God’s not as popular as we thought

Religion trendsIn the 2006 Census 51% of New Zealanders described themselves as Christian. A total of 3.8% described themselves as Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim (the next three largest religions) and 32% declared no religion. It’s interesting to compare census results back to 1991. These show a continuing decline in the numbers of Christian and a continuing increase in the number of non-religious.

Census data are, however, not necessarily reliable indicators of belief. I discussed this my post Trends in religious belief in New Zealand. The problems arise from religion being a tradition rather than a belief. So there can be Christians, for example, who have no belief in a god but report themselves as having a religion because they were bought up in that tradition. On the other hand someone who doesn’t adhere to a specific region may still have belief in a god. Reliable data on religious belief really requires a different sort of survey.

Survey of religious beliefs

We are often polled about our political preferences, or about our response to advertising, but we are very rarely asked about religious beliefs. However, UMR Research recently published data from an August 2007 survey of religious and moral beliefs. Despite problems of sample size and methodology, common to all such polls, the results are interesting.

Two questions were asked about beliefs in a god. Firstly – “do you believe in a god?” Believers amounted to 56%, 20% were unsure and 22% did not believe. The 56% roughly corresponds to the 2006 census results for Christian and other theist religions.

The second question was framed differently and produced some interesting results. People were asked to choose which of three statements came closest to their beliefs:

  • “I believe in God,”
  • “I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in a universal spirit or higher power,” and
  • “I don’t believe in either.”


Only 46% of respondents declared belief in a god when given this opportunity. Non-belief in a god or higher power was true for 19%. However, 31% expressed belief in some sort of universal spirit or higher power, but not a god.

The “higher spirit” category covers a wide spectrum of ideas, although excluding traditional concepts of a god. At the supernatural end the “higher spirit” concept could provide emotional satisfaction to believers who are unable to accept the traditional god concept. At the more rational, scientific, end a “higher spirit” may mean something like the inherent order in the universe – the sort of “god” that Einstein, and many other non-theist scientists could believe in.

While not helping us understand the beliefs encompassing a “higher spirit” the survey does indicate that the extent of belief in the traditional god concept is less than that implied by census data. It does suggest that actual belief in a god is held by less than half of New Zealanders. Presumably belief in the Christian God would have even less support.

Isn’t it about time our society stopped giving lip-service to what is probably a minority belief? Isn’t it about time we stopped using a National Anthem and Parliamentary prayers which assume we all believe in a god?

See also
UMR Research Survey: Morality, Religion and Evolution

Related Articles:
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Trends in religious belief in New Zealand
Destiny of Christian privilege?
Christian prayer problems
Common values, common action?
A national anthem recognising diversity?
“Let us pray . . . “
What is religion?
Do you believe your religion?
Do religious leaders believe their religion?
Atheism and religious diversity
Society’s ” Christian values”

10 responses to “God’s not as popular as we thought

  1. “Isn’t it about time our society stopped giving lip-service to what is probably a minority belief?”

    Hmmmmm…. coming from someone who belongs to a minority, that’s a pretty strong statement.

    I get the feeling you’re looking at the data with a fairly biased lense.

    If you take into account the liberal stream of Christianity, those who deny the traditional concept of God but still identify themselves as Christian then they could make up a percentage of the “higher spirit” category.

    I also know Christians who would answer neither to such a poll.

    So whilst I agree that the Census figures do not give an accurate potrayal of what’s going on, I don’t think this survey gives you the information you are desperately hoping for… nor does it give people such as myself the accurate information we would want. I think Christianity (in it’s various diverse forms), is still the dominating value system. Though it’s clear that it’s influence is decreasing.

    You and I would probably both agree that such a change is a good thing… but for different reasons 🙂


  2. 1: “If you take into account the liberal stream of Christianity, those who deny the traditional concept of God but still identify themselves as Christian then they could make up a percentage of the “higher spirit” category.” I agree – and I thought that was the point I made. If we use the census data, together with the survey data, something like 20% of Christians may come into this category. That’s interesting (I might have expected it to be higher seeing high-profile people like Randerson should be included). That means approximately 80% of Christians would claim a traditional belief in a god implied by parliamentary (and other prayers and the National Anthem). The figures suggest just over 40% of New Zealanders have (or declare) that traditional belief.

    We all have minority beliefs of one sort or another (if our brain is working) – no stigma there. The problem comes when groups attempt to impose minority beliefs on others, surely. In this context it also devalues our ceremonies and observances. I recently suggested an alternative in Thank God or Thank Goodness? I think this approach would be acceptable to most New Zealanders.

