Positioning Christianity in Post-Secularist New Zealand Historiography

Signs of post-secularism in the treatment of the history in New Zeland are slowly becoming evident....


Stuart Lange’s 2014 Stimulus article on the historiography of the earliest Christian missionary work in New Zealand succinctly identifies how some historians in the second half of the twentieth century were either “scathing about the evangelical beliefs and values of the first missionaries”[1] or were dismissive of these missionaries through the downplaying or omission of their accomplishments. Lange also observes that this is in contrast to earlier histories which dealt with missionaries in a more balanced and less pejorative manner.[2] This trend towards a sometimes slightly acerbic (and often substantially subjective) representation of Christianity in the historiography of early colonial New Zealand is in some ways a corollary of wider developments in New Zealand society (which by the close of the twentieth century was arguably more secular than at any other time in its history).[3]

However, as much as Lange’s argument is a retrospective viewpoint – tracing this trend towards greater secularism particularly in those histories written since the 1960s – he hints elsewhere that this phase of viewing the early New Zealand missionaries and their faith both with disdain and as relatively inconsequential, may be giving way to a more “fair-minded” and nuanced approach.[4] The sample size of current historiography that points to this change may still be too small to enable any certain conclusions to be reached. Yet it is at least sufficiently indicative of a shift occurring more broadly among academics towards forms of post-secularism[5] in the way in which New Zealand history in general (and the country’s Christian history in particular) is represented. This article explores some of the dimensions of post-secularism, and anticipates its potential implications for how the historiography of Christianity in New Zealand might be approached, interpreted, and represented in the future. Additionally, while post-secularism can still exhibit traits of secularism, it is also evident that it presents an opportunity for religious and non-religious worldviews to interact and to communicate with each other on a more equal footing.[6] It thus serves as an antidote to the religious exclusionism that characterises secularism.

Dimensions of Post-Secularism

The first point that needs to be made about post-secularism is that the notion transcends a single definition. Its bases, constructs, and applications vary, depending in part on the disciplines, periods, and locations it is being deployed in.[7] Moreover, post-secularism does not necessarily equate to a return of religion to the public sphere (it is, after all, post-secularism, and not anti-secularism).[8] Rather, it initially draws attention to the ways in which secularist academics have been inclined to exclude sufficient consideration of religion from their analyses. In this sense, post-secularism is a corrective to the conscious decision during the secular period[9] (which can roughly be said to have become more pronounced in the twentieth century) to dismiss or denounce the claims made by religion, and more broadly the role of religion in society, as having any intrinsic objective value when analysing cultures or societies.

At a fundamental level, secularism positions the contingency of God as an unproven variable that has no place in the rational analysis of historical data. While religions can still be studied as cultural, historical, or sociological phenomena (or even more dismissively, as curios), this can be achieved in a secularist framework without any consideration whatsoever being given to the credence of the claims of those religions, and without any recognition of the role of religion as a persistent (as opposed to a passing) influence in society.[10] The main reason for both the role of religion (and on occasion, by extension, the supernatural aspects of religions) being largely expunged from most histories written in the twentieth century is that it could appear to confound the essential tenets of the discipline, which rely on establishing the veracity of evidence, the probability of motives, and in some cases, interpreting historical events or periods through some theoretical or conceptual lens.[11] Religion is seen at best as a quaint and largely meaningless appendage in these contexts. To an extent, it could be argued that this exclusion of the consideration of any supernatural aspects of religion in historical works resonates with Gramsci’s construction of the hegemony of ideas, in which in one perspective among many, assumes a position of ideological dominance over the others on the basis of it being adopted by a ruling class or group, and thereafter, assumes the role of a norm in the field, and over time, an unquestioned part of the accepted orthodoxy.[12] Ironically, though, the purging of the metaphysical elements of religious significance in history in such a manner arguably has made secularism that much more subjective in its methods and findings – the very opposite that its advocates profess it to be. Accepting secularism as a default mode for historical analysis is a prejudicial stance, in as far as it necessarily excludes alternative approaches to such analyses.

