no religion

Talking about religion can be a bit like talking about the traffic. Everywhere you go, people lament about how hard it is - and yet, in reality, it is all relative. While Bangaloreans and Aucklanders may both complain, driving in Bangalore is definitely more difficult than driving in Auckland.

So it is with the religious landscape. When I go to Australia, I hear how hard it is to be a believer in that setting. I believe them. When I go to the USA and to the UK, the same thing happens. I believe them too. I felt this same difficulty when living and working in New Zealand. Every now and then, there is even a hint of a competition about who has it worse...

For years the 'no religion' statistics in census results has been of interest - partly because they were a major focus in my doctoral research. This statistic captures the presence of atheists, agnostics, rationalists, humanists - and the full range of religious cynics and skeptics present in a society. It is (just) one indicator of how difficult it is for (Christian) belief in a country.

Incidently, I've always said to people that 'it is harder in NZ than it is in the US, the UK, or Australia. It is much more like continental Europe'. Recent census figures on 'no religion' suggest some support for this view (although I realise that each country asks questions a little differently from the other).

In New Zealand in 2013 'no religion' was 41.9%, up from 29.6% in 2001.
In England & Wales in 2011 it was 25%, up from 14.8% in 2001.
In the USA in 2014 it was 22.8%, up from 16.1% in 2007.
In Australia in 2011 it was 22.3%, up from 16.6% in 1996.
[NB: The 'religion' question on the census is voluntary in Australia - but even if you add ALL the 'not stated/inadequately described' results, which is probably inappropriate, the total figure reaches 31.7%]
In France in 2010 it was 42%, up from 35% in 2007.

Intriguingly, India produced its 2011 census figures last week. Look at this little headline on their 'no religion' statistics. Read carefully. Note the location of the decimal point. It is not a misprint.

.24%      or, 2.87 million out of a total of 1.21 billion people!
[NB: the '1L in K'taka' means that there are 1 lakh - or 100,000 - people with 'no religion' in the state of Karnataka where we live. It has a population of 61 million, so that is only .16% of the total].

It is staggering, isn't it?!  Let's play with the numbers for a moment.
(a) While India is just less than 300 times the size of New Zealand, it's total number of 'no religion' people is just less than 2 times what it is in New Zealand.
(b) If New Zealand had the same proportion of 'no religion' people as Karnataka, then all the 'no religion' people in the entire country of NZ could be housed in Kawerau.

In reality, I am not that surprised. If I could take photos of the shock on Indian faces when I give NZ's 'no religion' stats, you would not be that surprised either. They just don't get it. How can religious belief have such a low profile in a country? How can such belief not be an integral part of a person's identity? They are stunned by it. They really are.

But just because religious belief is more common does not mean that it is easier for people with such beliefs. Christians make up 2.3% of India and it is not at all easy for many of them. But it doesn't stop people turning to Christ in significant numbers. Is it like a boat being blown along by the winds of belief? Maybe it is easier to turn around a boat whose sails are already filled with some belief than it is to turn around a boat that is becalmed by no belief at all?

Two stories. One admiration. One observation.

In 1989, the MV Doulos visited New Zealand. They did what they do all around the world. Visiting ports down the east coasts of both islands, they opened their ship to the public and split into teams for evangelistic forays into local communities. Barby and I were living in Southland at the time and when the ship reached Dunedin for its final stop, I was asked to organise the team's week-long visit to Southland. Very little was said, or done, during that week. The team was too shattered by their Kiwi experience. Exhausted. 'Never have we encountered a people so resistant to the gospel'.

In 2008, the US and NZ general elections coincided. On one evening - I kid you not - we watched a political debate between Barack Obama and John McCain and then, immediately afterwards, on another channel, John Key and Helen Clark were also going head-to-head in a debate. In both debates the focus shifted to Christian faith. With Obama and McCain, they tried to outdo each other with their claims to being authentic Christians because they knew this would win votes. With Key and Clark, they tried to outdo each other with their claims to being authentic agnostics because they knew this would win votes.

To all my friends at the interface of mission and culture in New Zealand, in particular, I admire you. I really do. I salute you. Be truth-full. Be grace-full. Be intriguing. Hold your nerve and, for God's sake, be patient.  Push the urge to be relevant to the periphery. Discern the deep, hidden tap roots of your culture and determine to live an attractive, appealing life of resistance at those very points - and then be prepared to suffer the consequences for Jesus' sake.

