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Religious geography

Two major axes

Germany’s religious geography is characterised by a North – South axis representing the Catholic – Protestant schism, and an East-West axis, which today, is a function of religious belonging.

The North – South axis: a Catholic - Protestant schism

16th century Reformation (and especially the Lutheran version) brought about the practice of two religions, a situation which today characterises the religious landscape in Germany. The cuius regio eius religio principle, created during the Peace of Ausburg (1555), ensured that Princes had the liberty to choose the religion (Lutheran or Catholic) of their territories. It also guaranteed the right of subjects to emigrate. This gave rise to the prevalence of Protestants in the North and Roman Catholics in the South of the German Empire.
German Catholics exist in very small percentage in the dioceses north of the country. The archdiocese of Hamburg for example, which comprises only 7% of the population of the Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein and part of Mecklenburg-Pomerania Länder, is characterised by a severe minority. The Länder with the highest percentage of Catholics are found in the West and South regions – Bavaria, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland and North Rhine-Westphalia.
The percentage of Protestants in the different regional Churches (Landeskirchen) also varies. In the traditionally protestant regions of the former Länder, (Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein), they represent up to 55%. In the regions with a high percentage of Catholics, (Bavaria, Rhineland-Palatinate), they remain under 30%.

The East – West axis: indicating the depth of religious belonging

While Churches in West Germany gained a foothold right at the time the State was being founded, in East Germany they have had to suffer governmental control. In 1950 and 1960, Christian believers were in particular victims of prejudice in their professional lives.
Today, 74% of East Germans do not practice any religion. The lack of religion for half of this number is a "family heritage". In West Germany, those without religion are a mere 16%, with three quarters being first generation non-adherents. In the new Länder, not practicing a religion is evidence of a certain social conformism. In the West however, being non religious shows a desire to be free from this conformism. In this case, tradition and conformism represent the basis for religious practice. The growing number of non-adherents reduces the support function of Christian Churches. They can therefore no longer play their roles of social and cultural integration in the affected regions. In the long run, this development will have considerable political consequences, leading to the re-negotiation of the relationship between the Church and the State. An instance is the introduction of the "Lebensgestaltung-Ethik-Religionskunde" (LER) (Life, Ethics and Religion training programme) in Brandenburg.

Declining religious belief in the City-States

Apart from the East– West schism, a distinct decline in importance of faith in the City-States (Stadtstaaten) also characterises the religious landscape in Germany. While in Saarland 85.4% of the population belong to the two principal Churches in 2003, the rate is only 43% in Hamburg and 32% in Berlin. Moreover, the number of people leaving church is at its highest in the City-States. As people in these areas feel less of the need to toe the line as it concerns their parents’ religion or attachment to a place, leaving the church is easier. However, leaving church is also no longer a taboo in the rural areas.

For further reading: EBERTZ, Michael N., Erosion der Gnadenanstalt? Zum Wandel der Sozialgestalt von Kirche. Frankfurt/Main: Verlag Josef Knecht, 1998, in particular p. 69-117.

D 26 July 2012    AMatthias Koenig ASabine Trittler

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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