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OPINION: Why so many Swiss are quitting the church and taking their money with them

Clare O'Dea
Clare O'Dea - [email protected]
OPINION: Why so many Swiss are quitting the church and taking their money with them
Many people in Switzerland are choosing to walk away from the church. Photo: Thomas from Pixabay

It's not only the glaciers in Switzerland that are shrinking, the main churches are also shedding members every year, gradually changing the religious profile of the country. Clare O’Dea, a recent church leaver, asks what this means for society.

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Along with the usual reasons for abandoning religion – loss of faith, rejection of the teachings, or a dislike of the institution – Swiss residents also have a financial incentive to take this step. 

Members of the three state-recognised churches – the Roman Catholic Church, the (Protestant) Reformed Church and the tiny Christian Catholic Church – are automatically subject to a special church tax collected by the tax authorities in all but two cantons: Geneva and Neuchâtel. Ticino offers taxpayers an opt-out. 

Depending on the canton, the tax is calculated as a percentage of other taxes paid, or as a percentage of the household’s overall taxable wealth and income. A church member earning an average salary could expect to pay between 200 and 400 francs per year. Remarkably, companies are also subject to church tax. 

This steady stream of income is good news for the churches, which are in a position to pay all their bills and have generous salaries. The average salary for a priest or pastor, according to the last ‘Salary Book’ (Lohnbuch), a 700-page survey published by canton Zurich, was 9,000 francs per month. 

READ ALSO: Do I have to pay 'church tax' in Switzerland?

A view of Zermatt including the church.
A view of Zermatt including the church. Many people are leaving congregations in Switzerland. Photo: Steppinstars/Pixabay

Opting out

But what if you don’t feel like footing the bill anymore? Those who want to leave their religious community (Jewish congregations pay tax in three cantons) and consequently stop paying the tax must declare their wish in writing. Last year, that group numbered around 65,000 people – 34,600 Catholics and 30,393 Protestants. 

But this exodus doesn’t necessarily trigger alarm bells for the leadership of the churches. The trend has been visible and talked about for the past 30 years at least, and there are still enough faithful – 2.89 million Catholics and 1.92 million Protestants – to keep the coffers full. 

Switzerland has changed from having an almost 100 percent religious-affiliated population in 1970, to the point today where one third of Swiss residents over the age of 15 now have no religious affiliation. 

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When I set the wheels in motion to go churchless by sending a resignation letter to my parish earlier this year, I was advised in the response to inform my nearest and dearest of the move “to avoid any misunderstanding that could arise in the near or distant future”. In other words, forget about a church funeral. 

That won’t be a problem. With such a large, growing share of non-believers in Switzerland, secular celebrants are moving in to fill the gap for major life events, especially funerals. I’m even considering training for the role myself. 

READ ALSO: Can I have a religious wedding or funeral if I don't pay church tax?

Secular land?

But there is a wider dimension to this phenomenon than individual destinies. We could reach a point in the not-too-distant future when Switzerland will no longer be a majority Christian country. 

When it comes to being devout, we have probably already reached that point. Many church members rarely attend services and are not fully observant in terms of following religious teachings to the letter. 

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Swiss laws relating to marriage, reproduction and sexuality already starkly contradict the teachings of the old established religions, and nobody bats an eyelid. 

However, even with this type of à la carte Christianity, the cultural imprint in daily life remains strong. Alongside the physical presence of 6,000 churches, chapels and monasteries in the country, religion is embedded in festivals and rituals, language and personal beliefs. 

Catholics are still the largest religious community by a sliver – 32.9 percent Catholic versus 32.3 percent for no religion – according to the 2021 figures for people aged 15 and over. Members of the Reformed Church are down to 21.1 percent of the population, with other Christian communities making up 5.6 percent. Muslims are the next largest single group at 5.7 percent.

Graph

Graph: Swiss Federal Statistical Office

One important reason why the Reformed Church has taken more of a hit is because the missing flock in the Catholic church have been replaced with immigrants like me. Though some of these people may eventually leave the community, as I did this summer. 

What goes into a decision like this? One thing is sure, many people continue with a given religion out of habit or passivity. When I arrived in Switzerland 20 years ago, I must have checked the ‘Catholic’ box on a form somewhere. That would have been my chance to sever ties but I didn’t seize it. 

For those who are born here, the state-affiliated churches “capture” members at birth. Parents registering a birth have a choice to tick a box for religion. That information is recorded for posterity by the authorities until they hear otherwise. Young people are liable for church tax from the age of 20.

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Scandals

The Catholic Church’s woeful handling of child sexual abuse cases – long a reason for disillusionment among members – was back in the headlines in Switzerland this September, when a former senior cleric from the diocese of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg went public with allegations that six bishops had covered up cases of sexual abuse in recent years. 

This scandal was followed within days by the release of damning research on historical abuse by two historians, Monika Dommann and Marietta Meier of the University of Zurich. It will be interesting to see if these revelations push the number of leavers higher this year, although, as with the banks, there is almost always a fresh scandal about the Catholic Church in the news. 

READ ALSO: Study reveals hundreds of sexual abuse victims in Swiss Catholic Church

The Freethinkers Association, established in 1908, publishes guidance on leaving the church in Switzerland, including a letter template. The association points out that every person has the constitutional right to leave the church at any time with immediate effect. The freedom to go, the freedom to stay – you can’t ask for more than that. 

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