‘Jesus is the reason for the season’, says the bumper sticker; not according to three out of four Kiwis who didn’t go to any church on Christmas day, or any other day for that matter.

In December politicians try as hard as they want, there’s no out-polling the man with the white beard. No press release can compete with our collective obsession with an obese man in Labour red, handing out free gifts to everyone including the 800,000 people who didn’t vote in the last election. 

So this is a blog about religion not politics, and how according to the latest census we look like becoming the most secular country in the OECD.

I talked about this on Jim Mora’s final panel of the year on Radio New Zealand, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

‘We are no longer a christian country’, writes Chris Trotter, and it would appear that way. 

Seventeen years ago 63.8 per cent of New Zealanders belonged to a Christian faith. Now it’s only 44.5 per cent, writes Chris.

Anglican congregations are down the most, probably because their faithful tend to be older. Or maybe because some in the Anglican church have gone out of their way to avoid talking about God so as to appeal to non-believers. Which kind of defeats the purpose of going to church doesn’t it? Why not just host a meet-the-neighbours street party, ladies bring a plate?

A recent YouGov survey commissioned by the respected Westminster Faith Debates organisation found that about 33% of Anglicans in the UK don’t believe in god. They just like going to church for the rituals. 

So it’s no surprise that the fastest growing new church in 2013 was a church for atheists. Instead of praying they sing karaoke ('Like a Virgin'?), and the priests are two stand up comedians. It’s a god-free zone for people who like going to church. ‘It’s all about community engagement and inspiration’, say the comedians (which doesn’t sound abit funny).

Why don’t they just host a comedy show and tell jokes?

What this reveals is that the desire for a spiritual life survives even these secular times, just as if has through the ages. How else do you explain the relentless existence of churches for so many centuries? These useless buildings that neither shelter people or animals; neither do they  provide storage for food. Their spires reach up into the sky for no reason, and yet despite their uselessness, communities continue to build them. 

They are monuments to the age old question - ‘This can’t be all there is?’

That’s why I don’t think New Zealand is becoming the most secular nation in the world. The census results are a wake up call for the old established churches, true, and they need to listen. But the yearning is still there.

A few surprises in the census that give hope; Catholicism is now the most popular religion in New Zealand, partly due to new immigrants from poorer Catholic countries like the Philippines. And partly due, surely, to this extraordinary Pope. When Pope Francis exited the lush Vatican balcony on the day of his election, took off his crimson robe and caught a bus, we knew we were in for a very different kind of Pope. 

He’s moved the church away from its obsessive focus on abortion, gay marriage and contraception, to a focus on poverty and inequality. A stunning change to a church that only eleven months ago was mired in child abuse scandals.

His talk of mercy before moralising, compassion before condemnation has struck a chord with non-believers as much as it has church goers.

Also in the census, Hinduism and Islam are up, again mostly due to new immigrants. So too is Rastafarianism and animism - what ever that is. Something hippy like all animate objects have souls, including some surprisingly inanimate objects like stones. And Judith Collins. 

The good news - the worship of satan and witchcraft are down (bad news if you happen to be a witch and like wearing velvet).

But there’s a serious lesson in the census data for the big Christian churches. I read a story this year about a new night class on how to build your own coffin. The publicity said you could build it now and use it as storage or even a blanket basket in the meantime.

Except that I don’t go to mass on Sunday to trivialise the tragic, awesome reality that everyone I love, including myself, will die. If churches exist for any reason, it is to confront the enormity that we live life in the shadow of death, and yet we must be joyful anyway. I’m not going to church to get my Katy Perry fix or hear a rock band, or build my own coffin to use as a pot plant. When I was a kid, you walked to church through a graveyard. You couldn’t ignore death. When churches started to be built away from graveyards, we lost that essential connection. Churches thought they should entertain us instead. Even funerals ignored death and became ‘celebrations’. But you can’t have a resurrection without a death first. Believing in god is an act of blind, irrational faith in the face of the awful, daily presence of death. And a decision to be happy anyway.

Time for churches to reconnect with that.

 

Comments (16)

by Chris de Lisle on December 30, 2013
Chris de Lisle

The 2013 census was taken on the 5th of March 2013. Francis became pope on 13 March 2013. 

I don't see how building your own coffin trivialises death more than constantly claiming that it is not really final. And I don't see how these particular points show that NZ is not the most secular country in the world.

by Tom Semmens on December 30, 2013
Tom Semmens

"...Time for churches to reconnect with that..."

 

Reconnect to what? To "...an act of blind, irrational faith..?" Wow, I know! I'll reconnect to wild superstition to make myself feel better! Reconnect to blind, irrational rubbish is much more like it.

Honestly, if that is the best defense of religion you can offer I suggest you do all us athiest socialist a favour - switch from politics to religion as your topic of choice. You'll be doing us all a favour on the former, and deal a blow to the latter that will warm the stoniest of socialist hearts.

by Josie Pagani on December 30, 2013
Josie Pagani

Take your point Chris. The census was taken before Pope Francis elected. So the rise in Catholicism must be primarily due to new immigrants from catholic countries. (Although I'm sure this Pope will have a huge influence over the next few years...)

by Pete George on December 30, 2013
Pete George

Catholicism didn't rise. In a rising population:

2001 - 485,637
2006 - 508,437
2013 - 491,421

So Catholics dropped less fast than Anglicans. The big increase was No Religion:

2001 - 1,028,052
2006 - 1,297,104
2013 - 1,635,348
 


by Fentex on December 30, 2013
Fentex

Why don’t they just host a comedy show and tell jokes?

