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It is easy to understand, from a secularist’s point of view, why people should fight against organized religion in the United States. They feel that religion in the US has an impressive hold on both society and politics and may create irrationality, hatred, bigotry, and social exclusion.

But why fight against organized religion in Europe, where religion is much weaker? A new study has looked at the question for one European country that is often seen as a model of peace and coexistence worldwide: Switzerland.

Switzerland, once ferociously religious and the home of such illustrious individuals as Jean Calvin, Jakob Amman (founder of the Amish), or Karl Barth, is currently on a clear secularization path. The percentage of nones has risen to roughly 30% and every new generation is less religious than the previous one. What’s more, the two largest and publicly recognized churches, Protestant Reformed and Catholic, who still unite more than 60 percent of individuals, are extremely moderate and adapted. They are strongly engaged in welfare activities, but they very rarely intervene politically, and their opinions have little societal weight.

So, why do Swiss secularists fight these churches and smaller religious groups?

The new study surveyed all members of secularist organizations and systematically compared them with the Swiss population at large. It combined 2,083 quantitative interviews and 133 in-depth qualitative interviews among secularists and a control group of the general population. A book presenting the results by a Swiss study of religion scholar Pascal Tanner will be published this fall.

Tanner finds that Swiss secularists have both less and more reason to fight religion than their US-American counterparts. True, organized religion has little hold on politics, but Switzerland still has no separation of church and state in most cantons. This is the main goal of the largest secularist demographic in Switzerland, the Freethinkers Association. Ninety-five percent of Freethinkers members say it is the most important of their goals to separate church and state, and thus to abolish church tax (for members) and do away with all privileges for recognized religions.

The separation of church and state is not the only goal and not the most important goal for all secularist groups. A second, much smaller group, the “Sceptics,” mainly fight what they see as crazy esoteric beliefs. A third, even smaller group by the name of “IG Stiller” fights against the noise created by church bells, tracking the “cumulated number of additional wakening reactions (AWR) per night due to church bell noise in the Canton of Zurich.”

Switzerland still has no separation of church and state in most cantons.

A second finding by Tanner is that Swiss secularists are what could be called illusionary giants. They have a tremendous public presence, but they are extremely small regarding their membership base. Thus, the study counted 2,040 members of secularist groups in Switzerland, representing 0.024 percent of the population. Of these 2,040 individuals, only a small percentage are active members. For example, 85.3% of Freethinkers said that they had no or almost no active participation in the movement. Most members pay a membership fee of 100 Swiss francs per year, receive the organization’s bulletin—and that’s it. How then do secularists gain such a strong public presence? Tanner explains that the media routinely invite a secularist to represent nones when it comes to discussing religious questions. One way of answering the question of why people fight organized religion in countries where religion is weak is that they don’t (or almost)!

A third finding is that the sociodemographic profile of Swiss secularists is very similar to that of other countries. The typical Swiss secularist is a white, highly educated, older man with a good income, living in the city. Roughly 80% of secularists are men, and the women in the movement are mostly – wives of men who have brought them in. Almost 45% of secularists have a university degree. Secularists often work in data science, science, engineering, and business.

So, there you have it: Even in Switzerland the fight against organized religion is waged, and according to secularists for good reasons.

Oh, and the cows?

Tanner’s study also found that IG Stiller, the group fighting against church bells, has recently expanded their fight to include cowbells. True, there’s no religion involved, but it does create noise. So in addition to silent steeples, the evenhanded Swiss secularists want the silence of the cows.

Literature

Stolz, J., Könemann, J., Schneuwly Purdie, M., Englberger, T. and Krüggeler, M. 2016. (Un)Believing in modern society. Religion, spirituality, and religious-secular competition. London: Routledge.

Stolz, J., Könemann, J., Schneuwly Purdie, M., Englberger, T. and Krüggeler, M. 2016. (Un)Believing in modern society. Religion, spirituality, and religious-secular competition. London: Routledge.

Stolz, J. and Senn, J. 2021. 'Generations of declining faith: Religion and secularization in Switzerland 1930-2020'. Social Change in Switzerland November.

Tanner, P. 2020. Das Freidenkertum in der Schweiz. Säkularismus in Zeiten der Säkularisierung. Thèse de doctorat. Lausanne: Université d Lausanne.

Jörg Stolz is full professor of the Sociology of Religion at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland). Theoretically, he works on a general theory of "social games" and a theory of religious-secular competition....