Race or Religion? Is there a difference?

Having worked till the wee hours of the night on my literature review (which will hopefully, fingers crossed, form part of my Masters next year) I thought I’d reformat a teensy bit and post as a blog post… so enjoy…

PS: Yes, this is academic writing, so it has proper referencing… refer to Bibliography at the end for any that might be online links, but it is also linked through to academic journals which are probably behind pay-walls… sorry!

Also, I talk a lot about the book “Religion and the Creation of Race & Ethnicity, edited by Craig Prentiss” if you want a copy of this book, you can get it on Amazon.


Dr Venter and his team at the National Institute of Health, after putting together a draft of the entire sequence of the human genome, unanimously declared: “There is only one race – the human race” (Angier, 2000). Yet Wade Michael Page (“Temple Killer had Dark History”, 2012), had lived his entire life as a ‘frustrated neo-Nazi’ believing that his ‘race’ was superior to others, believing it with such a conviction that he took a 9mm handgun into a Sikh temple and shot dead six people. Tragically, it is now believed that the attack was a misguided Islamophobic attack, three supposed ‘races’ involved when science has shown that there is only one.

Max Weber postulated that ‘race’ was a social construct it in his Ethnic Communities, (Banton 2007, 23-25) and given he died in 1920, seventy years before the human genome project started, sociologists have therefore, been discussing this concept for a  long time. However, while it is accepted that ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’ is a figment of our imagination, what we cannot agree on is what ‘causes’ this mass delusion.

Prentiss calls this extended discussion “interplay between religion, race and ethnicity”. The anthology (of which he is an editor) doesn’t ask how a particular ‘ethnic’ community approaches religion; uniquely, it instead asks “How has religion played a role in making and preserving those very social boundaries that we call ‘races’ and ‘ethnicities’?” (Prentiss 2003, 1) All the authors in the anthology were then asked to answer four questions(Prentiss 2003, 8)

  1. What is the ‘racial’ or ‘ethnic’ boundary being created?
  2. What mythological resources are being used to invoke these boundaries?
  3. What are the socio-historical circumstances that make these identity boundaries possible?
  4. Have the myths in question been contested and re-appropriated to challenge or consolidate boundaries?

As most of the examples are from a North American context, my research topic is to investigate these questions within a New Zealand context and explore whether ‘religion’ has had as drastic an impact on the creation of our ‘ethnic’ boundaries as it has in those examples.

Main Definitions

Statistics New Zealand Tatauranga Aotearoa (SNZTA), published the Statistical Standard for Ethnicity in 2005 (2005). In doing so, they established the official definition of ‘ethnicity’ as: “the ethnic group that people identify with or feel they belong to”. They were clear to distinguish this from “race, ancestry, nationality or citizenship” and to state that it ethnicity is ‘self-perceived’ and that people can belong to more than one ethnic group. It is interesting to note that the main reason that SNZTA clarified the distinction between ethnicity and race seems to be a biological one. The scope of this research will not unpack this, and for simplicity, will merely utilise the official definition of ‘ethnicity’.

The authors in Prentiss’ anthology were asked to concentrate on the discourse of ‘myth’ as a method of focussing the vast subject area of ‘religion’ (Prentiss 2003, 4). I chose to use the definition of ‘religious or ethical belief’ as stated by the Human Rights Commission instead (HRC 2010, 140-151). This definition is much more useful in a New Zealand context, as it also includes atheistic beliefs and matters of conscience (HRC 2010, 141).

Ethnic Boundaries

As Ward and Masgoret state: “New Zealand has always been a nation of migrants, built originally upon the tribal base of its indigenous Māori population.”(Ward and Masgoret 2008, 227) To top it off, it kicked off in 1840, a mere 172 years ago with the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. When compared to international standards, New Zealand has had an incredibly short time to adjust to the transition from a single ‘ethnicity’ to a bicultural society to a de facto multicultural nation. (Ward and Masgoret 2008, 228)

As the New Zealand context is so short, and so heavily influenced by the greater context of the initial immigrants (i.e. Britain and Europe) my research will not seek to establish that ‘religious or ethical belief’ constructed the socially perceived ethnic boundaries, instead, I will investigate whether or not it has been a vital factor.

