What are the extreme points of Christianity

Religious diversity in Germany"People's creativity means that they simply invent something new"

There are hundreds of different religious communities in Germany: from Old Catholics to Zoroastrians. In an interview with the religious scholar Michael Schmiedel from Bielefeld University, we sort this religious pluralism. And we ask how the diversity of religions has historically developed into what we know today.

Christian Röther: Mr. Schmiedel, how many religions are there in Germany?

Michael A. Schmiedel: Yes how many? How many people do we have, a little over 80 million? You could almost say that there are so many religions if you add every individual interpretation of religion. But in terms of communities this cannot be said at all. Because the smallest religious community that is listed on the homepage of Remid, the media and information service for religious studies, only has seven members. And if you include such small ones, then we come to several hundred religions, which - depending on how you want to separate them - can be described as separate religions.

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Of course, this includes not only the traditional religions, but also much younger religions. So, that means, there are actually always new religions emerging. One could say that the religious creativity of people, which simply has the effect that when people have ideas, notions with which they cannot feel at home in a given religion, that they then simply invent something new.

The beginnings: Celts, Teutons and Slavs

Röther: Then let's try to sort it out a bit. And I would suggest we try to be chronological. Of course, there is only one question: where should we start now? Can you say which was the first religion that existed here in what is now Germany?

Blacksmith: The first religion - well, that can no longer be found out. So, the first archaeological finds from the Neolithic and so on - there is sure to be religion. But we cannot say what kind of religion that was. And the first religions that could somehow be historically understood would be those of the Celts. And then shortly afterwards the Romans came. Or: we know about the Celts through the Romans. That's why it happens almost at the same time for us, even though the Celts were there much earlier. And of these, graves with grave goods have survived. But they didn't leave us any content in written form either, because the Celtic druids only passed it on orally.

Dr. Michael A. Schmiedel teaches religious studies in the theology department at Bielefeld University (Gerald Beyrodt / Deutschlandradio)

Yes, and then, at the turn of the Christian era, the Germanic tribes came along in northern Germany, who then gradually migrated further south and the Slavs in the east. Berlin, for example, was originally a Slavic settlement.

So you could say: ethnic religions of the different peoples who were resident in the area of ​​today's Germany, a lot before the first Christians and Jews came to Germany.

Roman Empire: Jewish traders, Christian mission

Röther: That means, there is no first religion, but they were probably already as plural as it is today, i.e. the Celts, Teutons, Slavs or whoever. You have already said the keyword "Romans" several times. With the Romans, Christianity came here to what is now the German area. The first basilica is considered to be the one in Trier. It was created between 310 and 320, around 1700 years ago. And the first written mention of a Jewish community was in the year 321, namely in Cologne. So the Roman Empire was pretty important for the development of religions, religious pluralism here in Germany today. Can you put it that way?

Blacksmith: Yes, in any case. I mean, back then they brought more religions with them. The legionaries were made up of all parts of the Roman Empire and brought the Mithras cult from Persia, the Isis cult from Egypt and so on. Which later all died out again here in Germany.

But Jewish traders came in with the legionnaires. Christian missionaries then. Today we always think first of all - as you say - of the basilica as a Roman Catholic Church. And of course when you think of "Roman Catholic" you also think directly of Rome. But the first Christians who spread the most among the Germanic peoples were Arians, with a very different kind of theology.

So almost all Germanic tribes were first missioned Arian from the southeast. Bishop Wulfila made the first translation of the Bible - not into German, but into Ostrogoth, a Germanic language. And if the Franks had not become Roman Catholic for political reasons, then it could have been that the Teutons would have remained Arian. And that would have changed the whole story.

Reformation: "Immense Christian Diversity"

Röther: That means that we already have an intra-Christian pluralism well before the Reformation, which I wanted to talk about next - knowing full well that there are now a thousand years in between. But I think the Reformation is of course a very important event for religious development, including for religious pluralism here in Germany.

Blacksmith: In any case. First of all, the Reformation never produced such centralism as Roman Catholicism. Not even such an ethnic or state-focused pluralism as the Orthodox Church, but a much larger one.

