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Atheism and secularism

by Carl Walrond

In the early 21st century, two out of five New Zealanders described themselves as having no religion, and many churches had been sold and converted to other uses. Atheism and secularism have a long history in New Zealand, with freethinkers, rationalists and humanists all forming their own organisations.

A Christian legacy

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.

Organised secular groups

Small groups of non-believers thought that religious values (and laws) should not be imposed on those who had no belief. Some organised themselves into associations.

The freethinkers

‘Freethinker’ was a common 19th-century term for people who based their opinions on science, logic and reason. New Zealand’s first freethought organisation, the Auckland Secular Society, appeared in 1854 but lasted just two years. Atheist Charles Southwell established an anti-Māori, anti-missionary and pro-settler newspaper in Auckland in 1856, alarming the government. The Auckland Secular Society re-emerged in 1866 as the Auckland Secular Association, but that too faded away. By 1884 there was an Auckland Rationalist Association, and a Freethought Conference was held in Dunedin that year. Freethinkers were not fringe radicals but included influential men such as Robert Stout (premier from 1884 to 1887) and John Ballance (premier from 1891 to 1893). In Christchurch William Collins, another former Liberal MP who was president of the local freethought association, published a monthly journal, the Examiner, from 1907 to 1917.

The rationalists

In 1923 a Rationalist Association was formed in Auckland in preparation for the visit of the outspoken English author and rationalist Joseph McCabe. It had about 150 members, but only lasted a year. Rationalists attacked religion where it impinged on the lives of people without belief. Many rationalists had rejected religious upbringings.

Plumb hears McCabe

Presbyterian minister George Plumb, the central character of Maurice Gee’s novel Plumb (1978), hears rationalist Joseph McCabe (a real historical figure) speak: ‘I knew all about McCabe: his Catholic upbringing, his twelve years in a Franciscan monastery – Father Anthony – his struggle to shake superstition off: and then the books, the pamphlets, the lectures, the life lived with a purpose; the crusade, if you like, against the forces of religious obscurantism.’ 1

The association, which re-formed in 1927, published a list of objectives which included promoting a system of education based on science and getting rid of all laws that interfered with the free use of Sunday. By the end of 1929 hundreds, and sometimes thousands, attended its weekly Sunday meetings (the major attraction was that a film was shown at the end of the lecture). From 1927 the association produced the journal The Truth Seeker – still published by the New Zealand Rationalist Society in the early 21st century as The Open Society.

From their inception rationalists strove to be non-partisan. However, many were politically left-leaning, and rationalism was closely associated with socialism. Michael Joseph Savage, a socialist and later prime minister, was a rationalist during the 1920s. From the 1940s the organisation was troubled by internal politics and declining membership, but a high point came in 1960 when it purchased a property in Symonds Street, Auckland, naming it Rationalist House. A major issue for rationalists in the 21st century was that a movement attacking religion seemed less relevant in a period when fewer people went to church.

The humanists

In the late 1950s younger rationalists were interested in issues such as nuclear proliferation, racial and sexual equality, peace and social justice. They termed themselves humanists and broke away from the older rationalists, who were still focused on attacking religion. In 1967 the humanists formed their own organisation, the Humanist Society of New Zealand. They focused on developing a world with better human rights, gender equality and social justice.

Watch out, zealot

Some rationalists and freethinkers of the 19th century were devout believers in evolution. Classics professor John Macmillan Brown warned fellow freethinker John Ballance that he was in danger of turning his anti-religion into a religion.

The New Zealand Skeptics

The New Zealand Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal was formed in April 1986. They became the NZ Skeptics in 2007. They focused on exposing the lack of objective scientific evidence to support claims for things such as psychic abilities, alternative health practices and creationism. They had no official position on religion – in their view, belief did not require proof and could not be investigated scientifically.

    • Maurice Gee, Plumb. London: Faber & Faber, 1978, p. 102. Back

Who is secular?

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.


An increasingly secular country


New Zealand is no longer ‘God’s own country’ – a phrase popularised in the late 19th century by poet Thomas Bracken and then by Premier Richard Seddon. (In the 20th century it was often contracted to ‘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, did not believe in life after death but 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 on which 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 cannot open until 1 p.m.). Shops also had to close on Easter Sunday until the Shop Trading Hours Act was amended in 2016. 

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

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'Atheism and secularism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Carl Walrond, i tāngia i te 5 o Mei 2011, reviewed & revised 4 o Āpereira 2018