Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind

Ownership Of The Christian Message: A response (part 1)


Over on Amusing Nonsense, siriusbizinus posted an article on the Ownership Of The Christian Message which posed the question of how are Christians collectively responsible for the extreme views expressed by some who claim to be Christians. To some extent the question is a  meaningful or as meaningless as posing the question of how responsible are RNZSPCA and Forest and Bird for the actions of militant anti vivisectionists  After all, they are all concerned to some extent about the welfare of animals.

While some may scoff at a comparison between holding a religious or spiritual belief with a concern for animal welfare, in a New Zealand context this, I believe, is valid. The first question that needs to be asked is what do we mean by “Christian”. Immediately I run into problems. Most of the readers of this blog are from North America (approximately 70%), while only only a small number are from Aotearoa New Zealand (15%). I follow a number of Websites on WordPress and elsewhere that discuss religion and spirituality. Of these the largest grouping would be those whose writers express atheist or anti-religious sentiment. Of these, most are former Christians. It is very clear to me that what is understood by religion, and Christianity in particular, varies considerably depending on the society one lives in.

There are similarities between America and NZ: Both are secular states with no official religion. Both value democracy and freedom of expression. English is the predominant language in both countries and most of the inhabitants have European ancestry. Both are nominally multicultural societies.

There are also significant differences also. The role the state plays in the lives of its citizens are very different, as are society’s concepts of nationhood and patriotism. In America, politicians appear to need to openly express their faith in order to gain office, whereas in NZ such a stand invites voter turn off. In relation this discussion, there are two important influences that need to be considered: That of the Church, and that of the indigenous culture.

At first glance, NZ is a Christian society. The 2013 census reports that slightly less than 5 out of 10 NZers acknowledge a Christian affiliation, while 4 out of 10 acknowledge no affiliation. However, this is somewhat misleading. Before 1986, NZers were required to write their religion in response to the question, “What is your religion?” which implied they were expected to have one. In 1986, the question was the same, but eight options were given including the option of “No religion”. The result was an increase of those who claimed no religion from 166 thousand in 1981 to 534 thousand in 1986. A three fold jump in five years! The number of those with no religion have been climbing ever since.

The census only asks religious affiliation, regardless of how tenuous that affiliation might be. It doesn’t ask the participants what they believe. For this, I have in large part relied on Spirituality and Religion in the Lives of New Zealanders released by The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society (hereafter refereed to as the Journal). This paints a very different picture.

The Church has had little impact on the lives of Kiwis. In the early 1900s less than 1 in 5 attended church. Today that figure is around 1 in 10. As with census figures, church attendance doesn’t give an accurate picture of what we believe. The Journal surveys the religious beliefs of NZ every seven years, the most recent being in 2008. The International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) questionnaire was used to capture the religious landscape.

Less than 1 in 12 Kiwis believe that the Bible is the Word of God, yet we have quite a high level of religious belief. For example, 6 out of 10  believe in the probability of life after death, 3 out of 10 in the probability of reincarnation, and 4 out of 10 in the possibility of some faith healers possessing supernatural abilities, that star signs can affect one’s future, and that some fortune tellers can predict the future. 1 in 8 Kiwis believe in the possibility of Nirvana, which is more than those who believe the Bible is the Word of God. Almost 1 in 3 believe in supernatural power of ancestors.

Aotearoa New Zealand is becoming a less Christian nation but has a growing sense of spirituality. Of those who follow a religion (Christian or otherwise), a little over half believe they are a spiritual person interested in the sacred or supernatural. What is significant, is that 3 out of 10 NZers don’t follow a religion yet claim to be a spiritual person interested in the sacred or supernatural.

When the question of being a spiritual person was asked in England, two thirds of respondents claimed to be spiritual. However this was in face to face questioning, where the interviewer was able to explain what was meant by spiritual. in response to the same questionnaire as put to NZers, the result was similar to the NZ response. It’s therefore safe to assume that a similar level of spirituality exists in New Zealand: 2 out of 3 NZers have some level of spirituality.

