The Swiss may not be very religious, but Switzerland’s religious landscape is nevertheless fairly varied.
Membership of Christian churches has shrunk in recent years. In a wideranging poll of Swiss attitudes taken in 2000, only 16 percent of Swiss people said religion was “very important” to them, far below their families, their jobs, sport or culture. Another survey published the same year showed the number of regular church goers had dropped by 10 percent in 10 years. Among Catholics, 38.5 percent said they did not go to church, while among Protestants the figure was 50.7 percent. Only 71 percent of the total of those asked said they believed in God at all. The demand for church baptisms, weddings and funerals has fallen sharply in the last 30 years. The 2000 census showed that the Roman Catholic and the mainstream Protestant church (the Reformed-Evangelical) had lost in both absolute terms (the number of members) and in relative terms (their share of the total population.)
On the other hand, the smaller offshoots of these two churches were proportionately the same as before. The free evangelical churches accounted for 2.2 percent of the population; the Christian Catholic church made up 0.2 percent.
The Jewish community also remained more or less unchanged. Recent immigration has brought members of other faiths to Switzerland, in particular Islam and Orthodox Christianity.
Even if the churches are no longer relevant in many people’s lives, both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have played a key role in shaping modern Switzerland and the way in which Swiss people see themselves.
Roman Catholicism tends to be associated with conservatism and the preservation of traditional values, including regional autonomy and commitment to the local community. The strongly Roman Catholic cantons include Uri (more than 90 percent), Schwyz and both Nidwalden and Obwalden, the Alpine cantons which took the 1291 oath of confederation, regarded as the foundation of modern Switzerland. They joined together at that time to assert their rights to rule themselves in the face of outside powers. Today these are the areas which vote most strongly against any moves they believe could bring Switzerland closer to its neighbours and threaten its neutrality.
The Roman Catholic church in Switzerland is unusual in that the secular authorities in ten Catholic cantons have an important say in the nomination of bishops. This is the result of an agreement between the Pope and the participating cantons in 1828.
After many years in which Protestants were the majority in Switzerland, Roman Catholicism again became the largest religious group around the middle of the 20th century, as a result of immigration from Catholic countries.
Switzerland was home to two of the leading figures of the Protestant reformation which swept across Europe in the 16th century, Ulrich Zwingli and Jean Calvin. On the whole it was the better-off rural cantons and the cities which were to develop into Switzerland’s industrial centres which adopted the new religion. Geneva in particular became a stronghold of Protestantism, and a haven for refugees – including Calvin himself – fleeing oppression in Catholic countries. These refugees in turn made an important contribution to the city’s intellectual and economic life. Protestants valued rationality and hard work, and saw wealth as a reward from God, an ethos which helped lay the foundations of modern Swiss prosperity.
|The Russian Orthodox church in Geneva. Geneva has a long-standing Russian Orthodox community, and the oldest Orthodox church in Switzerland, consecrated in 1866. © swissworld.org
The 1848 constitution which created the federal Swiss state as we know it today, was drawn up by Protestant radicals who saw greater centralisation as essential to develop an industrialised economy. The federal state created a single currency system to replace the different cantonal currencies, and lifted internal trade barriers.
Switzerland’s third biggest religious group is Islam. The 2000 census showed that there are over 300,000 Muslims in the country, slightly more than twice as many as in 1990. Many of these Muslims are refugees or asylum seekers, but the number of Swiss nationals who are Muslims has increased from 7,700 to 36,500 in ten years.
The number of Orthodox Christians has also increased as a result of immigration from central and eastern European countries. They total more than 130,000.
The number of followers of Judaism has remained stable, with around 17,900.
There are some 21,000 Buddhists following different schools. Just over half the Buddhists are Swiss nationals. The biggest Buddhist temple in Switzerland, Wat Srinagarindravararam, opened in canton Solothurn in 2003. It follows the Theravada school.
There has been a steep rise in the number of people saying they belong to no religion. They now account for just over 11 percent of the population, against 7.4 percent in 1990, and 1.1 percent in 1970.