What this reveals is that the desire for a spiritual life survives even these secular times,

No it doesn't - references to community and society are not references to 'spirituality' - whatever that ill defined, devoid of content, word is conjured to mean. By 

Reading...

‘It’s all about community engagement and inspiration’

...and claiming it was speaking to 'spirituality' is a strong piece of projection.

by Fentex on December 30, 2013
Fentex

A few surprises in the census that give hope

There is no hope to be found in authoritarian religion.

He’s moved the church away from its obsessive focus on abortion, gay marriage and contraception, to a focus on poverty and inequality

I don't think the pleasant image of a Pope actually being humane for once can be said to have shifted momentum of the entrenched interests of a substantial beauracracy steering a collosal institution, that would take decades of determined decision making and rigorous management. And even if he does effectively bend himself to that end what would it mean?

That people choose where morals and justice lie.

So why worry about the passing of belief in superstitious nonsense when you already acknowledge it's the choices of people that matter, not dogmas of the past?

by Draco T Bastard on December 30, 2013
Draco T Bastard

Why don’t they just host a comedy show and tell jokes?

Because people aren't going there looking for business but looking for community. That large part of ourselves that we've lost in our drive for profit and riches and, no, that doesn't include religion. Religion is dropping because people are realising that it's a load of bollocks.

by stuart munro on December 31, 2013
stuart munro

I love your term beauracracy Fentex - is it a stable state or does it decline over time and become a rouéacracy? I can even think of some political groups that fit the descriptions...

by stuart munro on December 31, 2013
stuart munro

Religion is not well understood, and competes with the interests of global corporates. Charlatans like Richard Dawkins scrape a living by braying against it. For many people it has been a reliable path to a better personal culture, and major movements like civil rights would not have gone far without it.

The teaching of religion in UK schools that I saw recently was encouraging. Students learned about all the larger world religions and ceremonies - they engaged with human issues including death, and good or evil - and formed their own conclusions. I consider this healthy. Metaphysics is not going to go away.

The Pope seems promising. It's always nice to see those few public figures you wouldn't prefer had been throttled as infants.

by Andrew Geddis on January 01, 2014
Andrew Geddis

What this reveals is that the desire for a spiritual life survives even these secular times, just as if has through the ages.

Sorry, Josie, but that sounds a bit Oprah Winfrey to me.

by Rex Ahdar on January 01, 2014
Rex Ahdar

A rather confused piece perhaps reflecting the author's rather confused thinking on this subject. There are simply too many bald assertions, half-truths and plainly incorrect statements to know where to begin.

 'Believing in god is an act of blind, irrational faith'

Weighty tomes of Christian apologetics would refute that, but I'm meant to be on holiday and I can't be bothered fossicking for the most apt references.

Not a good start to the year for Ms Pagani

by mandy jane on January 01, 2014
mandy jane

Pretty close to the most secular.  As usual, the Scandinavians are more enlightened, along with what used to be pregnantly Catholic France, and of course China.

There is presumably a general correlation with a well-developed sense of the absurd - Chinese collectivisation aside. 

Take the USA.  Probably the most absurd society on the planet (apart from the Arabs) but they are protected from their absurdity by the absence of any faculty that enables them to recognise it.  Hence their "irreligion rate" (at 36%) is half that of most other so-called developed societies - compared with the most irreligious - Sweden @ 88%, and even NZ at 67%.

Complain to Gallup if you don't like the figures.

by mandy jane on January 01, 2014
mandy jane

And, of course, without wishing to be at all racist, religion is heavily embedded in NZ ethnic minority communities.  Apart, presumably, from the Chinese :)

by mandy jane on January 01, 2014
mandy jane

And, of course, without wishing to be at all racist, religion is heavily embedded in NZ ethnic minority communities.  Apart, presumably, from the Chinese :)

by Andrew Osborn on January 04, 2014
Andrew Osborn

There's a strong correlation between religious belief and poverty:

http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/0904OPEDBLOW_600sub.jpg

But religion is this instance is likely just a marker for a general lack of Science and Technology education.

NZ can chose be like Denmark, Sweden and Hong Kong and be atheist, educated and prosperous or religious, ignorant and poor like those on the top left. 

(Note that the USA is a significant outlier which will likely fall into line in the coming decades - either improving it's education and moving to the bottom right or sliding to the left of the chart into ignorance and superstition. Or a mix of both)

by Andin on January 04, 2014
Andin

"Sooo Stuart

"Charlatans like Richard Dawkins scrape a living by braying against it. "

Really he scrapes a living together by doing this?!

And "For many people it has been a reliable path to a better personal culture,"

And for many more it has been a path to misery, your playing a stupid numbers game.

" major movements like civil rights would not have gone far without it."

Sure but you are talking about the USA one of the most strangely backward (I  use the word in a specific sense) countries in the world.

It not so odd but people will hang to to weird stuff al the time sometimes this trait manifests physically, sometimes mentally.

"Weighty tomes of Christian apologetics"

Good doorstops when you've read them.

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