The Reformation movement was plural in itself (imago stock & people)

First of all the three great reformers Luther, Zwingli and Calvin. So you can see that there was and still is an immense variety of possible interpretations of this one Christianity. Today we still have the division into regional churches, which have their roots in the fact that the princes of the individual German states determined the religion of their subjects. And on the other hand, the free churches, who want to have little to do with the state.

One could also say that individualism has increased in the course of the modernization of Europe. And as soon as there was also the possibility of freely choosing one's own religion within a state - that had to be allowed first, it wasn't like that from the start. So especially after the Peace of Westphalia there was the possibility of being Protestant in a Catholic country - and vice versa. That the plurality increased again because it no longer stopped at the national borders.

Enlightenment and Colonialism: Curiosity about Eastern Religions

Röther: We are now slowly getting into the time of the Enlightenment, which then follows. That is the time when the real interest in Islam, for example, or other religions that were then located further east - Buddhism, Hinduism - did that arise at the time of the Enlightenment?

Blacksmith: Yes, the Enlightenment has two directions: one Christian and one critical of the Church. And especially those who were critical of the church liked to look for alternatives.

At the same time it was the time of colonization. Well, Germany was not a colonial power at that time. That came a little later. But still, a lot of ideas came in from the other colonial powers and their colonies. And some people became curious about it and then used it not only to increase their knowledge about other peoples and countries and thus also religions, but also to think about whether one could learn something for oneself from these religions. Or whether the question of truth should now be clarified as clearly and clearly as was traditionally claimed.

With his play "Nathan the Wise" Gotthold Ephraim Lessing made a significant contribution to spreading the idea of ​​a shared truth claim (picture alliance / dpa / Bifab)

Then, of course, one immediately thinks of Lessing's "Nathan the Wise", the ring parable that assumes that the three monotheistic Abrahamic religions Judaism, Christian and Islam are probably equally true. That was very - a not entirely new thought, there have been thinkers who also thought in that direction. But in terms of its broad impact, that has been something completely unheard of so far.

Empire and Weimar: "Give your own more food"

Röther: Then I would like to jump back to the beginning of the 20th century. Because I looked up when there were the first fixed communities of certain religions here. The first Buddhist community is considered to be in Leipzig, since 1903. The Bahaitum had its first community in 1907. The first mosque, which is still in Berlin today, is from 1924. This list could probably be continued, even if one goes in that direction Occult looks or theosophy, anthroposophy. So this time, the empire and then the Weimar Republic, it was also quite religiously active, the people back then.

Blacksmith: Yes, it was a very new time. We have already had the industrial revolution in the German Empire, almost a hundred years old. But the industrial revolution has already brought about a huge upheaval in living conditions. Traditional village structures have been downsized quite a bit because a lot of people have migrated to the cities. Working-class quarters then formed there, and with prosperity on the one hand, there was also dissatisfaction on the other; a mass impoverishment of workers, a home and a lack of roots. And of course that also brings with it the urge to develop new ideas in order to obtain freedom and salvation as an alternative to the possibilities presented so far - i.e. religious terms.

It wasn't just about the social and economic, but also about the religious, spiritual, and also philosophical needs of people. And it wasn't just the religions in the narrower sense of the word, there were movements in the course of around 1900 that we might ascribe more to the New Age since the 1970s and 1980s. All of that already existed back then: Reform movements, new concepts of life were tried, vegetarianism for example, yoga and so on.

All of this came up, and especially in these esoteric circles, the mostly Indian, Chinese and so on, Asian religions were used to give a little more fodder to what was one's own.

1960s: "Offers of meaning virtually explode"

Röther: In other words, what many people would think spontaneously today, that belongs to the 60s, 70s, is actually already 60, 70 or maybe only 50 years older, you are saying. But this period after the Second World War - that is, the Nazi period and the World War II, the Second World War - are of course another major turning point for religious pluralism. Many congregations simply couldn't continue to exist, or many ideas were banned.

