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Deserted churches and fewer believers: Swiss abandon God

Une église vide
Swiss churches are increasingly empty © Keystone / Gaetan Bally

The non-religious proportion of the population is steadily growing in Switzerland, as in most Western countries. In a society with cutting-edge medicine, social insurance and coaches for all areas of life, the churches are becoming increasingly obsolete – so what do church leaders say about that?

At this rate, non-believers will soon be in the majority in Switzerland. People with no religious affiliation are the group that has grown the most over the past 50 years, reaching almost a third of the population in 2021 – almost as much as the proportion of Catholics, according to the Federal Statistical Office (FSO).

In 1970, virtually everyone in Switzerland was Christian, with half being Protestant and half Catholic. While Catholicism has managed to lose fewer adherents in absolute numbers as a result of immigration, the dwindling trend is similar for both communities, with things speeding up since the 2000s.

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Atheists, agnostics and those with no fixed religion

The “no religion” population is generally younger, better educated and tends to live in cities, according to the FSO. There are slightly more men than women.

This category encompasses a variety of worldviews and realities, all of which have in common the fact that they are not affiliated to a church and do not follow any religion. There are atheists and agnostics, but also people who believe in a higher power without identifying with a religion.

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People who turn their backs on the religious practices they were brought up with, or who embrace an alternative spirituality, are not in the majority, points out religious sociologist Jörg Stolz, director of the Institute for Social Sciences of Religions at the University of Lausanne.

“More often than not, these are people who have not been religiously socialised, and who are indifferent or opposed to religion in general,” he says.

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The Western way

Most developed countries are seeing a decline in religiosity. In France, most people now declare themselves to have no religion; in Australia, the “religionless” are the second-largest group; the United Kingdom no longer has a Christian majority; less than half the population in Germany belong to a church, while in the United States and South Korea the importance of faith is steadily declining.

International surveys of people’s valuesExternal link show a decline in the sense of religious belonging, religious practice and belief in God in several dozen countries since the 1980s.

However, the situation varies greatly from one region of the world to another. According to international data from the American thinktank Pew Research Center, Europe, Asia-Pacific and North America are the most secularised regions, with around 20% of people declaring themselves to have no religion, compared with a global average of around 16%.

On a European scale, Switzerland has an average level of secularisation, Stolz says. The United Kingdom and France are more secular, while other countries, such as Italy and Poland, are still much more religious.

“We believe that the countries of Europe are all engaged in the same process of secularisation, but they did not enter it at the same time and are therefore at different stages,” he says.

In a book entitled Beyond Doubt*, published in May, an American team of sociologists of religion also maintains that secularisation is an underlying global trend. They believe that the results of surveys on religious affiliation are biased in certain countries, particularly Muslim ones, where declaring oneself to be not religious would be risky.

The authors of the book acknowledge, however, that many countries are still extremely religious, and that some, including in Europe, are witnessing a resurgence of religiosity.

However, experts are not unanimous on this “secularisation thesis”, according to which the world is necessarily moving towards less religion.

In a book published in 2015, The Triumph of Faith**, another American sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, defends the opposite thesis. He insists not only that the world is not becoming more secular, but that it is even more intensely religious than before.

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In its projections, the Pew Research Center expects the religious share of the world’s population to increase between now and 2050, as a result of demographic dynamics. While the “no religion” proportion should continue to rise in North America and Europe (areas in demographic decline), it should remain stable or even fall in the other regions of the world, where population growth is expected to be strong.

In 30 years, Christianity should still be the largest religious group, but with Islam developing faster than the other religions, the Muslim community should be close on the heels of the Christian community.

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What fate for the churches?

According to Stolz, modernity is the main reason for the decline in religiosity in the West, and the main threat to religions in the long term. “We’re turning away from religions because we no longer see their usefulness. Many secular techniques solve problems that used to be dealt with by religion,” he says.

“Biomedicine heals us, we have access to psychologists or coaches to talk about our personal problems, and insurance and the welfare state offer us a sense of security. We have less need to pray or talk to a priest or a pastor.”

Rita Famos, president of the Evangelical Reformed Church in Switzerland, disagrees. “Benjamin Franklin didn’t stop praying after the invention of the lightning rod,” she says. “Nor has religion become superfluous for human beings.” She is convinced that human beings need faith.

In any case, the decline of religion is not synonymous with the disappearance of values, says Stolz, citing the example of Sweden, a highly secularised country. “Swedish democracy works very well, and it has no fewer pro-social values,” such as altruism, civic-mindedness, not committing crimes, and so on.

On the front line of the decline of religious belief in Western countries are the churches, which are seeing their congregations disappear. In Switzerland, according to the Institute for Pastoral Sociology, in 2021 more than 34,000 people left the Catholic Church and more than 28,000 left the Protestant Church.


The phenomenon is steadily increasing and is set to continue: a studyExternal link on the future of the Swiss churches predicts that membership will fall by almost half by 2045 in the Evangelical Reformed Church and by a third in the Roman Catholic Church. “We cannot reverse this trend,” concedes Renata Asal-Steger, president of the Roman Catholic Central Conference of Switzerland.

