The decline of traditional Christian beliefs in Germany

The decline of traditional Christian beliefs in Germany

Jack D. Shand

In 1967, on the occasion of a period of religious controversy, the German magazine, Der Spiegel, commissioned an opinion survey of religious beliefs in the Federal Republic of Germany. Now a quarter of a century later, present controversy within the Catholic Church seemed reason enough for Der Spiegel to make a fresh review of the religious beliefs of the German people.

Accordingly in 1992 the Bielefelder Emnid Institute was given the task of questioning 2,000 West German and 1,000 East German citizens about their religious beliefs. (These samples represented the adult population 18 years and older.)

Subsequently Der Spiegel published the results of these two surveys in an extensive article in one of the issues of that magazine (Der Spiegel 1992). Since the article was written in German and most social scientists are probably not aware that the study was made, this author felt that it deserved to be translated and made known to social scientists in this country.

The following report should not be considered a word for word translation of the German article as a whole, but an attempt was made to cover each of the major findings of the survey, and to translate them into English as accurately and sensibly as possible. Much textual and tabular material which was not directly relevant to the interest of foreign social scientists was excluded.(1)


First of all, the results of this survey showed that in 1967, 25 percent, but now only 10 percent, of the German people went “every or almost every” Sunday to church. For 35 percent, a trip to church occurred only on special occasions: if one is baptized, partakes in a first Communion, is confirmed as a member, is married or buried. In fact, there were more “unaffiliated” than there were those who went to church every Sunday. [Compare this with the 1995 survey of the Princeton Religion Research Center which found that 43 percent of a US national sample (N = 3017) had attended church or synagogue in the last seven days (Gallup 1996:29).](2)

In 1967, 68 percent of the West German sample (N = 2000) believed in God, now only 56 percent do so. No fewer than 12 percent (representing about 5.6 million people) have lost their belief in God or have grown up without it. [For the US, the P.R.R.C. reports that 96 percent of the national sample (N = 1016) believe in God (Gallup 1996: 20).]

Whereas in 1967, 42 percent of the West Germans believed in Jesus as the son of God, today only 29 percent believe this. For 43 percent Jesus was considered to be just a human being, but a great one, who even today could be considered a good role model. However, another 23 percent indicated that Jesus had no meaning for them, and 3 percent questioned that he had even existed.

Previously about two-thirds of the Germans surveyed maintained that the Bible was the word of God. Today only half of them believe that, and only one in ten believes that there is nothing false in the Bible. There was an even greater change in the extent to which people believed in the miracles which are reported in the Bible. No matter whether the Ascension, the Raising of the Dead, the Feeding of 5,000, or the Walking on Water was questioned, in each case only a minority were of the opinion that these events had really occurred. The only proposition which the majority of Germans still believe is true is that Jesus healed the sick [Contrast this with the P.R.R.C. finding that 79 percent of the US national sample say that they believe in the (religious) miracles (Gallup 1996: 23).]

There was clear evidence of a generation gap. Of the Germans under thirty years of age only half as many believe in Jesus, the Son of God, as do their older countrymen.

If one compares the West German with East German data, it becomes plain that the lack of belief is very much more widespread in the East German territories. Only 17 percent in East Germany believe that Jesus is the Son of God. However, even in West Germany only 29 percent believe this [Of the US national sample, 84 percent believe that Jesus is God or the Son of God (Gallup 1996: 24).]

Figure 1 shows the extent of belief and disbelief in God, comparing West Germans and East Germans, Protestants and Catholics. It is clear that the West Germans have a greater proportion of believers than do the East Germans and the Catholics also have a greater proportion of believers than do the Protestants.

Two beliefs which are generally considered to be central to Catholicism are the infallibility of the Pope and the Virgin Birth. Focusing on the opinions only of those who attend Sunday Mass regularly, the report makes clear the great extent to which beliefs have changed. Twenty-five years ago 54 percent of those attending Mass believed in the infallibility of the Pope – today only 36 percent do so. The proportion believing in the Virgin Birth has decreased since 1967 from 58 percent to 32 percent.

