Participation in religion may be dwindling overall, but the practice of faith remains a highly visible and active component of New Zealand society.
From my house in Avondale on any Sunday morning I hear the steeple bell of St Jude’s Anglican church calling the faithful to worship. If I walk west towards Blockhouse Bay I hear the oceanic waves of Samoan hymn-singing swelling out from church walls that can’t contain that joyous harmony. On a Friday afternoon, if I walk in the other direction, I see Arabic men streaming towards the Islamic centre for prayers. To one man waiting at the traffic lights I murmur “Asalam alaykum”—peace be with you—and he replies “Wa alaykum asalam”—and peace be with you.
Walking in another neighbourhood, I greet an elderly Sikh man with immaculately folded turban and streaming white beard accompanying his grandchild on a tricycle. At a nearby park I see a group of tai chi exercisers, Taoist poetry in motion, reminding me of the words of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead that God is the poet of the world.
Within sight of my house is the Baptist church of my youth. I know I can step into this or any other church within the Christian tradition and see bowed heads and raised hands, hear the stately harmonies of hymns and the upbeat melodies of contemporary praise songs, listen to the throaty blast of organ pipes or the plangent wail of electric guitars.
Were I to step into a Jewish synagogue for Shabbat I would see the lighting of candles and hear the lilting drone of chant. Perhaps I would hear the blessing from the Old Testament book of Numbers—words I heard innumerable times as a child: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
All these experiences would tell me, without a word necessarily being spoken, that I am in the presence of something ancient and enduring, something larger than my individual self, something that whispers of ineffable mystery, of spirit and grace.
I am at ease in these contexts. I grew up with them. Yet these worlds of worship and faith are real for fewer and fewer New Zealanders. They have either parted company with religion or were never introduced.
In 2019, Statistics NZ reported that in the 2018 census, for the first time, more New Zealanders declared that they had “no religion” than those who said they did.
Aotearoa New Zealand is now officially a secular society. The non-religious (2,2264,601 in the 2018 census) represent 48 per cent of the population, an increase of almost two-thirds in less than 20 years. Similar increases have been observed in Australia (30 per cent non-religious in the latest census) and Britain (40 per cent), though New Zealand appears to have gone down the road of secularisation further than either of those countries have.
The country may have reached a milestone in secularisation, but is it a turning point? Does numerical decline mean that religion has lost its societal influence or relevance? If not, what roles does religion continue to play in people’s lives and in communities and the country at large?
Glynn Cardy is the minister of St Luke’s Presbyterian church in Remuera. Ordained in his 20s, he spent 29 years in the Anglican church, including nine years as vicar of St Matthew-in-the-City, before taking up Presbyterian ministry in 2013. I meet him in his office in the stone edifice that is St Luke’s, flanked by dental clinics and a plastic surgery centre. He preaches the Gospel of the poor in a suburb of the rich.
The census result doesn’t surprise him, he tells me. Christian churches have been in decline the whole time he’s been in the ministry. “The tide is going out on everyone,” he says, “regardless of theology, music, kids’ programmes or community engagement. That’s what you live with if you’re a Christian minister. You don’t beat yourself up because you’re not expanding. That’s the capitalist model—that everything’s got to grow.”
You don’t measure the health of a family by whether it’s growing, he says. You use other values that have to do with fairness and quality of life. “I’m in the business of helping people develop a spirituality for a sustainable future,” he says.
I ask him what that looks like, and he speaks about the social dimension of religious life. Religion has always had two faces, inward and outward, private and public. The private, personal face is encompassed by the word “spirituality”, the individual’s experience of the sacred, mystical or divine (whichever word a person prefers to use). When the public, communal expression of that inner experience is structured around a set of shared beliefs, moral values, rituals of worship and acts of community service, that is religion. You can be spiritual without being religious—one in five New Zealanders say they are in this category—and religious without being especially spiritual, but most religious teaching encourages both.