The secularist approach to the study and representation of religion in history coincided with the growing secularisation of Western society more generally during the twentieth century,[13] and the corresponding marginalisation of those religious perspectives which once featured more prominently – in the context of this paper – in histories of New Zealand.[14] In the case of New Zealand’s early colonial history, the fact of religion having a role is indisputable. However, a post-secularist interpretation of that period would require not only an acknowledgement of that fact, but also concessions relating to the influence of doctrine, theology, and even faith in shaping developments in this period. By contrast, as Lange has demonstrated, the secular approach among some New Zealand historians since the 1960s has progressively diminished the importance of religion – and specifically Christianity – during the past two centuries of its presence in the country,[15] in order to conform with secularist expectations about the passing away of religion as a force in society.

By the close of the twentieth century, claims that Christianity in particular, in Western societies, was on the verge of disappearing still looked to be possible statistically, but was a conviction that was held with much less certainty than in preceding decades.[16] Part of the reason for this was the stubborn persistence in the West of Christianity long after repeated pronouncements of its imminent death had expired. Conceptually, there was mounting “disillusionment with a modernity which reduces the world to what can be perceived and controlled through reason, science, technology, and bureaucratic rationality, and leaves out considerations of the religious, the spiritual, or the sacred.”[17]

However, while post-secularism certainly does not extend as far as to insist that historians ought to profess a belief in the divine, it does require that at least some consideration be given to religion functioning at times as an overarching system of meaning in societies or portions of societies,[18] and aims (albeit very loosely) at the renewal of religion as one of the defining features of most societies.[19] In this context, post-secularism amounts to a “revision of a previously overconfidently secularist outlook rather than a ‘return’ of religion to a stage on which it had once been absent.”[20] A corollary to this view is the argument that secularism, in its most generic sense, has interpretive limitations that can best be overcome through applying post-secular perspectives,[21] although this is not to say that the gulf between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge can be bridged.[22]

An alternative interpretation of post-secularism insists that rather than admitting that the persistence of religion has consigned the self-consciously secularist approach to a state approximating redundancy, post-secularism is effectively an extension of secularism, in that while it acknowledges the ongoing existence of religion, it nonetheless regards religion as having no particular importance in a society.[23] The problem with this model of post-secularism is that it denies religion having any material influence in a society, which is manifestly empirically incorrect. It is inevitable that there will be debate about the extent of the influence of religion, but this is different to implying that religion has no substantive influence in a society at all.

Another feature of secularism which has the potential to misrepresent the role of Christianity in the West is the dichotomy authors writing in that framework tend to paint between public and private religion.[24] Christianity in the West is increasingly rendered by secularist historians as a faith that people possess in their private lives, and therefore has minimal public significance (unlike, say, Hinduism in India or Islam in parts of the Middle East, which are typified by more public and often state-sanctioned manifestations). The supposedly private nature of modern Western Christianity shunts it further in the direction of obscurity and irrelevance in secular narratives. Post-secularism, on the other hand, potentially makes the borders between private and public religion much more porous, and therefore means that Western Christianity is less likely to be ignored because of its allegedly almost covert expression.

An additional dimension of religion that could be treated differently in a post-secularist model is its cultural side. In the secularist framework, the traditions of some religions are often (though not always) lumped together with their doctrines. It is as though the traditions serve as the final support, propping up aspects of the religion’s doctrine, and that at some point, if the tradition collapses, it will bring down the religion with it. Yet, such a predestined view of the demise of religion,[25] which is a common theme in secularism, does not have to feature nearly as prominently (nor, indeed, at all) in a post-secularist construct of religion. Religious traditions could be cast as one of the most enduring features not only of religions, but also in many cases, of the communities in which they are located. Given this endurance, and the numbers of people involved in both the religion and the enactment of the associated traditions, a post-secularist depiction of religion – untroubled by the conviction of religion’s impending extinction – would be more inclined to incorporate religion in a more than cursory fashion in histories of a community or nation.

One of the major challenges for post-secularists is coming to terms with the nature of religion – specifically, the faith aspects, which resist a standard representation, and for which academic terminology does not always prove adequate.[26] One resolution to this challenge is to deny the validity or significance of faith, and replace it solely with the term "religion" which is more quantifiable and manageable in conventional academic language. Doing this, however, reveals an important aspect of post-secularism: that in some circumstances, it can revert to a form of secularism. However, such a reductionist approach towards religion and faith does not find a comfortable home in post-secularism, because it invalidates some of the tenets that distinguish post-secularism from its secularist predecessor.

