Story: Atheism and secularism

Page 1. A Christian legacy

All images & media in this story

A Christian history

In the early 21st century in New Zealand, church attendance was low. Many congregations had amalgamated, and many church buildings had been sold and converted into cafés, bars, theatres or homes. Yet for most of the country’s history of European settlement, most people were religious – and that religion was almost exclusively Christianity.

While fewer than 20% of New Zealanders identified themselves as regular churchgoers in the 1881 census, fewer than 1% said that they had no religion. There has never been an official or state religion, and the church and state have always been separate, but churches have been politically and socially influential on issues such as temperance, censorship, gambling and religious education.

In the mid- to late 19th century, churches set up many schools and looked after the poor and destitute. Those without belief (or with other beliefs) lived in a country where their lifestyle was influenced by Christianity. Prayers were said in many public meetings, and God was invoked in speeches. Sundays were for rest, not recreation. In some places children’s swings were padlocked on Sundays. During the First World War some religious conscientious objectors could be granted exemption from fighting, but non-believers could not. Christianity and its values influenced the world view of most New Zealanders until the 1960s.

Questioning religion

In 18th-century Europe, Enlightenment thinkers challenged the dogma and superstition of established Christianity and questioned religious orthodoxies. This set the scene for enthusiasm about science and rational thought in the 19th century. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, On the origin of species by means of natural selection, published in 1859, added to debate regarding God’s existence and the literal truth of Bible stories. However, Darwin’s theory did not cause much uproar in New Zealand. Many people accepted science as valid and still held religious beliefs. Debates about the relationship between science, reason and religion continued in the 21st century.


Secular means not religious, sacred, spiritual or superstitious. Since the 19th century many people have questioned religious belief systems. They include atheists, agnostics, rationalists and humanists.

Atheists believe that God does not exist, while agnostics believe that nothing can be known about the existence of God. Rationalists base their world view on reason and knowledge rather than faith or spirituality. Humanists focus on human rather than divine or supernatural matters.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Atheism and secularism - A Christian legacy', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 4 Apr 2018