Introduction: Religious belief rationalized, privatized in secular Berlin

  • St. Martin Church, Kaulsdorf, Berlin, built in 1930 in the new Objectivist style of the era.

German culture is characterized by more local variation than outsiders might suspect, legacies of principalities and city-states that were unified in 1871. More fundamentally, Germany is said to be divided between a Catholic culture in the southern and western regions, and a Protestant culture in the northern and eastern areas. 

While Catholics & Cultures hopes eventually to study Catholic life elsewhere in Germany, its focus in the entries here is solely on Berlin, Germany’s capital city in the northeast — a place quite interesting in its own right, but not wholly representative of Germany.

Many layers of history and culture make Berlin an interesting place to explore. It is close to the place where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door, launching a Protestant Reformation that took powerful hold here. Half of the city, and all of the lands surrounding it, were part of Communist East Germany for 40 years. Today it is a vibrant, cosmopolitan capital city that is a mecca for young people and artists, a global city that attracts immigrants from around the world, blending those cultures in a German way.

Berlin is in the heartland of Prussia, and grapples with its history as capital of the Nazi state. It is a city self-consciously critical of much of its heritage, but some Prussian legacies endure, even in a city that is known for pleasure-seeking. Interviewees for this project1 often referenced those two historical legacies, and also described Berlin as “much more secular” than most other parts of Germany, even as “pagan” by comparison. The same could be said of the whole of northeast Germany, though Berlin has a reputation for being more hedonistic, whereas the villages of the former East Germany simply get described as being more atheistic.

From several perspectives, Catholicism has long been a minority religion there, and Catholics experience it that way. The Catholic Church in Berlin, at almost 321,000 registrants, is about half the size of the now-smaller Evangelical church, at 665,000.2  One interviewee noted that Berlin is the third city in Germany in terms of the size of the Catholic population, "but in mentality, most of the Berlin Catholics... feel as a minority — a small, small, small minority... like 300 people in a city of 3.5 million... a small family that draws closer in a big society." The closeness does not manifest itself in culture warrior mode, though. Many interviewees claimed that other Catholics there were too focused on making the Church somehow a haven from the world, but at least among interviewees, the overall attitude was more in favor of making sure that the Church demonstrated its openness to the culture. Few seemed to expect to change the culture much. Rather, tolerance was an oft-repeated value.

Catholic Berliners think of their diocese as the poor cousins of the Catholic dioceses in the south and west, but there are plenty of schools and Church social services in Berlin. The Church in Berlin is apparently less well funded compared to other parts of Germany, but has a strong institutional framework.

The sense of smallness may come from the fact that many interviewees said that 10% of registered Catholics were serious about their faith. The number could be lower, at least by the standard of church attendance, which, except for Christmas, is very low. One active parish in East Berlin, regarded for its youth program, covers a geographic area comprising 200,000 people, and has 6,500 registered Catholics, of whom 200 might be at Mass on a given Sunday.

The 321,000 Catholics counted in Berlin are persons who have declared their religious identity to the state. Germans identify their religious affiliation when they fill out their taxes. Catholics, Evangelical-Lutherans and Jews are charged a church tax when they identify as such, a surcharge of 9% of their income tax payment. The tax is given to the church to fund clergy and other expenses. In recent years, the number of Christians willing to self-identify and pay the tax has been declining. Even among the payees, many registered Catholics are said to be indifferent or simply culturally identified non-believers. Others still identify as Catholic as an identity marker, but indicate that they do not practice or pay the tax.

Given Berlin and the surrounding area's secularity, it is remarkable to consider that Berlin is only an hour and a half from the Polish border, from a culture whose Catholic identity runs very deep, and survived the Communist era legacy as a very powerful force. The huge differences between Polish and Berlin Catholic life and culture speak to particular histories and cultures.

What does “secularized” mean in Berlin? 

Almost all interviewees described the cultural situation of Berlin as "secular." Certainly one justification for that description is the fact that so few people in Berlin do attend church. Few interviewees suggested that secularized meant hostile. Interviews with foreign-born Berliners seemed to suggest that Germans were generally accepted without critique the news that they were religious believers, because it was “part of their culture.” On the other hand, most said that Berliners otherwise find it hard to understand that other Germans could accept religious beliefs, because of their irrationality.

One way that interviewees described secularization was to indicate the number of ways religion is privatized and removed from the public realm. Church and state are connected in interesting ways, but one could never conclude from that that religiosity and religious language pervade political life. Even though two major German political parties have Christian origins and still carry the name "Christian," Berliners don’t care if their politicians are religious, and a politician would not run on religious claims. Though the state collects taxes for the Church, it has no authority to impact the Church in return for the tax funds. Churches offer many social services, usually funded by the state.

