Story: Diverse religions

Page 9. Recent and new-age religious movements

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Recent spiritual movements

New Zealanders have never had an established or state religion, and have often been open to new religious developments and movements. In the late 19th and early 20th century they were disproportionately attracted to new spiritual movements and spiritualist churches and groups. These included the Theosophical Society, whose followers included Premier Harry Atkinson. Also popular were the Anthroposophical Society, the Society of Guardians, the Rosicrucians and the Order of the Golden Dawn. There were also a number of homegrown spiritual movements such as the School of Radiant Living, whose members included a youthful Edmund Hillary.

Cult or church?

The first Church of Scientology was formed in Los Angeles in 1954. The New Zealand church established in Auckland the following year is thought to have been the second in the world. The church has been the subject of controversy, with some labelling it a cult. However, in 2002 New Zealand’s Inland Revenue Department decided it was a charitable organisation dedicated to the advancement of religion, meaning that its income was tax-exempt. Scientology spokesman Mike Ferris said the decision was a ‘fantastic acknowledgment of the work we do for our parishioners and for our community’. 1


Scientology began in the US in the mid-1950s. Scientologists are followers of the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, a former science-fiction author. The 2013 census counted 315 Scientologists in New Zealand although the Church of Scientology has claimed there are 5,000–6,000. They were the subject of a high-profile commission of inquiry in 1969 and have strong views about psychiatry and pharmaceutical interventions in cases of mental illness.


The Rastafari movement arose in Jamaica in the 1930s. Its followers worship Haile Selassie (the former emperor of Ethiopia), seek repatriation to Africa and follow a code of conduct and diet called ‘livity’. Many wear their hair in long dreadlocks and use cannabis as part of their beliefs.

Rastafarianism was first introduced to New Zealand through reggae music in the mid-1970s. It became better-known after tours of New Zealand in 1979 by Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley and black British theatre group Keskidee Aroha. Several local Rastafarian reggae bands were formed, mainly with Māori and other Polynesian members from Porirua, near Wellington, and Ponsonby, Auckland. A global Rastafari organisation, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, formed a New Zealand chapter in the mid-1980s. Rastafarianism became especially influential around Ruatōria on the East Coast, where young Māori combined Rastafarian beliefs with the local Ringatū faith.

Green Party MP Nandor Tanczos was New Zealand’s best-known Rastafarian until he retired from Parliament in 2008. In 2011 the first National Gathering of Rastafari was held in Wainuiomata, Wellington.

In 2013 New Zealand Rastafarians numbered about 1,900.

Tunnel for peace

The Unification Church was founded in 1954 by Korean evangelist Sun Myung Moon. In 1982 the Reverend Moon was jailed in the US for tax fraud. In 2006 the church’s spokesperson in New Zealand was Sir Peter Tapsell, a former Labour cabinet minister and speaker of the House. In August that year he sponsored a Unification Church federation in New Zealand and spoke at a rally with Moon’s wife. The rally claimed that religious and cross-cultural tolerance would be boosted if world leaders built a multi-billion dollar ‘peace tunnel’ across the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska.

Asian and other new religious movements

In the 1970s and 1980s New Zealanders established new religious groups imported from Asia, Australia and Europe, and communities with a shared spiritual outlook such as Centrepoint in Auckland. New religious movements that flourished included Hare Krishnas (ISKON), Transcendental Meditation, Ananda Marga, Soka Gakkai, the Aetherius Society, the Art of Living Foundation, Brahma Kumaris, Eckankar, Landmark Education Corporation, Maitreya, Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP), Raëlians, Subud and the Unification Church (often known as the ‘Moonies’).

New-age spiritual movements

In the 1980s and 1990s groups considering themselves spiritual rather than religious saw the dawning of a new age (‘the age of Aquarius’). The emphasis of these ‘new-age’ groups was on personal transformation and experience rather than dogma, doctrine and hierarchy. Many methods were used, including channelling spirits, gemstones, meditation, reincarnation and past-life techniques, indigenous wisdom, dance, trance and visualisation. These groups were often very fluid and were characterised by workshops, seminars, one-on-one client services, or New Age noticeboards in local spiritual bookshops. New Age fairs have been held in centres around the country.

Māori goddesses

New Zealand practitioners of witchcraft sometimes incorporate Māori deities in invocations: ‘Hine-titama, goddess of the east and the air, dawn maiden, you are the mother of all and you greet us in death … Mahuika, goddess of the north, the one who gave the world fire, you warm us with your energy … Taranga, goddess of the west, who gave birth to Maui in the ocean, you keep us alive with the water of life … Papa-tuanuku, goddess of the south, who came forth from Te Po, the darkness, you are our mother earth … Hine-ahu-one, the essence of all living things, breathe with us now and energize us with your power.’2

Witchcraft and Wicca

Alongside the New Age movements, but often distinguished from them, are various forms of neo-paganism, including Wicca and witchcraft covens. Wicca is especially popular among teenagers, particularly young women, in its cyber form. It embraces both male and female deities and is grounded in the yearly cycle of nature.

  1. ‘Scientology gets tax-exempt status.’ New Zealand Herald, 27 December 2002, (last accessed 29 March 2011). Back
  2. Kathryn Rountree, Embracing the witch and the goddess: feminist ritual-makers in New Zealand. London; New York: Routledge, 2004, p. 151. Back
How to cite this page:

Paul Morris, 'Diverse religions - Recent and new-age religious movements', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

Story by Paul Morris, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 12 Jul 2018