Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Religion in New Zealand since the 1960s: Some Sociological Perspectives

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Religion in New Zealand since the 1960s: Some Sociological Perspectives

Article excerpt


A consistent theme in both academic and popular comment on religion in New Zealand over the past 50 years has been of ongoing decline, which would one day lead to its virtual disappearance. This was a theme also in most other western societies. Looking back fifty years to 1966, as awareness of declining church attendance among young people began to emerge, Time magazine published arguably its most famous cover, asking the question "Is God Dead?" That same year John Lennon declared, "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I'll be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now." By the mid-1960s, the Beatles and other popular artists had become spokespersons for the post-war generation and, in the 1970s, Lennon had an enormous hit with Imagine: "Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky ... no religion too".

In New Zealand, Lloyd Geering was both a significant voice in the academic study of religion and also dominated media comment on the subject. He likewise maintained that here in NZ we also were losing our religion and would one day witness the death of religion, at least in its organized Christian form. Our most prominent weekly magazine the Listener has often featured in its Christmas edition some reflection on the state of religion here. In its final twentieth century edition its lead article was titled 'Faith in the Future: Searching for Jesus Christ at Christmas'.

Over 50 years, the expression may have grown sharper, the message more urgent, but the conclusion is inescapable: you can see the end of Christianity from here, 2000 years after the birth of Christ. Consult all the statistics and all the data - falling church attendance figures, the growing absence of "Christian" on census returns - and the news is bad and worsening for the Christian mainstream.

What are we witnessing? Not the death of spirituality, not the death of belief, not the death of meaning, but the death of religious institutions, the death of organised religion ... It is the death of Christendom, says theologian Lloyd Geering (Matthews, 1997: 17).

This article will examine the changing landscape of religion in NZ over the past 50 years in the light of this framework, questioning how useful it is in understanding what has actually been going on. In some ways its popularity is built on a commonly held assumption that religion never really had a very strong place here. Keith Sinclair in his widely used history of NZ devoted only a brief comment to the topic: "It would be misleading to imply that the New Zealanders are a very religious people - some of them go to church when they are christened, many when they marry and more when they die. The prevailing religion is a simple materialism. The pursuit of health and possessions fills more minds than thoughts of salvation (Sinclair, 1959: 288). This perspective carried through into the fledgling field of sociology when it arrived, with only Hans Mol at Canterbury University for a brief period in the 1960s and then Michael Hill at Victoria University from 1976 (before he moved into criminology and deviancy) focussed on religion as a major area of research. This combined with the assumption of continuing decline, means that from the early 1990s religion has virtually disappeared from sociology departments. More recent historical writing has indicated it played a much great role than has been previously acknowledged.

This does not mean there was no sociology of religion being done in NZ. Between 1980 and 1990 four multi-authored publications presented different perspectives on religion1, and while Michael Hill was the only 'pure' sociologist to contribute, a number of the contributions were in fact sociology of religion. Significant among these were: Brian Colless and Peter Donovan, both lecturers in Religious Studies at Massey University; James Veitch, lecturer in World Religions at Victoria University; Colin Brown, lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Canterbury; and Albert Moore, Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Otago, who for a number of years taught a course on Sociology of Religion. …

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