The Church tax collected by the state, a legacy of the Napoleonic era, ties Church and state in a significant, unusual way, in a relationship that Berliners were conflicted about, and in a fashion that some scholars have suggested may be a cause of secularization, by effectively making the churches lazy monopolies who don’t have to compete in the religious marketplace.3  One interesting note of contrast is that the experience of such large numbers of people opting out in recent years is different from that of nearby (and also historically Lutheran) Denmark, though both places are quite secular. The tax no doubt changes the way Berliners relate to the Church. Clergy are not employees of the state, but Church and clergy do have a certain guaranteed financial standing, so that they and their pensions are maintained by the state. That money has also allowed the German Church to be extraordinarily generous to the developing world.

Disaffiliation from membership and tax-paying left the churches saying that they might prevent disaffiliated members from being buried in churchyards, but in Berlin, the move away from traditional burial services towards cremation has been so significant that the city is turning land once set aside for burial grounds to other uses, including recently, a supermarket.4

What the decision to drop the church tax means is hard to determine. A few very committed Catholics – immigrants to Germany – said that they did not like the idea of a church tax, and that they did not register as Catholic on their tax payments, donating instead as they chose. The information about who drops out is made public. One pastor in East Berlin reported that no one he had seen on the list was known to him before. Still, many see the tax as a discouragement, something that will eventually disappear, and that may undermine affiliation with the church.

Whereas the traditionally Catholic parts of Germany have a cycle of public Catholic feasts, festivals and processions woven into the public life of cities and towns, Berlin is a place where religion largely happens in church or at home.  Christmas has become a huge, but largely secular public event. Fasching — carnival — happens in Berlin only on a very small scale. Some parishes do have Corpus Christi processions. But public signs of religiosity – even the wearing of crosses in public – are rare.

Rationalized religiosity

To a remarkable degree, interviewees who described Christianity in Berlin described an overall culture that is, as Max Weber famously described it, rationalized and “disenchanted.”5 Weber used those terms to describe a world where technical rationality displaced religious mystery and divine intervention. 

A literalist, rationalist way of being prevents many Berliners from believing in Christianity at all. Interviewees often say that friends dismiss Christianity because it doesn’t seem rational that Christians could ever give credence to Adam and Eve when we all know that about the big bang and about evolution. "People look at you like you are crazy if you try to make a claim using the bible as your basis of authority," reported another.

Immigrants and Germans both noted that Berliners don’t have much belief in Satan or in evil as a force. As one Ghanaian woman who lives in Berlin put it, “They see bad things happening, they see a typhoon, they say, ‘How could this be happening if there is a God?' They have no belief that there is a Satan who could also have caused such things, so they dismiss God too.”

Not only did interviewee descriptions of Berlin's overall culture fit those terms, but so too, to different degrees, did descriptions of Evangelical and Catholic life. In another Weberian echo, some described this as an Evangelical church tendency that had been absorbed by Catholics, though to a lesser extent. Preaching, as many described it in both churches, typically focuses on the social ills of the world, and the obligations of Christians to solve them. One Lutheran expert6 described it as a reason he thought people are drifting away from religion, but “it’s even worse for the Evangelical church. Many agree with the church’s more liberal stances, but find the church too focused on the secular world." He described this as one key reason why, whereas in West Berlin 70% of the population paid the Protestant church tax in 1970, today only 19% of the whole of Berlin pays the church tax. The number of Catholics in Berlin has long been steady, he reported, but that has been because it has been bolstered by migration into Berlin.  

Catholics disagreed on the extent of this in Catholic churches. An African living in Berlin noted that in his experience in a Catholic church, "If a tsunami comes, they will be great about mobilizing resources to get aid to victims right away. But it would not even occur to them to ask that God might enter those people's lives and heal them." One younger priest described that as more characteristic of both Protestant and Catholic preaching in the past, but noted that he tried to connect more to the gospel stories and to exegesis now, without losing track of social, moral obligations.

Rationality plays out in other ways that are built into the fabric of Catholic life, though they are religious, not secularizing in their impetus. Both the visual culture of Berlin's churches, and the church music both reflect, in different ways, an orderly, rationalized vision of the cosmos and of right prayer. Liturgy is well-ordered, de-emphasizing spontaneity, and certainly seldom tends towards “folksiness” by most cultures’ standards. Pentecostal religion does exist in Berlin, but these churches are seldom visible and Germans find the Spirit-inflected practices very odd. Those who do proselytize or pray that way are often labeled by Berliners as members of “cults.” According to clergy the respondents interviewed for this project, there is not a significant active charismatic Catholic presence in the city. 

