The results of the 2013 New Zealand Census has Christianity down to 47 per cent. Retired scientist, Ken Perrott’s, accompanying graph charts Christianity’s decline in every recent census and projects its decline to just above 20 per cent by 2030 and further, beyond that date. It is, of course, very unlikely to disappear altogether, but, equally, the chances of a major Christian revival in New Zealand are very remote.
Perrott argues that citizens can ‘double dip’ in the Census by being a member of more than one group. He argues there are more responses to the religion question then there are citizens. Given the majority of Census religion question options are Christian, those ticking more than one Christian denomination could be, mathematically, in excess of 100,000. If that is so, Christianity in New Zealand could now be as low as 41.9 per cent.
The New Zealand Catholic noted that there was ‘a stunning rise’ in the number of people declaring ‘no religion’, a total of 1.635 million citizens out of a total population of 4.24 million. They remarked ‘the number of census respondents who identified as ‘no religion’ or who didn’t answer the religious affiliation question was more than the total number who identified as Christian. This is believed to be the first time this has happened in New Zealand census history.’
In a major address entitled ‘The Gospel in the Decade Ahead’ published on the website of the New Zealand Christian Network in 2011, but since removed, the national director, Glyn Carpenter, said that the NZCN’s agenda was partly to ‘turn the side of secularism’ and ‘rebuild a marriage culture’.
Three years later their agenda is in tatters with the government legislating for gay marriage on 19 August 2013 and the Census result showing Christianity in a state of steep decline. It goes to the credibility of the NZCN that its website makes no mention of the Census result.
Secularism and secularisation
Like many hardline evangelists Glyn Carpenter confuses ‘secularisation’ with ‘secularism’.
Secularisation refers to the on-going centuries old societal process of the fading away of religion as a part of everyday life. Many Christian writers agree with Max Weber’s location of the origins of secularisation in the 16thC Reformation, the Protestant-Catholic split which ‘allowed the freedom of the believer to think for himself.’
Briefly, it is characterised by the decline of religion as a factor shaping human life; replacement of community by a society-wide, pluralistic, materialistic, rational culture; a reliance on scientific modes of thinking and planning; the gradual diminution of the supernatural as a credible idea.
A Seventh-Day Adventist author wrote in 1987, well before Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris came to prominence, that ‘the threat to religion in [the] modern technopolis does not come in the first place from aggressive atheism or the state or secularism, but from the urban-societal system itself with its underlying principles and attitudes and assumptions.’
Christian critics confuse secularisation with secularism when they claim that secularism is government characterised by ‘the lack of any apparent, overt, visible interest in God, the Bible, religion or spiritual values.’ This misses the key point, recognised by many other Christians, that secular government is characterised rather by separation of church and state, as inferred, they argue, in Jesus’ famous response to ‘render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’
Locating separation of church and state in these words is contestable. Nevertheless, there is the key recognition here that government and religion are better separated. If they are not separated it follows that government is theocratic to a degree. I have argued this is the case in Australia and New Zealand, as many symbolic and financial aspects of government preference religion very advantageously, despite its decline.
Evangelical Christians, like many Muslims and other hardline religious, just don’t understand, or refuse to understand, or reject the principle of, political secularism. They are wedded to a world view that simply cannot countenance any alternative to their own.
That, in fact, is a working definition of the term ‘ideology’: the inability, or total reluctance, to consider that other world views are credible alternatives to one’s own. The notion that government should attempt balanced compromises between all world views, i.e; political secularism, is not on their radar. They do not seem to take the point that their rigid views don’t sit well with democracy and are inherently totalitarian in nature.
Aspects of Christian decline
Sociologically, it seems the party is over for Christianity in New Zealand. While the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists’ radio campaign to encourage citizens to tick ‘no religion’ in the 2013 census may have been successful, it is more likely that long term trends of secularisation and various sexual abuse and financial scandals associated with churches have put them beyond the point of no return; future declines in adherents seems certain well into the future.
The impact of civil celebrants, I believe, has also been very important. Over decades they have been conducting marriage, funeral and naming ceremonies as alternatives to church services. The majority of these ceremonies are now civil. I suspect families experiencing a civil ceremony for the first time have found that a meaningful ceremony is possible without religion. At the next occasion they have chosen that option. Churches have been undermined at an important point of interface between themselves and the public.
This decline of religiosity is also global in most western nations. Even in the most religious, the United States, a British Christian theorist was advising his colleagues in 1987 that ‘one of the best means of witnessing to those who do not currently have spiritual interests is at points of personal crisis: divorce, the death of a spouse, the loss of a job, or a serious accident or illness.’ In other words, the mainstream message of Christianity even by then had little impact and the best way to convert citizens was, like compensation lawyers, to chase ambulances. Glyn Carpenter himself has conceded in the speech cited above that that is how he found God.
Despite their vast wealth, in the billions, forever accumulating thanks to their tax-exempt status; despite all the funding they have received for their religious schools; despite their wealthy, independent tax-exempt colleges; despite their schools of theology in universities; despite all the media time through various radio and television programs, either through purchased time or their own media; despite their various campaigns, their bookshops, their churches, their profile in the symbolic activities of government, the Anglican Queen’s tours – despite all this – Christianity in New Zealand is falling in a hole.
By focusing too much on (1) the accumulation of wealth (2) attempts to influence government (3) the pursuit of status and prestige and (4) risible attempts to rationalise all that, Christians have lost the plot. They are supposed to be about spiritual wealth and salvation, that is their raison d’etre, but it is one gig they don’t want to personalise.
They dish it out, but few practice it. They don’t sell off their assets to alleviate poverty in pursuit of the Christian ideal of giving in a truly serious way, preferring to boast, in a self-aggrandising way, about how the sky would fall in if it wasn’t for their charities. This is only partly true, and many of them live quite well, thank you, in comfortable positions running those charities.
It is this double standard that is augmenting their decline as the average citizen cannot see any difference between themselves and how self-confessed Christians live. To be sure, they are caught between a rock and a hard place: ‘How are we Christians going to live in a money-loving world and yet not be of this world?’
That is a question that perhaps understandably could not be properly framed two thousand years ago when Christianity commenced. On the one hand they were told it was easier for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle than for a rich person to get to heaven. On the other they were told their God provided the abundance of the world for them to enjoy. Maybe two thousand years ago in a tiny, simple, illiterate, peasant economy that subtle but all-important contradiction could go unnoticed.
Today, in the high-intensity, market-setting, capitalist economy, it is a near impossible question, a source of confusion, as only extreme ascetics deny all forms of materialism. Because it’s a project that will not be realised as there will never be enough Christian will to do so, Christianity will continue its downward slide. The new Pope, naming himself after the eccentric ascetic, St Francis, is trying to square this circle by cutting down on his Vatican luxuries: a futile gesture from the man who is the sole owner of the never-publicly-audited Vatican Bank.
Just why all taxpayers should continue to subsidise Christianity’s failing mission in New Zealand (and by extension, Australia) through tax exemptions and grants is a question that is now thrown into relief.
There are many secular demands on the budget, alternative ways to allocate taxpayers’ revenue that would help grow the economy. It is not in the public interest for New Zealand to subsidise Christianity’s (and other religions’) failing private projects. It is time for government to move with the soon-to-be majority of the public, and blow the whistle on this game.