In the 2001 census, more than 53,000 people—more than 1.5 per cent of the total respondents—recorded their religion as ‘Jedi’. It was the highest per capita population identified in the world that year; had their responses been counted, Jedi would have been the second-largest religion in the country, exceeded in popularity only by Christianity at 58.9 per cent.
That a joke answer elicited 0.3 per cent more responses than both Buddhism and Hinduism on an official document speaks volumes as to the state of faith in New Zealand. Put simply, we’re losing our religion. The 2006 census (the most recent result, as last year’s survey was not completed due to the Canterbury earthquakes) reflected a significant rise in secularism, with the number of people claiming no religious affiliation increasing from 29.6 per cent to 34.7 per cent since 2001, despite a population increase of almost 8 per cent. (There was also a fall in the number of New Zealand Jedi, proving that no ‘religion’ is exempt from the increase in unbelief.)
Figures and forms might seem an arbitrary test of faith, but other factors—the media’s morbid fascination with Conservative Party leader Colin Craig, for example, and the Whanganui District Council’s voting to abolish its 170-year tradition of opening meetings with a Christian prayer—point to the same conclusion: that New Zealand is becoming an increasingly secular nation.
“What the census does highlight is that religious identification has declined quite sharply in New Zealand over the past 40 years or so,” says Dr Geoff Troughton, a lecturer in religious studies at Victoria University. “We’re not a religious society in the way that the United States, or Iran, are religious societies.
“But religion still plays an important role for many people, and still has a place in public life—even though it’s severely constrained compared to many other countries.”
Dr Troughton attributes the decline in religious identification to a societal shift. “Part of what’s changed in New Zealand culture is unbelief has taken the role that Anglicanism used to have,” he says. “It’s become the default position; if you’re educated, if you’re middle-class, and particularly if you’re Pakeha, then it’s a perfectly logical location.”
This, coupled with the fact that children tend to take on the beliefs of their parents, means the 2013 census is expected to show a further increase in the number of people who consider themselves to have no religion. “We know that people need a little bit of religion to get religion,” says Dr Troughton. “When people grow up in a context that is very secular, religion makes very little sense to them.”
If current trends continue, those stating no religion are expected to outnumber those who identify as religious by the 2026 census. But its perceived rise in recent times can also in part be attributed to its being recognised as an option: ‘no religion’ has only been included as an official category since 1986.
“We don’t know for certain that these numbers are going to keep declining,” says Dr Troughton, pointing to figures that show declining rates of religious affiliation in Australia stablised in the early 2000s. In fact, across the ditch, the number of self-described Catholics has risen fairly steadily from 1901 to 2006, likely reflecting increased immigration to Australia; at the last count, the same number (18.7 per cent) identified as Anglican as did no religion.
But if secularism continues on its upward trajectory in New Zealand, it will affirm the findings of a US study that last year predicted that religion is set for extinction in New Zealand. Using data from the 2006 census, researchers used a mathematical model to make sense of the decline of religious belief in New Zealand and eight other countries, and found that it “will all but die out altogether” in all of them.
Dr Troughton dismisses the findings of this study, pointing out that, even as the number of people affiliating with Christian religions has decreased in New Zealand, there has been a steady increase in the number of other faiths. “Are you really going to say that the Ratana Church will no longer exist in 50 years? That there’s going to be no Muslims in New Zealand, no Buddhists?”
Moreover, the census data upon which the study was based does not give a complete picture of the role of religion in New Zealand society, as it collects information about religious affiliation, not belief. Of the two million respondents who identified themselves as Christian in the last census, some will not believe in God, while some who identified themselves as having no religion, will.
Dr Troughton says that one of the key shortcomings of the census is that, by reducing religion to normative categories, it does not allow for “changing ways of articulating belief”. “You see people not aligning with traditional forms of religion, but some of that is changing belief, not loss of all belief,” he says. “What we are going to see is a lot more complexity; more different kinds of communities.
“But even if you take the classic religious categories—the way that the census has always done these things—between 15 and 20 per cent of New Zealanders regularly attend religious services. That’s a lot of people.”
Though figures show that the older the individual, the more likely they are to align with a religion, academics such as Vic’s own Professor Paul Morris have identified evidence of something of a “religious revival” amongst young people.
“It’s a religious revival which must be seen in the broader context of an increasing secular world,” Professor Morris told Fairfax Media last month. “The revival is smaller than the broad cultural movement, but significant nonetheless.”
In particular, the Pentecostal ARISE Church defies the statistics that show religion is losing its relevance in New Zealand: about 70 per cent of its nearly 4,000 followers are between the ages of 18 and 35.
“There are churches and religious groups that are solely focused, really, on targeting youth,” says Dr Troughton. “They see their whole raison d’être to try and reconfigure what being a religious community means in the light of what young people seek and are attracted to.
“Some [groups] that don’t embrace that challenge will fade away, but those that are maintained are going to be re-imagining themselves, and youth leadership is going to play an important part in that.”
Dr Troughton dismisses suggestion that the surprise result of the Conservative Party at last year’s election reflects a return of religion to the political sphere, arguing that this has never been a feature of New Zealand’s political system. “In Europe and America, there’s a Christian social democratic tradition, but we’ve never had that attitude here,” he says. “Usually, you get these ginger groups, and you get campaigning on particular issues, but there’s not enough of a groundswell to create a broad political movement.”
Dr Troughton says most New Zealanders are “suspicious” about the role of religion in politics. “When religion things come up in public, often there can be an almost visceral hostility: ‘What’s with these religious people out there telling us what to do?’” he says. “And yet there’s a kindly face to religion that is perfectly acceptable. The Salvation Army’s post-earthquake activity, the Auckland City Mission: by and large, people see that as the good face of religion.”
Dr Troughton suggests that even individuals who consider themselves religious would be reluctant to give their vote to a group simply because it aligned with their faith. “Even the Christian community is very diverse, very fragmented—politically, socially, morally, there are a whole range of attitudes.”
The Inclusive Presbyterian church St Andrews on the Terrace, for example, counts gay and lesbian members in its congregation as part of its commitment to “diversity and community”. Its active and liberal stance on issues such as same-sex marriage sets it apart from other streams of Christianity, such as Destiny Church. Last year, St Andrews’ Minister, Reverend Dr Margaret Mayman, expressed regret to Salient that religious leaders such as Destiny Church’s Bishop Brian Tamaki defined Christianity in New Zealand because of their high profile in the media.
Though religion might not be prevalent in politics, Dr Troughton points out that it is important to our society in a number of other ways that are less overt. “It shapes a lot of our legal structures, our public morality,” he says. “Religious welfare and social service agencies form a huge part of civil society in New Zealand—so much so that even those that aren’t religious organisations are peopled by a high proportion of religious people.
“There is very clear evidence that religion does encourage people into philanthropic, altruistic kinds of activity, and that shapes New Zealand society in ways that are quite masked.”
The role of religion in New Zealand, then, is impossible to measure with figures and forms. Even though more people are claiming to have no religion, it has had too great an influence on the structures that underpin our society to “die out” altogether—despite the predictions of that mathematical model. What seems clear is that religious belief will continue to test conventional categories, and survive in changing forms; the real test of faith will be whether society adapts to include them.