It is interesting to observe that the politicians, lawyers, economists, celebrities, and diplomats leading the charge to resolve the world's problems seem to be represented disproportionately by people from the ranks of 'no religion', with little affinity or empathy for religious belief. That's a worry. The world's problems will only be resolved by taking religious belief more seriously, not less seriously. They may think they are trendy, but I suspect that atheists and agnostics have far less to contribute than they think. Across the global terrain their beliefs, for that is what they still are, will be seen to be an irrelevance.
In 1900 well over 99% of the world's population was religiously affiliated. By 2015 the figure had fallen below 89%, but this 115-year trend hides the fact that the high point for the nonreligious was around 1970, when almost 20% of the world's population was either agnostic or atheist ... (but) the future of the world is likely to be a religious one (emphasis mine).    [Todd Johnson & Cindy Wu, Our Global Families (IVP, 2015) 22]
nice chatting



Heather said…
Thanks for this, Paul. I was shocked by your story re. the Doulos, for all that I feel I am in a hard mission field. And your plea for discerning the roots of the prevailing worldview is so needed.

Something that is probably common to all Western mission fields that I find hard about mission in NZ is the extent to which the world is like the church and the church is like the world.

On the one hand, due to our Christian heritage, many of the dominant Pakeha culture's aspirational values (if not always the lived values) show strong Christian influence. The world's idea of a 'good' person often gels reasonably well with the church's. Most Kiwis, for example, espouse the idea that one should love one's neighbour as oneself, and even often think they do so, although I frequently disagree!

One the other hand, many church people get their values primarily from the surrounding culture. For example, amongst Kiwi Christian I often come across the idea that self-actualisation is an important goal, or that personal happiness and peace are the expected outcomes of a Christian life.

So, from both directions, Christian distinctiveness is absent. Why, then, would a secular Pakeha Christian be interested in converting?

I don't want to argue that mission elsewhere is easier. The overseas missionaries in my family have laboured for years and seen few, if any conversions. But I think that this cultural merging between the world and the church is a challenge likely to be much bigger here in the West than elsewhere.
Paul Windsor said…
These are wise words and probing observations, Heather.

In a nutshell? We've had a generation in NZ where salt has overshadowed light as the key metaphor in mission. We think it is more about being incarnational than it is attractional. People have said it in as many words - and they are wrong. They are not reading the NT fully enough. Shock will once again enter the faces of people where I live now! It is this exclusive thinking - being disjunctive (either:or) that so often catches us out. The full story is that we need to be deeply attractional (distinctive with distinction, as I like to say!) as we go about being fully incarnational.

The labouring that has gone on in both our heritages needs to be remembered - because another key issue is our lack of patience and the need to be more willing to let God turn the seasons when He wishes to do so ... and so we get our heads down and be faithful in our callings, big or small, doing the right thing in the right way, come what may.

But still ... a key motivator for this post was to express my admiration and respect for those who serve Jesus with a mission heart in the NZ context. As I wrote, I was thinking a lot about two Baptist pastors who have helped me so much and who have spent pretty much a lifetime in such service. Very, very unusual today for pastors to do this. Rodney Duncan. Brian Kenning. This one is for you!
Mike Crudge said…
Hi Paul
This stuff really interests me - thanks for putting these ideas together.

Just last week I updated a graph I use to show NZ religion census results compared to "church attendance" figures (see link below). I like to compare the "Christian affiliation" line with the "church attendance" line - in time I expect these two lines to be almost the same rather than the massive gap that is shown in the past. I think the big decline in "Christian affiliation" and big increase in "No religion" is in some ways a re-calabration as people align their identity and understanding with their own reality rather than a cultural or social identity...
Paul Windsor said…
That graph is stunning, Mike. So dramatic - particularly because the horizontal axis covers so much time.

When I developed a course on the Gospel in a Post-Christian Society, 20 years ago in my Laidlaw/BCNZ days, I used to commence with a Lloyd Geering graph from The Listener, simply titled Exodus. It also had this steep gradient. The visual impact had an impact.

I wonder if there is any other country with 'Christian affiliation' and 'No religion' lines that are this dramatic?

Interesting comments from Stu. Just last week I was working with some Indian campus workers and I used the tree, with fruit and root, to open a discussion about beliefs and behaviour. Worldviews. 'Let's see if we can trace fruits (visible/spoken) to roots (invisible/assumed) in Indian society ... because the more you live in the root area, the more striking the gospel becomes - and the more radical you will be'. We quickly came up with all the usual fruits and then in the roots we located things like caste-ism and fatalism - and then came the clincher. 'But sir (!), below those roots there is just the one same root - the Hindu religious system'.

Hope you are well, my friend - and able to live that Easter weekend of yours in light of Christ's Easter weekend.


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