I watched with interest the release of data showing that, for the first time, the non-religious in this country are a majority.
Among other things, the data released from Statistics NZ showed:
- People affiliating with Christianity fell by 8%.
- People who reported themselves as having no religion increased by 26%, to make up more than 50% of the population.
- There was a slight increase in affiliation with the Pentecostal (“mega”) churches.
I subsequently spent a day chatting with various religious officials (and an atheist one), and it was fascinating. Here is the transcript of what they had to say (minus hellos and goodbyes, repetition, and a few odds and ends that were where the often delightful conversations went but which weren’t relevant).
Destiny Church had no comment over the phone, and didn’t respond to my subsequent email, the Latter Day Saints didn’t respond, I couldn’t get hold of any Baptist, Presbyterian or Methodist spokespeople, and the Anglicans were all unavailable (except progressive St Matthew’s in the City, which is Anglican by organisational structure, and whose spokesperson, along with the Catholic church’s, charmed the hell out of me).
My questions are in bold italics. Do read right to the end for Clay Nelson’s thought-provoking interview.
John Murphy, President of Association of Rationalists & Humanists
Speaking by phone from Auckland
What do you make of the statistics released showing a decline in religious affiliation as below 50% for the first time?
It’s certainly consistent with the trend; we’ve certainly, as a country, seen a huge decline… We recently ran a campaign about not being frivolous about not being religious. Last Census, as you know, people were marking themselves off as Jedi, and it wasn’t counted.
So non-religious people possibly perhaps weren’t well represented last time.
That’s right. And one of the things that is important to us is we stand for an open and secular society not based on a religious viewpoint. We represent NZ’s non-religious community. But it’s not an us-and-them situation. We stand up for people’s rights, such as the end of life choice, gay marriage, and ending religious instruction – and that’s religious indoctrination – in schools.
What changes do you think we might start to see from a less religious society?
We will start to normalise [non-religious thought] more: during the gay rights campaign, there was this huge amount of people from religious organisations writing in saying that people were immoral, and society’s morals were going to be eroded, and now we can all see that with gay marriage happening, the sky hasn’t fallen on our heads.
It’s going to be an attitude change: non-religious people might be seen as moral rather than immoral… We’ll start to gain a lot more clout with our campaign against religious instruction in schools, and the evangelical stuff. There’s no place for that in society. People are becoming more comfortable as a society to be able to say no to having a religion if we want to. Perhaps that hasn’t happened before. It’s a change in attitude to religious identity.
We’ve actually got a campaign building [towards] changing the words to the National Anthem, all that God Defend and so on. Of course, we’d keep the tune!
What do you think any opposition to changing the National Anthem might be like?
There is a very well-organised campaign – letter-writing and so on from some very religious groups – to try and undermine those moves by claiming the end is nigh. There was a bombardment by religious groups on gay marriage. Then when it happened there was no real fuss. The world hasn’t ended.
It seems religion has lost some of its appeal, perhaps. What do you think has happened?
I grew up in the 1960s and my family wasn’t religious. But just about everybody else was. You say appeal, but there’s no great appeal in religion – most people are just brought up with it. It was always enforced in schools. You’ll find that many people who reported themselves as religious – it’s just cultural, part of fitting in. Just a part of life. People rarely actually rely on [religion] a heck of a lot. Most [Christian] people are cultural Christians, and the community comes with it. Like, you know, Jewish people describing themselves as Jewish but not observing any religious [rituals].
It’s interesting. I know a number of Samoans, for example, who are essentially atheist, but wouldn’t dare NOT go to church, because of their huge family and cultural ties and responsibilities.
Yeah. In my private life I’ve met a lot of people from those communities. And a lot of people are bewildered by the idea of not believing in God. But… those people’s cultures were stripped off them by early missionaries and replaced with Christian morals and stories. [They were] basically told that who they were and how they were wasn’t right. Now, there needs to be a certain level of respect there for them as people. It may in the long run be useful for them to start to see that the religious view that was imposed on their culture was actually imposed on them.
What might influence more people to leave religion behind?
Attacking this whole business of charity-entitled churches who aren’t spending their money on poverty or their communities.
