25 November 2013

The "Waning of Christianity"

by Dr Philip Church

The christening of Prince George provided the opportunity for the NZ Herald to remind us all of the waning of Christianity in New Zealand (NZ Herald, 23 October 2013, A3). Interestingly, the author of the article noted that, while there are falling numbers of adherents in this country, the number of christenings remains high, even as baby naming ceremonies become more popular. That is to be expected since humans like to mark significant transitions with ceremonies. We have christenings (baptisms – thanks NZ Herald for pointing out that christening is also known as baptism), twenty-first (and other birthday) celebrations, graduations, marriages, civil unions, anniversaries of various kinds, and of course funerals. Such celebrations are a distinctly human activity, and Christianity has no monopoly on any of them of course, and especially since the passing of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act 2013. Despite that, I was fascinated to read in the Herald, that the couple who had a baby naming ceremony, rather than a christening, did so because they would have “felt guilty having a christening” having not been to church in years. However, in the ceremony they made “mention of God and spirituality” and clothed their child in a christening gown. Moreover, godparents were present, who placed their hands on the child and prayed. Religion, so-called, seems to be enduring, even with some secular people.

The Herald printed some statistics alongside the article. They show a ten percent drop in the number of Christians between the 1991 and 2006 censuses, alongside a three hundred percent increase in those professing “no religion” (whatever that is supposed to mean). For Christians, the statistics don’t make very pleasant reading. While Christians remain more than fifty-one percent of the population, those professing no religion are now around thirty-two percent. It seems that “no religion” is the fastest growing “religion” in the country. Even other religions (other than Christianity) grew by eighteen percent, although when you start with a smaller base, small increases translate into larger percentages. These religions are about sixteen percent of the population.

It is interesting to compare New Zealand statistics with the global picture. I recently came across the report Christianity in its Global Context, 1970-2020: Society, Religion and Mission, produced in June 2013 by the Gordon Conwell Centre for the Study of Global Christianity (http://wwwgordonconwell.com/netcommunity/CSGCResources/ChristianityinitsGlobalContext.pdf. Accessed 23 October 2013). This important document repays careful reading. It gives a global picture, which it then analyses into regions and countries. The material on New Zealand is on pages 66-67. The time span differs, but the statistics are similar. There are historical data from 1970 and projections to 2020. The report suggests that in 1970 ninety-five percent of the population of New Zealand was Christian, almost 2.7 million people. The projection for 2020 is fifty-seven percent, and while the proportion has reduced, Christians are forecast to increase by seventy thousand, to 2.76 million. The commentary notes,

Christianity’s share of the population has declined more rapidly in New Zealand than in Australia – the number of Christians was less in 2000 than in 1970, although it has increased since 2000. Growth over the period 1970-2020 averages only 0.05% per annum in New Zealand... Most Christians in the region rarely attend church services except for special occasions like weddings, funerals, Christmas and Easter... A general decline of respect and interest in religious institutions in public life characterizes the region.

All this rings true. More sobering is the rise in atheism and agnosticism, which rank second and third in New Zealand after Christianity. Twenty-four percent are projected to be agnostic in 2020 and 2.3% atheist, giving a combined total of 1.3 million people, slightly less than the 2006 census figures published in the Herald.

But while the picture in New Zealand is bleak, the global picture is encouraging. The report indicates that Christianity will grow from 33.2% of the global population in 1970 to 33.3% in 2020. This compares with growth in Islam from 15.6% to 23.9%. And while Islam is growing faster than Christianity, it seems not to be at the expense of Christianity, a statistic that people working in parts of the world dominated by Islam would confirm, with considerable numbers of Muslim people coming to faith in many parts of the world.

The statistic that I found most interesting, given the rise of the more militant new atheism, is that from 1970 to 2020 the number of people professing atheism is forecast to drop from around five percent of the global population to just under two percent, and agnostics from fifteen to nine percent. Combined, the proportion of atheists and agnostics in the world is forecast to reduce by fifty percent over the forty year period. To be sure, this is partly the result of the collapse of the Iron Curtain, but even if this is the case, the statistic has something to say about the fragility of enforced atheism. While Christianity may be in decline in the West, especially in Europe, North America and Oceania, reports of its demise are premature, as considerable growth is taking place in Asia and Africa, with the shift in Christianity towards the global south.

In New Zealand we find ourselves in a difficult place, and we can expect it to become more difficult in the future. In this country at least, the age of Christendom is over and we can expect to be increasingly marginalised. In a recent post on the Laidlaw blog (https://www.laidlaw.ac.nz/_blog/Our_Blog/post/Where_is_the_Christian_Voice/) I wrote about the absence of the Christian voice from the public square,

When faced with increasing marginalisation, the followers of Jesus are called to follow the example of Jesus... There is no room for triumphalism; there is no room for shouting. We are simply called to be faithful followers of Jesus, and to live and proclaim the good news. Our, enlightened and come-of-age western civilisation may ultimately go the way of Ancient Rome. But God is still enthroned and will ultimately vindicate his people who remain faithful.
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