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Why Eastern Germany Is The Most Godless Place On Earth

More than two decades after its political reunification, Germany continues to be divided along religious lines. Christianity still holds a fair amount of sway in the West. Not so much in the East, where two thirds of the population – young and old – are d

Clouds gather over a church in Dresden, Germany (basterus)
Clouds gather over a church in Dresden, Germany (basterus)
Matthias Kamann and Gernot Facius

BERLIN -- Bad news for all those who'd hoped Christianity might make a comeback now that the Cold War-era German Democratic Republic (DDR) is becoming an ever more distant memory. Atheism, according to a new study, is very much alive and well in the eastern part of Germany.

The statistics are most striking among those under 28 years old: more than 71% of eastern Germans in this age group say they have never believed in the existence of God. That's nearly as many as in the 38-47 group, of which 72.6% are non-believers.

What the figures mean is that in eastern Germany, very young people are on the same wavelength as people from the middle generation when it comes to belief in God. The political transformation of former East Germany, in other words, hasn't had much of an effect on people's ideas about religion. While there are somewhat fewer atheists among young adults aged 28 to 37, where "only" 63.6% say they've never been believers, those in the following generation are at least as non-religious as their parents.

In a recently published study called Beliefs about God across Time and Countries, researchers working with sociologist Tom W. Smith of the University of Chicago, showed how belief in God has changed over time.

The researchers did not produce their own data, relying instead on results of the International Social Survey Program (ISSP) that – in 1991, 1998 and again in 2008 – researched the degree of religiosity in Christian-influenced countries around the world, from Australia to Israel, Russia to Cyprus.

Because results for Germany were divided into East and West, it emerged that former East Germany was by far the most atheistic region on the planet. There, 52.1% of those asked agreed with the statement: "I don't believe in God." In West Germany, by contrast, only 10.3% felt that way. In Russia, the United States and the Philippines, the results were 6.8%, 3% and 0.7% respectively.

Approximately 46% of East Germans surveyed described themselves as atheists, compared to 15.3% of the Dutch and 4.9% of West Germans. In Italy, only 1.7% saw themselves that way. In eastern Germany, the trend actually strengthened over time: between 1991 and 2008 the number of atheists increased by 3.4% while during the same period the number sank by 11.7% in Russia.

The mark of modernization

A comparison of generations around the world shows that virtually everywhere, atheism is much more pronounced among the youth than it is among people ages 55 and more, thus showing the considerable influence that modernization has had on religious belief. In Poland, for example, 79.3% of those over 68 believe in God, as opposed to only 58.4% of those between 28 and 37.

The only exception is Israel, where belief is God is markedly more pronounced among young people. This could be related to the immigration of non-secular Jews to Israel, but the study's authors also think that it is partially due to a growing split along Jewish and Muslim religious lines. Under conditions of competition and separation, religious belief comes to have greater meaning for one's sense of personal identity, they write. Religious competition of that sort is virtually nonexistent in eastern Germany because so few Muslims live there.

Researchers found other reasons for atheism in the former East Germany, not least the deep mark left by the National Socialists and the Communists. But they also point to the fact that many Slavic and non-Orthodox communities present in the area since the Middle Ages were nonreligious; that the secularization movements during the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) were particularly strong in the states of Thuringia and Saxony; that the resistance of most DDR dissidents to the church was not seen, unlike the way it was perceived in Catholic Poland, as specifically religiously motivated.

The present study shows that Germany as a whole occupies a middle position on the atheism scale, as the belief in God in West Germany is still very strong – much more so than in neighboring countries like the Czech Republic or France, for example.

It also shows that serious belief in a personal God -- as opposed to a sort of diffused spirituality or esteem for religion in general -- is declining significantly in Europe.

Atheism, a "key challenge" across Europe

Thies Gundlach, a vice-president of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), told Welt Online that the East/West Germany comparisons weren't relevent. "We have to recognize that the issue of belief in God is the key challenge of all churches in Europe," he said.

For University of Erfurt theology professor Eberhard Tiefensee, "if East Germany is a missionary country, then Christian teaching must address not other religions but a stable, non-religious milieu" – a milieu that has proven highly resistant to missionary movements of any stripe.

Tiefensee sees no cause for resignation, though he admited that "all those attempting to change the status quo whether they're calling it a mission, evangelizing, or neo-evangelizing, have to bear in mind just how wide the divide is between them and those they're addressing." "They must never lack respect for them, and they must make their goals transparent, without trying to hide their own weaknesses," he added.

Hubertus Schönemann, who heads an Erfurt-based German Bishops' Conference working group on missionaryism, reports some success with initiatives such as the "Celebration of a New Life Phase" as an alternative to what is known as Jugendweihe, an East German initiation ceremony when 14-year-olds are given adult status. Other successful initiatives include an evening service to celebrate Christmas on the day before the Christian holiday, and a service for couples in love on Valentine's Day. Schönemann cautioned, however, that interest in such events shouldn't be mistaken for proper belief in God.

Read the original story in German

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