There was the outcry earlier this year about Sanitarium and the Seventh Day Adventists making huge profits and not paying tax on it. I was glad Campbell Live picked that one up and ran with it.
Yes, exactly right. Dr Max Wallace, president of the Australian Rationalists – he’s pushing hard on that. There are billions of dollars of assets owned by major religious organisations – they’re not spending it on charity or helping communities. They’re just using it to acquire more wealth.
Simone Olsen, spokeswoman for the Catholic Church
Speaking by phone from Wellington
So. What do you think might be the main factors in New Zealand that are prompting a decline in religious affiliation?
I wouldn’t want to speculate on the factors. But looking at that 1.6 million figure [of people who reported a religious affiliation] it’s clear that religion or spirituality still plays a really important part in society. It is actually something that is a big part of their lives. When you look at the long list of other religions there’s a really diverse range.
John Murphy from the Rationalists suggested people are more comfortable saying “no” to having to have any religion these days. Maybe with the huge increase in diversity of religion we saw in the Census, people are becoming inclined to examine their own beliefs and ideas. I mean, what do you think?
Yes, perhaps that hasn’t happened before. There’s a change in attitude, almost, to religious identity. I think it would be fair to say that individuals are thinking more about their own faith rather than their family heritage, you know, handed down from generation to generation. The very established, long-standing religions might be experiencing that [decline].
Have you noticed fewer young people coming to church?
Oh, definitely. And possibly [they're] just feeling that if they’re not practicing that religion it’s not part of their life, so why would they tick it on the Census?
You think the position of religion in individual life has changed?
Well, religions played an important part in establishing the modern country of New Zealand. Missionaries, for example, Christians in New Zealand were an important part of history. The list of religions [has gotten bigger] as society has got a lot more multi-cultural and other religions have established themselves in NZ.
I’ve noticed a lot of people who have grown up Catholic but since become non-religious don’t describe themselves as atheist. They say “ex-Catholic.”
I do think that a lot of people still consider themselves to be Catholic even though they don’t believe in God, but they still maintain a link – particularly because they’ve often gone through the Catholic school system, and have retained some of the values and identity. That is important to them even if they’re not in the pews on a Sunday.
They seem to often say they have a fondness for the rituals of Catholicism!
That might be true! [Laughs] Anecdotally, people certainly still identify as Catholic even if they’re not regulars at mass. There’s some sort of hold, anyway!
A non-religious majority might bring some interesting changes. I was talking to John Murphy from the Humanists & Rationalists society before, and he brought up some interesting ideas. Like, what do you think the Catholic church position would be about the National Anthem lyrics being changed to remove reference to gods?As a non-religious person myself, I do think that retaining reference to one particular god in our National Anthem potentially leaves everybody else with a feeling of being excluded.
That’s something we haven’t talked about in the Catholic church, but it’s definitely something that should be debated. Like prayer in parliament, exclusion and inclusion are an important part of the discussion. I’d say [that will be] something that the bishops will comment on at some stage. But it’s also for ordinary Kiwis to comment on – as official leaders of the Catholic denomination it’s quite good when [the bishops] step back and allow ordinary Catholics to have their say instead. It’s just a bit… they often get criticised for getting involved in that debate with matters of state, or seen as, you know, interfering.
Pastor Leanne Mortlock, Executive Director, City Impact Church
Speaking by phone from Auckland
What sort of conversations have you guys had about the Census 2013 results regarding a dramatic drop in religious affiliation?
We haven’t at all. Haven’t looked at it, haven’t analysed it, we’re just heads down, doing what we do.
But for the first time in New Zealand’s modern history, there is a non-religious majority.
I couldn’t comment, really. Our statistics started 30 years ago. It’s different with Pentecostal Charismatic churches. I don’t think there’s even an opportunity to tick that in the census.
There is. And there’s been a slight increase.
Our attendance is always trending upwards and always has been.
So what do you think has prompted that sort of difference between you guys and more traditional mainstream churches?
I have never actually been to any mainstream churches, so I can’t comment, but my impression is that we have quite a modern presentation. Our church is the NZGT [New Zealand's Got Talent] unit, we have excellent facilities for a great stage presence, and we’re very involved in our community. It’s all about offering a lot of different things to society. The message of Jesus Christ is always relevant. We have lots of programmes for children, and young people. We have a full band, very modern, with full lighting systems. A lot of people do want a sense that their life has meaning and purpose, and there’s a positive way to live, so even if you don’t believe in Jesus Christ, once the God factor is introduced, there’s no turning back after that.
