Editorial: Religious belief less relevant to most

It's official: New Zealand is increasingly becoming a secular nation, by popular choice as well as official decree.

The latest census reveals that less than half of us claim some sort of Christian affiliation, with 47.7 per cent ticking that box last year. Just on 42 per cent say they are non-religious.

In the Nelson-Tasman region, religious belief still rules, but just by 0.3 per cent. Averaging Nelson's 48 per cent with no religion, and Tasman's 51.4 per cent - the highest rate of non-believers in New Zealand - would give a combined figure of 49.7 per cent non-believers.

Exactly where the balance of 50.3 per cent stand on the issue was not made clear - though numbers of Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs are bucking the trend and evading the overall decline in numbers most organised religions are facing.

Though religion might be slowly losing direct relevance in the lives of many individuals its influence remains. Most of us still celebrate Easter and Christmas regardless of whether we pay any attention to the ideas and ideals that underpin them.

New Zealand's moral, legal and social compass is still largely based on religious ideas and ideals. Our lawmakers begin parliamentary sessions with a prayer, and we still are asked to swear on the Bible in some official and legal situations.

We are fortunate that most New Zealanders are prepared to think for themselves rather than blindly following the fundamentalist preachings of religion's lunatic fringe, from any denomination.

We would do well to learn from the lessons of other jurisdictions which have grappled - not always successfully - with the challenge of accepting and integrating immigrants from countries with very different rules, cultures and religions.

Interestingly, Tasman has the highest proportion of married people - with all of that institution's religious undertones - and also the lowest percentage of Christians in New Zealand.

Their slightly more God-fearing cousins within Nelson's boundaries have the greatest number of people who are either divorced, separated or widowed in the country. Amalgamation proponents, take note: we are not all of one mind!

It is heartening to hear that smoking in the region is running out of puff. The Tasman district, once home to a thriving tobacco industry, has the lowest rate of smokers in New Zealand, with a drop from more than 18 per cent of smokers in 2006 to just 12.9 per cent now.

Most encouraging was the significant drop in teenage smokers. If the figures are accurate, teen smoking numbers have dropped by nearly half in the seven years to the latest census.

Regardless of whether this is because of peer pressure, price or health promoters hitting their targets, that is fantastic news with important implications for the nation's bulging health budget. Statistics like this underline the importance of the national census, and the value in answering it accurately.

The Nelson Mail