Belief and the ego-driven society


Young woman. © Steffen Schmidt / Keystone

More and more people in Switzerland are deciding on their own what to believe and what to practise. Freedom of belief puts pressure on religious communities and forces them to compete with secular leisure activities. These are the results of a study funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) whose final report is now available as a book.

Sociologists of religion from Lausanne and St. Gallen have gauged the religiosity and spirituality of the inhabitants of Switzerland. Within the scope of the National Research Programme "Religions, the State and Society" (NRP 58), they have conducted the most comprehensive study of this topic to date. Based on a representative survey among 1229 persons, 73 in-depth interviews and the evaluation of various other data sources, Jörg Stolz, Judith Könemann, Mallory Schneuwly Purdie, Thomas Englberger and Michael Krüggeler have now presented their findings in a book (*) that has just been published.

Different concepts of God

In their book, the researchers subdivide the Christian religious and spiritual landscape into four basic types with very different conceptions of belief: more than half of the population (57%) keep religion at a distance, and the sociologists expect that this group will continue to grow. Only around one-fifth of the population (18%) are still regular consumers of institutional religion. Within this group, the Catholic and Protestant core congregations are dwindling, while the charismatic free churches are gaining ground. Adherents of alternative forms of religiosity have remained stable (13%), but the researchers expect that the secular group (12%) will grow much larger in the long term.

There are marked differences between the four types, for instance with regard to their understanding of concepts such as "God". "Whereas members of free churches see God as a supernatural friend, Lord and worker of miracles, for institutional Catholics and Protestants he appears to be a mixture of father/mother figure and transcendent psychoanalyst. People with alternative beliefs mostly conceive of God as light, power, energy, while those who remain distant have no clear idea of God at all," the researchers write in their book. The institutional believers all but unanimously (99%) share the view that God takes an interest in each individual person. However, this is something that only 2% of the secular group believe: for many of them God is nothing but an illusion.

Secular competition

All four types show a strong tendency towards individualisation. More and more people are deciding on their own what to believe and what to practice. Their choices are motivated largely by their own personal benefit and state of mind. Believers and non-believers alike are guided by their own egos in making such decisions. The religious realm is coming under increasing competitive pressure because individuals are free to choose between religious and secular offers, both of which they judge in terms of value for money. This consumerist attitude has become prevalent in Switzerland since the 1960s, say the researchers.

The main rivals are secular pastimes that can supplant religious activities. When children and teenagers play football at the weekend instead of attending Sunday school, this hampers their religious socialisation. According to the researchers, such changes can lead to a major break with tradition, particularly for Protestants and Catholics.

Heightened criticism

Finally, this rivalry also explains why religious communities are becoming increasingly reliant on church marketing activities. Nevertheless, religions are being viewed more critically and with greater detachment today than in the past, the researchers conclude. Thus 85% of the respondents were fully or largely of the opinion that, in view of current world events, "religions are more likely to result in conflicts than in peace".

(*) J. Stolz, J. Könemann, M. Schneuwly Purdie, T. Englberger, & M. Krüggeler (2014). Religion und Spiritualität in der Ich-Gesellschaft. Vier Gestalten des (Un-)Glaubens. Zurich: TVZ/NZN.


Prof Jörg Stolz
Institut de Sciences Sociales des Religions en Suisse
University of Lausanne
Phone +41 (0)79 961 51 57