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Religion in Europe

The relationship between state and church in Europe is extraordinarily complex and multifarious, so I will restrict myself to some basic facts. I will take some of the European countries as examples, with a special focus on Germany.

The current situation is the result of a development that started from an almost total hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church in the late Middle Ages. Since then, as a result of reformation and secularization, the influence not only of the churches but also of religion in general has greatly decreased. This process took place with differing speeds and continuities in the various national states that were established in this period. That¹s why the conditions are so different among the European countries today.

In a typical European country there is one large church, superior in numbers, which was closely tied to the state until the 20th century, or which may still be closely tied today.

Generally, the Catholic Church is predominant in southern Europe, while Protestant, national churches are predominant in northern Europe (Ireland being an exception). Germany takes an intermediate position, and is also an exception to the rule: here the Catholic and the Protestant churches are almost equally strong.

In southern, traditionally Catholic countries like Spain and Italy the Catholic Church still has an important position, but not to the same extent it had some decades ago. Secularization has had its impact on these countries; it also had its effect on the relationship between state and church. The concordats, for example, that had been signed by the fascist regimes of Italy and Spain and the Vatican have been partially revised.

If we look at the northern European counterpart, the five Scandinavian countries, we see Protestant national state churches. The relevance of these churches has greatly decreased - even more than the Catholic Church in southern Europe - but the state/church structures prove to be very persistent. Only Sweden has abolished its state church, and that only became effective in 2000.

One of the leading nations in the separation of state and church is France, which established an almost complete separation with the act of 1905. However, it should be noted that this act does not apply to the three districts of France that had been part of Germany in 1905.

In the matter of separation of state and church, Germany is among those countries that are most behind the times. One example is that the concordat between Germany and the Vatican, signed in 1933 shortly after the Nazis came to power, is still in effect.

Especially striking in Germany is the discrepancy between the dwindling religious beliefs of the population on the one hand and the strong position of the churches on the other.

In 1991, there was an international survey where people were asked for their religious convictions. In western Germany, 20% were either atheist or agnostic. In eastern Germany, the former German Democratic Republic, it was 63%.

About one third of the German population does not belong to any church. Both of the large German churches are losing about 0.7% of their members each year. Younger people, especially, are leaving the church. If this trend continues - which I personally have no doubt that it will - church members will become a minority in a few decades.

But the fact that Germany can be regarded as one the most "unbelieving" nations in the world has had almost no impact on the relationship between state and church. Although according to the German constitution there is no state church, state and church are tied together in a variety of ways.

There is, for example, the "church tax": the German state has taken on the responsibility of collecting religious membership contributions on behalf of the two main Christian churches by means of the so-called church tax. In 1992, this amounted to an equivalent of approx. eight billion euros (approx. eight billion U.S. dollars)!

For its salaried employees, employers are obliged to carry out the billing and accounting for the collection of the church tax free of charge. The constitutional principle that nobody has to reveal his or her religious views is being disregarded when it comes to the collection of the church tax. Employers find out their employees' creeds and public authorities get to know the religious affiliations of the citizens under their administration.

In German public schools, denominational religious education is a regular subject of the curriculum. The churches decide what is taught in this education, and the state pays for it. In most parts of Germany there is a compulsory "replacement" class for students choosing not to attend religious education.

An interesting story is the crucifix case in Bavaria. There, a law prescribed that there had to be a crucifix in every classroom. In 1995, the German constitutional court ruled that this law was unconstitutional, because it violated the state's "religious neutrality".

The result of this ruling was an outcry by conservative forces, especially in Bavaria. The premier of Bavaria immediately announced that the crucifixes would stay in the classrooms, and a new law was passed that continued to mandate that a crucifix had to be put up in every classroom, but allowed parents to object for "understandable reasons".

In a second lawsuit, a federal court ruled that if the parents are atheists, this is a sufficient reason to have a crucifix removed. It also ruled that the objector's names must not be disclosed.

It may be due to the campaign by the Christian conservative forces against the crucifix ruling that since 1996 the constitutional court has refused to rule on any other state/church cases.

Another area involving the German churches is the social services sector: the churches run many of the hospitals, nursery schools, homes for old people, etc.

Employees of such institutions have fewer rights than other employees. Any activity violating the principles of the respective church (including one¹s private life) can lead to dismissal. Such activities include leaving the church, getting remarried after divorce, or expressing an opinion that contradicts the opinion of the church.

In some regions of Germany it is hard to find a particular type of social institution that is not run by a church. Due to the lack of alternatives, some people are forced to stay a member of the church against their convictions, because otherwise they would lose their jobs. In addition, education and training for certain social jobs are to a great extent in the hands of the churches.

The effect is that there are many people who must stay church members against their convictions, because otherwise they would lose their jobs and it would be hard for them to find new ones. In IBKA, we have a special term for this: "forced denominalization".

Then there is section 166 of the German penal code, also called the "blasphemy paragraph", which makes insulting religious communities an offense. This section threatens anyone who would say anything considered insulting against the churches with legal charges. Similar laws exist in other European countries.

At present, such a case is taking place in Austria, where a blasphemy law similar to Germany¹s exists. Cartoonist Gerhard Haderer from Vienna has been reported to the police for "degrading religious doctrines" because of the cartoons in his latest book. Representatives of the Austrian Catholic Church protested publicly against the book. At the moment, it is not clear if there will be a charge. Haderer has announced that he will appeal to the European court if necessary.

These examples show how German churches maintain a strong position due to their traditional privileges, although their attraction to the people is decreasing.

Substantial changes in the relationship between state and church are sooner or later unavoidable, but it is a long and tedious process to get anything accomplished.

Based on a talk given by René Hartmann at the Atheist Alliance International Annual Convention 2002 at Dallas/Texas. Published in Secular Nation No.3 / 2002.