Some thoughts on New Zealand’s loss of faith

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What should we make of what people say about why they don’t believe, and how should the Church respond?

According to a report commissioned by the Wilberforce Foundation, just over half (55%) of New Zealanders do not identify with a “main” religion. 35% described themselves has being neither spiritual nor religious, and 33% identify with Christianity.

Along with an increase among those with no religious or spiritual beliefs, the study shows an increase in ignorance about Christianity. More than one in five people know nothing about the Church in New Zealand, and 9% of respondents know no Christians. This growth in non-exposure is reflected in the makeup of the group that does not identify as religious or spiritual. When comparing a person’s current status (religious/none religious) with the home environment in which they were raised, the single largest combination (26% of respondents) is “Never been religious: I was shaped in a non-religious household and am non-religious to this day.”

The study asked respondents an important question: Given the right circumstances and evidence, how open would you be to changing your religious views? Those who are spiritual but not religious indicated the greatest openness with only 29% of this group indicating that they are not open at all.

Just under half (46%) are not open at all to considering other religions and are strongly committed to their current religious view. Those that do not identify with any religion or spiritual belief are most likely to take this viewpoint, with 61% indicating they are not open at all to changing their current view. [emphasis added]

One more point of interest from the study was what it called “blockers” to belief. 26% of respondents are “warm” to Christian belief, accepting much of it but not identifying with it because of hurdles to belief. For 47% of respondents, they maintain that the church’s teaching on same-sex relationships is a blocker to belief, while 45% maintain that the doctrine of hell is a blocker. Why would a good God send anyone there?

There are all sorts of insights we can draw from the findings. For one thing, there’s a perception among some non-religious people that being faithless is a state of enlightenment. But according to these findings, a dogmatic unwillingness to consider new evidence or that one could be wrong is most prevalent among the least religious people. For all the talk I hear (and read online, which is where most of it comes from) that knowledge of Christianity of the Bible is what drove them to unbelief, the data suggests that even if we can believe those isolated voices, they are a small minority. For the most part those who are neither religious nor spiritual don’t know anything about the Church, and a good chunk of them don’t even know any Christians.

From its beginning, Christianity has been different from its surroundings in its moral outlook…

Another thing to think about is the fact that the progressive church is possibly (and in my opinion certainly is) reacting to the world rather than to Scripture when it descries things like religious exclusivism, the doctrine of hell and Christianity’s historic (and biblical) teaching about marriage and sexuality. When somebody shared a news story about this study in social media, one of the first replies was from somebody who said that the fact that respondents said that the church’s view on homosexuality was a major blocker to faith itself showed that the church has handled LGBT issues badly and needed to approach the issue differently. The assumption was that if the church affirms beliefs that people outside the church don’t, and those beliefs are obstacles to people accepting the faith, then the solution is for the church to change its beliefs or practices. The response was coupled with some fairly typical misrepresentations of Christian belief, such as the claim that God doesn’t love people who are same-sex attracted, they cannot be saved, they are not people etc, none of which is any part of historic Christian teaching. As I’ve noted before, progressive Christianity has a serious honesty problem here. But the fact of disagreement between the Church and secular culture is no indication at all that the Church ought to change. From its beginning, Christianity has been different from its surroundings in its moral outlook, and its goal has been to see people transformed, rather than for the church to transform to resemble the world more.

This brings me to the one issue in particular that I wanted to highlight. When it comes to identifying the “blockers,” the things that prevent a person from considering the Christian faith more seriously, the study relied on self-description. There are times when self-description is very reliable, for example when asking a question like “Do you identify as religious?” At times, however, self-description is a shot in the dark at best, and an opportunity to re-write reality to fit our preferred narrative at worst. A perfect example of this opportunity is a question like “what stops you from considering Christianity more seriously?” It is a question that supposes a person’s ability to take an impartial outsider’s perspective on the inner workings of their own motivations, a perspective that is fiendishly difficult to obtain. It is also a perspective most of us frankly don’t want, whether we realise it or not. Imagine asking a National Party supporter: “What’s the worst thing about the Labour Party?” and then treating their answer as true. Now granted, people were not asked “what is the worst thing about Christianity,” but being asked what it is that stops you from considering Christianity amounts to pretty much the same thing. We tell ourselves (and, consequently, others) the story about ourselves that we would like to be true.

