Story: Atheism and secularism

Page 3. Who is secular?

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Who, and how many, have no belief?

In New Zealand’s 1956 census only 0.5% of the population stated that they had no religion. This figure has grown steadily since then, and in the 2013 census 42% of the population (1,635,345 people) said they had no religion. The number was increasing by around 50,000 per year, with the highest rates among younger people. Fewer men than women were religious.

In 2013, 47% of people who identified themselves as Europeans or New Zealanders said they had no religion, as did 46% of Māori and 30% of Asians. Only 18% of Pacific peoples, and 17% of people in the Middle Eastern, Latin American and African ethnic groups, said they had no religion.

Around 7% of people did not answer the 2013 census question on religious affiliation, and there are other issues with using census responses as a measure of secularism. For example, some people tick the box of their family’s traditional religion – even if they are not religious personally. Conversely, some of those who tick ‘no religion’ nevertheless believe in God.

Faithful Jedi

Before the 2001 census an email circulated encouraging people to specify ‘Jedi’ (Star wars characters) as their religious affiliation. Some 53,715 did so – more than those who identified themselves as Buddhists, Baptists, Mormons, Hindus or Rātana Christians. Although Statistics New Zealand assigned ‘Jedi’ an official code, the total was lumped in with others such as ‘The Church of Elvis and Rugby, Racing and Beer’ as ‘responses deemed outside the scope of recognised religions’.1

1985 values survey

A 1985 survey of 2,000 New Zealanders concluded that while 60% of the sample showed gradations of religious belief and practice, only 12–15% met stricter criteria of being truly religious (personal belief in God, attendance at church, use of prayer and feeling a supernatural presence). Problems with the ‘no religion’ answer to the religious-affiliation census question are revealed by this 1985 survey. One in four respondents who had ‘no religion’ in the survey said they believed in God. And all Christian denominations had members who did not believe in God – ranging from 7% of Baptists to 36% of Methodists.

2008 International Social Survey on religion

In 2008 Massey University conducted a study of belief in New Zealand as part of the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP). They found that just over a third of respondents described themselves as religious, about 50% said they believed in God (although half of these admitted to doubts), 19% believed in some higher power and around one-third did not believe or did not know. Most New Zealanders were not superstitious, although 39% believed that fortune tellers could foresee the future.

The number of non-believers

In the early 21st century the number of non-religious people world-wide was estimated to be between 500 and 750 million. The nations with the highest proportion of non-believers were in the Asia-Pacific region (including China, New Zealand and Australia), followed by Europe and North America.

In the early 21st century a large proportion of New Zealanders were non-believers – from 28% to 73%, depending on definitions. Between the definite non-believers (13%) and the true believers (27%) there was a larger group with varying levels of religiosity, spiritualism, agnosticism, doubt, apathy and lack of interest.

  1. New Zealand Herald, 31 August 2002, (last accessed 18 December 2009). Back
How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Atheism and secularism - Who is secular?', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 April 2024)

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