But lots of people clearly have turned their backs after previously being religiously affiliated, though.
Church is about more than God. It’s about community activities. We have lots of activities with young people, we do a lot of work with families, so I think it’s that whole package.
One of the other religious officials I spoke with today mentioned that the population of the Pentecostal Charismatic churches has quite a rapid turnaround. People come for a year or two, then leave.
Sure. People are transient. People might come for a few years then go somewhere else – but that’s indicative of society rather than our church. People are a lot more transient these days. People don’t make a lifetime commitment to one church.
What’s your appeal? Why do you think you guys have experienced this increase in attendance?
NZGT [New Zealand's Got Talent] use our facilities to film the show. And that’s brought a lot of people through our doors. All that amazing stage, all those flashing lights, all the special effects – that’s us.
Pastor Damien Rice
President, South New Zealand Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
What would you like to say in response to [the Census 2013 results regarding the drop in religious affiliation]?
Christianity has and continues to flourish in places where it is a minority religion. The church may be at its most dynamic and authentic when it cannot take its position in society for granted. The decline in religious adherence represents both a challenge and an opportunity for churches to articulate the Christian faith in ways that engage the contemporary mind and culture.
What do the Seventh Day Adventist churches attribute to their relatively stable attendance?
Three factors have contributed to our relative stability in attendance. Immigration, active evangelisation, and a strong focus on ministry to the whole family. However, our regular attendance still falls short of our actual baptised membership – something we are working to address.
What factors do you think might have most influenced the people who have left a religion behind them?
With growing individualism many people do not see the relevance of or need for corporate institutions of any kind. A general increase in secularism and alternate spiritualities has added to the drift away from organised religion. However, churches have failed to arrest this decline by providing relevant teaching and a credible voice on social, moral and spiritual matters. A failure to capture the spiritual imagination of a new generation of adherents has sealed the fate of many aging congregations.
What do you think the impact of a continued decline will be on churches and society in general?
Inevitably some congregations and perhaps denominations will close their doors or be forced to amalgamate. However, many will take such trends as a catalyst for renewal and find new expressions for their faith. Churches who see these changes as a threat will either withdraw and become defensive or become resistant and hostile to a culture which is increasingly foreign to them. Other churches will compromise to meet the spirit of the age, while others will adapt, remaining faithful to their past. Western society has drawn a great deal of strength, unity and cohesion from its heritage of shared Christian values. A far more diverse, competing and perhaps even mutually contradictory set of societal values will emerge. Christian faith, values and morality will endure, but as only voice amongst many. I believe, however that it will be a clearer, purer voice that will have earned the credibility to be heard.
Clay Nelson, Priest Associate, St Matthew’s in the City
Speaking by phone from Auckland
What do you make of the Census 2013 results?
It’s certainly very interesting. Certainly here in NZ [religion has] been in decline since the mid 60s. I think churches have to look honestly at themselves and ask the question, “Why is this happening?”
And why IS this happening?
The answer is, in part, that maybe we’re in our second or third [generation] families where there’s not a tradition of going to church. So a lot of young people have no idea what happens inside the walls of the church. That’s actually been going on quite a while. Churches have to ask whether or not they’re providing what people need spiritually anymore. If they can’t show their relevance to what’s going on in people’s lives, then… especially in competition with everything else that is going on in people’s lives… there’s a lot you can do on a Sunday morning now. [Laughs]
…Churches too often focus on what people want who already ARE coming [to church], without looking at what people outside the church need, so they keep trying to convince people, “Oh, this is wonderful, you should come,” but they’ve already said they’re not interested!
All of those things come into play. I don’t think it’s one particular thing. But churches’ positions on social issues – the gay and lesbian thing – that really turns young people off.
And is it mostly the young people who have stopped coming, do you think?
Almost certainly. But we’re not reaching out to everyone in the population, [including] Maori, and Samoan. All sorts. Pentecostal churches are reaching out to those who have been neglected. And they have seen a pretty steady increase.
