No, we’re not the most secular nation in the world

‘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.