People who identify themselves as Christians are no longer the majority in the Manawatu-Whanganui region, while people with no religion are increasing in number.
The latest census data also shows an increase in followers of other religions, such as Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Sikhism.
In the wider Manawatu-Whanganui region, 100,767 people identified with Christianity in the 2013 census, or 45.3 per cent of the population, down from 116,799, or 52.5 per cent in the 2006 census.
Palmerston North has followed suit. There were 35,301 residents who identified with a Christian religion in the latest census, or 44.1 per cent of the city's population.
This compares with 40,080 in the 2006 census, or 51.6 per cent of the population at the time.
The number of people with at least one religious affiliation has also dropped, to just below half of all residents.
Massey University religious studies lecturer Christopher van der Krogt said the figures broadly followed the national pattern, although there were some differences.
Nationally, Catholics now formed the largest group, but in Palmerston North those who identified as Anglicans still outnumbered Catholics.
"However, the numbers between them are now very similar, and I think in the next census you will find that Catholics will be the larger group," he said.
This was not because Catholics were managing a decline better, but because a significant number of immigrants were Catholic.
He said there were several factors behind the swing from Christianity to no religion.
The number of people with no religion has risen from 26,529, or 34.1 per cent of residents, to 32,133, or 40.1 per cent.
"The larger churches, especially, always had a strong census adherence, people who didn't actually go to church, but they wrote down Anglican or whatever," Dr van der Krogt said.
"What we've seen over the last few censuses now is a shift from having to identify religion because that's what you do. There isn't any longer this sense of embarrassment for not having a census affiliation."
Another factor was that adherents of the traditional denominations were ageing and not being replaced.
However, people who identified with no religion were not necessarily atheists.
Dr van der Krogt said immigration was certainly the main factor behind the increase in other religions.
Hinduism has seen the biggest numerical growth in Palmerston North, with 1143 people identifying as Hindu. That is an increase of 447 since the previous census.
Central Districts Indian Association president Paul Patel said Hindus came to New Zealand from many countries.
However, he had noticed many Indians were shifting into smaller centres to look for business opportunities.
He said although the census showed a significant rise in the number of Hindus, that was simply the number of people who had ticked that box.
The number of Muslims rose from 651 to 960, Buddhists rose from 795 to 951 and Sikhs increased from 48 to 165.
Dr Van der Krogt said the declining numbers of religious adherents had wider policy implications. For example, government could afford to override the objections of conservative religious groups' opinions on such issues as same-sex marriage.
FEWER TEENS LIGHTING UP
The Manawatu/Whanganui region has recorded the second highest drop in the number of teen smokers, the census figures show.
Less than one in 10 Palmerston North teens smoke, giving health officials confidence New Zealand can become smokefree by 2025.
Cigarettes are no longer "cool", say youth, in part because of the pain of seeing loved ones die from smoking-related illnesses.
In 2006, nearly 24 per cent of the Manawatu-Whanganui region's adult population said they were regular smokers. By last year's census that proportion had dropped to 18 per cent - a difference of 9282 people.
Just 12.6 per cent of 15- to 19-year-olds in the region smoked regularly, compared with 23.2 per cent in 2006.
Palmerston North 15-year-old Cassidy Martell said it was generally no longer considered "cool" to smoke. She said she had never tried "because I know it's bad for you".
"But it depends on the group you're with. Some people still think it's cool, but my friends don't smoke."
In Palmerston North just 9.2 per cent of 15- to 19-year-olds smoked, down from 20 per cent in 2006. Just 14.4 per cent of the city's adults smoked, compared with 20.4 per cent in 2006. Figures for Manawatu District were similar, with 11 per cent of 15- to 19-year-olds admitting to smoking and 17.2 of the district-wide adult population.
In Horowhenua, rates were higher, with 15.6 per cent of 15- to 19-year-olds smoking in 2013 and 20.9 of the total population.
Steaphen Greenlees, 20, said he used to smoke, but had quit. Young people were more aware of the dangers of smoking, he said.
"A lot of us have seen older relatives with cancer and that has changed a lot of people's perspectives. It's not easy to watch someone die."
Massey Students Union Association president Linsey Higgins said smoking had been denormalised.
Smoking had been banned from workplaces and restaurants, while increases in excise duties had made students reassess whether smoking was affordable, she said.
"Twenty years ago it was normal to have an ash tray on your coffee table; it's not that way any more."
The 24-year-old said few of her friends smoked, or if they did it was only when they were drinking.
"It wasn't something that I ever tried because I had reasons for not doing so. I had family members that had passed away from smoking-related illnesses."
MidCentral Health smoke-free promoter Julie Beckett said the data was a reflection of the work done in recent years. Many shops no longer sold tobacco products. Palmerston North City Council implemented a smoke-free CBD policy and other public facilities were also smokefree.
"With the banning of tobacco displays in retail premises we will have tamariki who do not know what a tobacco display looks like - less pressure for them to take up smoking, and less pressure for those wishing to quit the habit," she said.
One of the first Palmerston North stores to stop selling cigarettes was Moshim's Discount House.
Nazmeen Ishmail, who owns the store with her husband, Imtiyaz Bakshi, said she had no regrets about the decision.
"We definitely feel proud of it. It's part of serving the community. We feel we are helping this community," she said.
STUDENTS, PENSIONERS SKEW INCOME
The census figures indicate Palmerston North households are earning more, with median income outperforming the wider region.
The 2013 census shows median household income in Palmerston North rose to $58,500, from $48,100 in 2006.
This compares favourably with the Manawatu-Whanganui region as a whole, where median household income rose from $41,200 to $50,000.
However, larger cities still have greater earning power, with Wellington recording median household income of $91,100, Auckland $76,500, and Christchurch $65,300.
"Wage rates tend to be lower here, which is reflective of the lower cost of living, so employers don't have to offer as much money," Palmerston North City Council economic policy adviser Peter Crawford said yesterday.
He said there were factors that skewed the median income figures.
For example, the number of students receiving a student allowance increased from 2496 in the previous census to 3195 last year.
"And if you've got a lot of people going onto superannuation, coming into the city to live in a retirement village, that can skew the median income numbers as well."
The number of residents on superannuation or receiving a veteran's pension rose almost 15 per cent, from 8235 to 9462.
The number of households earning more than $100,000 in Palmerston North rose from 3687 to 5706. The number with zero income also increased, from 90 to 117.
- Manawatu Standard
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