Religious Plurality in three European Countries

This comparative project was conducted by Prof. Dr. Volkhard Krech of the Center for Religious Studies (CERES), Bochum in cooperation with Finish Church Historian Dr. Kimmo Ketola (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland) and Prof. Dr. Marjan Smrke of the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.


The research project stems from an extensive scholarly debate on religious diversity and its consequences. On the one hand, it has been suggested that religious diversity would lead to greater secularization, since religious diversity has been assumed to undermine the inherent truths claims in most religions. On the other hand, some scholars have suggested that religious diversity leads to an increased religious vitality: the “religious market” is believed to follow the same logic as other markets, where a higher religious supply would result in a higher religious demand. This discussion provided a setting for the research project at hand, an empirical study in three European Countries: Germany, Finland, and Slovenia.


In each country, the religious supply was explored through an extensive mapping of religious organizations within an urban and a rural area in each country. This helped to determine the extent to which the urban and rural areas differ and also determine the country specific conditions. For instance, it was found that Germany was characterized by the largest extent of religious diversity while Slovenia was the most homogeneous country in religious terms. Regardless of country, migration was the main reason for an increased religious pluralisation. However, the diversification of the Christianity and the new religious movements also contributed to religious diversity to a marked degree. The second step was to conduct a telephone survey in each area, which enabled to measure people’s religious and social attitudes in the studied areas. For each urban and rural area respectively, 1,500 respondents were asked to participate, which resulted in a total of 9,000 respondents.


Religious plurality as a characteristic of the surrounding environment did not seem to have an effect on how central religion is in their lives. However, the more religious alternatives an individual had personal encounters with, the more the centrality of religion increased. This relation was maintained when socio-structural factors were controlled for. These results suggest that the estimated impact of religious diversity, when measured as a characteristic of the surrounding environment, has been over-emphasized in previous debate. However, if religious diversity is encountered on a personal level, it seems to have a positive effect on religiosity.


Another aim of the project was to study whether religious diversity seems to effect people’s social attitudes. One of the societal attitudes studied was the attitude towards immigrants. Since religious diversity and immigration often are closely interrelated in Europe but nevertheless represent different aspects of a more heterogeneous social context, the relation between religious diversity and xenophobia was of special interest. The results of the study suggest that a more religiously diverse environment per se does not affect xenophobia, but personal encounters with different religious alternatives increases tolerance. The more people had such encounters, the less likely they were to exhibit xenophobic attitudes. This suggests that personal experiences of religious diversity constitute a cohesive social force which promotes tolerance. This indicates that social arrangements that promote interreligious contact would be desirable in terms of societal harmony. Personal encounters with different religious alternatives seem to affect both religiosity and social attitudes. An alternative interpretation of the findings might therefore be that the effects of religious pluralisation are yet to emerge in Europe, since objective diversity is likely to increase the amount of personal contacts in the long run. The more Europeans face religious diversity on a personal level, the larger the consequences will be concerning their religious and societal attitudes.