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Census reveals religion in Aotearoa changing, ebbing

John Roberts
Mission and Ecumenical secretary

Spare a thought for the census enumerators who in 2006 traipsed our streets and climbed the stairs of apartment blocks delivering forms to be completed on census night, and later returned to collect them.

We, the subjects of the census, found it a chore to take the time to read, think about, and answer all those questions. Then, it was a tedious task for those who put all the responses onto computer data bases. But many months later, when the data has all been processed and released, we can learn a lot about the makeup of our nation.

Late last year the results on religious affiliation were released. They provide a snapshot of the state of religion in Aotearoa New Zealand today.

New Zealanders said they identified with some 113 different religious faiths. The largest group was not a religion at all. 1.3 million people, or 32% of the total population, said they had no religion. However when the figures for those belonging to the various Christian groups are combined they outnumber those of no religion by 765,648.

After people of no religion come the Anglicans at 554,925 or 11% of the population. The smallest was Tenrikyo, a new Japanese religion with just 11 adherents.

While Christians may still outnumber those of no religion, this is cold comfort as the number of Christians has decreased in each census year from 1991 to 2006. The 2006 figure is 2,062,752, or 51% of the population, down from 70% in the 1991 census. Those belonging to non-Christian religions remain comparatively small in actual numbers but have shown dramatic percentage increases.

The two largest non-Christians religions in New Zealand are Hindu and Buddhist. Buddhists were in the ascendant in 1996 and 2001, while Hindus were ascendant in 1991 and 2006.

Hindus, numbering 63,981 in 2006, have increased 255% since 1991. Buddhists, numbering 52,392 in 2006, have increased 310% since 1991. Even the small Jewish community of 6,858 in 2006 has increased by 119% since 1991. But the most dramatic increase is of Muslims, to 35,976 in 2006, a 490% increase since 1991.

Much of the growth in these religions can be accounted for by immigration. On the other hand, Buddhism, more than the others, will have attracted a number of those who would otherwise have been in the no religion category, as it has an appeal for those Pakeha who have become disenchanted with institutional religion, particularly Christianity, and are looking for a religion that is non-theistic and meditative in nature.

Christian churches on slippery slope

With one exception, the census figures for New Zealand’s Christian population give no cause for rejoicing.

Anglicans have been in steady decline from 732,048 in 1991 to 554,925 in 2006, a 24% decrease. Presbyterians have likewise been in steady decline from 555,389 in 1991 to 385,350 in 2006, a 30% decrease.

Roman Catholics who numbered 498,612 in 1991 declined in number in 1996 but picked up in 2001, and surpassed the 1991 figure in 2006 to reach 508,812, a 2% increase.

Methodists numbered 139,494 in 1991 with decreases in 1996 and 2001 and a small increase of 1,368 to 122,076 in 2006, but still a 12% decrease since 1991.

The Baptists did not buck the trend either. They numbered 70,155 in 1991, declined in 1996 and 2001, increasing slightly to 56,919 in 2006, but a overall a 19% decrease since 1991.

The notable exception is the Pentecostals who were the only ones to show a consistent increase from 49,596 in 1991 to 79,617 in 2006, a remarkable 60% increase. The

Orthodox family of churches are numerically small numbering 22,017 in 2006 with the two biggest being the Greek and Russian churches, with smaller Assyrian, Coptic and Serbian Orthodox churches.

Maori religions have also been on the increase. Ratana with 47,595 in 1991 declined in 1996 but increased in 2001 and 2006 to 50,565, a 6% increase since 1991. Ringatu has consistently increased from 8,052 in 1991 to 16,419 in 2006, a 101% increase. Hauhau had 609 adherents in 2006 with another 1,880 identifying with unnamed Maori religions.

Lessons the numbers can teach us

There is much for us to think about in these trends. The most remarkable figure is the increase in people who state they have no religion. Presumably a good number of those who have opted out of identifying with any form of Christianity have ticked the ‘no religion’ box on the census form. It is clear that ours is becoming an increasingly secular society.

The so-called mainline churches, with the possible exception of the Catholics, have lost traction in our changing society. They are becoming increasingly conservative, failing to connect with many people, and seem to be going down a path to irrelevance.

It will take a mighty effort to turn this trend around. It will require considerable creativity and a good deal of theological re-imagining as to what it means to be Christian and church in the 21st century.

The second significant trend is in the growth of the non-Christian religions. Despite the growth in secularism we are now well on the way to becoming a multi-religious society.

How will Christians respond to this? Will it be with a closed or an open mind? What will the attitude of Methodists be?

On the world scene Methodist theologians have been to the fore in thinking theologically about the relationship of Christianity to other religions and in building relationships with people of these religions. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand we seem to have a way to go in this regard.

Overall the picture of religion in the census is one of diversity. In 2006 people identified with some 76 Christian faiths and 37 other religions. How to live with this diversity is a challenge we face.

It would be helpful if we saw this diversity as an opportunity rather than a threat. Not so much an opportunity to persaude people to our way of being Christian, as an opportunity to open ourselves to see how God is working through people of different faith and other religions, and so to find ways of working together for the good of the world, all its people, and the whole of creation.

Respect and tolerance of those who are religiously different from us will be increasingly required in the future. Can we as Christians and Methodists, while remaining firm to our own traditions and convictions, remain open to the insights of others whose faith and religion differs from ours? Can we explore a new sense of unity in the midst of diversity?

The census has provided us with a synopsis of religious Aotearoa New Zealand that presents us some big challenges as we think about how to carry out our mission and be ecumenical. The question is: Are we willing to grapple with them?