Towards a Post-Secularist Interpretation of Christianity in New Zealand History

Given recent indications (however faint) of post-secularism beginning to displace secularism in Western academic circles, what implications might this hold for the manner in which New Zealand’s Christian history could be represented in the future? The answer must necessarily be multi-faceted in order to reflect both the diversity of understandings of what post-secularism means, the range and extent of its potential applications,[27] and the variety of disciplines with which post-secularism intersects. At the confluence of these points, some aspects of post-secularism can appear contradictory. For example, is post-secularity to be regarded more as a variant of secularity, a counter of secularity, or (less likely) a form of pre-secularity?[28] There can be no one right answer as long as post-secularism remains as diffuse concept as it is. However, one strand that can be teased from this tangle is that some corrective will be required for the general (and generally accepted) narrative of Christianity’s progressive diminution in the country.

An example of the type of corrective that might be necessary appears in Michael King’s The Penguin History of New Zealand.[29] In this single-volume history of the country, Christianity appears occasionally and intermittently mainly in the periods covering the nineteenth century, but only on a few occasions throughout the entire twentieth century. This paucity of reference to Christianity is entirely in keeping with the secularist view that by the twentieth century; religion no longer held any intrinsic importance to Western countries, and was on a downward trajectory in terms of the number of adherents. This increasing and apparently irreversible secularisation in Western societies[30] confirmed the redundancy of anything substantial about Christianity in the history of a country like New Zealand during the twentieth century. Implicitly, Christianity tended to be cast as a colonial relic that had survived in small pockets into the twentieth century, but that was facing an imminent disappearance.

A similar pattern appears in James Belich’s Paradise Reforged,[31] in which Christianity is consigned to the periphery, mentioned only very occasionally, as though its condition is terminal, but that it has staved off death slightly longer than might initially have been expected (although the ultimate prognosis remains unchanged). Like King, Belich’s approach to the treatment of Christianity mirrors the secularist model, in which the role of religion in contemporary Western nations is minimised,[32] and there is an implicit expectation that its approaching demise relegates it to a theme or topic of comparatively little historical value.

Even in histories that specifically address Christianity in New Zealand, there can be a tendency for the fatalism of the secularist view to infiltrate the way in which the faith is cast. Christianity is sometimes depicted not so much a current feature of society, but rather, something that once existed, and that has merely “left a distinctive imprint on New Zealand society”.[33]

Such secular narratives hinge on the presumption that the extinguishment of Christianity in countries such as New Zealand is a question of “when” rather than “if.” Yet, in a post-secular context, Christianity would be woven into the general history of the nation in potentially quite different ways, and importantly, would not be cast as a cultural or social relic facing an impending extinction.

One of the consequences of adopting such a post-secularist framework is that Christianity’s contribution to the nation could – on balance – be represented more frequently, to a more detailed extent, and without any presumption of its demise militating against its ongoing role in the country. Likewise, the numerous links between churches, communities, and the state could be explored more closely as a branch of New Zealand’s history which potentially includes hundreds of thousands of people. In other words, Christianity could receive recognition in accordance with its scale, the size of its membership, the extent of its engagement with the community, the continuity of its presence in the country, and a range of other attributes. And what is more, the post-secularist portrayal of Christianity in New Zealand would not be shaped to anywhere near the same extent by the premonition of its approaching demise. This would allow for post-secularist histories which incorporated Christianity to do so without a sense that the future of the subject has already been mapped out and is necessarily grim.

Of course, most of the preceding possibilities are inherently speculative. Post-secularism offers no guarantees that Christianity would be treated in any more detail or with a different perspective than it has been until very recently in secularist-inspired histories. Indeed, one view – that post-secularism is little more than an evolutionary limb branching out from the trunk of secularism – could result in the history of Christianity in the country being regarded as having no particular importance.[34] This would be a different motif from Christianity being on the verge of extinction, but in terms of the treatment of Christianity in histories, the effect could be very similar.

