Why is the West becoming less religious

Long ways of German unity

Gert pimple

Prof. Dr. Gert Pickel is Professor of Religious and Church Sociology at the Institute for Practical Theology at the Theological Faculty of the University of Leipzig. His focus is on the sociology of religion, democracy and political culture research.

Non-denominational status is the norm in East Germany, religion plays a subordinate role here. After the Second World War, 96% of the people here were followers of a Christian denomination. What are the reasons for the radical change?

Open day in the Paulinum of Leipzig University in 2015. The previous building, the St. Pauli University Church, was blown up in 1968 at the instigation of the SED. (& copy picture-alliance, e.g. | Volkmar Heinz)

Initial conditions of church affiliation and religiosity in West and East Germany

The starting point for churches and religion in reunified Germany in 1989 was very different. In the old federal states there was still a "culture of denominational affiliation" (Pickel / Sammet 2011, p. 46), although since the early 1970s there has been an increasing number of people leaving the church and decreasing church practice. By contrast, socialism had created a "forced secularity" (Wohlrab-Sahr et al. 2009) and a "culture of non-denominational" (Pickel 1998, p. 207) through forced secularization in East Germany. The aggressive politics of the SED government, directed against religion and churches, proved to be more successful in the former Protestant heartland than anywhere else in the states of socialism, apart from Estonia.

The influence of the division of Germany on religiosity and church ties is evident in the dynamics of development between 1949 and 1989. After the Second World War, both areas had relatively similar initial conditions with regard to ties to the Christian churches. In the aftermath of the Second World War, church membership had risen to levels of up to 96% of the population, which had not been achieved for a long time. 81% of the total population of the GDR belonged to the Evangelical Church, while the proportion of Catholics was just under 14% (Pollack 2000, p. 19). In the Federal Republic of Germany, too, there was an overall considerable spread of Christian church ties: in 1949 around 50% belonged to the Protestant and 46% to the Catholic Church (Pollack 2000, p. 19). The unequal distribution between denominations in East Germany is due to its history as the starting point of the Reformation and a deeply anchored Protestant culture of belonging.

Religious affiliations in Germany 1990-2018 ( Graphic for download) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /
This culture of belonging changed markedly in the time of socialism, up to the already mentioned "culture of non-denominational". While in West Germany almost 85% of the population was still a member of one of the two major churches in 1989, in the GDR the proportion of people with no religious affiliation had risen to almost 70%. To be non-denominational became the norm in a rapid period for church developments. Even if some of the reference numbers about denominations show certain statistical uncertainties, one can speak of a fundamental cultural change and not just a temporary change in the religious landscape, because these numerical relationships were largely maintained even after 1989. As a consequence, this leads to one of the sharpest still existing distinguishing features between West and East Germany. Also existing, partly denominational, differences between northern and southern Germany or between rural and urban areas take a back seat to this east-west difference.

Reasons for the severe collapse of the churches in the GDR

The GDR leadership's aggressive anti-church policies are undoubtedly the main reason for the church's removal from the church and the break with tradition of Christianity in East Germany. It went through different phases in its repressive power, whereby the citizens of the GDR were always aware that belonging to a church brought professional and social disadvantages with it. This policy can be described as a state-organized struggle against the churches as a socially significant institution. In its aggressive early phase in particular, it brought considerable success for the GDR leadership. The 1950s were marked by high numbers of people leaving the Christian churches, especially the Protestant church, as well as falling baptism and confirmation numbers. Most Christians decided in favor of the latter when balancing the exercise of their faith and maintaining social access to education and work. But later phases of relaxation in the relationship between church and state, e.g. in the 1970s and 1980s, did not lead to a regeneration of membership (Pollack 1994). Rather, those who had resigned stayed outside the churches and accordingly raised their children at a distance from the church and without religious socialization.

Non-denominational status in Europe - East Germany is only a limited special case ( Graphic for download) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /
The conditions for success for repressive church policy in East Germany were among the most favorable among the socialist states. This is confirmed by a comparison with other Eastern European countries, where Estonia and the Czech Republic alone showed similar drops (Müller 2013, pp. 88, 94). On the one hand, modernization took place in the GDR - moderate from a western point of view. If one follows the considerations of secularization theory, one of the three important explanatory models for religious developments (Pickel 2011, pp. 137-177), there is a tension between religion and modernization, which then leads to secularization. Secularization is the loss of social significance of religion, which manifests itself significantly in processes of secularization - however, due to the changed framework conditions, it also affects Christian religiosity. It is true that these starting conditions in the Federal Republic of Germany were even more unfavorable on this point than in the GDR due to the much stronger modernization dynamic, which has also been reflected in parallel processes of secularization in West Germany since the early 1970s. However, the lower resistance of the Protestant church to such restrictions opened the way for the success of the rigid anti-church policy of the GDR (based on socialist ideology). Unlike the Catholic Church, which could refer to the Holy See in Rome as responsible for political matters, the Protestant regional churches in the GDR were directly exposed to the political coercion of the SED party leadership. Repression, modernization and the low cohesiveness of Protestantism, which is more aimed at individualized religiosity, thus worked together unfavorably in the East German case (Pickel / Sammet 2001, pp. 165-190). They made East Germany, if not a special case, at the same time an area that was particularly difficult for vital religiosity.