In seeking to define ‘ethnic boundaries’ in a uniquely New Zealand context, I chose to investigate the ethnicity question within the Census. Apart from the slight hiccup when they changed the wording for the question between 1991 and 2001 (SNZTA, 2002) There is a myriad of cross-referenced information available on ‘ethnicity’ and ‘religion’ from the Statistics New Zealand Tatauranga Aotearoa site.[1]

Religious Beliefs

When investigating what ‘beliefs’ could be used to invoke the ‘ethnic’ boundaries, I came across a variety of articles and case studies about racial and religious prejudice. What was more significant was that, frequently, there was a blurring of the line: for example, the case of Adeeba Jabbar (Fisher & Levy, 2011), the Saudi Arabian (‘nationality’) Muslim (‘religious belief’) who was refused a bus ride recently. The case centred not only around her ‘religious beliefs’ but around her ‘ethnicity’ as well. The bus driver in question claimed it wasn’t religious discrimination, citing that they had a genuine phobia for masks. At the sake of drawing a foregone conclusion, I would hazard a guess that the refusal to admit to religious discrimination is the driver’s attempt to conform to what he thinks is a societally acceptable way to act. Hence, in this case, the ‘religious belief’ of Jabbar has created an ‘ethnic boundary’ but the greater society of New Zealand is attempting, at face value at least, to pretend that this boundary does not exist. The other significant cases which I gathered resources for were Paul Henry (and the two incidences involving the Governor General at the time, Sir Anand Satyanand and also the deliberate mispronounciation of Sheila Dikshit’s name) and Hone Harawira and the email he sent in 2009. In particular, the Centre for Applied Cross-Cultural Research did some extensive research on these two topics (which they presented to the National Diversity Forum last year – (Liu et al, 2011)) This research was interesting as it was an analysis on social networking comments, and as such showed the ‘real’ attitudes of New Zealanders when they assumed that they were in an anonymous setting.

Socio-historical Circumstances

The main socio-historical circumstances I am going to investigate is the timing and reach of certain official Acts. For example, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (NZ Government, 1990), the New Zealand Human Rights Act 1993 (NZ Government, 1993), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (United Nations, 1966) and of course the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948) and others. I will also look into whether the recent law changes in Europe around the burka has affected New Zealand.

As I have stated earlier, the New Zealand context was initially heavily influenced by the British and the European contexts, simply because the majority of the immigration was from those parts of the world. What I wish to investigate further is whether the level of influence continues to be as great, (especially in terms of ‘religious beliefs’ influencing or creating ‘ethnic boundaries’) or whether the level of influence has now waned in favour of other countries, the countries of more recent immigration influxes.

Of course, any investigation into the socio-historical circumstances in New Zealand must have a large treatment of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (NZ History Online, 2012). In particular, how it is affected by the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (United Nations, 2006) and how it will also be affected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (in terms on how it treats the ‘religious beliefs’ of indigenous peoples)


Although New Zealand’s history is so short, it also has a global reputation for being an inclusive society. In some ways, it presents the ideal test case for investigating a causative link between ‘ethnic boundaries’ and ‘religious beliefs’. Furthermore, unlike the North American context that the Prentiss anthology mostly concentrates on, New Zealand has been purported to becoming increasingly secular in recent times. The use of my ‘religious beliefs’ definition to include ‘non-belief’ is an attempt to include this uniquely NZ aspect to the research. After all, if we are investigating how the existence of a ‘religious belief’ can create ‘ethnic boundaries’, it is perhaps far more interesting to see how the non-existence of any ‘belief’ can create the same boundaries, and whether these ‘boundaries’ inevitably become more pronounced.


[1] I have not separately referenced the several censuses that I will investigate, or the various reports available on SNZTA within this literature review.

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