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The terminal decline of Christianity in New Zealand

By Max Wallace - posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014

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.

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About the Author

Max Wallace is vice-president of the Rationalists Assn of NSW and a council member of the New Zealand Assn of Rationalists and Humanists.

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