How can you say that religion divides us?

Religions: "The lukewarm Christians are dying out"

In the survey "How religion separates and connects us", German and Swiss sociologists examine what religiosity still means to the individual today, how it contributes to people being excluded or feeling safe. Gert Pickel is one of the leaders of the study and professor at the Institute for Practical Theology in the Department of Religious and Church Sociology at the University of Leipzig.

ZEIT ONLINE: Mr. Pickel, it will be Christmas soon and the churches will be full. Do religions tend to separate people or do they connect them?

Gert pimple: Religions are always ambivalent. In all religious communities there are dogmatic groups who oppose people who believe or live otherwise or who insist on the literal interpretation of the holy scriptures. But there is also a large liberal group everywhere that advocates charity, openness to others and pluralism. For example, many helpers came from churches and mosques in the refugee crisis. Attending the Christmas service often says little about whether a person really feels connected to the church and religion.

Study: How religion divides and unites us

Study: How religion divides and unites us

The German-Swiss research project Konid, led by Antonius Liedhegener (University of Lucerne) and Gert Pickel (University of Leipzig), asked 2,363 people in Germany and 500 Turkish Muslims about their social identities. In Switzerland, 3,019 people, including 620 Muslims, were interviewed. The project started in mid-2018 and will last a total of three years. The project was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the National Suisse Fund (FNSNF).

How relevant is religion for people? In our secular world, it only creates identity for a few, right?

Pimples: It's more than we expected. Our survey shows that for more than half of the people in Germany religion is important for their social identity. It gives them security and strengthens their self-confidence. People feel they belong to a community. And at least 20 percent say religion is extremely important to them. That means that only family and friends have priority for them. Conversely, disbelief can also be part of identity. Most people who do not believe in God do not care about religion, but almost 20 percent consider their non-religion to be a core part of their identity.

ZEIT ONLINE: What about those who aren't sure they believe in God but enjoy the choir at Christmas service?

Pimples: We have found that those who brood, am I religious or not, have become rarer. People either say yes or no. Religiousness is not evenly distributed in the population, but polarized into staunch supporters, to whom it is often very important, and people who do not care about religion. The tepid Christians and Muslims are slowly dying out. Possibly the shrinking national churches will in future become like many mosque parishes or free churches, where the religion for the members usually has a high importance for the way of life.

ZEIT ONLINE: Is that dangerous too?

Pimples: Communities can build bridges with one another and create understanding for one another. There are now many interreligious projects that can help reduce fears of Muslims, for example. Muslims, Christians and Jews celebrate parties together, for example, and organize discussion rounds. Those who are religious are more likely to volunteer than others. The danger in all religious communities is that they isolate themselves and devalue others, according to the motto: If you don't believe what I believe, you are wrong.

ZEIT ONLINE: This is particularly common among Muslims and Protestant Free Churches.

Pimples: Yes, but that is still moderate in Germany. For an above-average number of Muslims and Free Churches, it is important to marry a partner from the same religious community. They are also more likely to agree that the rules of religion take precedence over the constitution. However, the vast majority of Muslims and Free Churches also reject this statement.

ZEIT ONLINE: Is religion more important to people who are therefore often discriminated against?

Pimples: It is difficult to say what is cause and effect. Around half of the Muslims in our study report that they have experienced discrimination. Such experiences can lead to a greater withdrawal to where they feel understood and safe. After all, 35 percent of Muslims and Free Churches state that religion strongly shapes their identity, so this can be a place of retreat. In these often small communities, however, the social pressure is higher and it can lead to strong adaptation and isolation. Those who do not come are noticed - and other social groups can become the target of mutual rejection, also in order to strengthen their own group internally. Especially in the free churches, but also in Sunni communities, it can be observed that they devalue LGBT people or people of different faiths.

ZEIT ONLINE: Is it possible to identify certain groups of people who are more religious than others? Uneducated people or people from the countryside?

Pimples: There is only a slight educational effect. People with low formal education who live in the countryside are a little more religious. On the other hand, we observe what is known as cultural Protestantism in the big cities, for example. Here you will find a particularly large number of educated people who enjoy identity work and deal with religion intellectually.

ZEIT ONLINE: What about personalities: Are particularly anxious, less self-confident personalities more religious?

Pimples: We haven't evaluated that yet. But there is some evidence that people who are more anxious are particularly concerned about belonging to fixed groups. They put the collective identity before their individual and subordinate themselves to the rules, because then they feel more secure. You do not have to choose a religion for this, however, religious communities offer good opportunities for togetherness and collective identity. Confident people, on the other hand, prefer to have contact with other people. But those who we call the group of the "self-orientated" also break away from groups and friends more easily if they don't like something. They place their individual demands above the collective.

ZEIT ONLINE: Do people show similar tendencies when they no longer belong to Christian or Muslim communities but want to experience their spirituality elsewhere? For example in esoteric circles, in yoga or in the Buddhist temple?

Pimples: We also interviewed people with different religious and non-religious backgrounds. The above-mentioned spirituality or esotericism is a very individualistic preoccupation with the world. They serve partly as a substitute for religion, partly they are combined with classical piety. Such ideas can also have an effect on religious, and then perhaps spiritual, identity. Their problem, however, is their fluidity. If I don't find anyone else who thinks and acts like me, then it often subsides quickly. The religious identity is actually always related to other people.