Is New Zealand a Christian nation?

This question comes up from time to time. Those arguing that it is admit  the proportion of New Zealanders who are Christian is declining but claim it is still a majority.

A recent survey commissioned by the Bible Society (Bible Engagement in New Zealand) really doesn’t support this claim. Unlike the national census (which provides a wide choice of religions) this survey asked only “would you describe yourself as a Christian?” This survey of 3400 New Zealanders found 46% consider themselves Christian (45% answered no and 9% preferred not to say).

Of course, when you get figures like these close to 50% one can argue about how to deal with the “don’t knows” and “won’t says.” After all, one could make the situation look better by saying that 50.5% of those answering the question are Christian. This is often done with the census results. For example it’s often claimed that the 2006 census showed  55.6% of New Zealanders are Christian. But, more correctly, it was 55.6% of those answering the religious affiliation question, but actually only 51.2% of the total responses.

Double dipping

Double dipping also influences the figures. Apparently some Christians are so enthusiastic that belong to several different churches. I can believe that as I have a relative who used to attend two different churches each Sunday because it gave him two different experiences.

In 2006 140,000 New Zealanders claimed to be adherents of more than one Christian religion. This caused an overestimation of the proportion of Christians. When corrected for double dipping the 2006 census showed that:

53.1% of those answering the religious affiliation question were Christian, or

49.5% of the total population described themselves as Christian.

Take home message

So, although the 2006 census data are sometimes manipulated to claim almost 56% of the population are Christian, in reality only 49.5% were prepared to describe themselves that way. The 2008 Bible Society survey (46% Christian) appears to confim this.

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18 responses to “Is New Zealand a Christian nation?

  1. The label of “Christian” is often twisted for various purposes. In the argument about whether NZ is a Christian Nation people like Tamaki will argue that the majority of NZers are Christian. But ask him whether he believes that Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc, are True Christians™ and you’ll find that he (and many other “Christians” for that matter) are actually arguing from a minority position.

    Also, according to the survey, only 39% of people who identified themselves as Christians (~20% of NZ) attend church once a month or more. I realise that Church attendance does not a Christian make but this disparity should give us a reason to wonder about how people are identifying with the label.

    And only 10% of the population of NZ read the Bible once a month or more. The “Christians” of NZ don’t seem to take God’s inspired writings very seriously. The funniest thing is that I’m an atheist and I actually fit in this 10% so it’s quite possible that you can further reduce this number (but probably not by much).

  2. Oh yes, and in your post you say that it was a survey of 120,000 people. The survey was emailed to 120,000 people but only 3,388 people responded. Which means they were sampling literate, technology-savvy, Internet-using New Zealanders who had signed up with SmileCity and cared enough to respond to a survey about Bibles.

    I don’t know much about statistics. Can anyone explain to me how they can say that the survey has a margin of error of +/-1.7% when they appear to be taking such a distorted and tiny sample?

    Does the +/-1.7% reflect the number of respondents alone or does it take into account the diversity of the people surveyed?

  3. Yeah – these kinds of surveys are useful, but only to a certain point. Damian, your question about the +/-1.7% is one I’m highly interested in as well – how the heck do they figure that? Too many (at least possibly) influencing factors – only email-users / only SmileCity people / possibility that only those interested in topic bothered to respond / etc.

  4. Yes, a bit sloppy of me to miss the actual responses (I’ll correct the post).I did think 120,000 was unusually large for a survey. Even so 3,388 is still quite large.

    The report does compare the social distribution of the sample with the whole population (census data for 2006) and this gives an idea of the sampling bias. The distributions are a lot closer than I expected. However, this data was used to weight the results “to fairly represent the general New Zealand population.” Don’t ask me about the procedure details, but this is obviously a process to get more meaningful results from a sampling procedure which is inevitably biased. A far more professional approach than the usual polls we hear of (eg. political).

    The report says: “The maximum margin of error for this survey is +/- 1.7%.” This doesn’t mean much to the average reader and in scientific literature the “error” would be more precisely presented – and in more detail. And a confidence level would be attached.

    However, here’s how I would interpret it – assuming a confidence level of 95% (or p of 0.05):
    The figure is attempting to show the likelihood that the results of the sample represent the “true” result – or the actual figure for the total population. So, if we take 100 independent samples (from the whole NZ population) of size 3,388 then we can expect that for 95 of these samples the “true” value (or the mean value for the whole population) will be within the range of the mean value for the sample +/- 1.7%. Viewed from another angle 5 of the samples would give predictions which were incorrect (the range didn’t include the mean for the whole population).

    Three qualifiers:
    - the confidence level used for some areas (e.g. physics are much higher, p = 0.001 or lower), p = 0.05 is commonly used in biological systems so may also be used in sociological work (I am assuming this but may be wrong).
    - 1.7% is the maximum error. It would be smaller for some figures in the report (usually the lower valued ones).
    - the size of the “error” depends on the size of the population. A large sample population would produce results which we could assume were closer to the true mean for the whole population.