But with the emergence of the Federal Republic and the GDR, things start again. On the one hand there are migration movements, the so-called guest workers, who also bring their religion with them. But then there is also something like the globalization of religious ideas, you could say - even if you say that it actually starts before that. But then we have a whole new momentum or a new dimension in it, right?

Blacksmith: Yes, this is a whole new boost, definitely. We now have two world wars behind us. So everything that I have just said, which was common in the German Empire, in the Weimar Republic, was then suppressed to such an extent, especially by the Nazis - or at least tried to instrumentalize it first. But in the end it was suppressed and forbidden.

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But in the 50s ... well, the 50s were of course a bit conservative. But gradually it came up. And then the 60s and 70s, when it all exploded. At the same time, what came from the normal population: the opening up to have twin cities in other countries; long-distance travel gradually emerged. It is clear that as a result Germans - now without counting the immigrants, that is another chapter in itself - that Germans simply had more options for themselves to choose from meaningful offers.

The more religions, the fewer members

Röther: We have already mentioned a lot of religions in the course of this conversation. I actually wanted to keep a tally sheet. I've forgotten it now, but probably wouldn't have followed up either. Of all that we have just mentioned, there is still something today. So you will probably find a few Arians. And also the traces of the Celtic, Germanic, Slavic religious history, which are still there, are partly revived, also made into something new.

But we also do not want to forget the non-denominational, the religiously free, who also exist, also as a very large group. And in the preliminary talk you said to me that you have the impression that the more religious communities there are in a city or in a district or in a country - the more religions there are, the fewer people are actually members of one of these religious communities . You have to explain that to us.

Blacksmith: Exactly, I'll do the same. Another note about the Arians: They do not exist as such, but we find their Christology in the Jehovah's Witnesses, at least roughly.

The other, yes: there was once a study by the University of Bochum on religious communities in North Rhine-Westphalia. Nice book with many maps, where cities and districts of North Rhine-Westphalia were shown according to different statistical points. And I was surprised: There is a page that shows how many religious communities there are in a district or in a large city. And another shows how many people in a city or district are actually members of a religious community.

Just to find out one extreme point, let's take the district of Borken in Münsterland: It was colored as if there was - now slightly exaggerated - only one religion, the Roman Catholic Church. It is so dominant that it is statistically very important.
On the other hand, we have cities like Cologne, although it is "dat hillije Kölle", we have a large number of religious communities there.

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And then on the other hand they just asked how many people are actually members of a religious community. And then we find out that almost all of the Münster residents from the Borken district are members of this one Roman Catholic Church. And now you could think: Okay, where there are many religious communities in Cologne and therefore the offer is huge, then a lot more people would have to be satisfied with it because they all find something, and everywhere people become members of some religious communities. But no, the offer is probably overwhelming. Or do the offers relative to each other, maybe that way too. In any case, there are many more people in Cologne who do not belong to any religious community at all than in the Borken district.

Little social knowledge about religious pluralism

Röther: How great is the German public's knowledge and awareness of this religious pluralism that we are currently talking about?

Blacksmith: So my experience is, both in normal conversations with acquaintances, with friends and with my students who sit with me as first, second and third semester students: There is not very much knowledge about it. What? It does exist? And there is that too? Never heard of.Even from major traditional currents such as Theravada Buddhism or Shiite Islam. Yes, somehow heard something, but nothing specific, you don't know. So there would still be a lot of work for religious scholars and religious journalists to actually bring this knowledge to the population. And that's what we're working on right now.

Röther: I still have a bit of work for you. The last question, Mr. Schmiedel: What religion doesn't exist in Germany?

Blacksmith: What religion does not exist? Well, I would say: religious communities that are very strongly ethnically bound somewhere in the world have followers here when these believers have come here - that is, as migrants or as students or whatever I know what - and practice their religion. But that will usually only be very few. And along the way you will find religions worldwide that we do not have in Germany. And of course the many new religions that are emerging somewhere and have not yet made this long journey.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt the statements of its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.