Losing our religion: Kiwis losing the faith in record numbers

Broken Christian cross
Religious belief in New Zealand has seen an incredible decline since the 1990s. (Getty)

*This story was first published in June 2017. It was one of our most popular stories for the year.*

Our so-called 'God's own' country is fast becoming anything but.

A century ago New Zealand was one of most religious places on the planet, with the great majority of Kiwis, Pākehā and Māori alike, believing in some form of Christianity.

Fast forward a few generations and not only Christianity, but belief in any form of religion, has dissipated to the point where almost half of all Kiwis don't associate with any religious belief at all.

Comparing the decline in religious belief over the past five national censuses shows just how accelerated non-belief has become since the 1990s.

Losing our religion: Kiwis losing the faith in record numbers

So what's behind the decline?

Massey University professor Peter Lineham has studied religious history in New Zealand for decades, and says today's society does not value religious commitment, as our free time and financial circumstances have changed.

"Historically, religion flourished among what we would call middle income people, the middle classes. Now today, that's the area of tremendous decline in religiosity."

Auckland is still our most religious city

New Zealand's biggest city is by far the country's most religious, but the topography of where that religion is based has changed markedly.

"In the old days, Remuera and the North Shore were the areas of strong religious groups," Professor Lineham says.

"Today they're significantly weaker, that's because in South Auckland and West Auckland you have these very large pentecostal mega-churches frequented by Pasifika peoples, and the large Catholic churches are still flourishing."

Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki speaks to his followers
Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki speaks to his followers on the steps of Parliament. (Getty)

Migrants are far more religious than Pākehā and Māori

Most migrants to New Zealand bring with them some kind of religious belief - but they arrive in a country that has very little.

Professor Lineham says Pacific Island peoples, Chinese, Koreans and Filipinos are now the dominant people in New Zealand's traditional churches.

"That's a very big change. New Zealand is very irreligious compared to most other societies. Koreans come here to live and are alarmed by our secular society."

Kiwis turning their backs on religion later in life

New Zealand still has a high level of religious belief among teenagers, but Professor Lineham says this falls dramatically as Kiwis get older.

The Christian youth music festival Parachute was hugely popular in New Zealand
The Christian youth music festival Parachute was hugely popular in New Zealand until it stopped in 2014. (Layher)

"Religious belief declines very, very rapidly once New Zealanders get into their 20s, 30s and 40s.

"Of course older people who grew up in a much more religious society still have high levels of religious connection, although it has to be said that even there, there's been a waning in religious beliefs in those groups."

How do we compare to other countries?

New Zealand is following a pattern of other developed nations in having a huge decline in religious belief.

There have been notable declines in Sweden, the UK, France and even Israel. It's interesting to note that people are still seeking a higher-power across the Tasman though.

"New Zealand does compare quite strikingly to some European countries, but actually Australia is significantly more religious than New Zealand," Professor Lineham says.

"The dramatic rise in people that didn't profess an interest in a religion that occurred in the New Zealand censuses in 2001 and 2006 didn't really happen in Australia."

Even the United States is seeing a decline

"America was always the exception to the rule, but for the last five to 10 years there's been a very rapid change in the American situation, and that high level of religiosity that you get as a flavour of American-specific life has clearly faded a bit.

Church-sponsored anti-abortion rally in the US.
Church-sponsored anti-abortion rally in the US. (Getty)

"America I think is beginning to look a lot more like Europe. Remember you've got an enormous rise in the strength of Islam and that in Africa, both of the two great monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, have increased enormously at the expense of traditional African religions and they're now the strongholds of Christianity."

Kiwis still crave spirituality - just not from organised religion

Professor Lineham believes while the majority of Kiwis have turned their back on God and the church, they are still interested in pursuing a spiritual path, albeit an alternative one.

"The hints of other things emerging are always there but it's difficult to know what they mean," Professor Lineham says.

"The really, really striking one is the enormous growth in searches for what certain people might call spirituality without commitment.

"This is an amazing phenomenon in New Zealand, and throughout the western world.

Many Kiwis have swapped church for the yoga mat.
Many Kiwis have swapped church for the yoga mat. (Getty)

"People like the new atheists are searching for a way into secular spirituality, a search for something beyond the material and the physical but not wanting to accept the non-prescribed answer.

"I'm not saying that will look remotely like the religious model we've had in the past, but something's going on and it's hard to be sure how big it will get."

Jehovah's Witnesses still proving popular

You've probably had a Jehovah's Witness or two knock on your door at some point.

Despite appearing to be a seemingly niche branch of Christianity, according to Professor Lineham, its popularity is booming.

"In the face of all this religious decline, Jehovah's Witnesses have flourished like you would not believe.

"This is an extreme sectarian group, and I think maybe that it's found hostility to the modern world.

"It's found a way to resist the secular tone of society. It particularly seems to appeal to the poor, to people in dire circumstances in life, and has quite high Māori proportions.