Today, religious groups are placing more emphasis than ever on their outward-facing roles. They devote considerable energy and resources to services such as food banks, emergency housing, health care, counselling, budgeting advice, youth work, child support, literacy education and job training—services that are not overtly branded religious but nonetheless arise from the imperatives of faith. But is the church’s demonstration of a social conscience enough to win new adherents or retain the faithful? Or will the exodus continue?
While the tide appears to be retreating for Christian denominations, the same decline isn’t so apparent in some of the other major religions practised in New Zealand. The 2018 census reported that the number of Hindus had increased 35 per cent from the 2013 census, while the number of Muslims increased 24 per cent. The biggest leap, however, was the number of people identifying as Sikhs, which more than doubled, from 19,191 to 40,908 people.
That may have something to do with cultural pride rather than religious conversion, says Daljit Singh, the spokesperson for the Supreme Sikh Council of New Zealand.
When Singh first arrived in New Zealand, 32 years ago, Sikhs were hesitant to draw attention to themselves. “Now they’re feeling proud,” he says.
More children than ever are involved in temple activities—nearly 600 school-age kids learn Punjabi, the language of the faith, on Saturdays, and participate in Sikh sports teams and martial arts.
Similarly, though it isn’t possible to determine whether the expansion of the Muslim community has been due to immigration, population growth or conversion, Anjum Rahman says much of it has been driven by the children of immigrant families who have grown up in New Zealand.
“They’re saying, ‘Okay, so now, who are we?’ What we’ve been seeing through the 2000s is that younger people are getting more connected to their faith than older ones. Sometimes you’d see a young woman wearing hijab, though her mum didn’t, and still doesn’t. I think part of it is the search for identity, and reconnection to something. More and more we’re developing a distinct New Zealand Muslim identity.”
Like Christian churches, the Sikh community is playing an increasing role in the community. New Zealand’s largest gurdwara, the gold-domed Sri Kalgidhar Sahib in Takinini, South Auckland, welcomes an estimated 5000 to 7000 people a week for religious services and prayers, or to receive a free hot meal from the gurdwara’s kitchen. Singh doesn’t know how many of the visitors are Sikh. Neither does he care. “The most important thing is to share.”
The Sikh community is sharing in other ways particular to New Zealand culture. In March 2021, it opened a multi-million dollar sports complex behind the Takanini gurdwara, including a soccer and hockey field, basketball, netball and volleyball courts, four running tracks, two cricket pitches, and a kabaddi court. It’s the only gurdwara in the world with such a facility, says Singh, and it’s free for the wider community to use. “It’s open to all local schools and clubs. Seven days it’s fully booked.”
The impetus was inclusion: allowing Sikh kids to participate in sports without feeling ashamed of their hair or dress. “Now they’re feeling part of the team,” says Singh. “That was our dream for the last 30 years to come to where we are now. We can see a bright future in this country.” What does that future involve? Singh doesn’t hesitate: “Becoming more close with other religions and community organisations. Since COVID-19 we’re all working together. We’re doing our best to become a part of a family, not a part of
Christianity undoubtedly provides a connection to history and a source of identity, but for many Christians the fading cultural relevance of the institutional church creates tension. People experience frustration with the church’s shortcomings but don’t wish to abandon their faith tradition.
Susan Healy was raised Irish Catholic and has spent much of her life in the Dominican order of the Catholic church. She has a doctorate in Māori studies and works in Treaty education and decolonisation, as well as caring for her 101-year-old mother in a West Auckland retirement community. She believes in the importance of honouring her faith heritage, but says that can be difficult if you have “a strong sense of social justice and belief in the equality of women”.
In 2019, Healy published a book on the relationship between Christianity and colonisation in our country’s history—a racist legacy that the contemporary church still faces.
