Christianity and Atheism

A ‘Faith and reason’ column in the ODT – Census results show changing religious views – looks at changing attitudes to religion.

There was controversy in Britain over a census question on religion, with campaigns to “say no”. The end result (which may or may not have been signifiocantly influenced by the publicity) showed a marked drop in Christian numbers in the latest England and Wales census.

  • 2001 – 72% Christian, 15% no religion
  • 2011 – 59% Christian, 25% no religion (Muslims almost doubled to 5%)

It’s difficult to know how much this reflects a change in how many people identify with being Christian, and how many people are more willing to say they have no religious beliefs.

A similar shift is occurring in New Zealand, and faster than in Britain. Our census next March will probably reveal another rise for ”no religion”, and for the first time since the 1840s Christians could drop below 50%.

But it’s not a clear cut yes/no type question. In England the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science  commissioned a survey of people who had identified as Christian in the census to probe what they meant by that.

  • 31% of the Christian sample said they ticked the box because they tried seriously to follow the teachings of Christianity
  • 50% did not think of themselves as ”religious” at all
  • outside of a church service, 37% never prayed, 15% never read the Bible – and 49% hadn’t been to church in the preceding year

About half who said they were Christian were hardly or not religious. Not surprisingly there are degrees of being Christian.

And there are degrees of being Atheist. Research by the Christian think-tank Theos found:

  • 23% of atheists believe in the soul
  • 15% of atheists believe in life after death
  • 14% of atheists believe in reincarnation.

I guess you don’t have to believe in a god to have religious type beliefs. It’s well known that the closer one smells death, the more likely one is to look for a can of air freshener.

But do any of these statistics matter? While it’s of interest we don’t need to know proportions and degrees of religion or non religion. Government policies, funding are not based on religious beliefs, and we don’t pay religion taxes (some people voluntarily donate to churches).

Perhaps we get too concerned about trying to quantify beliefs that have many variables and virtually no certainty.

It’s common for us live together hardly knowing or caring what others think of and do with religion. It’s regarded as a personal choice that is in the main invisible in governance or business or social activities. That’s as it should be.

Most New Zealanders have a range of intermingling beliefs that co-exist without being an issue in normal life. People are free to go to church or do otherwise as they please, without any general social pressure.

Being Christian or Atheist or following any other religion is the free choice of all individuals in New Zealand, as it should be.

Religion is not a competition. We really have no need to try and keep a score. There are no losers, we all win by having an open society that is tolerant a wide range of personal beliefs.

We can coexist with our own choice of beliefs as well as respecting the right of others to think differently.

New Zealand is blessed with a tolerance and freedom of choice of beliefs and non beliefs that is one of the strengths of our society.

God or not.


  1. “Government policies, funding are not based on religious beliefs,…”

    Actually, they are.

    Religious bodies pay no rates, except for sewer and rubbish collection.

    They pay no tax on their profits, e.g. Sanitarium, owned by Seventh Day Adventist church.

    Churches take the public dollar to fund indoctrination of children in “religious schools”.

    They are, in effect, a parasite on the national purse.

    In addition, governments bow down to religious leaders far too often, afraid to make good law for the benefit of the population, eg abortion law reform, decriminalisation of drugs, stem cell research, just in case the Men in Dresses get uppity.

  2. I’d have some disagreements over some of the implications here, but I loved the basic point that we shouldn’t treat these matters as a score card. People should not be thought of as flags to be grabbed in a contest – and are too complex for that besides.

    That is definitely worth remembering.