Religion in Germany

Germany and the Protestant Reformation

Around A.D. 350, the Visigoth bishop Ulfilas (Wulfila) completed the first translation of the Bible into Gotisch, an early form of German, beginning the process of converting the pagan Germanic peoples to Christianity.

Long after that had been accomplished, along came Martin Luther in 1517. Luther’s Protestant Reformation (along with Phillip Melanchthon in Augsburg, Huldrich Zwingli in Zurich, and John Calvin in Geneva) split the western Christian church in two. Germany and Switzerland today are about evenly split between Protestants and Roman Catholics. There, and in predominantly Catholic Austria, there are also small minorities representing various faiths: Buddhists, Eastern/Greek Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, Mormons and others.

Church in Berlin

The Protestant St. Mary’s Church (Marienkirche) in Berlin. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

A little over 60 percent of Germans identify as Christians, with the two main Christian churches, the Catholics (die Katholiken) and the Protestants (mostly Lutherans, die Evangelischen), at about 30 percent each. However, certain geographic areas of Germany tend to have more Catholics or Protestants. Bavaria in the south, and Germany’s far western region are predominantly Catholic. The north, central and southeast regions are mostly Protestant. The estimates for Muslims (mostly Turks living in Germany) range from two to four percent of the population. All other religious denominations put together amount to only one percent of the German population.

That leaves roughly 35 percent of Germans who are non-religious, claiming membership in no church or religion at all. In some cases this is more a financial decision than a religious one. The German government collects a church tax, the so-called Kirchensteuer, that supports the Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as some Jewish communities (Kultussteuer) in Germany. Many Germans avoid the church tax (9% of a person’s total income tax; 8% in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria) by legally declaring to the state that they are not a member of any church. Austria and Switzerland, as well as some other European nations, also collect a church tax, but at a lower rate than in Germany.

Die Kirchensteuer

The German church tax was introduced in the 19th century to compensate the churches for the loss of income suffered when they no longer received financial support from the kings or princes who formerly ruled German lands. Although there is no state church in Germany, the state collects taxes for the churches and charges them a fee (avg. 3%) for doing so. In 2011 the tax income was €4.9 billion for the Catholics, and €4.4 billion for the Protestants.

Germany, along with much of Europe, has grown increasingly secular over the last few decades. Eastern Germans in particular, who grew up under a communist-oriented government that discouraged religion, tend to be even less religious than their western compatriots. In mostly Catholic Bavaria, on the other hand, people are more likely to be more religious-minded, even if they rarely set foot inside a church. (Former Pope Benedict XVI was born in the small Bavarian town of Marktl am Inn.) But the Catholic Church in Germany has also lost many members, partly as a result of the sexual-abuse scandals that have hit the church in Germany, Austria and elsewhere.

Even when Germans view themselves as religious, that doesn’t mean they attend church very often. Partly this is because churches in Germany generally lack the sociable aspects of church attendance seen in North America. Although there are some exceptions, church services in Europe tend to be more ritual and ceremony, and less social community. Many Germans only see the inside of a church at Easter or Christmas, or for a wedding or a funeral – and often not even then. A church wedding is strictly optional in most of Europe. The real, legal wedding is performed by a government official.

Religious Holidays in Germany
Even the many konfessionslos (“no religion”) Germans get to enjoy the many official government holidays that are basically religious holidays (= “holy days”). These include many religious holidays that are either not officially observed in the US, or are observed in only certain regions. Few Americans even know the dates of observances such as Ascension Day or Pentecost. Boxing Day, Good Friday and Easter Monday are a little easier.

Religious Instruction in School
A standard part of the public school curriculum in Germany is religious instruction (Religionsunterricht). For the most part, this is confined to Catholic or Protestant students, but some states also offer instruction for Jewish students. In Berlin three public schools also offer instruction for Buddhists. Although religious instruction is a required subject (according to the German Constitution!), students above a certain age (or by parental request) can opt out for personal reasons.

Only in recent years has there been any discussion of offering Islamic instruction for students belonging to Germany’s largest non-Christian religious minority, but no German state (Bundesland) currently offers instruction for Muslim students in German, in the same way that Christian instruction is offered. Islamic instruction presents certain problems: (1) Who will teach such courses? (2) Who trains them? (3) What about the various forms of the Muslim religion (Sunni, Shiite, Alevite, etc.) and ethnic divisions (Turk, Albanian, Pakistani, etc.)? Such challenges have delayed the introduction of Islamic instruction in Germany’s public schools. It is now limited to some experimental programs, in which Islamic organizations cooperate with schools to provide some instruction.

Since 2006 the city-state of Berlin has required non-religious “ethics” instruction for students in the seventh grade and above. This has resulted in a drop in the number of students taking Protestant/Lutheran instruction, the prevailing religion in Berlin and northern Germany.

Scientology in Germany
Mixing Germans and Scientology is often like mixing water and sodium hydroxide: explosive! A good illustration of this goes back to 1995 and the beginning of an incident involving actor Tom Cruise, the US State Department, and the New York Times.

A series of Scientology ads like this one appeared in The New York Times in the fall of 1995. Intended to boost the movement’s image in Germany, it proved counterproductive. But that didn’t stop a Hollywood group from trying the same thing on behalf of Tom Cruise in 1996 — with similar results. (Ad image courtesy CNN Online.)

Anyone paying attention could follow the skirmishes in the American and German media. Time magazine headlined: “Don’t Mess With Tom: Hollywood defends the religion of its top star” (Jan. 20, 1997). CNN carried stories about how Germany’s CDU political party has excluded Scientology members from its ranks, the unsuccessful German boycott of Mission Impossible, and Bavaria’s move to ban Scientologists from state jobs.

In late June 2007, when German authorities announced that Tom Cruise was not going to be permitted to film a story about the unsuccessful 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler by the German officer Claus von Stauffenberg, it was déjà vu all over again. One of the reasons given was Cruise’s religious affiliation: Scientology. Although some Germans, notably award-winning director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others), came to the actor’s defense, the ban made Germany seem intolerant to most outside observers. (Cruise and his team were later allowed to film Valkyrie on location in Berlin.)

Scientology’s problems in Germany and the US are not new, dating back to the church’s founding in 1954. The US government has only reluctantly granted Hubbard’s Dianetics movement tax-exempt status – a benefit it does not enjoy in Germany. There Scientology has long been labeled a cult and accused of pressure tactics and brainwashing. The movement has not been without detractors in the US either. Scientology lost a lawsuit over a 1991 Time cover story that termed the group a “cult of greed.” But Scientology’s troubles in the US are nothing compared to those in Germany.

The Church of Scientology in Germany gets no church-tax money and is officially scorned as a conspiracy that drives members to financial and spiritual ruin. Several virulent anti-Scientology books have been published in Germany in recent years. They include Schwarzbuch Scientology (“Black book Scientology,” 2007) by Ursula Caberta (formerly the Commissioner for the (anti-) Scientology Task Force in Hamburg), Mein geheimes Leben bei Scientology und meine dramatische Flucht (2013) by Jenna Miscavige Hill (first published in English as Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape) and Ich klage an (“I accuse,” 1994) by Renate Hartwig. There are also numerous German websites devoted to attacking Scientology. And yet Scientology is still in Germany, having withstood many attacks over the years – even efforts to ban this “religion” that won’t go away.

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