Signs of post-secularism in the treatment of the history of Christianity in New Zealand are slowly becoming evident.[35] However, if the present time represents the beginning of a gradual and uneven transition from secularism to post-secularism in the historiography of Christianity in the country, then it is to be expected that the established texts which deal with the history of Christianity in New Zealand in a strongly secularist fashion are likely to maintain their influence for years or possibly even decades to come. The transition, if it does happen, will be drawn-out.


There is little doubt that in most major, generalist histories of New Zealand, as well as even in some specialist works dealing with aspects of missionary activity in the country in the nineteenth century, Christianity has been represented very much in the secularist mould, and has been researched and written about in a specifically secularising environment. However, conceptual and empirical weaknesses with the secularist paradigm are potentially opening the door for post-secularism to take a more prominent role as an interpretive framework when dealing with the role of religion in New Zealand, and particularly the history of Christianity in the country. Yet, the broad range of ways in which post-secularism can manifest itself, and the various ways it is open to being contested,[36] means that it offers few clues as to how it would function as a prescriptive framework for dealing with the history of Christianity in the country. Moreover, the potential for researchers to adopt a post-secularist approach is hardly likely, in the short term at least, to disengage the commitment that the great majority of academics still have for the tenets of secularism. However, post-secularism offers a conceptual approach to the history of religion in Western countries that is likely to re-cast some of the existing perceptions – in New Zealand’s case – about the history of Christianity in the country, and in doing so, may offer new insights into the roles that the faith plays in the nation in decades to come.

 Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology.

[1] Stuart Lange, “Christian Beginnings in New Zealand: Some Historiographical Issues,” Stimulus 21.2 (July 2014): 5.

[2] See further Stuart Lange, “Christian Beginnings in New Zealand: Some Historiographical Issues,” Stimulus 21.2 (July 2014): 4-13.

[3] Rex J. Ahdar, “Reflections on the Path of Religion-state Relations in New Zealand,” Brigham Young University Law Review 3 (September 2006): 619-620; William J. Hoverd, “No Longer a Christian Country? Religious Demographic Change in New Zealand 1966–2006,” New Zealand Sociology 23.1 (2008): 41-65.

[4] Stuart Lange, “Entanglements of Empire: Missionaries, Maori and the Question of the Body [Book Review],” Stimulus 22.2 (2015): 53.

[5] David A. Hollinger, “Why is There so Much Christianity in the United States? A Reply to Sommerville,” Church History 71.4 (2002): 858-864; Philip S. Gorski, The Post-Secular in Question: Religion in Contemporary Society (New York: New York University Press, 2012).

[6] Agatha Herman, Justin Beaumont, Paul Cloke, and Andres Walliser, "Spaces of Postsecular Engagement in Cities", in Faith-based Organisations and Exclusion in European Cities, eds. Justin Beaumont and Paul Cloke (Bristol: Policy Press, 2012), 59.

[7] James A. Beckford, “Post-Secularity: Fashion and Foible,” Unpublished paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Denver, CO, 25 October 2009.

[8] Gregor, McLennan, “Towards Postsecular Sociology?” Sociology 41.5 (2007): 857.

[9] Philip S. Gorski et al., "The Post Secular Question", in The Post Secular Question: Religion in Contemporary Society, 2-3.

[10] Jürgen Habermas, “Notes on Post‐secular Society,” New Perspectives Quarterly 25.4 (2008): 18.

[11] Jacques Le Goff, Pierre Nora, and Colin Lucas, Constructing the Past: Essays in Historical Methodology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

[12] Hagai Katz, “Gramsci, Hegemony, and Global Civil Society Network,” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 17.4 (2006): 332-347; Thomas R. Bates, “Gramsci and the Theory of Hegemony,” Journal of the History of Ideas 36.2 (1975): 351-366; Dennis K. Mumby, “The problem of hegemony: Rereading Gramsci for organizational communication studies,” Western Journal of Communication (includes Communication Reports) 61.4 (1997): 343-375.

