Religions: dwindling private relevance, growing public controversy


There is a growing discrepancy with regard to religious matters in Switzerland: in politics and the media, religion plays a prominent role, but its influence is waning in state institutions and it is becoming increasingly less important for most indi-viduals. At the same time, there is a growing religious diversity. These are the key conclusions of the National Research Programme "Religions, the State and Society" (NRP 58). It recommends that the authorities actively promote equality among the various religions.

​During the last five years, the 28 projects of NRP 58 studied the religious landscape in Switzerland. The NRP can now present its main conclusions and recommendations. The key observation is that, while polarising discussions of religious topics are gaining ground in the public sphere, religion is becoming less important in people's private lives.

Religion to emphasise difference

Against the backdrop of world politics, religion is a controversial topic in public life. In the media, on school playgrounds and in politics, religion is often used to emphasise the difference between "indigenous" and "foreign" groups and it is discussed in relation to violent behaviour. This happens irrespective of the fact that characterisations such as the "repression of women in Islam" have little to do with the respective religion but much more with stereotypical perception and the origin and background of migrants. In contrast, mainstream society likes to attribute positive characteristics to Christianity such as "equal rights between men and women" even though this is not consistently the case.

Most people feel uninvolved in religion

Individuals engage less and less with traditional religion - the keyword is secularisation. The main Christian churches are continually losing members and those remaining in the fold use its services less and less. Young people, in particular, want to decide religious questions by themselves. The general attitude towards religion is increasingly distant. In addition, people think that religion should be consigned to the private sphere and that "extremist" tendencies and proselytisation should not be accepted. Secularisation is also in evidence in the state sector: Institutions that used to have a religious character, such as prisons, homes and teacher training institutions, are secular today.

Despite this secularisation, some religious communities are growing. These communities often consist of a few highly dedicated members who propagate a conservative life style. Many religious communities are experiencing great changes. In Christianity, Judaism and Islam, liberal groups are juxtaposed with conservative groups. While the former embrace secular modernity, the latter reject it.

Conflict potential overestimated

The conflict potential inherent in religions is overestimated. Members and functionaries of immigrant religions normally display great trust in Swiss authorities. Christoph Bochinger, president of the Steering Committee of NRP 58, thinks that disagreements between very religious and very secular people are likely to increase in reaction to an increasingly heterogeneous religious landscape. For this reason, he adds, it is important to promote respect between the various groups.

More equality among religious communities

The Steering Committee of NRP 58 recommends that federal, cantonal and local authorities do more to promote equality between the various religious communities. Muslim, Orthodox Christian, Tamil Hindu and Vietnamese Buddhist communities often actively promote integration through language courses and youth work. These efforts deserve the same support as the social work done by the national churches. Religious teaching at schools is already moving towards the equal treatment of religions. Some cantons have introduced Islam lessons which run in parallel to Christian teaching, others are replacing denominational teaching with state-approved lessons for all pupils.

Lastly, the Steering Committee recommends that authorities and the media include established as well as new religious communities in political negotiations. The same should apply to secular groups such as freethinkers. Furthermore, political topics such as minarets and head scarves should not be a cantonal responsibility. Although the cantons are responsible for the relationship between the state and religious communities, there is a need for greater collaboration between the federation, the cantons and local authorities due to the nationwide changes in the religious landscape.


Christoph Bochinger (Hg.): Religionen, Staat und Gesellschaft. Die Schweiz zwischen Säkularisierung und religiöser Vielfalt. NZZ Libro, Zürich 2012. 284 S.

National Research Programme "Religions, the State and Society" (NRP 58)
NRP 58 analysed the changes in the area of religion that have been affecting Switzerland increasingly and made suggestions to solve the problematic rela-tionship between state and religious communities. NRP 58, which was mandated by the Federal Council, got underway in 2007 and had an overall budget of CHF 10 million. Around 135 researchers contributed to the 28 projects. Now, NRP 58 is presenting the synthesis of its work.


Prof. Dr. Christoph Bochinger
President of the Steering Committee of NRP 58
Department of Religious Sciences II
University of Bayreuth, GW II
D-95440 Bayreuth
Mobile: +49 1570 281 77 36
Phone: +49 921 55 4155