Atheism and religious diversity I: Diversity in New Zealand

This is the first of a four part series. The complete series was originally published as one article in the AEN Journal special issue on Faith and Ethnic Communities and will also be published in Open Society, the journal of the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists. I will post Parts II, III & IV over the next few days.

Part I: Religious diversity in New Zealand.

Efforts to develop understanding and cooperation in New Zealand are concentrating on ethnic and religious groups. The third of the population with non-religious beliefs are mostly ignored and this undermines true acceptance of diversity. We need to widen our horizons beyond the “Interfaith” approach if we are to address problems underlying suspicion and conflict between people of different beliefs.


Proportion of New Zealanders declaring specific religions in last four census dates (Hindu,Buddhist and Muslim combined for ease of presentation).In the 2006 Census about 51% of New Zealanders described themselves as Christian, a total of 3.8% as Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim (the next three largest religions) and 32% declared no religion.[1] This data doesn’t accurately describe individual beliefs. For instance, some people declaring no religion may still believe in a god. Similarly there will be people declaring a religion who don’t believe in a god. For many, if not most, people religion is an inherited tradition rather than describing a belief. However, the trends over time shown by census results do suggest beliefs are changing in New Zealand (Figure: Proportion of New Zealanders declaring specific religions in last four census dates (Hindu,Buddhist and Muslim combined for ease of presentation)[2], as they are internationally[3].

Any true depiction of New Zealand’s diversity has to include a large group of non-religious people and recognise a large (even if a minority) group with non-religious beliefs. Otherwise we may be unaware of many problems and tensions arising from our diversity. We also risk supporting customs and policies that undermine true cooperation between those of different ethnicity and belief in New Zealand.

Yet, non-religious beliefs are often ignored. The National Statement on Religious Diversity[4] is an example. A working group comprised of only religious people managed its discussion and an “Interfaith” Forum formally confirmed it. Yes, the resulting document does extend some of the rights it grants religious people to those with other beliefs, but only as an “extra.” There was no extension of rights to safety and security (clause 3), recognition and accommodation in education and work environments (clause 5), and to building and maintaining relationships with government (clause 8). The document would have been more convincing, and (more importantly) the discussion more valuable if it had dealt with diversity of belief, rather than the subset religious diversity. I believe the Human Rights Commission is wrong to give “Interfaith” groups such an exclusive role on diversity questions. As a secular organisation charged with duties to the nation as a whole the Commission should ensure involvement of representative of all beliefs.

Why exclude the non-religious?

I can’t help feeling some people actively encourage blindness toward, and exclusion of, non-religious beliefs out of intolerance towards atheists and their ideas.

Recently, there has been an increase in debate between atheists and theists, particularly in Europe and the North America. This is obvious in the publication of books arguing the case for atheism[5] which have become best-sellers. They have encouraged many atheists to “come out of the cupboard” and argue for their beliefs, to defend them when attacked and to challenge those of many theists.

Religious commentators have responded. Such debate is natural and we should encourage it, even if it is sometimes intemperate. However, I often find resistance to atheist involvement in presentations on religious diversity. Sometimes there are even attempts to deny the legitimacy of an atheist position. Perhaps this helps explain the common exclusion of non-religious beliefs when considering ethnic and belief diversity

This non-inclusive approach doesn’t help us deal with problems arising from our diversity. After all, atheists, non-theists and theists alike can be victims, or perpetrators, of hate crimes and acts of terrorism. I believe that this exclusion could arise from a lack of understanding, or even a fear of atheist beliefs. Possibly this is common among religious people, and may even result from lack of contact with atheists. However, I think these attitudes are wrong. Looked at dispassionately we would find that people of religious and non-religious belief have a lot in common. Perhaps I can show this by describing some common atheist beliefs, ones that are familiar to me.

Part II will discuss a personal perspective on atheism and its relationship to other beliefs and human rights.

1:New Zealand Census, 2006.
New Zealand Census, 2006 plus 1991 – 2001.
3: See for example Gregory Paul & Phil Zuckerman “Why the gods are not winning”
4: National Statement on Religious Diversity in New Zealand
5: See, for example, Daniel C. Dennett (2006): Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; Sam Harris (2005): The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, and (2006): Letter to a Christian Nation; Richard Dawkins (2006): The God Delusion; Christopher Hitchens (2007): God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Related Articles:
Religious Diversity Statement
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Trends in religious belief in New Zealand
Destiny of Christian privilege?
Helen Clark’s diplomacy
Common values, common action?
Religion and Schools
Atheism and religious diversity

One response to “Atheism and religious diversity I: Diversity in New Zealand

  1. Jim Corbett

    Dear Humanist Association members,
    I am a member of the AHA, the Humanists of Washington, Humanists of North Puget Sound and a variety of other groups. I have written a couple of songs that I think Humanists will enjoy and I am providing you links to YouTube where they are performed by me.
    I hope you will enjoy them and consider putting links to the songs on your Humanist web site so your members can enjoy them too.
    Maybe it will inspire Humanists to get creative and start spreading the word about our positive message to everyone.

    I am a Humanist

    It Must Be Jesus… Well, maybe not!
    Thanks for considering this opportunity.
    Jim Corbett
    Edmonds, WA, USA


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