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RELIGION

Losing my religion: what new stats say about faith in Switzerland

The Swiss Federal Statistics Office has just published new figures on the religion in the country. Here are seven key takeaways.

Losing my religion: what new stats say about faith in Switzerland
Seminarians of the International Seminary of Saint Pius X play football in Valais in 2014. Photo: AFP

1) Catholics are the largest religious group in Switzerland

Members of the Catholic Church (35.9 percent) made up the largest religious community in Switzerland in 2017, followed by members of the Swiss Reformed Church (25 percent).

A total of 5.4 percent of people belonged to Islamic communities while members of Jewish communities comprised 0.3 percent of the population.

2) More and more people are leaving the big churches

The number of people who belong to the Catholic and Swiss Reformed churches is continuing to fall in Switzerland.

In 1990, 46.2 percent of people in Switzerland belonged to the Catholic Church but by 2017 that figure had dropped to 35.9 percent. For the Reformed Church the decline is even greater: 39.6 percent in 1990 against 23.8 percent in 2017.

Geneva's Reformation Wall features William Farel, Jean Calvin, Theodore Beza, and John Knox. Photo: AFP

3) The number of people who don't belong to a religious community has risen dramatically

With so many people leaving the large Catholic and Reformed churches, it makes sense that the number of ‘unaffiliated’ people has also risen – from just 3.4 percent in 1990 to 26 percent in 2017.

This figure is highest among people aged 25 to 44: 32.5 percent. The percentage of people aged 65 and over who don’t belong to a church is 16.1 percent.

4) People are (probably) not just leaving the church for financial reasons

Relations between church and state are a cantonal matter in Switzerland and in most cantons church members pay a direct ‘church tax’ on their income. The amount of tax varies from canton to canton and even from commune to commune and often runs to hundreds of francs a year.

But while the FSO statistics do not reveal why people are leaving the church, it appears money may not be not the main reason.

Every year, the church tower of Saint Niklaus, Valais becomes the world's largest Santa. Photo: AFP

The authors of another newly published study on religion in Zurich found that older city residents often left the church because they no longer agreed with its position on issues while young people tended to leave because they had never believed.

In both cases, however, money was not one of the main reasons cited.

Meanwhile, religion researcher Stefan Huber from the University of Bern told the Der Bund newspaper that Switzerland was becoming increasingly secular.

“In contrast to how it used to be, it is no longer necessary to belong to a church to be a good Swiss,” he said.

5) Not everyone who leaves the church is a non-believer

According to the FSO figures, only a third of people who are unaffiliated with a church describe themselves as atheists. One quarter say they are agnostic, one in ten say they believe there is just one god, and around one in three express a belief in a higher power.

The new figures also reveal religion or spirituality plays a major role for 56 percent of people in difficult moments in their lives. In addition, nearly half of all people (47 percent of all people) said spiritual or religious considerations were important when it came to raising children, and 16 percent said these considerations influenced their political views.

6) Over half of all women believe in ‘guardian angels’

Women in Switzerland are more likely to belong to a church than men (just) and are more likely to pray on a daily basis (35 percent against 20 percent).

They are also far more likely to think there are “probably” or “definitely” guardian angels or supernatural beings that watch over them (58 percent for women versus 37 percent for men).

Finally, 46 percent of women believe there are people with healing or clairvoyant powers. For men, the figure is 42 percent.

7) There are huge regional differences in church membership

The percentage of people who are not members of a church varies wildly – from a high of 49.6 percent in the canton of Basel-Stadt to just 9.4 percent in the canton of Uri. In Zurich, the figure is 29.2 percent, in Geneva it’s 41.3 percent and in Bern it’s 20.5 percent.

In general, there are more church members in predominantly Catholic cantons than in predominantly Reformed cantons.

Pope Francis celebrates mass in Geneva in June 2018. Photo: AFP

Again, the FSO figures don’t reveal why this is the case, but Huber gave Der Bund two possible reasons. Firstly, in the Catholic Church, the church itself is seen as an essential intermediary between God and the people whereas members of the Reformed Church do not need the church to have contact with God.

Secondly, Huber noted the Swiss Reformed Church is much more closely connected with Swiss culture, which means it struggles to attract immigrants.

The FSO statistics show one in four members of the Catholic Church in Switzerland has a foreign passport. For the Reformed Church, that number is just one in twenty.

Read also: Swiss 'women's bible offers feminist theology for #metoo moment

RELIGION

First Catholic Mass for 500 years to be held in Geneva church

There was a riot last time St Pierre's cathedral in Geneva hosted a Catholic Mass in 1535, with clergymen chased out and statues and treasures looted.

First Catholic Mass for 500 years to be held in Geneva church
Father Pascal Desthieux, who will celebrate the first Catholic Mass in 500 years, poses in front of the St Pierre's cathedral, a bastion of Swiss Reformation, on February 19, 2020 in Geneva. Photo: FA

On Saturday, the first Catholic Mass since that day in what became a centre of the Protestant Reformation promises to be a more sedate affair.

Father Pascal Desthieux, who will celebrate the Mass, told AFP he planned to express “respect and gratitude” to Protestant friends for hosting it.

Desthieux said he would also apologise on behalf of all the Catholics who had “disrespected, misjudged and condemned” Protestants over the centuries.

The Reformation triumphed in Switzerland in 1536 under the leadership of John Calvin and the building — which was run by the Roman Catholic Church for 1,000 years — was taken over by the Protestant Church.

The cathedral, which has Calvin's wooden chair on display, “is a symbolic place for all Genevans”, Desthieux said, adding that nearby Catholic churches would be closed to encourage the faithful to go there.

Pastor Emmanuel Fuchs, head of the Protestant Church in Geneva, said the 6:30 pm (1730 GMT) mass was a way of moving forward “on the path of reconciliation”.

“We cannot remain prisoners of history. History has to elevate us, not keep us in a straitjacket,” he said.

In a city where Catholicism is once again the main religion, Protestant and Catholic leaders said the two churches are already co-operating in many areas — including joint chaplaincies for the sick or prisoners.

'No hidden agenda'

Even with widespread approval in both communities, however, Saturday's Mass remains a sensitive issue.

The Vatican and Protestant Churches still do not recognise each other's legitimacy and many Protestants remain highly suspicious of the papacy.

Religious leaders are careful to play down any suspicion that the Mass is an attempt by Catholics to regain lost territory in the land of Calvin.

“Some people are surprised, some disappointed, some may even be quite angry at this initiative,” Fuchs said.

“But we are a Church that has a habit of debating, a church where we take decisions democratically.

I think a large consensus has been achieved.” Desthieux said there was “no hidden agenda” and “no intention to take back the cathedral”.

“We already have our basilica and we have enough big churches,” he said, referring to the Notre-Dame of Geneva basilica. Fuchs said he was sure the Catholic Church would celebrate the Mass “with the intelligence and subtlety that the place and the moment demand”.

Asked whether the experiment might be repeated, Fuchs said “let's see how things go” on both the Protestant and Catholic sides after the mass.

“We will have time to discuss it afterwards, to see what the fruit of this initiative could be,” he said.

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