The attitude of the Germans toward the Pope himself has changed considerably. Before his first visit to Germany two years after he assumed Office, the people virtually idolized him. At that time an average rating of plus 4.3 (on a scale of -1 to +5) was obtained. That was a value which Brandt, Schmidt, and Genscher – three of the most popular West German politicians of the past few decades – never attained. But now, twelve years later, the Pope has received only a 2.5 rating by his own Catholic churchgoers.

When the Emnid Institute asked about the celibacy of priests, the birth control pill, and church weddings of divorced people, the results showed that on none of these questions did the Pope have any kind of a majority on his side – neither of the total number of Germans, nor of the Protestants, nor of the regular Catholic churchgoers [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. By far, most Catholics are not only for permitting priests to marry, they also want the priesthood to be available to women [Of the US national sample, 78 percent believed that divorced Catholics should be permitted to remarry in the Catholic Church; 72 percent favored allowing priests to marry; 63 percent agreed that women should be ordained as priests (Gallup 1996: 55).]

The German bishops are still more obedient followers of the Pope than their brethren in other lands – possibly from tradition, and because they take all too literally the dogma of primacy of the Pope in relation to the bishops. For example, not a single German bishop has declared celibacy as outmoded. The Brazilian bishops, on the other hand, have expressed the view that steps should be taken soon to abolish it.

The Emnid Institute reported greater opposition to abortion in West Germany than in East Germany even for the first trimester. For a short-term abortion (three months or less) there is a close relationship between attitude toward abortion and the frequency of church attendance. based on the 1992 national sample of 2000 West Germans and 1000 East Germans), the most frequent churchgoers were found to be the most punitive (See Table 2).

Indicative of the conflict of views within the Catholic Church itself is the case of Eugene Drewerman, a nationally known Catholic priest and stem critic of some of the Catholic Church’s fundamental policies. Many Roman Catholics considered him to be a heretic, but others considered him to be a highly respected theologian who simply wishes to reform the Catholic Church.

During 1992, the archbishop of the area, a churchman by the name of Degenhart, decided to take drastic action against Drewerman, forbidding him to teach, preach, or to exercise his duties as a priest. In this situation, Eugene Drewerman became an opponent not only of Archbishop Degenhart and most of the German bishops, but also of the Pope himself.

In any case, the archbishop and other bishops erred if they believed that they could end the theological conflict administratively by means of authoritarian threats and prohibitions which were designed to silence Drewerman.


For complete freedom from any form of punishment for a short-term


Catholics according to attendance at church

Every Sunday 21%

At least once a month 37%

On religious holidays 38%

Seldom or never 55%

West Germans (Total) 50%

East Germans (Total) 71%

Protestants according to attendance at church

Regular 37%

Frequent 46%

Seldom 58%

Never 69%

Unaffiliated 75%

On the contrary, wherever Drewerman speaks, he draws huge crowds. Der Spiegel reports that he expresses the power of the religious word like almost no one else. Much feeling and conviction is contained in his speeches. There exist only a few who are able to escape the spell-binding effect of his oratory.

In the national survey, it was evident whom the people support. Fifty-eight percent of the Roman Catholics agreed with Drewerman and only 34 percent agreed with Archbishop Degenhart. The German Protestants stood in even greater members on the side of the priest who was banned from podium, pulpit, and priesthood: 77 percent for Drewerman and only 15 percent for Archbishop Degenhart.

The results of the Bielefelder Emnid Institute surveys show the extent of change in religious beliefs and attitudes in Germany over the past twenty-five years. Not only has the number of people who attend church regularly dropped off considerably, but there has been a marked decline among both Catholics and Protestants of those accepting traditional Christian beliefs.(3)

1 The author wishes to thank Der Spiegel for permission to translate much of this article, and to acknowledge the assistance of Brigitte Reid M.A. in helping him to make sense out of some of the more complicated German linguistic constructions.

2 All text material in brackets here and elsewhere represent added comment by the author.

3 For those who have some knowledge of German and who have further interest in examining additional data involved in these surveys, a large number of tables with the most important results are obtainable from SPIEGEL Dokumentation Postfach 11.04.20 D-2000 Hamburg 11. The original title of the article was: noch jeder vierte ein Christ (Only one in four is Christian).


Der Spiegel. 1992. Nur noch jeder vierte ein Christ, 25 June, 36-57.

Gallup, G. Jr. 1996. Religion in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Religion Research Center.

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