Friday, December 13, 2013

Is NZ still ‘Godzone’?

One result of the recent NZ Census that was most eagerly awaited was on religious affiliation. Would New Zealand become majority non-religious? Or would believers of all sorts still make up the biggest grouping?

People who (like me) said they have “No religion” was up 26% from the previous census in 2006. Now, 1,635,348 New Zealanders said they have “No religion”, which is just under 39% of the total.

The number of people identifying as Christian of one sort or another declined about 8% since 2006, but with more than 1.8 million people, they make up about 44% of the population. Collectively, Christians make up the largest segment of NZ society, even though in real life many of the sub-groups can’t stand one another and share nothing more than the self-identification as “Christian”.

Christians of all sorts have a plurality in New Zealand, but the next largest group—and closing fast—are those with no religion. However, as I always caution when discussing this topic, “no religion” is NOT the same thing as atheist, agnostic, etc. In fact, many of these people may have religious beliefs (Christian, for example), but they don’t adhere to any organised religion. The census doesn’t ask people to self-identify as atheist, agnostic, etc., so we don’t know what the true extent of non-belief is in New Zealand.

Nevertheless, the appeal of organised religion—the traditional ones, anyway—is clearly fading. The biggest Christian denominations—Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian—all decreased, while the number of Pentacostals increased, as did the adherents of Hinduism and Islam, these two because of immigration. Interestingly, for the first time in New Zealand history, there are now more Catholics than Anglicans (Presbyterians were the third largest grouping among traditional churches, with Methodists a distant fourth; Lutherans, the church of my childhood and youth, make up just under one tenth of one percent).

What all of this tells us is that when it comes to religious belief, there’s no one dominant group in New Zealand. For now, Christians of all sorts make up the biggest single grouping, but those with no religion will likely pass them up within the decade.

This does not tell us about people’s religiosity, however. Instead, we have to look at their behaviour, like, for example, that Kiwis routinely reject expressly or implicitly religious political parties, and that regular attendance at church services is declining, leading denominations to sell off even historic church buildings that no longer have a viable congregation. Taking all of this evidence together with the census results, it’s clear that New Zealand is a very secular country, even if a majority of its people still self-identify with one religion or another. This will not last forever: NZ will eventually be majority non-religious—just, not yet.

The nickname “Godzone” is a corruption of the phrase, “God’s Own Country”, which was frequently used by Richard “King Dick” Seddon, NZ Prime Minister 1893-1906. It’s still used, but infrequently, and never with religious connotations.

Update 19 December 2013: Eric Crampton posted on Twitter that "There are 19,089 self-declared Jedi in New Zealand," according to an email to him from Statistics New Zealand. The option of choosing "Jedi" was promoted by diverse groups of people including not only atheists/agnostics, but also those who reject organised religion (whatever their personal beliefs), those who oppose even asking about religion and those who simply like to mess with the system. This grouping is far larger than many established religions, but Statistics NZ doesn't take the declaration seriously. Frankly, I don't think that's their call and they ought to be more transparent in their reporting of data rather than making it necessary for people to ask for it.

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