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May 2009

Survey shows NZ not so secular after all

By Paul Titus

When the mainstream media reported on a major study of New Zealanders’ spiritual beliefs and practices earlier this year, they sensationalised its findings with headlines implying more Kiwis believe in fortune tellers than God.

Far from the secular society New Zealand is often made out to be, however, the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) survey shows a large majority of us hold a belief in God or a higher power and a similar number accepts there are basic truths in many religions. A significant majority of us believe in life after death, and half of us pray.

The first four rows of Table One show that 72 percent of New Zealanders hold some belief in ‘God’ at least some of the time. Another 15 percent are prepared to entertain a concept of God though doubt it is possible to prove, and only 13 percent deny the existence of God.

At the same time 57 percent believe in life after death, 51 percent believe in heaven, and 36 percent believe in hell. Other figures show 44 percent believe in religious miracles, and 39 percent believe fortune tellers can foresee the future.

Another indication that New Zealanders are less secular than generally portrayed is that less than half of us (45 percent) believe in the Darwinian theory that human beings evolved over time, while 20 percent believe God created us in our current form and 15 percent hold to some form of ‘intelligent design’, in which God played a role in shaping evolution.

Generally relaxed attitudes prevail toward the religious fundamentals. Regarding the Bible, for example, 42 percent believe it is an ancient book of fables and moral teachings, 33 percent say it is the inspired word of God but should not be taken literally, and just 8 percent hold it is the actual word of God and should be taken literally.

While most Kiwis hold some spiritual beliefs, fewer are actively involved in church. Just 20 percent regularly attend a church service more than once a month versus 40 percent who never attend church.

Nevertheless, 50 percent of Kiwis pray, and 45 percent say they have their own ways of connecting with God without church.

Kiwis have fairly liberal attitudes toward moral and sexual issues with 65 percent saying it is not wrong for men and women to have sex before marriage and just 40 percent saying sex between adults of the same sex is wrong. Since the ISSP survey was last conducted in 1998 both these figures have become more liberal by 10 percent. 90 percent of Kiwis still think it is wrong for married people to have sex outside their marriage.

One of the authors of the study, Massey University professor of marketing Dr Philip Gendall says ISSP surveys are conducted every year in 43 countries. The ISSP surveys address a different topic every year in a roughly seven-year cycle. Previously surveys on religion were carried out in NZ in 1991 and 1998.

Philip says surveys of religion continue to defy predictions of an end to religion in secular societies.

"New Zealand is a more religious country than some including Australia, the UK and Holland. We are less religious than others such as Italy, the US and the Philippines though in some of these cases the difference may be those countries’ large Catholic populations," Philip says.

"One of the interesting findings is the relatively large number of people who pray because this indicates they are acting to express their religious beliefs rather than just saying they believe in something.

"In a survey such as this, however, it is difficult to know what many of the answers really mean. What does it mean when people say they pray? It would be interesting to follow up the survey with interviews to probe beneath the surface of these answers."

Philip says the survey shows religious beliefs vary along age and gender lines. People over 55 tend to have more traditional religious beliefs than people under 35, while women tend to be more religious than men.

"Perhaps the age differences show people become more religious as they get older but younger people may also be less religious because their cohort is less religious."

Church attendance has been declining over time and Philip says this follows similar trends in the number of people who volunteer in their communities, join service clubs, or participate in team sports. It may be part of a rise in individualism and less respectful attitudes toward authority