The results of the 2006 census were of concern to some New Zealand Christians because they showed that their religion (with 51% share) was barely holding on to their previous majority of adherents. Of even more concern was the trend shown by the last four census results strongly suggesting that their share will be below 50% within a few years. I personally am heartened by the results for those declaring no religion (currently 32%) which show a strong increase over time.
Let’s not be simplistic about this, however. These results only depict the declaration of a religion – they don’t directly say anything about the more important aspect – the nature of New Zealanders’ beliefs. Clearly, there will be people who don’t declare a religion but still have a theist belief – maybe even a very extreme or fundamentalist belief. On the other hand there will be those who have a formal religion but have atheist or other non-theist beliefs. After all, for many people religion is something they inherit rather than believe. Babies are “christened” (or undergo similar ceremonies) which imposes a religion, but not a belief. The census data includes religious affiliation for children – and that certainly can’t say anything about belief.
And what can we say about the attribution of a religion to a child. I agree with Richard Dawkin’s that it is a form of child abuse. To me the description of a child as a Christian, Muslim, Jew etc., is just as obscene as describing a child as an Atheist, Humanist or Agnostic. Or describing a child as a Liberal, Tory, Marxist, Communist, etc.
The statistics for belief in any country are difficult to interpret. Often the data is collected in a very biased way. I have seen results for Russia showing a very high figure for Russian Orthodox obtained by attributing religion according to ethnicity – i.e. all Russians were Orthodox, all Poles Catholic, etc. Similarly, one set of data for Canada relied on a survey where people were asked if they had a Bible, read religious books, etc., and this was sufficient to count them as Christian. (They would have thus counted me as a Muslim, which is not the case).
So, a census result doesn’t necessarily give an accurate picture of belief diversity. And we should be wary of survey results as so much depends on the questions and methodology used. But I think we are justified in interpreting the trends in our census results as indicating a growth in the proportion of the population adopting a more open-minded and critical approach, and hopefully less likely to be manipulated by dogmatic leaders, religious or otherwise.
And yes, I do think the results suggest that the proportion of athiests and other non-theists in New Zealand is increasing.