Having faith: 4 New Zealanders share their religious and philosophical beliefs


Sara Passmore talks about being a humanist.

Spiritualism and New Age are up and Christian religions are down. That's the way the New Zealand religious landscape is looking.

But in matters of faith, women outnumber men with more women registering an affiliation with a religion or faith than men in the last census.

At a time when many celebrate the Christian festival of Easter, four women share the faiths and beliefs that shape their lives.

Pamela Meekings-Stewart talks about her life as a Druid.

Pamela Meekings-Stewart talks about her life as a Druid.

* Does growing up an atheist make you a better person?
* How to debate the issue of religion
* Are we losing our religion?

 Sara Passmore says as a Humanist she believes this is the one and only life we live so live it well. PHOTO: MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Sara Passmore is not a club-joiner. She doesn't like labels. But she nails her colours to the mast when it comes to her identity as a Humanist. 

She has strayed far from the faiths of her upbringing - her mother is a Jehovah's Witness. Her father Church of England.

She considered Buddhism and various other paths over the years but it wasn't till she started a job at the British Humanist Society while living in the UK that she found what she was looking for.

"That was the first point where I realised what they stood for definitely describes me. I'd walked through life saying I'm not a joiner, I don't want to be in any sort of club but when I started working there with people with similar beliefs as me and talking about those beliefs it made sense.

Humanism is about the here and the now. It is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by creative endeavours and motivated by compassion. It's about maximum possible fulfilment through ethical and creative living for everyone.

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Humanism shapes the decisions she makes in life, from what she buys to where she works.

She has always worked for charity or non-for-profit organisations so she can align her ethics with how she earns a living.

There's no one way to live a life as a Humanist. 

"For me, it's about looking at how I want to be in the world. How I want to relate to others. 

"I don't believe in an afterlife, a Heaven or Hell. I believe this is the one life we have. This is the one shot I have to really enjoy things." 

It's not a nihilistic approach, though, she says.

It's not just about enjoying lots of things all the time to get as much satisfaction as possible while we can with no fear of reprisals in an afterlife. 

"As Humanists we believe that it's other people's only chance at enjoying their life as well so we have this moral duty to ensure that not only do we want a safe and happy, healthy successful life but [we must] also try and make sure other people can enjoy the world they live in."

Through her role as president of the Humanist Society of New Zealand she campaigns on issues such as assisted dying and religious education in state schools.

Her belief is that we must enjoy life while we're here because there's nothing before life and nothing after it.

"You are not going to live on in some spiritual way but you live on in the hearts and minds of other people still living or the changes you might have made in the world to make it a better place."

 Author Joy Cowley converted to Catholicism. PHOTO: MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

A near-death experience in her early 30s was the catalyst for Joy Cowley's conversion to Catholicism.

The author had explored many other aspects of other Christian faiths, Hinduism and Buddhism. Following her brush with death the words of a Hindu Swami from Fiji rang true when he told her she was like a hen 'scratching  here, scratching there. That's no way to dig a well.'

Cowley is nothing if not catholic in her approach to her faith.

"On any religious path you start on the outside of a circle with many paths going to the centre. Some paths can seem separate, distant or opposite but we get to a stage where all those paths converge in that place of light where there are no words but quite an intense feeling of spaciousness, rightness of being, where you really come to know yourself.

"The Buddhists, the Hindus, the Catholics are all saying the same thing - it's all about love and light."

Brought up in a strict Christian household it was all ritual and no depth. 

She could never accept or believe in the Devil. The use of a punitive being was a cop out, she says. 

When she was in her early 30s she gave up using the word 'God' because it carried so much baggage -  "this man in the clouds who wrote down every bad thing you did.

"I used many other expressions before going back to those three letters."

The only place she found freedom was in the Catholic church, she says.

The other paths she had been on made her feel that being human was very inferior and that she had to change. 

"There was a lot of negativity. But in the Catholic church, while they talk about sin, it's really about using your weakness or what you consider your mistakes, as teaching, guidance."

But the Catholic church is still 'hopping on one foot', she says. It hasn't yet put the feminine foot down. 

"Every religion has been created by men. Men need structure, information. That's important for them. Women have a more lateral outreach. We are about relationships. Spirituality comes naturally to us. But I believe that both come together and I think this is where the church is still lacking."

She is in favour of birth control, same sex relationships. There are still issues with homophobia within the church. 

She has been criticised for writing blessings for civil unions and for her book Made For Love - a spiritual reflection for couples. Most of that criticism for the book - a collection of blessings embracing same sex and heterosexual love - came from laypeople, with support coming from bishops and priests, she says.

Converting, which she did in 1982, was a spiritual coming home, she says.

"It was about coming home to who I really was and who I really was was not the writer, the mother, the person who worked on the farm. Those were superficial things. This was about going into a depth of who I was in a much broader place which allowed room to grow. And that's what I've been doing ever since."

