Religions in Switzerland

The traditional religion of Switzerland as a central European country is christianity.

During the reformation several Swiss reformers preached their new interpretation of the christian faith: Huldrych Zwingli and his successor Heinrich [Henry] Bullinger in Zurich (1523) and northern Switzerland, Johannes Oekolampadius in Basel, Guillaume Farel in western Switzerland (1526) and finally John Calvin in Geneva (1536). While Zwingli is by far the most influential of the reformers within Switzerland, Calvin is certainly better known abroad.

The reformation split the country in two blocks: while most big cities in northern and western Switzerland adopted the new faith, the rural alpine areas in central and southern Switzerland remained catholic. From the 19th century on, freedom of religion was granted to individuals and the industrialization led to massive migration within Switzerland and to immigration from other countries. Today the 15th century division is still visible in statistics, but religions have definitely lost much of their influence on society.

Statistics: Religions in Switzerland

Percentage of Swiss population adhering to different religions

Religions 1950 1960 1970 2000
Reformed Christians (Zwinglian/Calvinist, main cantonal churches) 56.3 52.7 46.6 33.0
Reformed Christians ("free" evangelical denominations) 1.2 2.2
Roman Catholics 41.6 45.4 49.4 41.8
Old Catholics (organized dissenters to the dogma of papal infallibility) 0.6 0.5 0.3 0.2
Jews 0.4 0.4 0.3 0.3
Orthodox Christians 1.1 1.0 0.3 1.8
Muslims 0.3 4.3
Others 0.1 1.0
Without religion 1.5 15.4

As the number of non-traditional believers seemed negligible then, the older statistics polls of 1950 and 1960 did only count five choices of religions: Protestants, Roman Catholics, Old (dissident) Catholics, Jews and "other religions" (including non-believers).

20th century immigration from far away countries has lead to an increase of the number of different religions as well as an increase of the number of inhabitants adhering to such non-traditional religions. The communities of immigrants are free to exercise their religions. While religions don't play a major role in Swiss society anymore in general, they are considered to be an important factor in giving smaller communities of immigrants and their children an identity.

The modern trend of leaving the traditional churches can be seen throughout western Europe. In Switzerland, taking a leave from religions seems to be more accentuated with the main Reformed Churches, while it was for some decades even over-compensated for in the statistics by immigration from southern Europe with the Roman Catholic church. Since the focus in immigration to Switzerland has changed from tradionally catholic countries in Southern Europe to Eastern Europe and non-European countries (after 1990) the exodus from the Catholic church has become more visible in recent years.

Classical Christian Denominations

Catholics vs. Reformed Christians

The Swiss Reformation

In the Age of Reformation, Switzerland was a «hot spot». Though there were quite some differences in doctrines, all Swiss church reformers were more radical than Germany's Martin Luther or the English reformation (Anglicans). In the 16th century, Switzerland was - politically - not yet a federal state but rather a loose confederation of independent cities and valleys. This meant that the decision whether to take part in the church reform of the 16th century or to stay with the Roman Catholic church and the pope was not taken on a «national» level but rather by the regional political authorities. Until today reformed churches in Switzerland are not united, but there are mainstream reformed churches in most Swiss cantons [federal states].

While Switzerland's most influential church reformer Zwingli and Germany's Luther would not agree on a common doctrine and creed, Zwingli's successor Heinrich Bullinger did formulate a common Swiss creed in 1564 that was accepted not only by all mainstream Reformed Churches in Switzerland but also in Scotland (Knox), Hungary and by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Nevertheless Reformed Churches in Switzerland do have different convictions about major theological issues like the interpretation of the Lord's Supper and the doctrine of predestination.

A Zurich based team of scholars was the first to publish a complete German bible translation (the so-called Zurich Bible) in 1529, five years before Luther's Wittenberg Bible.

Religious Disputes and Civil Wars (1529-1712)

The reformation split Switzerland into two blocks: while the big independent cities of northern and western Switzerland (Zurich, Basel, Bern, Geneva, Schaffhausen, St. Gallen) converted to the new creed and forced their subject territories to do the same, the more rural areas of central Switzerland including their inofficial capital Lucerne remained Catholic. Disputes over religion and some political issues Zurich's church reformer Zwingli was very committed to personally even led to four civil wars in Switzerland in 1529, 1531 (Zwingli died on the battlefield of Kappel), 1556 and again in 1712.

