Religion is becoming less important in people’s private lives in Switzerland, even among tax-paying members of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, two-thirds of whom are described by researchers as “distanced”.
Five years of research into religion in society, comprising 28 projects, has revealed that not only are the main established churches haemorrhaging members, most of those who stay within the fold have at most a superficial attachment to the church.
The phenomenon of keeping religion at arms’ length was studied by sociologist Jörg Stolz of Lausanne University.
“More than 60 per cent of the population can be counted in that distanced group. It’s a group who say ‘I am Catholic but …’ or ‘I am Protestant but …’. There is always a ‘but’, they will say ‘I’m not practising’ or ‘it’s not the most important thing in my life’,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“This group also distances itself from a complete atheism,” Stolz said. They believe in a higher power but have not made up their minds what form it takes.
“It’s a large group, not just in Switzerland but in most other Western countries,” he added.
Despite their reluctance to conform on matters of faith and in practising their religion, distanced Christians in Switzerland value the social and cultural importance of the traditional churches and are skeptical about the secularist goal of full separation of church and state.
However secularisation is continuing apace in the state sector. Institutions that used to have a religious character, such as care homes, schools and teacher training colleges, are secular today.
Meanwhile the proportion of institutional believers, people who actually believe in the churches’ teachings and turn up regularly for church services, is dwindling. They now stand at 15 per cent of Protestants and 23 per cent of Catholics. It is worth noting that the ranks of faithful Catholics are being swelled by immigrants.
The trend of people leaving the main churches is very likely to continue, according to Stolz.
“Every new generation has been less religious than the former one so we are quite certain that these trends of diminishing numbers of Catholics and Protestants will continue,” he said.
Losing my religion
So what is behind this drift away from mainstream religion? The answer is disillusionment in different forms.
“The main reason given by people is that they just don’t care anymore … . They have no link whatsoever to the church and that’s the point where they drop out,” Stolz said.
Another significant reason is anger. “It’s very much Catholics who are angry with the pope or the hierarchy and they cannot relate to the traditional norms that are espoused in the Catholic church,” Stolz explained.
“The third factor is the financial aspect [cantonal tax includes a church levy for church members] but people are not very keen on saying that, as if there was a notion that you shouldn’t drop out of the church because of money,” he added.
Christoph Bochinger of Bayreuth University in Germany, who headed the research programme, told swissinfo.ch that convergence was taking place at either end of the religious spectrum.
“The liberals of all religions are becoming more similar to each other while the conservatives of all religions are becoming more and more similar and in some cases support each other,” he said.
According to the research, most people think that religion should be consigned to the private sphere and that “extremist” tendencies and proselytisation should not be accepted. One in ten Swiss residents believes in alternative forms of spirituality, an eclectic mix drawing on a range of traditions and usually including a belief in reincarnation.
Bochinger sees some potential for conflict in the future between very religious and very secular people. “For this reason it is very important to promote respect between the various groups,” he said.
Trust in the state
The Muslim population is described by Stolz as a mixed group.
“There is great diversity in the Muslim community, if you can call it the Muslim community. The major differences are really ethnic, what country they come from – Turkey, Bosnia, the Maghreb,” Stolz said.
“Very often the Muslim groups are not just religious but also cultural groups for whom keeping up tradition is very important,” he added.
In November 2009, 57 per cent of Swiss voters accepted a proposed ban on the construction of minarets, reflecting a certain antipathy or fear towards this religious minority.
However Stolz sees no risk of Islamisation in Switzerland. “People often have the idea that there is a bloc that might grow immensely and create an Islamisation but nothing could be further from the truth.”
The research also identifies a secularisation trend within younger generations of Muslims.
Although religion is used by the media, in politics and even on the school playground, to emphasise difference, Bochinger told swissinfo.ch that members and functionaries of immigrant religions were not seeking to form parallel societies.
“This was one of our astonishing results. Many of those migrants display great trust in the authorities and hope the state will help them integrate into Swiss society,” he said.