Story: Religion and society

Page 8. Towards secularism and religious diversity, 1970–21st century

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Fewer Christians

Adherence and attendance rates in the three big Protestant churches declined more quickly from the mid-1960s. The proportion of the population who were Anglicans, Presbyterians or Methodists fell by over half from 1966 to 2006, with Anglicans showing the largest fall (from 33.7% to 14.8%). Catholics were 13.6% of the population in 2006 (a smaller decrease, down from 15.9%). By 2013 Catholics were 12.6% of the population, Anglicans 11.8% and Methodists 2.6%.

Sunday-school and Bible-class attendance figures also plummeted. By the 1990s many New Zealand children were growing up without much knowledge of any religion. The proportion professing no religion or some form of secular world view in the census rose from just 1.2% in 1966 to 41.9% in 2013.

Previously most secularists had been male, but the gender gap narrowed as growing numbers of younger, university-educated women embraced non-religious world views. Non-religious or anti-religious outlooks were more common amongst academics, politicians and the media than in the general public.

Many community organisations – political parties, sports clubs and service clubs – also declined from the late 1960s, sometimes faster than churches. Both religious and non-religious institutions were affected by broader socio-economic changes that meant people had less time to devote to voluntary groups. These changes included economic pressures, the mass entry of women into the paid workforce, and the spread of private entertainment such as television and (later) computers and the internet.

Continued religious influence

Although religious belonging declined, spirituality remained significant in New Zealand. The most charismatic and controversial public intellectual of the period was probably James K. Baxter, an alcoholic, poet, prophet and Catholic, whose sudden death in 1972 gripped the nation. Probably more New Zealanders joined the Jesus marches of 1972 than marched against the Vietnam War.

Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk forged a friendship with Dunedin Catholic journalist John Kennedy, editor of the Tablet, and took a conservative position on abortion, one of the most contentious political issues of the 1970s. Labour politicians who joined the anti-abortion Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) outnumbered their National counterparts. Marilyn Pryor, an articulate Māori Catholic, represented SPUC’s public face. Heated battles within the churches over abortion and then homosexuality during the 1970s and 1980s suggested that moral and religious values remained strong.

Dressed in white

An unusual protest against the presence of the South African Springbok rugby team in New Zealand in 1981 involved the former vicar of Porirua, Geoff Walpole. At the Springboks’ game against Auckland Walpole dressed up in a referee’s white uniform. He marched onto the field at the start of the game, picked up the ball and kicked it into the stands.


Some churches espoused liberal positions. The Methodist Church was the first New Zealand church to ordain women as ministers, in 1959, followed by the Presbyterians in 1965 and the Anglicans in 1977. Penelope Jamieson became the first Anglican woman bishop in the world to head a diocese in 1990. Liberal religious leaders also played important roles in social movements. Sporting contacts with apartheid-era South Africa were opposed by leaders in the Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian churches, and by the National Council of Churches. Catholic Archbishop Thomas Williams and Presbyterian minister John Murray were prominent in protests against the 1981 Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand. The churches were also active in educational efforts to support the Treaty of Waitangi.

Christian political parties

The conservative Christian Heritage Party contested general elections in the early 1990s but attracted little support. In 1996 it formed a short-lived coalition with the Christian Democrat Party (later Future New Zealand) that came close to the 5% threshold for representation. Christian Heritage disbanded in 2006 after leader Graham Capill was convicted of sexual offences.

In 2000 Future New Zealand formed a coalition with the United Party as United Future New Zealand, which won eight seats in the 2002 election.

Destiny New Zealand, a political party centred on the Destiny Church, was active between 2003 and 2007.

Māori religion

Secularising processes and ideologies had little effect on Māori until after the Second World War. As growing numbers left rural communities for the city in search of work, links with the marae, churches, ministers and elders at home weakened. Even then, few at first embraced fully secular world views – the Rātana healing movement, church and political organisation was popular among detribalised urban Māori from the 1920s.

The early 2000s saw the rise of the Destiny Church, a Pentecostal movement led by Māori Christians, with similarities to African-American evangelical churches. Some observers have suggested that Māori spirituality, widely adopted on public ceremonial occasions, has become modern New Zealand’s unofficial religion. In 2013 the proportion of Māori with no religion (46.3%) was higher than that of the whole population (41.9%). However, it remained common to begin Māori hui and ceremonial occasions with a prayer.

Recent immigrants and religion

For many of the Pacific Islanders who arrived in growing numbers from the 1950s, church remained at the centre of community life. In the 2013 census over three-quarters of the Pacific population were Christian and only 17.5% said they had no religion. Pacific Christian sports stars such as All Blacks Michael Jones and Va’aiga Tuigamala became prominent figures.

As immigration from a growing range of countries accelerated from the 1990s, mosques and temples were built. As in Europe, some politicians sought to capitalise on community fears of difference. In the 2002 election campaign, Winston Peters, leader of the New Zealand First party, warned that new immigrants threatened to import sectarianism and increase ethnic and religious conflict in New Zealand. A tightening of immigration requirements suggested that Peters had struck a chord.

The churches continued to assist newcomers. As the government rolled back the welfare state in the 1990s, church-based social service agencies worked hard to fill the gap. From 2001 leaders of the six churches involved in the Council of Christian Social Services met regularly with senior ministers to discuss social-service issues. Applied Christianity continued to have an influence on politics.

How to cite this page:

John Stenhouse, 'Religion and society - Towards secularism and religious diversity, 1970–21st century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by John Stenhouse, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 4 Apr 2018