Why just assume that our first inclination about why we reject the Church is a true description of our decision making process?

If Christian theology is true, the main thing that keeps us from God is our own sin and our unwillingness to worship him. An organisation that represents the God who calls us to worship him and submit to him, however good and loving he may be, isn’t something we want. Why just assume that our first inclination about why we reject the Church is a true description of our decision making process, a process that began deep in our subconscious and whose origins are very unlikely to be transparent to us? And surely this suspicion of our own self-description is all the more justified when the reasons we give for rejecting the church just happen to align perfectly with our liberal cultural milieu. Little wonder we find ourselves declaring these purported virtues as our reason! We will rationalise our position in whatever way is deemed appropriate in 2019, because this is what people do.

But the fact that people say that they do not follow Christ because of the Church’s view on marriage does not at all mean that people do not follow Christ because of the Church’s view on marriage. And that is only one of the reasons why the Church would be wrong to change its stance because of survey results like these.

Glenn Peoples

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18 thoughts on “Some thoughts on New Zealand’s loss of faith

  1. Same sex relationships and hell being blockers is not a surprise, and you would no doubt be aware of the problems facing Israel Filou the footballer and his comments about homosexuals. The church is its own worse enemy for the simple reason they disregard the bible and insist on judging the world instead of looking in their own backyard and allowing God to judge those outside His body, regards Vic.

  2. My thinking is that any blocker to a relationship with God, will not be in any way because of God, but because of 2 major factors:

    1. The churches misrepresentation of Him even in areas where His Character and love are clearly known but the church refuses to submit to that in favour of bigotry and tribalism, whether it be because we seek social power, or popularity or simply to be right in comparison to others;

    2. All those infinite unknowns that make Him God and remind us that we are simply created and limited beings; where our limited understanding and inability to accept the presence of mystery make us guess, rather badly, at anthropomorphising God and we end up representing Him as as flawed as we are.

    If only we understood Job well enough to emulate him, but I fear that the perceived cost of true discipleship; is the greatest obstacle to us being worthy reflectors of His grace and Love.

  3. Hi
    Well, I think it is called free will, so the Church as you say can do nothing, just leave well alone and don’t badger people into a lost cause.
    Cofion

  4. It should be easy for me to stay on topic for this post, Glenn!

    “But according to these findings, a dogmatic unwillingness to consider new evidence or that one could be wrong is most prevalent among the least religious people.”

    What percentage of Christians studied the historical and manuscript evidence for the truth claims of Christianity before becoming Christians? I haven’t seen any studies but I would say it is a safe bet that most did not do ANY research of the evidence before becoming a Christian. I would bet that most Christians believed FIRST (or were baptized as infants into this belief system) and looked at evidence (if at all) later on in the process of Christian indoctrination. If I am right (I am open to being proven wrong), this means that most educated, intelligent Christians in New Zealand (and in the rest of the educated, western world) looked at the evidence for these historical claims AFTER having already committed to believing in the reality of such fantastical supernatural claims as: a first century virgin gave birth to the offspring of a god; that this offspring of an invisible god was later killed in a bloody human sacrifice for the purpose of atonement for the wrong doing of every human being on the planet; and to top it off—three days after the execution of this man/god (who by the way, is the creator of the universe), his brain dead corpse came back to life and levitated into the clouds where he now sits on a golden throne, somewhere at the edge of the universe (or in another dimension, if you are more enlightened) as Lord and Master of the cosmos!

    Yet…it is the non-religious who are irrational for refusing to examine alleged “evidence” for virgin births and resurrected, space levitating corpses before choosing a worldview???