    To me, the report appears quite professional. It acknowledges the inevitable sampling bias and uses a procedure to take this into account (one could argue that the social distribution in 2008 is different to that in 2006 – but they have obviously done their best). It gives an idea of the precision of the results and doesn’t imply any greater precision than is warranted (for example it quotes results only to the whole number). I think the research company have probably done the best job they could within the obvious financial constraints.

  5. A few loose comments…

    I recall one census basing the question of your “denomination” as to if you were baptised. Many people would have been baptised that never “practiced” in their life and wouldn’t consider themselves “Christian” in the least.

    I can’t recall which census this was, but it struck me at the time, as it was obvious that the results would be misread/misrepresented by people as indicating many more people considered themselves Christian than actually did.

    The point is that precisely what question is asked will matter greatly. Asking have you ever considered yourself Christian would include those that once did, but now don’t. Asking if you believe in Christian morals, doesn’t ask if you believe in a G-d. And so on.

    Regards post 2: I wonder how many non-Christians would have considered the survey “spam” and just junked it, and, conversely, if Christians had been given a heads’ up earlier and so responded? (I’m not insuinating anything here: internet polls are prone to these sorts of issues. Emailing out, as opposed to a WWW-based poll, would limit any “bombing”, though.)

    I agree with Damian in that I suspect the “real” figure is lower than a nudge under 50%.

    One signal that the estimates for “number of Christians” are too high, to me anyway, was the results of a survey I saw that reported respect for professions. From memory Ministers (the religious sort, not pollies!), ranked pretty low, down with accountants (sorry accountants…). The thing that struck me at the time was that their score was too low to be consistent with a figure of roughly 50% Christians, unless the majority of Christians didn’t trust their pastors. (Jokingly, I have to admit is a thought!!)

  6. Thanks Ken for the insight as to how statistics work. One day I must get up to speed with some of the finer details.

    I intuitively feel that perhaps 10-15% of New Zealanders are Christians in the sense that they literally believe in the resurrection of Jesus and modify their lives accordingly. And I would say that the remaining percent — whatever that is — give varying degrees of lip-service to the concept. As Dennett says; “belief in belief”. Some among that remaining percent would tick the “Christian” box because they feel it’s what they officially ought to do and others would tick it as if it were a cultural question (i.e. my family identify with such-and-such a church so I guess I am one of those too).

    I would like to see a study designed to try to differentiate between those who are cultural Christians (or any religion for that matter) and those who are True Believers. I get the feeling that we think there are more true believers because they’re more vocal.

  7. Oh, and I want to highlight my initial point about people like Tamaki’s double standard with the use of statistics to represent Christianity as a majority belief whilst rejecting many of those in this group as genuine Christians. I feel it’s a critical point in the discussion of New Zealand being a “Christian Nation”.

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  9. I think you will find that the number of ‘true’ Christians is closer to 3%.

    Would be difficult to test… but maybe have an islamist with a gun ask 1000 people at random to curse Christ or get shot. (Actually, this could be a common occurence in another 50 years!)

  10. I wish nz to be a full christian nation

  11. There is nothing sadder than coming to a country like NZ and seeing how people cling blindly to simple notions such as creationism. Secularism is growing rapidly and these ideas are dying out however.

  12. NZ is as Christian as Yemen is. Those who bought the Bible here had entertained a 1800 year long geocentric metaphysic dating from the time of Aristotle to the time of Copernicus. Only after Copernicus supported by Galileo had challenged Aristotle’s ideas, which were ideas that the Church held to also, did the known world travel to Aotearoa. When they arrived they found that Maori had been going back and forth from Raiatea to Aotearoa for 500 years before the Bible arrives here. The Bible tells us that God reveals Himself to us in creation, something that seemed to slip the minds of the known world including the Christian. The Bible also says, that no man is without excuse in regard to this revelation from God. When Samuel Marsden arrives he makes a startling statement regarding Maori. He describes Maori as being Semitic and coins the phrase, ‘lost tribe of Israel.’ In my reading of the Bible, I have never heard of a lost tribe, but what then is Marsden talking about. Also, what makes it possible for Maori to do something the known world including the Church thinks cannot be done? It’s like the song, ‘Ka Mate Ka Mate,’ which isn’t a haka, but a song of thanksgiving. Te Wharerangi, who this song is about, lay down his life for his enemy, a point that has not been overlooked by the watching world. Aotearoa’s most famous export is about salvation and not war. It only becomes a symbol of war because of sport. Too many Christian’s base their experience of a feeling or an experience. But who or what is being experienced? Faith has to be based on something more than a feeling, which is a consequence of human reason process. How does God make me so that I can know Him and anything else? Well, the answer is in the first verse of the Bible where it should be. if the Bible doesn’t begin with a philosophic explanation for the existence and function of human reason, then it doesn’t start as the absolute polemic.

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  15. You NewZeaLanders and all the people of the world don’t be foolish,be wise.You first read science(scientific facts)and ancient histories of all countries and feel everyone in the world as your family member.And then automatically you will be a Christian without anyone’s influence in the world.

  16. And yet, a great many people have studied science and history, and have positive feelings towards the rest of humanity, yet do not subscribe to Christianity.

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