Ghosts of the past

If the demographers are to be believed, 500 years on from the reformation New Zealand still has not felt all of its effects onshore or off.

Those of us with even the slightest hint of European heritage can probably speak of an ancestor caught up in the wars between Catholics and a group that would come to be called Protestants, after Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door.

Protestants made up the bulk of Europeans to roll into New Zealand throughout the 1800s, with 90 per cent of the European population identifying as Christian.

Today, according to the last census, just under half of all Kiwis call themselves “Christian”. Split those numbers out into denominations, and Catholics now top the list, followed by the Protestant denominations like Anglican, Presbyterian or Methodist.

Virtually all are on a decline so dramatic it was the inspiration behind a story earlier this year called “Losing our religion“.

But here’s the interesting thing. A group called simply “Protestants” by Statistics New Zealand grew by 26.4 per cent from the previous census in 2006.

A group called “Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamental” grew by 11.2 per cent.

This abnormal growth was the feature of another article in September, and has caught the eye of experts around the world because it bucks the secularisation theory made popular in the 1950s, which predicted that in modern, educated societies devout belief would not survive.

As appears to be happening in America, according to the Pew Research Centre, traditional religion is in sharp decline. Chosen religion (based on conversion) seems to be growing, in countries both modern and modernising.

At the same time secularism’s growth is flattening out.

Why? Well, academics point out that it is largely thanks to birth rates. Those who attend church  more than once a week have on average 2.5 children. Those who attend once a month have on average 2.01 children. Those who do not attend at all have on average 1.67 children.

This holds true across all education levels and economic groups, and the more devout a person is, the less likely their children are to leave the faith. Aside from retention, Pew points out that pentecostal Protestants in America gain 1.2 members through conversion for every convert they lose – while traditional denominations have a net loss.

By the end of the century, according to award winning academic, and University of London Professor Eric Kaufmann, we in the West will face a “crisis of secularism”.

But the change beyond the borders of Western nations like New Zealand will be even more dramatic. In 2015 Pew made headlines around the globe with a study that showed the world is becoming more religious, not less, as we move towards 2050. Muslims and Christians will make up the lion’s share of global community in 30 years’ time.

China and Sub-Saharan Africa are the centres for substantial growth in Christianity. If “one of the world’s leading specialists on religion in China, Purdue University sociologist Fenggang Yang” is to be believed, current conversion rates in China would see two thirds of the population identifying as Christian by 2050.

Between the devoutly religious in modernised countries, and the newly Christianised in modernising countries, Pew predicts atheists, agnostics and religiously unaffiliated people will shrink from 16 percent to 13 percent of the world’s population by 2050.

International trends, as Kaufmann points out, will likely only accelerate the rate of religious growth and social transformation in the West. After all, many secular societies are already maintaining their populations thanks to immigrants, who tend to be religious. “The ‘browning’ of the West,” he writes “is injecting a fresh infusion of religious blood into secular society”.

So it is that the hammer blows which nailed a piece of paper into a door in Germany 500 years ago have not yet finished echoing in New Zealand or the wider world.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

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