    Question: How many books have YOU (dear Christian readers of this blog) read by skeptics of the truth claims of Christianity? If you say one or two, can you really say that is enough research for you to say that you have thoroughly evaluated both sides of this issue, as you are asking the “non-religious” to do? (I will bet that the overwhelming majority of conservative Christians have not read even ONE book written by a skeptic of the truth claims of Christianity.)

  5. Gary, the survey question had nothing to do with the question of who has studied what “manuscript evidence.” That sounds like a familiar subject you just like to throw into threads. (Although as you’re probably aware, those of us familiar with textual criticism know that the manuscript evidence for the integrity of the text of the New Testament is utterly stunning in comparative terms.)

    The survey also doesn’t ask the question, as interesting as it might be, of specifically how respondents describe their journey to the position they now hold in terms of arguments and evidence (although as noted, most of those in the non-religious and non-spiritual category were raised that way).

    Rather, the survey question asked respondents how willing they were to consider new evidence. So that’s different from what you’re talking about.

    Gary, are you suspicious that people reported their own position incorrectly? This certainly happens, but I just want to draw out a really clear statement from you on the subject of the survey to see if you’re sceptical of the finding. Do you think non-religious people just said that they were closed to rethinking their beliefs, even given the right evidence and circumstances, when actually they are more open-minded than that?

    1. No, I am not suspicious of the results of your New Zealand survey whatsoever. It is similar to a recent study in the US that demonstrated that 40% of Americans under the age of 30 describe themselves as “non-religious”. Of course, “non-religious” is not the same as “atheist”. One can still believe in God and be “non-religious”. But I have seen a pattern in my discussions on the internet with people who have left Christianity, including my own.

      Non-religious but still believe in a creator god (deist) —> agnostic—> atheist

      “the survey question asked respondents how willing they were to consider new evidence. So that’s different from what you’re talking about.”

      How willing are you, Glenn, to look at “new evidence” (in particular, evidence that contradicts your current position)? How many books by skeptics have you read? I’ve tried to read a good deal from both theists and skeptics to make sure I am not getting a biased view of the evidence. However, out of all the books I have read, the one I found the most damning for conservative (Protestant) Christianity was not written by a skeptic but by a mainstream Roman Catholic NT scholar, Raymond Brown: “The Death of the Messiah”. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so. I would encourage people to read Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” right after reading Brown’s book, as Bauckham seems to be the favored scholar for conservative Christians at the present time, so one can compare Brown’s research to Bauckham’s.

      Are there any books containing “new evidence” that you would recommend that I as a skeptic should read, Glenn? If there is any new evidence regarding the truth claims of Christianity, I definitely want to read it.

  6. Very good points, Vaughn.

    Scholars CAN have biases. That is why I don’t give a lot of weight to scholars on the extremes. I consider Dr. Robert Price, an atheist and a mythicist, to be too extreme. I think that Dominic Crossan, a very liberal Christian, is too extreme. On the other side, I consider Gary Habermas, a faculty member at a fundamentalist Baptist university, as too extreme. I think that evangelical Christian historian, William Lane Craig is too biased in his work. I look for scholars who have demonstrated that they follow the evidence and that they sometimes agree with positions that are not favorable to their philosophical or theological friends and associates. To me this a good indicator of honesty and integrity. I like Michael Licona. He is an evangelical but I find him to be pretty even-handed. I really like Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown. He believed (he is deceased) in the supernatural, miracles, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but took positions on other issues such as the authorship of the Gospels which are not flattering to traditional Christianity. He called the evidence as he saw it, regardless of whether it supported traditional Christian claims or did not. I also like NT Wright for similar reasons.

    I must disagree with you on the issue of evidence. New evidence IS being discovered related to the Bible. For instance, Richard Bauckham in “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” pointed to some fascinating research by a Jewish scholar on Jewish first names in the first century. He found that the first names used in the Gospels are very similar to the first names of Jews living in Palestine found in other documents of the first century, different from Jewish first names used in say, Egypt or Asia Minor, during the same time period. To Bauckham, this is evidence to support the veracity of the stories told by the Evangelists.
    I agree that this research has important implications, although I don’t agree entirely with his assessment. To me, this is excellent evidence that the Gospels stories originated in first century Palestine. They were not invented from whole cloth in Rome or Antioch. It is not necessarily evidence that the stories are historically accurate.

