Are we now so godless that Christmas is irrelevant?

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 11/12/2013
Muhammad Morgan
KEVIN STENT/Fairfax NZ

PAST AND PRESENT: Muhammad Morgan with children, from left, Tasneem, 13, Kasheef, 11, Tareq John, 6 (front) and Zulfaa, 8. Mr Morgan was born to Anglican parents and converted to Islam in 1996.

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Kiwis are turning their backs on God in record numbers, instead opting for a life without religion.

Christianity has shed hundreds of thousand of devotees in the past seven years, while the number of non-religious has risen strongly.

Four out 10 Kiwis now declare themselves non-religious, putting us firmly among the most secular countries in the world.

Census 2013 figures released yesterday show any claim to a Christian majority in New Zealand is shaky, with fewer than 1.9 million people affiliated with a church, down from more than 2 million in 2006.

Victoria University professor Paul Morris, who specialises in religious studies, said the country was in "new territory", with Christianity losing its central position in society.

"For the first time since 1901, Christians are not the clear majority."

The shift even raised questions about the appropriateness of Christian public holidays, such as Christmas, and the place of the church in schools.

"Are we no longer a Christian nation? There is a question mark," he said.

Christianity was facing a generational problem, with its older devotees dying off and the younger generations showing no interest.

A lack of religion was becoming inter-generational, as children grew up without a church and had their own children.

Anglicans have taken the biggest hit, losing nearly 100,000 followers, with the flock dropping to just 459,000.

The sharp drop means Catholicism is, for the first time, New Zealand's most popular religion, with 492,000 devotees, down from 508,000 in 2006.

Most major churches took a dive, but Pentecostal and smaller evangelical churches managed to buck the trend by adding to their flock.

Anglican Bishop of Wellington Justin Duckworth said the Anglican Church had older adherents, and many had died since the last census in 2006.

More needed to be done to connect with young people, but the church was up against a group that was individualist and not interested in long-term commitment to any institution. "People often say they are incredibly spiritual but they are wary of organised religion," he said.

Archbishop John Dew, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference, said Christianity was still a big part of New Zealand life. "Religion continues to be part of our make-up and identity as a nation."

But while Christianity may be dwindling, other religions, often linked with a rise in migrants, are flourishing.

Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam have all grown hugely. There are now 89,000 Hindus in New Zealand, a rise of 16,000 since 2006. During the same period the New Zealand Indian population grew by about 50,000.

Prof Morris said what were once fringe religions in New Zealand were now, through migration, big enough to challenge established churches. "These migrant religious communities are active and growing and now represent a significant facet of our life."

The decline in Christian churchgoers was also being obscured by migrants, he said, as many were practising Christians.

AS ALLAH WILLS: PART OF FAST-GROWING FAITH

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Christmas is tricky time for Muhammad Grant Morgan, juggling the traditions of the past and present.

Mr Morgan, of Titahi Bay, was raised in a loosely Anglican household in Berhampore, Wellington, but never really took to the church.

"My parents are Anglican but I don't really remember going to church."

He grew up without any religious convictions but, coming into his 20s, became increasingly dissatisfied with his life. "I was looking for something . . . I went through a whole process of searching for three or four years."

While living in Malaysia in 1996, he converted to Islam. Ten years later he returned to New Zealand, with his Malay wife and four children.

He does not drink, prays regularly and last year went on a 28-day pilgrimage to Mecca. He said his faith had given him the clear direction he felt he needed.

Census 2013 figures published yesterday show Islam is among the few religions that grew strongly in the past seven years. New Zealand now has 45,963 Muslims, up from 35,856 in 2006.

Mr Morgan said his newfound faith meant giving up many things and, he believed, cost him a few friends. "I can't go down Courtenay Place for a few drinks after work on Friday."

While his parents still celebrate Christmas, his family instead get together on New Year's Day. "The juggling can be quite a challenge for a convert."

However, support for Muslims had grown since the 90s, with a thriving and ethnically diverse Wellington community.

CHANGING FAITHS

New Zealand's lesser-known religions have experienced mixed fortunes over the past seven years.

Rastafarianism: An African-based spiritual belief that arose in Jamaica. Believers worship a 20th-century Ethiopian emperor, smoke cannabis for its spiritual qualities, and reject materialism and oppression.

How many: 1917 Change: up 534

Satanism: The worship of Satan, often as a liberating figure against religious orthodox and conformity.

How many: 843 Change: down 324

Wiccan: A modern interpretation of paganism and witchcraft. Beliefs vary.

How many: 1452 Change: down 630

Animism: Belief that all living things and many natural features, such as rivers or mountains, have a soul.

How many: 243 Change: up 36

Hauhau: A 19th-century Maori religious movement or cult that followed prophet Te Ua Haumene, and was focused on lifting Pakeha dominance at the time. Te Ua said faith in religion would protect his followers from bullets in battle.

How many: 744 Change: up 135

- © Fairfax NZ News

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