Published March 22, 2021 | Version v1
Report Open

Polarisation and social cohesion: the ambivalent potential of religion in democratic socie-ties. Findings of a representative survey on the social role of religious and social identities in Germany and Switzerland, 2019


Western democracies are currently experiencing a renaissance of social identities. The appreciation of religious identities in public and politics is perhaps the most prominent expression of the growing social significance of social identities. There is also great public uncertainty about how to deal with religious affiliations and especially with Muslims. Does religion separate societies or does it promote the cohesion of democracies?

The new research approach of the KONID-project aims to identify religious identities in the context of their social references in a differentiated way and thus more precisely than before. Its first results are presented in this report. The research project "Configurations of Individual and Collective Religious Identities and their Potential for Civil Society (KONID)", funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), aims to describe the significance of religious affiliations and attributions to religious groups (such as "Catholics", "Jews", "Muslims" etc.) on the individual level as well as in society and its groups, and to analyse and explain the effects of religious identities on living together. For this purpose, religious identities are compared with other social identities that are important to people or by which they are divided into groups, and are examined in a country comparison between Germany and Switzerland.

The KONID Survey 2019 surveyed the significance of religion for social identities in a multi-thematic, country-comparative representative survey of the population in Germany and Switzerland aged 16 and older, paying particular attention to Muslim minorities. In both countries, more than 3,000 people were surveyed from spring to summer 2019.

The KONID Survey 2019 surveyed no fewer than 21 possible social identities and placed them in their social and religious contexts. The central findings are the following:

Religion is a formative and structuring factor for social identities in the complex societies of Germany and Switzerland. For many people, their religious affiliation is important as a social identity. In Germany, 57% of the population rate religion as an important social identity. In Switzerland, 50% consider their religious identity to be important.

While identification with religion often plays a lesser role within the two major church traditions of Christianity, one's own religious identity is of central importance for members of free churches and Muslims in particular. After all, for about 30% of those who do not (any longer) belong to any religious community, the fact of not-belonging is important for their own social identity.

In both countries, however, religion is not the most important social identity. Above all, family affiliation and belonging to a circle of friends and acquaintances rank clearly before religion. In addition, it is striking how important engagement and voluntary work are for the self-image of those who volunteer.

The social impact of religion as a social identity is ambivalent. Religion divides – and unites.

Religious social identities are the object and cause of discrimination. The extent of religious discrimination experienced in Germany and Switzerland is moderate overall, but discrimination is much more common for members of free churches and Muslims. At the same time, religion serves many people as a social identity that can be used to create social distance and to exclude others. About a quarter of Christians do not consider marrying non-Christians. Around 40% of Muslims reject non-Muslims as marriage partners. The rejection is even higher among members of free churches in Switzerland (53%), but not in Germany (15%).

The KONID Survey 2019 also surveyed how the interviewees draw the line between democratic community and religious truth. Privileging religious truths and views over the constitution and the willingness even to use violence for one's own faith are rare. If they do exist, then such positions are more pronounced among Muslims and members of free churches. The overall finding, however, is that a certain degree of agreement occurs across all religious denominations. The politically relevant problem is therefore to get a general overview of dogmatic or fundamentalist positions that tend to extremism and to address them together with the religious communities. In other words, this is not a genuine problem of "Islam" as a religion.

Religion is not only a source of problems. Religion is also socially productive. Religious affiliation and religiosity increase voluntary commitment. Religion-related voluntary commitment promotes contact between people who would otherwise not meet in everyday life. Such commitment can build bridges. The survey shows that those for whom their religious identity is important also regard interreligious dialogue as important. This dialogue is most strongly advocated by religious minorities and in particular by Muslim interviewees. Here a great potential becomes visible that is socially available for such a dialogue. Moreover, this potential rests in an almost complete consensus on the value of the right of freedom of religion in both countries. Consequently, religious diversity can connect and promote the society.

Particularly surprising is that despite the increasing complexity of the construction of social identities among individuals, religion in Germany and Switzerland is a factor in society as a whole that structures social identities in a lasting way. A cluster analysis shows five configurations of social identities for both countries, in which religion and community/nation are constitutive features to distinguish them. In particular, more research is needed here.



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