[13] Steve Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Oxford MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002); Ahmet T. Kuru, “Passive and Assertive Secularism: Historical Conditions, Ideological Struggles, and State Policies toward Religion.” World Politics 59.04 (2007): 568-594; Elizabeth S. Hurd, “The Political Authority of Secularism in International Relations.” European Journal of International Relations 10.2 (2004): 235-262.

[14] As examples of nineteenth-century histories which gave greater prominence to the role of Christianity in New Zealand, see Arthur S. Thomson, The Story of New Zealand: Past and Present, Savage and Civilized (London: John Murray, 1859); George W. Rusden, History of New Zealand (London: Chapman and Hall, 1883). For the growing secularisation of New Zealand in this period, see Laurie Guy, Shaping Godzone. Public Issues and Church Voices in New Zealand 1840 - 2000 (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2011).

[15] Stuart Lange, “Christian Beginnings in New Zealand: Some Historiographical Issues,” 6.

[16] Jürgen Habermas, “Notes on post‐secular society,” 21.

[17] Scott M. Thomas, “Taking Religious and Cultural Pluralism Seriously: The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Society,” Millennium 29.3 (2000): 816, 839, cited in James A. Beckford, “SSSR Presidential Address Public Religions and the Postsecular: Critical Reflections,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51.1 (2012): 10.

[18] Beckford, “SSSR Presidential Address,” 2.

[19] Agatha Herman, et al. “Spaces of Postsecular Engagement in Cities,” 60.

[20] Austin Harrington, “Habermas and the “Post-secular” Society,” European Journal of Social Theory 10.4 (2007): 547.

[21] Beckford, “SSSR presidential address,” 3.

[22] Jürgen Habermas, “A Reply,” in An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age, eds. Norbert Brieskorn, Jürgen Habermas, Michael Reder, Friedo Ricken, and Josef Schmidt (Cambridge: Polity, 2010), 72-83.

[23] Ingolf U. Dalferth, “Post-secular society: Christianity and the Dialectics of the Secular,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78.2 (2010): 324, in Beckford, “SSSR presidential address,” 11.

[24] As examples, see Clarke E. Cochran, Religion in Public and Private Life (Oxford: Routledge, 2014); James C. Davidson, and David P. Caddell, “Religion and the meaning of work,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33.2 (June 1994): 135-147.

[25] Nicholas J. Demerath, ‘Rational Paradigms, a-rational Religion, and the Debate over Secularization,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34.1 (1995): 105-112; Jude P. Dougherty, “What Was Religion: The Demise of a Prodigious Power,” Modern Age 33.2 (1990): 113.

[26] Manav Ratti, The Postsecular Imagination: Postcolonialism, Religion, and Literature (New York: Routledge, 2013), 27.

[27] Beckford, “Post-Secularity: Fashion and Foible.”

[28] Beckford, “SSSR presidential address,” 12.

[29] Michael King, The Penguin History of New Zealand (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2003).

[30] Steve Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West.

[31] James Belich, Paradise Reforged: A History of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the Year 2000 (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2001).

[32] Jürgen Habermas, “Notes on post‐secular society,” 18.

[33] Hilary M. Carey, God’s Empire: Religion and Colonialism in the British World, c.1801-1908 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 341.

[34] Ingolf U. Dalferth, “Post-secular society,” 11.

[35] As examples, see Allan K. Davidson, “Christianity and National Identity: The Role of the Churches in the ‘Construction of Nationhood,” in The Future of Christianity: Historical, Sociological, Political and Theological Perspectives from New Zealand, ed. John Stenhouse and Brett Knowles et al (Adelaide: ATF Press, 2004), 16-38; Angelene Goodman, “God’s own silence?: An Analysis of New Zealand Historians’ Treatment of the Evangelical Background to the Treaty of Waitangi.” Stimulus 23.1 (2016): 4; Tony Ballantyne, Entanglements of Empire: Missionaries, Maori, and the Question of the Body (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2015); John Stenhouse, “God’s Own silence: Secular Nationalism, Christianity and the Writing of New Zealand,” New Zealand Journal of History 38.1 (2004): 52-71; Deborah Fraser, “Secular Schools, Spirituality and Maori Values.” Journal of Moral Education 33.1 (2004): 87-95.

[36] Agatha Herman, et al., “Spaces of Postsecular Engagement in Cities,” 60.