We don't need a census to tell us that society is changing rapidly. But perhaps we do to quantify just how rapidly. Our latest census is coming up on Tuesday March 5, though it will be a year or so before we get to see its analysis.
The results of the most recent British census from 2011 have just been published and they reveal an astonishing decline in those identifying themselves as Christian - down from 72 per cent in 2001 to 59 per cent in 2011. At the same time those professing no religion rose from 15 per cent to 25 per cent.
Doubtless such large swings reflect changes in perception as to what nowadays defines "Christian". And the big shifts are likely to be at the margins where profession of faith has remained pretty nominal. But they clearly highlight the obvious fact that society is becoming more secular. We can expect the upcoming New Zealand census to expose similar trends.
Now it is entirely appropriate that our democratic institutions, our state education system and our legal system have become, and remain, secular. That is secularism. It has been with us a long time now and was one of the founding principles of the US constitution. In contrast, what we are seeing, as dramatically reflected in the UK census, is secularisation where society at the personal level is abandoning religion. The two are different and secularisation does not necessarily follow from secularism - again witness the US.
But the risk is that it does. Secularism inevitably builds a presumption amongst many that our society is secular at the public level because religion is merely cultural heritage and has no objective basis in fact.
If any particular religion had an objective basis then one could justify its teaching in schools. In practice, either no religion is taught at all or there is an attempt to teach across the spectrum of religions, more as a comparative social studies programme than religious instruction.
Here the general supposition seems to be that religion has cultural value only and therefore all religions have equal claim. But the unspoken sub-text is that no religion is "true" and, conversely, that they are all equally "untrue".
Therefore it may come as a surprise to many that the faith of our particular cultural and spiritual heritage in New Zealand has an overwhelming objective basis in fact. That is a brave claim but it can be persuasively substantiated.
So when Bob Jones claims that the God of our national anthem is a myth I can only presume that he has never studied the evidence. I would gladly debate it with him. When Helen Clark and John Key, in their second television debate prior to the 2008 election, were asked about their views on religion and God, Mr Key replied that "there is no available evidence".
When the three Davids debated their claims to leadership of the Labour party, David Parker defined himself as "making evidence-based decisions". Later he stated he had no belief in God. One wonders what evidence that decision was based upon.
To adopt C. K. Stead's image, the relevant evidence is "a strong rope of many strands". To focus on just three: firstly the universe about us is astonishingly finely balanced to the point of profound improbability. Our world has the distinct appearance of createdness. The only way around this is to assume that there are a vast number of other universes and ours is the only lucky one. The problem with this, scientifically, is that it is ideologically driven. And it removes all further investigation as these other proposed universes cannot be detected.
The second strand is the Bible which shows itself to be both marvellous and miraculous. It is marvellously corroborated by archaeology, astronomy and history. It is miraculously endorsed by the accuracy of its long-range forecasting. This is a strand of steel.
The book of Daniel, for example, in a count-down of 173,880 days, reveals to the very day the coming of Jesus to Jerusalem at the beginning of Passion week - though it was written some 500 years earlier. Today we blithely ignore such evidence because of its nominal impossibility (or possibly because of ignorance). But something is going on here that defies our modern cynicism for religion. It certainly leaves our weather forecasters for dead.
The third strand is the singularly unique person of Jesus. Einstein thought his teaching "capable of curing all the social ills of humankind". Napoleon stated: "between him and whoever else there is no possible term of comparison. He is truly a being by himself."
Fully developed, these three strands cord a rope of evidence which to me is beyond reasonable doubt. What are we to do with this knowledge? The challenge is not just personal, but it extends to our institutions and our national ideals. If Einstein was right (and he has been known to be right) we have in our national spiritual heritage a credible means to address all our social ills - at the very least.
Dr Jeff Tallon, CNZM, is a physicist specialising in superconductivity. He was jointly awarded the inaugural Prime Minister's Science Prize for outstanding achievement in science.
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