Christianity has had such a profound effect on Papua New Guinea that perhaps no traditional beliefs and practices remain unaffected by it. The 1990 census recorded just over ninety thousand people (2.6%) who claimed they followed no religion and a mere ten thousand people (0.3%) who declared themselves to be non-Christian. The other 97% are, at least nominally, followers of the Christian faith.
This has been a rapid conversion. The first substantial missionary efforts were not launched until the late 19th century and only 7 of the nine churches currently at work in PNG have a history that goes back to before the end of the Second World War. The Roman Catholic church, which is the largest in the country, began to send missionaries rather earlier than the rest, but with little success and it returned to Europe within a few years. In the 1880s and 1890s, further missions of a variety of denominations arrived and began to work earnestly at converting the country to Christianity.
In that period, and right through until the 1970s, many of the missionaries were extremely insensitive to the cultural and religious rites and practices they found in PNG. They often destroyed, or persuaded their converts to destroy, artefacts, images and even the haus tambaran, the important spirit house in the village, because they were regarded as inappropriate in the light of the new faith. Some missionary work produced even greater trauma, reorganising and realigning the hierarchy and values of the societies they intruded upon.
At the same time, the missionaries and certainly the churches have done a great deal to promote education, health, welfare and transport and may be regarded as the pioneers of the PNG’s contemporary infrastructure and social services. By crossing clan lines, they have also encouraged the varied peoples of New Guinea to think of themselves as a whole nation and have played a major role in that aspect of Independence.
The latest grouping of Christian denominations shows that the 30% of the nation is Roman Catholic, 23% Evangelical Lutheran, 13% United Churches (Baptist, Brethren, Church of Christ, Congregational, Orthodox, Presbyterian, Protestant and Jehovah Witnesses), 9% Evangelical Alliances, 8% Seventh Day Adventists and 7% Pentecostals. The remainder are divided between traditional beliefs, Salvation Army, Bahai, non-Christians, other religions, agnostics and atheists.