Godless in “God’s Own”?

After a very lengthy delay the results of the 2018 New Zealand Census have now been released. In commenting on the religious affiliation section of the census, the editorial in the Christchurch Press last weekend asked the question “Has Godzone turned Godless?” At first sight the answer seems to be a resounding “yes”. This is the first census in which the proportion of people who recorded “no religion” (48.6%) has exceeded the proportion who identified themselves as Christian (38.6%). In 2013 the respective percentages were 38.6% and 43.5%.

This crossover in the last five years is striking, but was entirely predictable in view of the trends of the last seventy years. Within our generation there has been a massive and persistent decline in religious affiliation. The contrast between the latest statistics and those of the 1951 census are remarkable. Then the “no religion” proportion of the population was 0.6%, while 87% identified as Christian.

The growth of secularism and the decline of the church is a phenomenon of our times throughout the western world and is as marked in Aotearoa New Zealand as anywhere. It is clear that the so-called mainline Protestant denominations in particular have haemorrhaged heavily. This is particularly so with the Anglican Church which was for many years the most populous denomination in Aotearoa New Zealand but has been surpassed in recent years by the Catholic Church.

The reasons for growing secularism are not hard to find. Vastly increased affluence, rising life expectancy and spectacular technological advances have all contributed to a this-worldly materialistic perspective. Who needs God when life is cosy and we are in control of our own destiny? The prospect of looming climatological disaster has not yet significantly dinted our complacency, and modern medical care enables us to push the awareness of mortality to the edges of consciousness.

The church is also hugely responsible for its own decline. A major factor has been the spread of liberal theology which results in the church having no distinctive message to proclaim and looking simply like humanism with a few ritualistic trappings. Who needs a church which does nothing more than encourage us to be kind and loving when most of us live by that ethic already? When New Zealand’s most widely known theologian is an atheist clearly something major is amiss.

Sometimes, too, local churches have been stuck in traditional ruts and slow to adjust their culture and music styles to contemporary society. Spiritual seekers are not attracted by having to step back decades in cultural time. Churches which have a creative and contemporary style plus a distinctive message have thrived and grown. Many of these are independent churches or recent denominations that have sprung up and are worshipping in non-traditional buildings.

For me, however, one of the most intriguing features of the religious affiliation category of the last census lies not in the growth of the “no religion” category or in the decline of church affiliation. I’m struck by the fact that, while the “no religion” category has continued to grow, only 7,000 people put themselves down as atheists. That is 0.15% of the New Zealand population. With the great decline in church adherence I would have expected to see the number of atheists soaring. But that is not the case.

Obviously, Richard Dawkins has a few hard-core disciples, but the vast majority of those who have abandoned the church have not necessarily abandoned belief in God or in something beyond this life. The census records religious affiliation, but it does not measure personal belief. And as the Press pointed out, recent surveys both here and in the US reveal a significant percentage of people who don’t identify themselves as Christian but believe in God or a higher power. The Press editorial comments that this “suggests a sense of yearning or spiritual wonder remains even when organised religions decline, and that a partially formed sense of something greater than us may even be central to the human condition.” That is quite a comment from the secular media.

Christians would say that “a partially formed sense of something greater than us” is indeed central to the human condition. And the message of biblical Christianity is that the partially sensed something or Someone has been revealed and made known to us in human history through the prophets of the Old Testament and pre-eminently in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He invites us to move beyond wondering and yearning with the words, “Come, follow me.”