“The problem of colonial Christianity was it saw itself as holding all the truth,” Healy tells me as we share coffee in a Titirangi café. “Once you recognise other traditions and begin to engage with them it deepens your sense of the divine. Your faith meets theirs.”
Healy called her book Listening to the People of the Land, and she sees Māori spirituality as a gift to this country that is only now beginning to be understood, and one that is influencing how we think and live.
“Whereas people previously wouldn’t think of including a spiritual dimension to public matters, now they are freer to ask for blessings for the opening of a building or the commencement of an event.”
Healy mentions the recent death of an orca calf that had been cared for in Wellington after being separated from its pod. The calf, given the name Toa after the local Ngāti Toa iwi, was farewelled in a dawn ceremony and buried at the Ngāti Toa marae in Plimmerton. “Knowing this animal has been buried with respect and aroha is something both Pākehā and Māori can appreciate,” says Healy.
That view is shared by the Catholic bishop of Auckland, Patrick Dunn, who notes that the Māori community “is reminding all New Zealanders that we have a spiritual side. Even our agnostic Members of Parliament stand with respect when Māori leaders offer a prayer at the beginning of a hui. Māori spirituality reminds us that all of creation has a sacred dimension, and that that dimension must be honoured in every human enterprise and in every personal encounter.”
Healy introduces me to Rangi Davis, a counsellor and teacher based in the Far North town of Moerewa, and we have a Zoom kōrero. I ask her how the interaction between indigenous Māori spirituality and introduced religion plays out in her life. She says she grew up steeped in both worlds. Her mother was staunchly Catholic, while her father, an expert in traditional healing, was more attuned to the spirit of the land.
“More and more people want to explore their spirituality outside the constraints of religion,” she says. “They see spirituality as freedom. They don’t want to be locked inside a framework that is not serving them today.”
She’s one of them. “I have to confess I haven’t been a practising Catholic since I came back home to my land,” she tells me with a laugh. “I can talk to God in so many other ways, and I’m understood—by the trees, the flowers, the paddocks, the seasons.”
Davis’s understanding of spirituality is expansive, a wide-ranging embrace of the connectedness of all life. “Everything that exists has a spirituality,” she says. “It’s up to us to learn how to interact with it.” For her, this interaction is the central meaning of aroha—a far deeper concept than ‘compassion’ or ‘love’, the words usually used to translate it. “Aroha is a deep layer of knowing. A deep layer of holding. A deep sense of being with and acknowledging creation.”
How different this understanding is from the Western worldview that separates mind from matter, rationality from intuition, spirit from body. Indigenous worldviews, including those of Māori, don’t separate reality into such silos. For them, spirituality is embedded seamlessly in the material world. Te reo Māori had no word meaning “religion” before the arrival of Europeans. Nor do many other indigenous cultures, because their “religion” is their entire way of being.
Ironically, the Māori view of a world imbued with spirit, rejected by missionaries to Aotearoa in the 1800s, has become embraced by contemporary churches in the form of an awakening to the sacredness of creation. No leader has enunciated this ecological turn more emphatically than Pope Francis, the current head of the Catholic church. His revolutionary letter Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, published in 2015, set a visionary new course for the church, issuing a summons to “a new and universal solidarity” between humans and all creation.
For Robin Kearns, a professor in the School of Environment at the University of Auckland, the pope’s emergence as an ecological champion has been deeply encouraging. Like all Catholics I spoke with for this story, Kearns wrestles with the deep flaws that have been exposed in Catholicism—the “terrible chasms of credibility opened up by clerical abuse and the disparities of wealth within the church”. Yet, he believes, other values of the Catholic tradition, such as a commitment to social justice and, more recently, the ecological imperatives of Laudato, are more necessary than ever.
Much has been made of the loss of faith, but just as interesting—and just as real—is the persistence of faith. Religions in New Zealand are finding new ways to interact with society: meeting social needs, creating community, and uniting people through shared culture and values. The faiths of the ages aren’t done yet.