One woman reflected during an interview on what she saw as the limits of this rational kind of worship, saying “Sometimes I look around at Mass and think, ‘This has to look so unbelievably joyless and boring to someone who just walks in off the street. Who would want to join us?’” Yet she also valued that kind of worship in its own way, and gratefully described one priest as very “charismatic,” though this was meant in the common sense, not in reference to charismatic worship. A priest spoke of experiences of more warm worship and community in Latin America, and wished it could be replicated here, but suggested that this was not meant to be. In interesting ways, both referenced limitations of rationalized worship, but both stayed within the system valued by the local culture. One 54-year-old German man suggested that younger people were less interested in faith and reason questions, and saw faith as something that needed to stir them emotionally, but could only identify this as “a problem” that “we have to work our way through.”

Secularization as Lack of Cultural Authority

As one person of West Berlin origin put it, the churches today lack even enough cultural authority today for most people to rebel against. Secularism, all agreed, is a matter of indifference, not rebellion. Churches are often valued for the secular services they offer and their ability to mobilize people in service to the poor, but non-Christians also see these as service that the state will take over if the churches leave off.

Recent sexual abuse scandals, and a scandal involving the Bishop of Limburg spending more than €31 million to renovate his home haven’t helped. Most say these have only exacerbated a trend long in motion, confirming what many people already thought.

East and West

Berliners often say that it is usually easy to distinguish “Ossies,” those who were raised in East Germany or East Berlin, from “Wessis,” those raised in the West or in West Berlin. Even where it is not apparent by sight, most agree that the churches tend to be different. Among Berliners, those from the old East are said to be more solid in their faith commitment, often having had to make serious decisions under communism and pay a cost if they wanted to practice their faith. Many Berliners say that their parish communities are tighter, a legacy of the era when they had to insure against government infiltration. St. Martin parish on the easternmost edge of East Berlin, where some of this research was conducted, still has a lively youth group, something that members attributed historically to the fact that Catholics stayed together for much of their social life. Even today, youth members might come there a few afternoons a week, including for catechism class.

While some post-Communist societies, notably China and Russia, have experienced a surge in religious commitment as those societies were transformed, East Germany, including East Berlin, has not experienced anything similar. East Berliners are much less likely to be religious, and are commonly said to not know anything about Christianity or to show no curiosity about it.  Nothing has changed about East Germans' religiosity since 1989.

West Berliners, by most accounts, are said to be trusting of government in a way that East Berliners still are not. While in Prussian and Nazi examples they have seen the problems that trust in government authority can wield, they cite the transparency of government today as a reason to trust it. Several commented that they don’t find the same level of transparency or discussion in the church. Many older East Berliners are said to have become nostalgic of a past when they were less responsible for fending for themselves, their factories were not displaced by more efficient western ones, but East German-born Catholics are said to be seldom counted amongst the nostalgic.

East and West Berliners agreed that the East Berlin Church remains less troubled by hot-button issues in the Church. In the Communist era, the most important thing was to support one another as a group, and not to allow divisive forces to undermine their community. West Berliners, by contrast, are said to be more politically and ecclesiastically liberal, and more open to the larger, freewheeling, pluralistic, tolerant society around them. Still, interviewees believed there were not serious divisions between “traditionalists” and “liberals,” as they perceived to be the case among American Catholics. One suggested that he, and others have their concerns about family and gender issues in the Church, but don’t often articulate them, having opted to belong. “No one is listening anyway,” he said.


  • 1The articles in the sections on Berlin are based primarily on formal interviews with 16 Berlin Catholics (both natives and immigrants) and one expert who belonged to the Evangelical church, all conducted in Berlin in December 2014, primarily in English.
  • 2"Christliche Religionsgemeinschaften 2009" in Statistisches Jahrbuch Berlin 2010, p. 164.  All uses of the term “evangelical” here refer to the Reformed churches with Lutheran and Calvinist heritages that united in the 20th century. The use of the term does not connote sort of worship suggested by the contemporary American use of the term.
  • 3For examples of this line of argument, see Laurence Iannacone and Rodney Stark, “A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the 'Secularization' of Europe” in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33:3 (September 1994) 230-252; Laurence Iannaconne, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, “Deregulating Religion: The Economics of Church and State” in Economic Inquiry, 35:2 (April 1997): 350-364. Interestingly, some Berliners also describe a Church that is not by any means a monopoly, suggesting that Berlin is a pluralistic religious marketplace, full of opportunities to practice Eastern spiritualities, various forms of Christianity, and the chance to assemble one’s own hodge-podge of practices.
  • 4Interview with Dr. Dirk Kroegel, stv. Beauftragter für Kirchen religions- und weltanschauungsgemeinschaften, Berlin, December 9, 2014.
  • 5See Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. by Talcott Parsons (New York: Routledge, 1992). In their focus on the Evangelical Church as a progenitor of secularity, they also echo aspects of Peter Berger's The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969).
  • 6Interview with Dr. Dirk Kroegel, stv. Beauftragter für Kirchen religions- und weltanschauungsgemeinschaften, Berlin, December 9, 2014.