Story: Atheism and secularism

Page 3 – Who is secular?

Who, and how many, have no belief?

In New Zealand’s 1956 census only 0.5% of the population stated that they had no religion. This figure has grown steadily since then, and in the 2006 census 32% of the population (1,297,104 people) said they had no religion. The growth rate of those with no religion was around 50,000 per year, with highest rates in younger people. Fewer men than women were religious.

In 2006, 37% of people who identified themselves as Europeans or New Zealanders said they had no religion – as did 34% of Māori and 30% of Asians. Only 13% of Pacific peoples, and 10% of people in the Middle Eastern, Latin American and African ethnic groups, said they had no religion.

Around 7% of people did not answer the 2006 census question on religious affiliation, and there are other issues with using census responses as a measure of secularism. For example, some people would have ticked the box of their family’s traditional religion – even if they were not religious personally. And, conversely, some of those who ticked ‘no religion’ would have believed in God.

Fewer faithful Jedi

Before the 2001 census an email circulated encouraging people to specify ‘Jedi’ (Star wars characters) as their religious affiliation. Some 53,715 did so – more than those who identified themselves as Buddhists, Baptists, Mormons, Hindus and Rātana Christians. Although Statistics New Zealand assigned ‘Jedi’ an official code, the total was lumped in with others such as ‘The Church of Elvis and Rugby, Racing and Beer’ as ‘responses deemed outside the scope of recognised religions’.1 In the 2006 census 20,262 people said their religion was ‘Jedi’. The largest group of these (8,973) were males aged between 15 and 29.

1985 values survey

A 1985 survey of 2,000 New Zealanders concluded that while 60% of the sample showed gradations of religious belief and practice, only 12–15% met stricter criteria of being truly religious (such as personal belief in God, attendance at church, use of prayer and feeling a supernatural presence). Problems with the ‘no religion’ answer to the religious-affiliation census question are revealed by this 1985 survey. One in four respondents who had ‘no religion’ in the survey said they believed in God. And all Christian denominations had members who did not believe in God – ranging from 7% of Baptists to 36% of Methodists.

2008 survey

A 2008 Massey University study of beliefs found that just over a third of respondents described themselves as religious – 56% said they believed in God (but half of these also expressed doubts), 20% believed in some higher power and around one-third did not believe or did not know. Most New Zealanders were not superstitious, although 39% believed that fortune tellers could foresee the future.

The number of non-believers

In the early 2000s the number of non-religious people world-wide was estimated to be between 500 and 750 million. The nations with the highest proportion of non-believers included most European countries, Japan, Canada, Australia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Taiwan and Israel. High and growing levels of atheism were almost exclusively found in countries with high levels of wealth and social and economic security.

In the early 2000s a large proportion of New Zealanders were non-believers – from 28% to 73%, depending on definitions. Between the definite non-believers (13%) and the true believers (27%) there was a larger group with varying levels of religiosity, spiritualism, agnosticism, doubt, apathy and disinterest.

  1. New Zealand Herald, 31 August 2002, (last accessed 18 December 2009). Back
How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Atheism and secularism - Who is secular?', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 September 2016)

Full story by Carl Walrond, published 5 May 2011, updated 16 Sep 2016