There also seems to be more religions available, from what the Census showed. Do you think that diversity of religion these days sort of entices or prompts people to examine their own beliefs?
It’s true in [NZ] in the sense that years ago, you were either Catholic, Anglican, Methodist or Presbyterian, and now there are a lot of options. How much that’s impacting the rates of religious affiliation, well, I couldn’t say. I do know that how much of Catholic numbers [remain] is due to immigration. Filipinos and so on have turned up already very religious. In the US, the Catholic church numbers are really stable, but it’s entirely due to immigrants from Catholic countries. But I also think the catholic church benefits from having so many Catholic schools.
Is there some disillusionment with religion?
I think some of the mainstream churches, unfortunately… [sighs] I don’t think we’re doing our job all that well. We have a lack of resources. So much of our money is tied up in buildings that are under-utilised. We might be better-consolidated to use some of those resources to better reach out to communities. You know, at St Matthew’s, we’re experiencing very modest growth – very modest – and it’s probably because we’re very successful at being part of the public. We’re able to get our messages out there, and we’re connecting with people who have very strong [views on] issues on gay and lesbian things, poverty, and so on. We’re going against the trend very modestly.
A lot of our younger membership is virtual. A lot of people connect to us online, so we have some connection that way. If they miss us on Sundays they can keep following sermons online …
And a lot of people come once a month or twice a month at the most, though there are regulars. There are people who have a lot of other things going on in their lives, and they come when they can, and they’re part of who we are.
There are interesting comments on a blog, actually: Bosco Peters – you can see some things that he’s put up today. He’s an Anglican priest down in Christchurch.
What has St Matthew’s in the City experienced in terms of a decline?
I think New Zealand is increasingly secular, and people who are moderate progressives in their thinking, a lot of them could easily walk away from church, so as a result, the people who remain tend to be pretty conservative, and this is something we’ve seen with younger generations.
We provide an alternative message – but having said that, we don’t have any competition!
People who are still [going to church] like church the way it is, even though that’s something that no longer appeals to – obviously – over 50% of the population. And I think we have to take a long, hard look at that. Because once they’re gone, there won’t be anybody to replace them.
I know there are mega-churches around who pull in large numbers. But a lot of the stuff I’ve read on that, those people aren’t long-termers. The Pentecostal Charismatic churches have a bit of a revolving door, because people don’t stick around there for long.
I notice they’ve seen a slight increase in attendance!
But my feeling is that if [churches] provide real community, and if they provide quality worship, with good music, then they’ll – we’ll – survive. I think people still have spiritual needs.
I’m not religious, but if I had to choose a church, it’d be St Matthew’s! Everybody has enjoyed your billboards.
I think we’re the atheist-favoured church!
Atheist-favoured?! That’s great.
Well, I don’t label myself atheist. I’d label myself non-theist. It’s simply that I don’t believe in a personal god. I believe in a transcendal experience. When I read scripture in a different language – because God is a metaphor anyway – I can’t believe in a man in the sky in some combination with Santa Claus. I just can’t.
[Laughs] That kind of theology is unpopular with some of my colleagues, though.
I’m actually quite surprised by how many religious officials I’ve spoken to today who aren’t very religious.
I have always gone to church. Not always the same church – I’ve tried different things and keep getting pulled back to where I am – and the discipline of being pulled back every week to think of something that’s not about me, that’s always been important.
But the… frankly, the… how do I put this? The desire of churches to have control over society, and rules, and the interference in laws and the state, well, I’m a strong believer in separation of church and state, and the judgement and condemnation of other groups, well, it’s all a big turn-off.
I completely understand the experience of feeling disillusioned. A lot of people don’t want to have anything to do with [church].
One of the negative things that happens out of these kinds of statistics from the census is that people in the churches panic and start wanting to know how to get more people in the door, and that’s the wrong question. The question is, how do we live the gospel? People don’t want to feel they’re seen as fresh meat.
It’s not about the institution anymore, it’s about appealing to those people who are leaving in droves.
People understandably pick up on it when it’s clear that it’s not about caring for them and their needs, and it’s about the institution’s needs.
What do you think will happen from here?
It’ll be the source of a lot of conversation in churches. Maybe a few will wake up. That would be nice. [Laughs]