    2: “I think Christianity (in it’s various diverse forms), is still the dominating value system.” The problem I have with this is the exclusive claim. I imagine that in Sri Lanka the same values are described as Buddhist and in Muslim countries as Islamic, etc. I also imagine that in New Zealand Buddhists will describe these values as Buddhist, etc. Non-theists also accept them as their values. The point is that our commonly accepted, and respected, values are common human values. Religions may have codified them in the past(that has been a traditional role) but there are many ways of doing that today. We really have to get away from this Christian chauvinism – it is behind the blindness that refuses to recognise the human rights of others (e.g. clause 3 of the Religious Diversity Statement). I make this point in more detail in Society’s ” Christian values”.

    Think about it this way – what are those specifically “Christian values,” ones that you have and I, as a non-Christian, don’t have? I suspect there would not be many and suggest they could not be described as “the dominating values system” of our society.


  3. Those are fair points 🙂


  4. Howdy,

    Frank and I are both taking the same course at Carey Baptist college – ‘prophets in context’ (surveying the Old Testament prophets in their original context). Part of the course requirement is to engage with other classmates (around 20) in a course (blog) forum.

    Lots of stuff comes up. There’s a pretty wide diversity of perspectives represented in our class.

    The subject of values came up recently and I just wanted you to know, Ken, that Frank rigorously argued against the arrogant and narrow view that ‘only Christians’ can be moral…

    Frank would never toot his own horn, but I just wanted to brag about him, because it takes integrity to make those kinds of statements in that kind of environment…




  5. It would be interesting to see the census results for incarcerated believers in New Zealand. If its anything like the United States, I have read around 2% of prison inmates claim to be Atheists. And, again from what I’ve read, only 0.1% of all executions for murder in American prisons have been of Atheists. Christians also make up 54% of all divorce rates. Perhaps the worst statistic, a grossly underestimated 4% of all serving priests between 1950 and 2002 have been accused of paedophilia. Interesting figures for the moral high and mighty.

    I look forward to the day when we New Zealanders stop putting so much respect with people who have invisible friends (be it Jesus, aliens, smurfs or any number of other unprovable supernatural sects). It’s incredible that in today’s modern society we still have links to ancient pagan and Jewish fairy tales.

    Still, on the the brighter side, the number of people who don’t believe in a supernatural dogma are steadily growing.


  6. “because it takes integrity to make those kinds of statements in that kind of environment”. I think that’s great we need more people like Frank in organisations representing all sorts of world-views.
    It is sad, though, that the attitude about morality still has such overwhelming support. I guess that is why non-Christians feel the need to speak out.

    Yes, Smee, we need more surveys about his sort of thing. I thought the UMR survey was a bit unique. Let’s hope they continue this survey and perhaps widen it to cover the issues you mention.


  7. I tried to post this under the ‘brain’ post, but it didn’t go up, so am posting it here…




    Sorry for the delay, was in Wellington Thursday-Sunday…

    Quickly, I would push back (again) against the language of ‘confirming’ the development of the universe… As I outlined in an earlier post on my blog (http://by-default.blogspot.com/2007/07/science-faith-and-process-of-q.html),
    I think such statements should be balanced. The further back we look in time, the more theories pop up to explain the wonder of all wonders – the origin of the cosmos. We’re not simply ‘on the verge’ of explaining/confirming things once-and-for-all, quite the contrary, we find our most basic ideas about reality being stretched and tossed about as we try to imagine how it could have happened…

    1. I too have changed/shifted/re-nuanced many of my beliefs, and I continue to do so. Such is life!

    2. I would be interested to hear more about the “attribute for the order implicit in the universe” that Einstein expressed (and which Dawkins ‘accepts’ and you see as having at least some ‘credibility’). I’d love to hear more about how you (or Dawkins or Einstein) would define, explain or describe this ‘attribute’. It seems pretty cut and dry already, though. We observe implicit order, and the ‘attribute’ is a logical/rational part of that observation, no? That would seem to fit with your ‘evidence first’ request, no?

    Further, at what specific point(s) would this kind of ‘attribute’ differ from general modern ‘Deist’ (not theist, but deist) notions?

    Cheers, hope all is well.



  8. Samuel welsh

    well I would hope never to be in a country of atheists.


  9. Samuel – I don ‘t know what country you live in but there will be plenty of non-theists/atheists/etc., there. It’s part of the rich diversity of human variation.

    So get used to it. Accept it as an interesting fact about your society – one you can learn from.

    I do.


  10. Pingback: Census 2013: That religion question | Open Parachute

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