Pamela Meekings-Stewart is a Druid. PHOTO: MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Pamela Meekings-Stewart is mildly amused by the two most common questions she is asked about being a druid - does she worship in the nude? And does she sacrifice babies. You read that right. Babies, sacrifice.

While the latter is ludicrous, the former is true for some druids - some do come to their groves 'skyclad' in warmer climes. 

But mostly, her grove of 40 druids who meet on her 52 hectare property on the Kapiti Coast are clothed and not looking to sacrifice a fly.

From a young age Meekings-Stewart was often found talking with flowers and plants. The writing was on the wall even then. In druidry there is an utter connectedness with nature, she says. Stones are not dead objects, they simply move more slowly. Trees communicate with a vibration that connects us with them.  

She identifies with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, which traces its origins back to 1717. Her grove meet regularly amongst a circle of Te Kouka trees where they acknowledge summer and winter solstice, two equinox and four quarter planting festivals.

They meet to celebrate, well, life. 

Druidry is not a religion. It's not even a faith, she says. 

"All the druids in our grove will have had an experience of spirit in nature and that's what brings us together as a community.

"My feeling is that we are a part of something much bigger. We are interconnected and interdependent with the spirit of everything. We are all part of the mystery of life."

Stones, crystals, trees and sexuality are particularly sacred to druids. 

Druids are peacemakers, believers in justice and tolerance.

In their grove they have had Christians, Jews, pagans - polytheists, monotheists, pantheists. It doesn't matter who they are, she says. "We are all made from the same stuff."

She has followed the way of the druid since 1999.

Pamela, a pantheist, says druids cannot be preached to.

"We cannot be told what to do and that's a real problem for other religions because there's always someone at the top telling you what you need to do to be a good person. In druidry we ask: What does being a good person mean to you? What are your experiences of the divine? Because that's what we will support. We are radicals, really. We're anarchists."

 Asmaa Said says her Muslim faith is all about humanity. PHOTO: MONIQUE FORD/FAIRFAX NZ

Asmaa Said describes herself as a modern Muslim. A good Muslim.

She does not wear a hijab (head scarf), but does not judge those who do. She does not see herself as part of a wider group preferring to be independent when it comes to expressing her faith.

"When you are in a group and someone does something terrible in the name of that faith, then people generalise about that group." she says.

Asmaa was nine months pregnant when she fled the dictatorship of Iraq 23 years ago with her husband and daughter.

It was a secular country led by Saddam Hussein but under his Baath Party there was no democracy, no freedom of political expression.

"We were not free to think or express how we felt.

"We believed there would be freedom somewhere for our children, where they could be themselves and say what they believed and we found it here in New Zealand."

Asmaa says keeping her language alive is a big part of keeping her faith.

If you don't understand Arabic you can't read the Qur'an, she says.

She was raised by very 'democratic' parents to believe in God.

"I was born with this faith. I have felt a faith all my life.

"One of the meanings of the word Islam is 'submission' and I have always felt as though I submit to God's love.

"As a child I remember waking up before dawn and I always felt there was something watching me. I have always felt like God is listening to me."

She doesn't force her beliefs and traditions on her children. While they have learned about Muslim traditions they have to come to it in their own time, in their own way, she says.

Asmaa prays five times a day, though she calls it more of a meditation. She fasts during Ramadan and observes other muslim traditions.

"It's funny that people talk about the benefits of fasting and meditation these days as if it's a new thing but we have been doing it for a long time."

She prefers not to say if she is Sunni or Shia Muslim.

This is what divides people, she says.

"We all pray to one God and this is how it should be. If you start to classify people you get one wanting to dominate the other.

"In Iraq, whether we are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Yazidis or Mandaeanism, I like to call us all Iraqis."

Her faith is all about humanity, she says.

It's about learning how to accept our differences, learning how to respect one another's beliefs so we can live happily in a society.

"If I believe that God created all of humanity, we have to learn how to live with each other.

"I'm asking Muslims also to accept other people's way of life. If you accept people they will accept you.

"Our differences should not divide us. In the end, the same power will judge us all."


* More women than men registered an affiliation with a religion or faith in the last census (114,018 more women than men out of a total of 4,242,048). Of the 19 religions listed by Statistics New Zealand, women come out higher than men in 14.  

* The number and proportion of people indicating they had no religion increased between 2006 (34.6 per cent) and 2013 (41.9 per cent). 

* In the last census in 2013, the number of people who affiliated with a Christian religion decreased from 48.9 per cent of all people who stated their religious affiliation down from 55.6 per cent in 2006.

* The five largest Christian denominations in 2013 were: Catholic; Anglican; Presbyterian, Congregational, and Reformed; Christian with no denomination specified; and Methodist. 

* Since the last census the number of people affiliating with the Sikh religion more than doubled since 2006  Those identifying with Hinduism increased 39.6 per cent   and Islam increased 27.9 per cent 

 - Stuff


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