While she shares these concerns, Famos says: “We won’t gain anything by constantly reproaching ourselves for our loss of importance. We should […] work with those who are there. After all, there are 1.8 million of them in Switzerland.”

The decision to officially leave the Church was the result of a combination of factors. “Over time, people distance themselves from the Church because of doubts […] or disagreements (…),” the Institute for Pastoral Sociology believes. A bad personal experience or a church tax bill can act as a trigger.

While leaving the church is mainly dictated by an individual’s relationship with the faith, statistics show that ecclesiastical positions also have an influence on these mass departures, particularly in the Catholic Church.

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Asal-Steger admits that the institution bears some of the responsibility. She believes that the sexual abuse scandals have led to a breakdown in trust, and that the Church needs to undergo “in-depth reform” in order to respond better “to the needs of today’s population”.

The two churches are preparing themselves for the fact that the flight of the faithful will eventually pose a serious financial problem. The study cited above predicts a drop in revenue of tens of millions of francs over the next 20 years. In addition to the decline in the number of taxpayers paying church tax (see box below), the study predicts that the churches will find it increasingly difficult to defend their legitimacy to collect public money if their influence in society continues to decline.

The funding of churches in Switzerland has two major differences from other systems. The first is that the relationship between the Church and the state (and therefore the funding of religious communities) is governed by the country’s 26 cantons rather than the government.

There are as many variants as there are cantons, but most levy a church tax. This tax is paid by individuals, who must make an official request to leave the Church in order to avoid it, which means that they can no longer attend services.

In some cantons, legal entities, i.e. companies, are also required to pay church tax, which is a matter of debate. According to one study, the funding received by the two churches via this tax amounts to more than CHF1.3 billion ($1.45 billion).

In some cantons, the churches also receive subsidies from the public authorities (cantons and municipalities) totalling almost CHF560 million, which would represent around a third of their resources.

Only two cantons have a system of separation of Church and state: Geneva and Neuchâtel. Funded solely by private donations, the cantonal churches of Geneva and Neuchâtel are the poorest in the country. In these cantons, tax payment slips include an ecclesiastical deduction, which taxpayers are free to pay.

The second major feature of the Swiss system is its “dual” ecclesiastical structure, i.e. the parishes are “doubled” by cantonal ecclesiastical corporations governed by public law, made up of lay people and managed according to democratic principles, which control the finances.

According to the president of the Roman Catholic Central Conference, which federates these corporations, this is a system that is unique in the world and “allows the Catholic Church in Switzerland to benefit from greater transparency and better control”.

They are therefore beginning to diversify their sources of revenue, by exploiting their real estate assets, by sponsoring or co-financing certain projects, or through service contracts. The churches have also identified the importance of communicating more about their activities and the use of the funds made available to them.

“Less money means smaller churches, fewer staff and fewer services for the public,” points out Stolz. However, he says the churches are still fulfilling a mission that is useful to society as a whole, and even “indispensable”, according to the church representatives interviewed by SWI 

They highlight, among other things, their commitment to refugees, young people and senior citizens, spiritual care for the sick and help for the bereaved. “None of this would be possible without the Church, without its structures established with a lot of voluntary work,” says Asal-Steger.

“We must not underestimate – even if it is difficult to measure – the overall social value of an organisation that transmits to men and women a basic confidence in life,” adds Famos.

“Churches contribute to social cohesion and enable us to respond to tragedies with rituals,” explains Stolz. The question is who would take over if they disappeared? The state? Or other players in civil society?

He adds that for many people, even those who don’t practise their religion, there is still a sense of identity and cultural attachment to the churches. “Churches accompany many people through the major stages of their lives, and the mere existence of churches as buildings provides a spatial identity that many people would not want to see disappear.”

In our call for contributions below, one of our readers links his atheism to his upbringing. “Unbaptised, having only heard the word religion for the first time at primary school and having always had long philosophical discussions with my father, […] it is very difficult for me to imagine that anyone could believe [… ] in the existence of invisible entities”, says Achilles54.

Marco Brenni says he grew up in a practising Catholic family but gradually detached himself from the Church as an adult, while studying philosophy. “Nietzsche convinced me that ‘God is dead’ in our modern or postmodern civilisation,” he writes. “We know nothing of what lies beyond our senses, […] and that suits me.”

Other testimonies make a distinction between believing in God and religions. Rene Bodenmann describes himself as a “believing atheist” and explains that his main problem is with monotheism, which he considers to be “the main cause of intolerance in the world”. The possibility that God exists encourages him to be a “good person” but, he adds, “you don’t need priests or a church” to do that.

“I believe in God but I don’t believe in religion,” says Joe Joe, who thinks “religion is manipulated by human beings”.


Hosted by: Pauline Turuban

Do you consider yourself a religious person? Why?

As religious affiliation declines in many countries, we are interested in your relationship to religion.

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*Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society, by Isabella Kasselstrand, Phil Zuckerman and Ryan T. Cragun, NYU Press, May 2023

**The Triumph of Faith: Why the world is more religious than ever, by Rodney Stark, ISI Books, November 2015

Edited by Marc Leutenegger. Translated from French by Thomas Stephens

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