    New archaeological discoveries in Israel support the claim that the Masoretic texts of the Middle Ages were nearly identical to similar late BCE and early CE manuscripts: The Jewish scribes did an excellent job of preserving the ancient Hebrew Scriptures!

    Archaeological finds have confirmed the existence of the biblical kings Omri and Ahab.

    Raymond Brown’s study of the Passion of Christ in “The Death of the Messiah”, a detailed comparison of each pericope in the Passion Story, comparing the pericope in the first gospel, Mark, with the corresponding pericopes in Matthew, Luke, and John, brings out a fresg perspective on the Gospels which might not have been seen in generations past if they were simply studied one Gospel at a time.

  7. Glenn: “Specifically, the question was: “Given the right circumstances and evidence, how open would you be to changing your religious views?” Non religious and non spiritual people indicated the lowest willingness. Are you suspicious of this finding, Gary, or do you think it is accurate?”

    No. I am not suspicious. I believe it is accurate.

    I am non-religious and am VERY interested in evidence. I am very open to changing my views on religion. In fact, I have. I have found that most ex-believers are very interested in evidence and LOVE to engage in discussion on religion.

    However, your survey seems to be primarily discussing people who were raised non-religious from childhood. Am I correct? So why wouldn’t these people be interested in new evidence regarding religious claims? I can only guess: If you grew up not believing in the reality of the supernatural what evidence would convince you to change your mind? Answer: Seeing a supernatural event yourself! Anything short of that is not going to cut it. Just my guess.

    I hope I have answered your question, Glenn. I am not trying to be difficult, just dense at times, I guess.

    1. “However, your survey seems to be primarily discussing people who were raised non-religious from childhood. Am I correct?”

      No, that’s not correct. The category is simply not religious or spiritual. That a large portion of such people are raised that way was a finding of the survey.

      “Answer: Seeing a supernatural event yourself! Anything short of that is not going to cut it. ”

      I assume you mean the sort of thing that would normally be described as a miracle. Do you think that’s a reasonable standard? Unless a person actually witnesses a miracle, they won’t listen to arguments? It’s also interesting that people who were not in this category indicated that they were more open-minded in this regard. It certainly flips stereotypes about dogmatism. Some of us have known for some time that those stereotypes are false, but it’s nice to see further corroboration.

  8. “I assume you mean the sort of thing that would normally be described as a miracle. Do you think that’s a reasonable standard? Unless a person actually witnesses a miracle, they won’t listen to arguments? It’s also interesting that people who were not in this category indicated that they were more open-minded in this regard.”

    My concern would be: Are non-religious people close-minded about all truth claims or just religious truth claims? If they are close-minded about all truth claims, that is a problem. However, I don’t see it as a problem that they are not open to truth claims regarding supernatural belief systems. Remember, Christianity is not the only supernatural belief system on the planet claiming that they and they alone have the one and only truth. If a non-religious person is going to do a thorough evaluation of the reality of the supernatural, they would need to investigate the “evidence” for Islam, Mormonism, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, etc., etc., AND Christianity. That is a lot of work investigating an entity that you doubt exists. Ask yourself this question: How much time do most Christians spend evaluating the evidence for other world religions? Glenn probably has spent time doing this, but I would bet most Christians have not.

    Yes, I think that most non-religious people (who do not believe in the supernatural) would need some pretty dramatic evidence to believe in the supernatural. I would bet that most would insist on seeing a laws-of-science defying event with their own two eyes. That may seem unreasonable to believers, but ask yourself this question: “What evidence would I need to believe in unicorns?” (My guess is that you would insist on seeing a unicorn.)

    1. “That may seem unreasonable to believers”

      It certainly does, especially given that belief in miracles is not even required in order to believe in God!

