Living as we do in a time when one of the most (if not the most) powerful nations on Earth is in the midst of an internal struggle between Faith and Secularism it seems apropos to examine the relationship between those who believe in a personal deity and those who do not. A study published last year out of the University of Minnesota, based on a phone survey of 2000 people, found (at least in the US) that attitudes toward atheists lagged behind all other forms of tolerance. While tolerance and acceptance of other minority groups has grown markedly in the last half century the acceptance of those who profess non-belief in a higher power has made only modest gains.

Here in New Zealand there is much less of a focus on religious observance or in interest of other people’s religious affiliation. However it is interesting as well as useful to look at how our larger world neighbors deal with this issue and use this information to highlight possible similarities in our own culture. A significant finding of the study mentioned was that 47% of respondents would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist. This shows that non-belief contributes to a person’s ideas of who is to be considered part of the out-group.

As of the 2006 new Zealand census approximately 32% identified as non-religious, this figure certainly contains a very wide range of beliefs but taken as a group actually is greater than the two largest christian denominations put together. I’ve heard the comment that this is a christian nation and that their majority makes decisions based on religion ok. This is a flawed argument from the perspective of freedom and diversity, because it fails to take into account the consequences of no longer being in the majority. It may not be long before this is indeed the case and I would hope that when that happens that freedoms and tolerance of others will increase rather than decline.