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.