      “but ask yourself this question: “What evidence would I need to believe in unicorns?” (My guess is that you would insist on seeing a unicorn.)”

      Perhaps not quite, but yes, a unicorn skeleton, or something involving tangible records or something of that nature. But it’s short-sighted, to put it mildly, to think that our truth tests for all entities are going to be the same. Clearly they won’t be. Unicorns, if they do exist, are physical creatures that live on earth, so we would expect the sort of evidence that one normally expects for such entities.

      Now consider cases that aren’t like unicorns. What sort of evidence would you need before you believed in, say, numbers? (in the platonic sense) Immediately we see how silly it would be if someone said “I’d have to see a number!” We would assume they had misheard us, or that they just didn’t understand what we were talking about. Similarly, something like the cosmological argument or the ontological argument doesn’t involve us being able to see God (indeed, if God exists then God isn’t visible), but they are the sorts of considerations we should ask for when considering the existence of God.

      Now if you think that serious arguments are not good enough evidence for a person to change their minds on these issues, does that mean you think nobody should waste their time with trifling matters like the problem of suffering?

      But what’s genuinely concerning is that without even any consideration of what sorts of argument or evidence would be better than others, the research tells us that in general, non-religious and non-spiritual people are telling us that even “Given the right circumstances and evidence,” they would not be open to changing their beliefs. Even then, they wouldn’t consider reviewing their beliefs.

      That should worry all of us. I wonder what people would say if the results found the reverse – that religious people would be less willing to reconsider their beliefs, even given the right circumstances and evidence?

      I think we know exactly how people would interpret that.

  9. “belief in miracles is not even required in order to believe in God!”

    Belief in the SUPERNATURAL is required to believe in gods and to non-supernaturalists belief in the supernatural is belief in magic. We don’t believe that magic is real. Claims of magic sound silly and ignorant to us. It sounds just as ignorant to us as the incantations of a wild-eyed jungle witch doctor poking needles into a voodoo doll would sound to you. In order to believe that magic (a miracle claim) is real, we would need to see a laws-of-science defying event to believe it. (And I will bet that you would insist on the same with the alleged powers of the witch doctor.) To us a claim that a miracle has occurred is synonymous with someone claiming that magic has occurred. I know that sounds offensive to believers, but that is how we really think.

    “Similarly, something like the cosmological argument or the ontological argument doesn’t involve us being able to see God (indeed, if God exists then God isn’t visible), but they are the sorts of considerations we should ask for when considering the existence of God.”

    Most skeptics I know do not claim to “know” that a Creator God (or gods in general) does/do NOT exist. We simply doubt the existence of gods. We look at the evidence and conclude: It is certainly possible that an intelligent designer created the universe. Science has not proven how the universe originated (at least not yet). So that being the case, we should be open to all possibilities. But…if a Creator God exists, the evidence STRONGLY indicates that he (she, they, or it) is NOT Allah, Lord Brahma, Yahweh, or Jesus. Why? The evidence strongly indicates that if a Creator God exists, he is either indifferent, impotent, or enjoys massive human and animal suffering. That evidence just isn’t consistent with what we are told about the gods of the world’s major religions. Bottom line: Evidence for a Creator God is NOT automatically evidence for YOUR god, dear theists. I never debate theists on the evidence for a Creator God. That discussion always ends in stalemate. I personally am waiting for scientists to reach a consensus on this issue, as they have with the age of the universe, the age of the earth, heliocentricity, and the evolution of species…all scientific facts which forced theists to reinterpret their inerrant holy books. I would much rather jump right to the evidence for YOUR god. That is a much more productive discussion.

  10. “”the research tells us that in general, non-religious and non-spiritual people are telling us that even “Given the right circumstances and evidence,” they would not be open to changing their beliefs. Even then, they wouldn’t consider reviewing their beliefs.”

    “changing their RELIGIOUS beliefs”

    As I said above, it would trouble me if non-religious people were unwilling to consider new evidence for scientific claims, for sociological claims, for mental health claims, for medical claims, etc.. But that is not what this study indicates.