Internal Migration and Peaceful Coexistence

Catholic Migration to Protestant Urban Areas

Switzerland's early industrialisation in the 19th century lead to a considerable internal migration from the catholic rural areas to the industrialised cities (mainly Zurich, Basel, Winterthur, Lausanne, Geneva). Massive immigration from catholic Southern Europe (Italy, Spain, Portugal) due to the economic boom after World War II amplified this tendency so that the formerly exclusively protestant urban areas of northern and western Switzerland do have a mixed population now with almost equal numbers of protestants and catholics.

Protestant Migration to Catholic Rural Areas

On the other hand, the 20th century trend to live in suburbs resulted in a migration of (mostly protestant) middle class families from urban areas in northern Switzerland to rural areas in (traditionally catholic) central Switzerland, so that reformed churches have been established there as well.

Dissenting Old Catholics

Catholics in Switzerland tend to reflect and interpret dogmatic issues (like papal infallibility or allowing women to become priests) and moral rules (like not having sex outside marriage, not using birth control pills, ban on divorce etc.) more seriously than catholics in other parts of the world. While most Catholics in non-German speaking countries tend to agree «in principle» with century-old dogmas and strict moral rules while finding it relatively easy to excuse themselves from really taking these rules seriously in their everyday life, Swiss Catholics have always been discussing the difference between rules and everyday reality with higher-than-average commitment.

They want the Church to officially accept what society has been accepting as «normal» or even calling for on moral grounds (like equal rights and opportunities for women), and they don't want to feel as sinners for doing things they think are perfectly ok (like using birth control pills within marriage to be able to offer their children a good education). Dissent with somewhat «unrealistic» moral rules has been widespread (more than 80% of Roman Catholics in Switzerland disagreed with the papal ban on the Pill as early as 1970) and very outspoken in some cases (even Catholic newspapers published dozens of critical articles on the issue).

When the dogma of papal infallibility was declared in 1870, a small group of dissenters even left the Catholic Church and founded a new «Old Catholic Curch». But though a majority of Swiss Catholics share dissenting ideas, only very few actually leave the Roman Catholic Church as an organization to join the dissenting Old Catholics.

The Jewish Community

The Jewish community belongs to the religions that have been present in Switzerland for almost 2000 years, but the Jewish minority has always been small. During all these centuries severe restrictions concerning professions and residence have been imposed on Jews (as in most other European countries). Only in 1866 Jewish citizens were granted full rights to settle anywhere in Switzerland and to practise any profession.

Other Religions in Switzerland

Buddhism in Switzerland

Buddhism came to Switzerland with refugees from Tibet in 1959, Switzerland was the only European country to grant asylum to 1000 Tibetian refugees. The Buddhist Tibetians have kept up their religious traditions, the community has grown to about 2000 persons over the years and nowadays there is even a buddhist monastery in Switzerland. There are only very few native Swiss people confessing to be Buddhists, however. The number of Buddhist refugees is quite small and they practise their religion in their private homes. So for most Swiss people Buddhism still belongs to the religions they know very little of.

Islam: Muslims in Switzerland

Until the 1970's there were hardly any Muslims in Switzerland. But since then, immigration from Turkey, Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo and Northern Africa has increased substantially and today there is a noticeable Islamic community in the country. Muslims have become the third largest religion and have surpassed three of the five traditional religions (dissident Protestants and Catholics as well as Jews).

Orthodox and other Christians in Switzerland

The new focus of immigration since the 1970's has also resulted in a significant increase in the number of Orthodox Christians. There are only few Orthodox church buildings, however. Often the various Orthodox denominations (Serbian, Russian, Greek) may use Protestant or Catholic churches. So do other small minorities like the Anglicans (mostly British and American immigrants).

Hinduism in Switzerland

Finally, Hinduism came to Switzerland with Tamil refugees in the late 1970's and 1980's. On sundays, many Tamil refugees can be seen at places like Einsiedeln and Mariastein. Maybe the special atmosphere of these classical Catholic pilgrim churches reminds them of Hindu temples in their native country. One might take this as a sign of peaceful coexistence between religions in Switzerland.

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