No matter how positive a spin Christian leaders put on them, the Census figures on religion are not good news for the Christian church in New Zealand. Decline is loss, not only in numbers but also in influence.
This is by no means a worldwide trend, with Christianity growing rapidly in the Two-Thirds world, but it is prevalent in the Western world.
For those who think Christianity at best foolish, at worst dangerous, any decline is heartening. It has widely been heralded as a triumph for reason.
But is it? How big a part does reason really play in attitudes towards religion, and how reasonable is atheism? The Christian festival of Easter is an appropriate time to review such questions.
The whole Christian faith depends entirely upon the credibility of one person: Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ (Messiah). If one is going to apply reason to the claims of Christianity it is with the person and work of Christ that one must begin (and reckon). Arguments about creation, suffering and the failures of the church are secondary issues. Moreover, if reason alone could settle such arguments, they would have been settled by now.
Christianity lays no claim to truth apart from Jesus. What it claims about him is that he was the divine son of God, he took on human flesh, lived a perfect life, died on a cross, rose bodily on the third day, and finally ascended into heaven. These are the claims made about him in the New Testament and in the ecumenical creeds of the church.
Any reasoned rejection of Christianity necessarily requires a reasoned rebuttal of each of these claims, but particularly of the resurrection. This is because, as the earliest Christian writers acknowledged, it is Jesus' bodily resurrection that vindicates all the other claims; it is the sine qua non of the entire Christian faith. The apostle Paul emphasises this in his first letter to the Corinthians: "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain ... If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied."
If Christ were not raised then he was no more than a good man and a great teacher; he can make no claim on anyone's life, nor promise anything beyond this life. Reason will respond that resurrection is simply not possible: dead people do not rise, therefore, if Jesus truly died then he cannot truly have been raised. But reason must also allow that, if Jesus is in fact God's only son, all things are possible for him.
This is a circular argument, but it is hardly devoid of reason; and if Jesus is the only person ever to have been raised, it does vindicate his claim to uniqueness.
More though is required if Jesus' resurrection is to be considered more than a theological possibility. Evidence is required that Jesus' body was indeed raised.
That evidence exists, in the form of the testimony of eyewitnesses, and is as reliable as such evidence can be. Many who know little or nothing of either the Bible or good biblical scholarship dismiss the New Testament writings as myths made up years - even centuries - later. This is nonsense. The vast majority of serious scholars agree that the Gospels were written between 60 and 100AD.
Those who reject the resurrection of Jesus not only lack any substantial evidence to pit against the New Testament writings (leaving only their own unattested hypotheses), they have the problem of providing a reasonable explanation for how a nascent Jesus movement won converts to a crucified Messiah. Quoting Paul again, a crucified Messiah was "a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles". Paul himself (as Saul) had found the idea so offensive that he made it his mission to eradicate Jesus' followers.
That was until he had his dramatic encounter with the resurrected and ascended Christ on the Damascus Road. More baloney, some will say - but on what basis?
If reason, then reason must also account for the dramatic change in belief, not only of Saul but of all Jesus' followers who had abandoned him at the cross. If not a real experience of Jesus' resurrection, what inspired them to give their lives in defence of his claim to be the risen Christ?
There is no such thing as proof of God, but there are reasonable grounds for believing that he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. Where that truth is proclaimed confidently, the church is inclined to grow.
Michael Hewat is vicar of the West Hamilton Anglican parish.