The development after 1989 and its explanation

Typology of ecclesiasticality in comparison over time ( Graphic for download) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /
The difference in church affiliation and religiosity between West and East Germany based on these developments has hardly changed to this day. The main reason for this is: Contrary to what was expected by the large Christian national churches in Germany in 1989, there is still no revitalization of Christian denomination in East Germany (Großbölting 2013, pp. 230-231). Rather, the "culture of non-denominational" has solidified itself there as a continuous normality. If there is an approximation, then the processes of breaking off the tradition of Christianity and secularization in West Germany alone ensure an approximation between the two areas. Just as the proportion of people with no religious affiliation in East Germany has continued to rise in surveys since 1990 to a level of over 70%, in West Germany we find a continuous increase in people with no religious affiliation since 1990, which is decisive for the fact that the plural group of people with no religious affiliation is now the largest ideological group Group in Germany is - if you consider the Evangelical Church in Germany and the Catholic Church separately.

Religious socialization according to age groups (generations) ( Graphic for download) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /
Two aspects are significant for these developments: First, church membership lives to a large extent from its generational transmission and religious socialization, especially in the parental home. But it is precisely the transmission of the faith that has plummeted in West Germany in recent years, while in East Germany, as a result of socialism, it only takes place among convinced clientele. In East Germany we are already dealing with a third generation of non-denominational groups in some places. Here there is not only a distance to the church, but extensive areligiousness and a lack of understanding of religious and spiritual matters. This development corresponds to a second development. In this way the image has established itself across society that religion is a private matter and that one does not talk about one's religiosity in public. This "secular spiral of silence" favors the breaking off of religious socialization, as being religious has become out of fashion, "uncool" and a subordinate characteristic of one's own personality (Pickel 2016, p. 79). Rather, the majority of those with no religious affiliation experience an areligious socialization. It is widespread in East Germany and is also seen by some East Germans as one of the few aspects in which one was and is more modern than the old Federal Republic. In this way, one's own lack of denomination also serves as a feature of the group demarcation between West and East Germans, which could gain relevance in the context of debates on "East Germans as second-class citizens".

Subjective religiosity in a generation comparison 2012 ( Graphic for download)
Abortions of socialization such as "secular spiral of silence" correspond to a large extent with the assumptions of the secularization theory, which assumes a loss of social significance in the generation of transmission. In contrast to the theoretical alternative model of the religious market, the secularization theory then only sees limited possibilities for the churches to achieve revitalization among the citizens, as secularization goes deeper than a mere turning away from the church. Due to the lack of social embedding, it brings about a diffusion of faith. The result of this process is sometimes referred to in current considerations as religious indifference - lack of interest in religious things. It stands in opposition to the idea of ​​a privatization of the religious, anchored in the individualization theory of the religious, which, based on an anthropological view of the human being, always regards it as religious (Pickel 2011, pp. 135-226). This religiosity can only look different depending on the person. As viable as the assumption of individualization tendencies is, it seems to be limited to a few people. According to surveys, non-denominational people usually show only minimal fragments of faith and mostly describe themselves as irreligious (Pickel / Sammet 2011; Pickel / Hidalgo 2013).

The future - secularization and religious pluralization with east-west differences

The division of Germany between 1949 and 1989 has left significant differences in the religious landscape of the Federal Republic to this day. These will not go away anytime soon and may have political consequences. In addition to the different religious cultures, a second difference has established itself between West and East Germany: In West Germany, for example, we find increasing religious pluralization with a visible increase in the proportion of Muslim citizens, while in East Germany only the refugee movements since 2015 have a certain visibility this group brought with it. This different structure of religiosity has an impact. As the East Germans feel "completely normal" as non-denominational, they are sometimes more skeptical about religion and especially about Muslims. Studies by the Bertelsmann Stiftung show that East Germans feel more threatened than West Germans, although just under 1% Muslims live in East Germany (Pickel 2019, p. 80). In particular, low personal contacts, as well as the formation of opinions solely on the basis of the media, result in an Islamophobia in East Germany, which is to be classified as an important element in the choice of the AfD. Here, as in the perception as modern due to the increased spread of non-denominational and secularity, group-specific identity processes come into play, which at least in part have their origin in the division of Germany.

The relationship to religion ( Graphic for download) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /
For the future, the simultaneity of advancing secularization and religious pluralization in Germany is to be expected, which will meet different framework conditions due to the initial conditions resulting from the division of Germany. While the first signs of a consolidation of Christian membership at a low level beyond a national church are slowly emerging in East Germany, secularization (perhaps catching up, possibly accelerated) must be expected in West Germany (Pickel 2018, p. 23). At the same time, eastern Germany is proving to be more resistant to religious pluralization and parts of the citizens living there are more susceptible to structures of prejudice and anti-Muslim resentment (Decker / Brähler 2018, p. 102). In this regard, one can speak of a long shadow of German unity that also exists in the area of ​​church affiliation and religiosity.


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Großbölting, Th., The lost sky. Faith in Germany since 1945, Göttingen 2013.

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