Do You go to Church?

Happy Easter! This blog post is slightly late this week, because I have been busy doing what we all should be doing this holiday: spending time with friends and family. And because I live in the religious South of Germany, it is a nice long four-day weekend, with Good Friday and Easter Monday as public holidays. Given that we also had perfect weather this weekend, I am on a vacation-like high and there may also be a significant amount of Swiss chocolate coursing through my veins.

Back to the topic, and the real reason for the long weekend: Religion. Although the church was full yesterday, in general very few people here attend church on Sunday – most of the churches are empty except for a few retirees dotted here and there amongst the many pews. I have German friends who smile gently and nod politely when I tell them I have been to church, and I have German friends who laugh openly at me for participating in any kind of organized  religion. I also have German friends who regularly attend church. I guess this is pretty similar to life in the US, depending on which state you live in.

Compared to the Americans, Germans are incredibly non-religious. And yet, I can’t quite agree that their form of religion is somehow less than the US version. I find, as in so many things, it is just different. In regard to the various world religions that are practiced in both countries I am afraid I can say very little. What I can comment on is the majority religion practiced in both countries: Christianity.

About 75% of the US population claims to be Christian, while in Germany the figure is about 60% – clearly a majority of both cultures. This translates in Germany to just 10% of the country attending church on a Sunday, but 60% paying their tithes (whereas, according to Wikipedia via Gallup, about 40% of Americans attend regularly). How does that work, you might ask? Because Germany, despite its lower religiosity, is not a secular state. When you register here at your local Bürgerbüro (town hall), you fill out a form with your basic personal information, including your religion. Those who are Protestant (Lutheran) pay tax to the Protestant church; the Catholics pay to the Catholic church, and all of it is funneled through the capable hands of the government and distributed to the many empty congregations throughout the country. A handful of other religions/denominations use this system, but many of them do not take advantage of it. So the state helps to manage the finances of the entire Christian network – at least, the Christians who are Lutheran or Catholic, which is a large majority of Christianity in Germany.  Interestingly, this system actually has benefits. Unfortunately, I find those benefits can simultaneously be its drawbacks.

For instance, the fact that taxpayers fund the churches mean that the beautiful buildings that exist all over the country, in villages, towns and cities, all receive funding. There is a priest or minister assigned to each one, caring for the congregants and tending to the needs of the community. This minister doesn’t need to earn his keep by selling salvation to his parish; the government gives him a fair share of the taxes and he is free to do good works (the money is sent to the state diocese, who distributes it to the parishes). This has such a freeing effect on a church: take out the question of earning money, and it is free to focus on spirituality! There is no subliminal sales pitch to get more people in the door just to support the organization, and the church can focus on its core function.

Alas, this freedom from the source of its fiscal support also means that churches do very little to reach out to their communities. There are typically choirs, bible study groups, women’s groups, church boards, youth groups, etc., but they do very little in interacting with and inviting in the wider community. The music at the church we are currently attending, mostly because they offer Kinderkirche (Sunday School) every week, puts me to sleep: the organ leads the small gathering of people in singing hymns that date from the 1100s to the 1800s, and occasionally we get to sing a song from as recently as 1975. While the historical value of music is important to me, something tells me that a bit of contemporary music might just inspire more participation.  The same principle applies to many areas of church life – there is very little outreach because there is no need for outreach.

Another interesting link between church and state in Germany is that religion is still taught as a school subject. Students get to choose which religion they want to study, as long as it is offered in their school. It is unimaginable to think of religion courses being taught as part of the public school curriculum in the US! Of course, students (or their parents) can opt out of the religion classes, and from the age of 10, students have a say in which classes they attend (Catholic? Protestant? Jewish? Muslim? None of the above?), although this varies from state to state.

I also heard about an interesting case recently whereby an active member of a Catholic congregation, well-versed in theology and long-active in his church community, wanted to opt out of the church tax. At the same time, he wanted to be allowed to continue as a member of his church board and remain active in his church. The case ended up in court, and in the end, the man lost the case. The lesson I learned: if you don’t pay your church tax, you are excommunicated. WHOA! Really? I’m not sure that this was the message the church meant to send, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. However, he was kicked out of his church community for un-registering himself at the Bürgerbüro (and thus no longer paying church taxes), and to me this was unbelievable.

The church in Germany also plays a role in a traditionally polarizing area: abortion. Abortion is legal here, but only if the woman receives counseling prior to the procedure. The counseling can come from a therapist or from a religious leader. That’s right. Women seeking an abortion are sent to talk it over first with a religious leader, yet left free to make their own decisions. A few years ago, the Catholic church stopped participating in this system, which is a loss for Catholic women – they are now forced to take the secular option when discussing this heart-wrenching decision. Compared to an international rate of 20% of pregnancies ending in abortion, the Germans have a rate of 14% – something I would link to the counseling laws and probably to the involvement of religion in the system.

Religion is such an intensely personal subject and such a hotly debated one. Growing up in the US, I learned early on that there are two taboo topics at polite gatherings: politics and religion. Upon moving to Germany as an adult, I discovered that there are two topics Germans love to discuss endlessly at polite gatherings: politics and religion! I have gathered plenty of experience of Christianity in both countries, and can only say that they are different – one is certainly not better than the other. Do I miss the music and the social atmosphere of the American version? Yes. Do I appreciate the Bodenständigkeit (down-to-earth-ness) of the German version? Yes. Most importantly, I feel welcomed and at home in churches on both sides of the Atlantic, and I suppose that makes religion the original global organization.

* My sources were mainly the almighty Wikipedia, which I mostly used to get general numbers and to confirm my vague memories of political and religious conversations, news, and events over the ten years I have lived here.