Brian Rudman writes that a proliferation of religious ceremonies in civic life is at odds with our democracy.

With the epidemic of blessings that has erupted as the rugby circus draws nigh, jet-lagged visitors could be forgiven for thinking the pilot had taken a wrong turning and landed in the Vatican Republic by mistake.

I wouldn't be surprised to hear that some enterprising entrepreneur had installed a coin-in-the slot blessing booth in the overseas arrivals terminal at Auckland Airport, royalties to the International Rugby Board, of course.

Yesterday morning it was blessings at dawn again. This time the target was Tourism New Zealand's gigantic, much-travelled blow-up rugby ball, all pumped and ready for action down on Queens Wharf.


At the weekend, the blessers were busy at the All Blacks' official welcome in Aotea Square, blessing the team's dinky little school cap-like head gear.

For most of my life, the only time I expected to encounter blessing ceremonies was in a religious context, which meant very seldom, the only exception being the quaint custom of people muttering "bless you" or "God bless" when I sneezed.

Until now I'd thought that was a throwback to the Middle Ages, when a sneeze could be the first sign of the dreaded bubonic plague. The spoil-sport experts now say that derivation was an old wives' tale, too, but let's leave that for another day.

Oddly the religious blessing, New Zealand style, has burst from obscurity into public life, as Christianity disappears rapidly in the other direction. These days it doesn't need a sneeze to attract a blessing. It's as though there's a decree from the Beehive that says you can't open anything public without a ceremonial blessing.

The largely publicly funded Q Theatre had one the other day, as did the redeveloped Auckland Art Gallery. Last year the new Auckland Council was blessed, as was the Aotea Square redevelopment.

Even books aren't safe.

A couple of weeks ago I was at Auckland Council's Ambury Farm Regional Park, in the shadow of Mangere Mountain, for the launch of Volcanoes of Auckland, the one-stop new guide to Auckland's volcanic legacy. There were welcomes from the publishers, Auckland University Press, karakia from local iwi representatives, a speech and public singalong led by Mayor Len Brown. Then, oh no, a pile of the poor defenceless books were brought in, laid out along a table, and some chap intoned a blessing over them - dipping his hand in a bowl of water, then liberally sprinkling water all over them.

As one brought up to value and care for books, I wanted to rush to their rescue. But, like a coward, I shuffled on the spot in silence. It seemed so needlessly disrespectful, and irrational.


If nothing else, who needs a water-damaged cover? It could have been worse, I guess. The word "blessing" comes from an Old English word meaning to consecrate or make holy, which in turn harks back to an ancient pagan ritual involving sprinkling blood on an altar as a sign of sincerity.

God's intrusion into our civic affairs has been quite sneaky. He/she has slipped in using a Maori voice, taking advantage of the increasing use of tangata whenua as providers of the ceremonial at public occasions.

This infusion of Christianity into public ceremonial has occurred by osmosis, really, drifting into our lives without debate, surviving because liberal politicians, who you might expect to raise objections, stay quiet, fearful of being labelled anti-Maori.

But is it anti-Maori to fight to preserve the secular bedrock of our democracy? We don't have a written constitution but our traditional practice has been to keep religion out of public life. The origins of that was an endeavour to stop bickering Christian denominations continuing the conflicts still festering in their European homelands.

In 21st-century New Zealand, the reasons for keeping the state and religion apart are very different.

In the 2006 Census, only 55.6 per cent of New Zealanders affiliated with a Christian religion. And that narrow majority was padded heavily with kids who had no say in the matter. Rapidly increasing in numbers were the heathens, with 1.3 million New Zealanders (24.7 per cent) openly stating they had no religion. They too had the benefit of a strong kids' vote - with 43 per cent of kids 14 and under listed as having no religion.

Analysis by age group, and by comparing past Census results, suggests that if this year's Census had been conducted it would have shown Christians now make up less than half of the population. Young voters are leading the way. In 2006 nearly half of 20- to 24-year-olds said they had no religion. This peak in non-belief declined slowly with age until you reached the over-65s, with fewer than 12 per cent declaring no religion.

It's not just that non-believers outnumber each of the Big Three Christian denominations - Anglican, Catholics, Presbyterians - by more than two to one; it's only a matter of time before "non-belief" overtakes Christianity as a whole. Then there are other major world religions, now gaining a larger public face thanks to recent immigration.

This makes the belated invasion of Christianity into our public life rather perplexing. It wasn't deemed acceptable when it was the main religion in town. It's surely even less appropriate now that it's fading away.

And given the numbers, it's something politicians preside over at their own political risk.