What I find significant is the few Kiwis have a negative attitude to religion or non-belief. 8 out of 10 believe there is some truth in many religions, while only than 1 in 14 believe there is truth in only one religion. Only 1 in 10 have a negative attitude towards Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism. 1 in five have a negative attitude towards Islam, and only 1 in 10 have a negative attitude towards atheism or non-belief.

I had intended this post to be a response to siriusbizinus in its entirety, but all I’ve managed to do is give a background from which I can formulate a response from a NZ context. I will conclude my response in a following post where I will cover what the Christian message is from a New Zealand perspective, and what significance “ownership” has.

Author: Barry

A post war baby boomer from Aotearoa New Zealand who has lived with migraines for as long as I can remember and discovered I am autistic at the age of sixty. I blog because in real life I'm somewhat backwards about coming forward with my opinions.

21 thoughts on “Ownership Of The Christian Message: A response (part 1)

  1. These numbers right here illustrate a difference of night and day with respect to the U.S. and New Zealand. Only 1 out of 10 people oppose atheism? An appropriate response to my post in New Zealand might be, “What’s the big deal?”

    I want to be bold and say that while views on religion might not be ideal in New Zealand, I’d be hard pressed to imagine a better situation. I’m saying this because here in the U.S., we still couldn’t elect an atheist to any office higher than dogcatcher; I think the last numbers indicated opposition to atheist public officials is still higher than 50%.

    I really am looking forward to the second part of this!

    • From a NZ point of view, “What’s the big deal” is a typical response to discussions on religion. Religion or sprituality is a personal matter, There is a mentality of “what you believe is none of my business, and what I believe is none of your damned business”.

      A far as politics goes, we’ve had atheist/agnostic Prime Ministers since 1999. It’s assumed the Parliament has a similar religious make up to the population in general, although it’s difficult to be sure as most politicians prefer to keep it a private matter.

    • Sirius, I’ve been thinking about your use of the word “oppose” in your comment. Oppose implies a sense of resisting or fighting against something, and has a much stronger meaning than having a negative attitude towards something. For example someone might believe that prostitution should be a criminal offence, while someone else might not approve of it or recommend it as a lifestyle, but considers what two consenting adults do in private is no one else’s business. The former opposes prostitution, while the latter has a negative attitude towards it.

      In respect of atheism, while some no doubt believe that it should be actively discouraged or frowned upon and wouldn’t associate with atheists, others might simply believe that atheism lacks anything worthwhile. Both extremes are included in a “negative attitude”.

  2. I look forward to the second part as well, and see in your figures a rejection of organised religion, with Anglican priests leading. And here in the UK, we have a similar rejection, though I have not bothered to check the figures, and enough rebels to get “Jedi” a significant answer to the census religion question.

  3. I look forward to the next installment too.
    The numbers are interesting. I would love to know what those non religious but spiritual mean by spiritual. Such things interest me

  4. Looking forward to the next installment.

  5. It sounds like NZ and the UK are similar in this respect, and that the US is quite different. I keep bumping into US Christians on the internet with extreme views. Some of these people sound like supporters of Islamic State in their extremist views.

    • The US seems to be heading down a different track from the rest of the developed world. Moderation does not seem to be part of their religiosity.

      • Even in the US, the trend seems to be that fewer people are identifying themselves as Christian, and the number of atheists and agnostics is growing. The driving factor seems to be that Christians are disproportionately older, and that as they die, the percentage swings towards the non religious.

        • One needs to be careful in how data is interpreted. If NZ trends are to be believed, people are moving away from organised religion in droves, but spirituality/mysticism/appreciation of the sacred/divine is actually increasing. To some measure, I think this is due to the subtle influence of Maori and Pacifika spirituality on the dominant Pakeha population.

          • In the UK too, I think there is an uptake of broadly spiritual thinking with ideas cherry-picked from Buddhism, Paganism and the like. Speaking as an atheist, I see this as a helpful move. People may be just as superstitious and needy of an afterlife as ever, but at least they are showing more of a free-thinking, questioning approach 🙂

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