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Religion: Societal & Legal Status

As one may expect from a country with 1300 years of Christian tradition, Christianity is still the predominant religion in Germany. Although the number of practicing Christians is on the decline, the Christian religion in Germany is present in the country’s cultural heritage.
Freedom of religion is held in high regard, but there frequently are debates over issues such as headscarves.

The various religions in Germany are protected by Article 4 of the Basic Law (contemporary Germany’s constitution): “Freedom of faith and of conscience, and freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, shall be inviolable.” While the government guarantees freedom of religion and the separation of church and state, most religious organizations are registered with the state as non-profit associations. This official status grants them financial benefits in the form of tax exemptions.

The German state also acknowledges many of these organizations as statutory corporations under public law. As such, they may levy tithes from their members, which are collected by the income revenue service and distributed by the government. Moreover, the German government subsidizes religious institutions such as kindergartens, schools, hospitals, old-age homes, and charities like the Catholic Caritas or the Protestant Diakonie. In addition to that, the Jewish community and its cultural heritage receive particular support.

Religion’s Role in Public Life

The role of religion in public life, however, is steadily declining in many regards. As mentioned above, 20-25% of the German population doesn’t belong to any religion at all. Atheists make up the majority not only in Eastern Germany, but also in the city state of Hamburg. Those who still belong to one of the mainstream religions, especially the two major Christian churches, keep practicing their faith less and less. Many Christians don’t attend Sunday services anymore; the churches have lost much of their moral authority. And yet, the influence of Christianity in Germany prevails in its socio-cultural heritage, down to the holiday calendar or the crucifix displayed in many a Bavarian classroom.

In general, Germans tend to treat questions of faith as a very personal matter. Religion is a topic best avoided in casual small talk, and in-depth discussions about their religious beliefs are conversations they normally reserve for debates among their close friends. If they are believers, they mainly practice in private, together with fellow members of their congregation. They adopt a “live-and-let-live” approach without either proselytizing or openly denigrating other people’s beliefs.

Religious Prejudice

Despite this general commitment to religious coexistence and tolerance, there have been quite a few recent instances of religious prejudice and even religious persecution. Right-wing extremism in Germany often has a strongly anti-Semitic bent, which can lead to the distribution of music CDs full of hate speech among Neo-Nazi youth or to the desecration of Jewish cemeteries. Since 9/11, Islamophobia has also been on the rise: Muslims are often associated with fundamentalism and terrorism, and Germans have mounted vociferous protests against the construction of new mosques in their neighborhoods.

As far as the German state is concerned, the most controversial decisions are probably the official views on Scientology as well as the strict adherence to compulsory education. The U.S. government has repeatedly criticized Germany for discriminating against scientologists: German authorities consider Scientology an abusive business masquerading as a religion and believe that its political goals clash with the values of the German constitution.

Furthermore, there have been individual cases of conservative evangelical Christians involved in custody battles with German courts: The families insisted on removing their children from secular public schools and wanted to teach them at home. Home-schooling, however, is illegal in Germany. One of these families even requested asylum in the United States on grounds of religious persecution.


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