    It does not trouble me that they are not interested in reviewing claims of “new evidence” from supernaturalists about the reality of their supernatural beliefs; beliefs which contradict the supernatural beliefs of many other supernaturalists. The only evidence that non-religious non-supernaturalists are interested in on that topic is a bona-fide supernatural act which cannot possibly be confused with a rare but natural event. Tell your god to levitate my coffee table five feet off of the floor for five minutes, right this minute, in front of my very eyes, and the table levitates…I’m a believer!!! Tell me that you have eyewitness testimony from 500 first century peasants who claimed to have seen a walking, talking resurrected corpse…and most non-supernaturalists will not be impressed. (Just as you probably wouldn’t be impressed with some other religion’s claim that they have eyewitness testimony from 500 people in Antiquity who claimed to have observed some other “miraculous event.”) I would be interested, but I am an exception. I am a counter-apologist.

  11. “We don’t believe that magic is real”

    Gary, you just placed yourself outside of the group of people I am interested in discussing this with, so I’ll make some closing observations with you and then leave you to your own devices.

    First, you muddy the waters here. You said that people would need to see a miracle with their own eyes. I said – correctly – that this is unreasonable because you don’t even have to believe in miracles if you believe in God. You replied and oh but just believing in God is supernatural, and that’s “magic.” other than revealing yourself as a troll, you dodged. I directly addressed your claim that people would need to witness a miracle, I explained precisely why that’s not reasonable, and you totally ignored it, just retreating to the adage that believing in the supernatural is belief in magic. I don’t think you’re so slow that you can’t see how you tried to escape the flow of argument there.

    “It does not trouble me that they are not interested in reviewing claims of “new evidence” from supernaturalists”

    But that wasn’t the question. Let’s be accurate here. The question didn’t ask who provided the information, and the question didn’t ask about willingness to review somebody’s claims. I understand why it might be less uncomfortable to admit that this is the question they were answering, but it wasn’t… This was, and please look at precisely what was said:

    “Given the right circumstances and evidence, how open would you be to changing your religious views?”

    Not just given the claims of supernaturalists. That was your re-writing. Given the right circumstances and evidence, they still wouldn’t be open to reviewing their views on religion.

    And if that doesn’t trouble you, you’re part of the dogmatism exposed by the survey. All the best, Gary.

    1. “I directly addressed your claim that people would need to witness a miracle, I explained precisely why that’s not reasonable, and you totally ignored it, just retreating to the adage that believing in the supernatural is belief in magic. I don’t think you’re so slow that you can’t see how you tried to escape the flow of argument there.”

      Wow! I must be really stupid. I have no idea what your are talking about or why you are so worked up. And now you have labeled me a troll when I am ON TOPIC. I think the problem is that you don’t like opposing points of view, Glenn. Christians come onto my blog all the time; telling me I’m going to Hell; leaving comments that have nothing to do with the post…and I never delete their comments or berate them. Think about that. Who is closed minded, Glenn?

      Bye. I won’t bother you anymore.

  12. “Who is closed minded, Glenn?”

    People who openly state that they won’t reconsider their beliefs about something – whether they are talking about religion (as they are in this case) or anything else – even given the right circumstances and evidence. They are closed-minded. That seems like a fair assessment.

    “I have no idea what your are talking about”
    If I’m honest, I don’t believe you.

    “or why you are so worked up”
    I’m not. I just know what’s quality and worth seriously engaging with, and what’s not. When a person taps out of cordiality and goes with saying “magic,” as well as replying to one thing as though they were replying to something different, making a simple conversation unclear or requiring me to go back and get things back on track by explaining what we were actually talking about just two comments earlier, I let them find their conversation with someone else. I really value my time. (Also, I’m not the one with caps and exclamation marks, Mr “not worked up.”)

    “Bye. I won’t bother you anymore.”
    I didn’t ask you to leave, but I can’t pretend you’re really offering anything positive at this point. Bye.

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