Hard News by Russell Brown


For Good Friday

I hold irrational beliefs. I think food tastes better if it's cooked with love, when reason would dictate that a heartless sonuvabitch with great technical skill would make a better meal. I get my back fixed up by an osteopath, when I know that osteopathy's core tenets are bunkum. And I have various spooky feelings about nature.

So it would be churlish of me to deny anyone else their own god. Their own science, or laws? I have more of a problem with that.

The results of the recent International Social Survey Program survey on religions, conducted by a team lead by Philip Gendall of Massey University, have universally been written up as New Zealanders losing their religion.

And, indeed, that's what the results say. (Philip Gendall kindly provided me with a summary here).)

Since the 1991 ISSP survey on religious attitudes and beliefs, the proportion of New Zealanders claiming no religious affiliation has increased from 29% to 40%. In international terms, that makes us a very secular country. (Compare to the US, where only a quarter of the 5% who hold no religious beliefs can even bear to call themselves atheists.)

The authors continue:

Similarly, fewer New Zealanders now say they believe in God than did 17 years ago. However, there has been no change in the proportion of respondents who say they believe in a higher power. So perhaps the apparent decline in religiosity reflects a decline in traditional religious loyalties rather than a decline in the religiosity as such.

And, indeed, beliefs that offer comfort without obligation remain very popular. While only 27% of respondents averred a "firm belief in God" and only 8% said the Bible was to be taken literally, the results also say that more than half of New Zealanders believe in life after death, and nearly as many in Heaven. Just over a third believe there to be a Hell. So more people believe in Hell than firmly believe in God. What on earth is that about?

Somewhat distressingly, only 45% of respondents endorsed what the paper described as "the Darwinian position that human beings evolved over time from earlier forms of animals though a process of natural selection" (although that is more than twice the number saying so in the last Pew survey of Americans). Straight-up creationists (20%) outnumber believers in "intelligent design" (15%). Only a quarter of respondents believe that the teaching of origins in state schools should consist solely of the study of evolution, rather than creationism or "intelligent design".

We tend to prefer the religious leaders should stay out of politics, and 70% of us believe that religions "bring more conflict around the world". While 60% of us still want religious instruction in schools, about half that group believes it should take the form of an introduction to all faiths.

We are comparatively liberal on matters of "morality" -- which were defined in the survey as exclusively relating to sex (talk about letting Christian conservatives set your frame!). Only 40% of us think sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are wrong, a fall of 10% since the 1998 survey.

Although the survey does not cover the question, one might guess that we're not greatly up for the level of debate about religion that can currently be seen in Britain, where The Guardian's Belief section is reliably frisky.

We do not have many public atheists, which would presumably please Madeleine Bunting, who has written another one of her hectoring columns about the "New Atheist" bogeyman she has conjured up for herself. Were I not already an unbeliever, I would be tempted to become one simply to spite her. As Caspar Melville points out in a response, she might be better occupied pondering Britons' steady abandonment of religious faith than writing yet another hate-mail to Richard Dawkins.

You may care to share your own perspectives.

Oh, and happy Easter …

PS: The Hand Mirror had the intelligent idea of asking Stephanie Mills to write a guest post about the issue she actually went on Breakfast to discuss.

PPS: If you're in Auckland, you may wish to keep after-work next Thursday free. There will be a little Public Address soiree to which you're all invited. Details next week.

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