of us assume, or at least hope, that New Zealand is a Christian country. Deep down, many of us yearn for the stable moral order which we assume the religious past offered. Since post-Treaty New Zealand has British roots, we may as well have the Christian ones. Even deeper down, perhaps, we fear that Dostoevsky was right in The Brothers Karamazov – his great nineteenth century novel – where nihilism, hedonism and Russian orthodoxy clash. If God is dead, then everything is permissible. Better God, maybe, than moral anarchy.

However, such a conclusion is also deeply problematic. For it assumes that our moral values can be separated from the beliefs that bore them. It assumes we can have the fruit of moral agreement without the tree of a shared story. Yet, it is not at all certain that our values can be separated from the stories that gave rise to them. Commitment to the tenets of unadulterated, free-market capitalism will not produce Mother Teresa.

Lest we forget…

Recently, on a visit to Northland, I was struck by the wide gulf between the million dollar homes of Kerikeri and the empty shop-fronts of Kaikohe. Not far from Waitangi, where modern New Zealand was birthed, you can take your pick from rural poverty or up-market consumer paradise. I was struck then by another gulf. The participants in the 1840 Treaty signing had some vision of a common future.

However reluctantly or over-optimistically, the Crown officials had agreed to enter an arrangement designed to prevent anarchy and opportunistic land sales. The missionaries, whatever their Victorian gaucheness, were committed to a future built on a story of peace.

Likewise, the chiefs wanted to safeguard peaceful terms on which all people in the country could coexist. But one hundred and sixty years later – on the other side of land wars and confiscations that most pakeha would prefer to forget – our only common story seems to be that of insatiable consumerism, which encourages the rich to grow richer on the coasts of Northland, while pay rates stagnate in the forgotten countryside. We seem to have lost our story.

In Wim Wenders’ beautiful film, Wings of Desire, the embodied spirit of the great poet, Homer, describes his reason for keeping the spirit of storytelling alive through the human race. “If I give up,” he says, “then human beings will lose their storyteller. And if humans lose their storyteller, then they have lost their childhood….And they need me, like nothing else in the world.”

These days, many people like to describe themselves as spiritual – while insisting that they’re not religious. Yet this smells to me like another attempt to have the fruit without the tree; to gain private spiritual rewards for ourselves without accessing narratives like those that empowered Wilberforce, Ghandi or Mother Aubert. If, as New Zealanders, we want to avoid the narcissistic trap of the Krispy Kreme doughnut – we should not shy from the hard work of recovering and committing to the stories that our religious heritage provides.

For this reason, we should acknowledge the good work behind the recently agreed National Statement on Religious Diversity.7 Of course, as secularists and atheists and Christians and Buddhists, we won’t agree with the views of everyone who’s recognised by that Statement. But nor should we dismiss their views as the product of some outmoded evolutionary phase. Rather – lest we forget our childhoods – we should respect and engage with the longstanding wrestling that these traditions have undertaken in the face of the strange, inexplicable gift of life. For if we forget our childhoods, we forget who we are – and who we might become together.


Tim McKenzie works as a chaplain at Victoria University

1. http://www.buzzthepeople.co.nz/recentresults/NZGodCloseUp.aspx

2. David Eggleton, ‘God Defend New Zealand’.

3. http://www.stats.govt.nz/NR/rdonlyres/0D04FC7F-B1C5-4ACD-B1D0-34A6A7500A33/0/31religiousaffiliation.xls

4. Bill McKibben, ‘The Christian Paradox’, Harper’s Magazine, August 2005, 31-37.

5. See Peter Lineham and Allan Davidson, Transplanted Christianity (Auckland: College Communications, 1987), figure 4.1.

6. Stanley Hauerwas, ‘A Christian Critique of Christian America’, in John Berkman and Michael Cartwright, eds., The Hauerwas Reader (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), p. 475 (Emphasis added).

7. See www.hrc.co.nz/diversity

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Comments (3)

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  1. Spanky says:

    Finally someone actually knows what they’re talking about and can articulate it well… great work. Indeed some peoples contemporary attitudes to belief – and their assumed expendable nature – is wildly flawed. Even us in the 21st century need to wrestle with the mystery and meaning of existence…who would have thought huh?

  2. Anonymous says:

    There aren’t many true Christians now; people in general don’t obey the ten commandants set down by Jesus Christ. The meaning of existence is self-realization; that’s what sets us a part from the animals. We can control our senses and have higher intelligence for higher purpose. It is not a question of belief in whether the Supreme Personality of Godhead exists or not, just like whether I believe in gravity or not it is there. People are over earnest to see God with their own faulty senses, yet they accept the wind as factual yet who has seen the wind? What I’m getting is thank you for your article, interesting statistics. Pretty demoniac.

  3. chi says:

    hmmmmmmmm i put satanic on the census

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