Swiss keep religion at a distance

by Clare O’Dea,

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

“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.

True believers

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 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.

Evening service at the Roman Catholic church of St Peter and Paul in Zurich (Keystone)

“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 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.

Clare O’Dea,


Over the past five years, the 28 projects of the National Research Programme (NRP 58) studied the religious landscape in Switzerland.

One of the key observations of the programme “Religions, the State and Society” was that religion is becoming less important in people’s private lives.

NRP 58 analysed the changes in the area of religion that have been affecting
Switzerland increasingly and made suggestions to solve the problematic relationship
between state and religious communities.

The government commissioned programme got underway in 2007 and had an overall budget of SFr10 million. Around 135 researchers contributed to the 28 projects.

NRP 58 presented a synthesis of its work in July 2012.


NRP 58 researchers counted 5,734 religious communities in Switzerland – all religious orientations included.

Religious affiliation 2010 (change since 2000)

Roman Catholic: 38.8% (-3.7 percentage points)

Protestant: 30.9% (-3.2 percentage points)

No religious affiliation 20.1% (+ 8.9% percentage points)

Muslim: 4.5% (+0.9%)

Jewish: 0.2% (unchanged)

Other (including unaffiliated churches): 5%

Source: Federal Statistics Office

1 reply

  1. In the world of Religion as I observed personally there are two main shapes. One is positive other is negative.The positive shape of Religion called Missionary Work and the negative shape called Theocracy.
    If you want to promote religion do missionary works and serve the human-being without any discrimination.Promote the spiritual work and pray to God for welfare of others.You will see peoples will feel attraction towards your works of blessing.They will start helping you in the missionary work you doing.They will appreciate you and start to own your mission.They will start you giving donations voluntarily according to their financial position.You can divide that donations in the needy peoples to keep a financial balance in the society.
    On the other hand if you want to promote hatred from religion, politicize it.Promote theocracy.Build churches and mosques and offices and put the paid staff their and strict the rules and regulations and blackmail in the name of religion.Start leg pulling.Divide peoples into classes. Start discrimination among the believers.Make religion a business.Impose taxes in the name of Religion.Take full part in politics and who oppose you declare them peoples for hell(Kafir) etc.Peoples will become fed-up from the religion and they will start saying that actually I born in the family belong to that religion or sect but I am not a religious — this and that and in this way they will start keeping religion at a distance.

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