Fiddling with census figures for religion in New Zealand

Despite the bad publicity dogging the Catholic church internationally,  Karl du Fresne reports that many NZ Catholics have a positive picture of their church in New Zealand (see Catholicism: Holy smoke, NZ Listener). His subtitle conveys the message – despite all the scandals and controversies, Catholicism is emerging as the country’s most popular denomination.

Du Fresne wrote:

“Statistics suggest their optimism may be justified. Although the number of New Zealanders declaring no religious belief is steadily increasing, making this one of the most secular countries in the world, the 2006 census showed the Catholic population had risen by 4.7% over the previous five years. In the same period, the number of Anglicans and Presbyterians sharply declined. If the trends have continued, the just-taken census should show Catholicism overtaking the Church of England as the denomination with the greatest number of followers in New Zealand.”

A friend queried the claim of 4.7% increase in the Catholic population. After all, weren’t recent census results showing a decline in numbers of religious people?

So – I had a look at the data for the 1996, 2001 and 2006 Censuses (No data available for the 2013 Census yet). Du Fresne’s figure of 4.7% increase in the Catholic population between 2001 and 2006 is correct – but easily misinterpreted.  He is referring to absolute numbers, not the proportion or percentage of the total population, which also increased in that time – an important difference.  Here are some figures and graphics to clarify the census results.

1996 2001 2006
Total People 3,618,303 3,737,277 4,027,947
No Religion 867,264 1,028,049 1,297,104
Anglican 631,764 584,793 554,925
Catholic 473,112 485,637 508,437
Presbyterian 470,442 431,139 400,839
Methodist 121,650 120,546 121,806
Pentecostal 69,333 67,182 79,155
Hindu 25,551 39,798 64,392
Baptist 53,613 51,423 56,913
Buddhist 28,131 41,634 52,362
Ratana 36,450 48,975 50,565
Latter-day Saints 41,166 39,915 43,539
Islam/Muslim 13,545 23,631 36,072
Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist 1,584 11,016 13,836
Orthodox 6,933 9,576 13,194
Salvation Army 14,625 12,618 11,493
Sikh 2,817 5,199 9,507
Judaism/Jewish 4,809 6,636 6,858
Baha’i 3,111 2,988 2,772

Catholic-1Clearly, as du Fresne said, Catholics have slightly increased in numbers  while other major religions have declined. Possibly Catholics may overtake Anglicans in the 2013 census. But the 4.7% increase in absolute numbers can be misleading because the total population increased by 7.8% in that time.

Maybe, from the perspective of the specific religion, the increase or decline in absolute numbers is important. However, the “no religion” and smaller religions have performed better on this criteria than Catholics. In the table below I have ranked some of the religions in order for that criteria – the increase from 2001 – 2006 expressed as a percentage of the 2001 figure.

numbers 2006

%age increase 2001-2006
Sikh 9507 82.9
Hindu 64392 61.8
New Age 669 59.3
Islam/Muslim 36072 52.6
Orthodox 13194 37.8
Spiritualist 7743 32.2
Satanism 1167 30.5
No Religion 1297104 26.2
Buddhist 52362 25.8
Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist 13836 25.6
Pentecostal 79155 17.8
Baptist 56913 10.7
Catholic 508437 4.7
Methodist 121806 1.0
Jehovah’s Witness 17910 0.5
Anglican 554925 -5.1
Presbyterian, Congregational and Reformed 400839 -7.0
Baha’i 2772 -7.2

Finally, many people would interpret (incorrectly) du Fresne’s 4.7% as the increase in percentage of Catholics as a proportion of the total population. The table below shows the data for that calculation – in this case the proportion of Catholics changed from 13.0% in 2001 to 12.6% in 2006 – a decline of 0.4%.

% in 2006 Change from 2001
Sikh 0.2 0.1
Hindu 1.6 0.5
New Age 0.0 0.0
Islam/Muslim 0.9 0.3
Orthodox 0.3 0.1
Spiritualist 0.2 0.0
Satanism 0.0 0.0
No Religion 32.2 4.7
Buddhist 1.3 0.2
Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist 0.3 0.0
Pentecostal 2.0 0.2
Baptist 1.4 0.0
Catholic 12.6 -0.4
Methodist 3.0 -0.2
Jehovah’s Witness 0.4 0.0
Anglican 13.8 -1.9
Presbyterian 10.0 -1.6
Baha’i 0.1 0.0

Du Fresne speculated on the figures for Catholics in NZ:

“That increase is thought to be partly related to the increasing number of Asian Catholic immigrants, which in turn reflects the growth of Catholicism in the Third World. Four out of every 10 New Zealand Catholics under 25 are Asian, Maori or Pasifika. That gives hope to Catholics who are otherwise dismayed at the secularisation of society and the decline in attendance at mass. Most of the older Catholics contacted by the Listener said their children and other family members had drifted away from the Church.”

Conclusions

  • Yes, Catholics in New Zealand increased in absolute numbers between 2001 and 2006 (by 4.7% from 485637 in 2001 to 508437 in 2006) but slower than the rate of growth of the total population. Consequently their proportion in the total population declined by 0.4% (from  13.0% in 2001 to 12.6% in 2006).
  • Yes, their relatively slow decline (0.4%) contrasts with the much more rapid decline of the other major Christian denominations (1.9% for Anglicans and 1.6% for Presbyterians).
  • Some smaller Christian denominations and other religions like Hindu, Buddhist and Islam increase dramatically in numbers, but because of their small size did not really figure as changes in the proportion of the total population.
  • The stand out group is the “no religion” one which increased as proportion of the total population by 4.7% (from 27.5% in 2001 to 32.2% in 2006) [Or by 26.2% (from 1,028,049 in 2001 to 1,297,104 in 2006) in terms of absolute numbers].

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4 responses to “Fiddling with census figures for religion in New Zealand

  1. “despite all the scandals and controversies, Catholicism is emerging as the country’s most popular denomination.”

    Huh? It seems pretty obvious that “No religion” is the country’s most popular denomination, and its rate of increase is only going to continue the trend. Du Fresne needs to take off his Catholic-tinted glasses.

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