Story: Atheism and secularism

Page 4. An increasingly secular country

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New Zealand is no longer ‘God’s own country’ – a phrase popularised in the late 1800s by Premier Richard Seddon. (In the 20th century this was often spelt ‘Godzone’). Unlike leaders in the United States, contemporary New Zealand politicians rarely mention God, and to do so might not be advantageous. John Key, the prime minister in 2009, said that he did not believe in life after death yet he occasionally attended church. From 1999 to 2008 the agnostic Helen Clark was prime minister. Politicians can suffer, rather than gain, from religious association. During the lead-up to the 2005 general election, support for the National Party waned after leader Don Brash met secretly with the Exclusive Brethren.

Realists, hedonists, fatalists, Tūhoe …

In the 1971 census a ‘supplementary list of minor religious professions with 5 or more adherents’ was published. These responses fell outside the standard definitions. Of these the ones that appeared to be secular were: communist (9 adherents), community (10), cosmopolitan (5), eclectic (8), esoteric (11), evolutionist (18), fatalist (5), Golden Rule (5), hedonist (17), life (7), naturalist (12), pacifist (8), philosopher (12), realist (14), scientific humanist (5), secular (6) and Tūhoe (15). In addition there were 385 facetious responses.

Art and popular culture

New Zealand’s secularism can also be seen in the authorities’ lack of interest in prosecuting sacreligious art or religious satire. In 1998 MP John Banks attempted – unsuccessfully – to prosecute Te Papa after it exhibited an artwork featuring a statuette of the Virgin Mary in a condom. In 2007 Catholic bishops appealed against the Broadcasting Standards Authority’s decision to allow screening of an episode of the American cartoon show South Park, in which a Virgin Mary statue sprayed menstrual blood on a cardinal, the Pope and a character named Randy. The authority found there was no breach of standards simply because the programme was offensive to Catholic religious values, and upholding the complaint would have been contrary to the ‘freedom of expression’ enshrined in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. The High Court agreed.

Religion and public life

While there is no official or state religion, New Zealand’s Christian history ensures that some traditions and conventions remain, especially in public life. A prayer is said before the opening of each day's sitting of Parliament. The national anthem invokes God to defend the country. Of the two-and-a-half days that most shops are forced to close during the year, two (Good Friday and Christmas Day) are Christian holy days; the other is the war-remembrance holiday Anzac Day (when shops must be closed till 1 p.m.). 

In a predominantly secular society, which includes more non-believers and more diverse religious beliefs, aspects of public life that reflect New Zealand’s Christian heritage are increasingly likely to be challenged.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Atheism and secularism - An increasingly secular country', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2019)

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