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What to Believe In? – Non-Religiosity in East Germany

St. Nicholas' Church in Potsdam. Photo: Karla Fritze.

St. Nicholas' Church in Potsdam. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Between 2012 and 2015, Professor of Religious Studies Johann Ev. Hafner, his former colleague Professor Irene Becci, and their students visited religious communities in Potsdam. What started as a seminar project on denomination soon expanded to include all religions and even the gray area of esoterism and counselling. There have been similar “religious city mapping” projects in Leipzig and Berlin, and a similar project is currently underway in Geneva.

“East Germany is perhaps the least religious region on earth,” says the scholar. While the comparably populated Geneva has about 400 religious communities, Potsdam hosts only about 80. “For at least two generations, socialism accelerated secularism," says Hafner. The GDR (the former East Germany) propagated a non-religious, materialist worldview. Religion was seen as an irrational remnant of a past that had already been overcome in socialist society. The resulting policy had, at times, dramatic repercussions, for example, when Christians were denied to study certain subjects or to achieve certain positions, the effects of which still persist. But secularization cannot be blamed on socialism alone: As early as the 19th century, however, people in this region attended church services less frequently than, for example, in Bavaria. “In Protestantism, an inward commitment to the kingdom of God is more important. It does not have to be expressed in liturgical worship.” Moreover, the Enlightenment in Prussia led to the repression of “popular piety”. Enlightenment proponents disapproved of pilgrimages or intercessory prayers, criticizing them as superstitious. Christians were supposed to be moral but not cultic.

Potsdam has traditionally been a city of civil servants and a military site with supplying industries.  Today, the city has the highest density of scholars in Germany, who work in 22 research institutes, the University of Applied Sciences, the Babelsberg Film University, and the University of Potsdam. On the one side, the high degree of rationality arouses skepticism against religious ideas; on the other, it creates a stronger interest in questions concerning worldview. This also impacts the way how religious groups interact with the citizens: “In Potsdam, we can observe an encapsulation of religious groups,” says Hafner. “The secular environment is highly interested in religious groups, but these groups show only a limited willingness to interact with the outside.” During the GDR era, churches stood more closely together against the anti-religious environment. In a way, this behavior persists in today’s religiously apathetic environment. Interreligious dialogue, however, is extensive. Extra-parochial structures that are maintained by the churches influence the city’s character. The Catholic school Marienschule, for example, once closed by the Nazis was reopened in 2008 and is now very popular. The Protestant Oberlinhaus, a facility for education and also medical treatment, and the Catholic St. Josef’s Hospital are also well-known institutions. However: “Many patients do not even notice that they are in a denominational hospital.”

Researchers determine what makes a religious community

“We soon had to ask ourselves: What is even a religiously interesting object of research?” Hafner says. Is a yoga studio in Babelsberg a religious community? After all, a relatively stable group of 50 people are regular visitors of the studio, they use a central place and are, thus, similar to parishioners: They have a Guru - a Hindu religious teacher -, recite mantras, and learn about Hindu traditions. These include cleaning rituals such as drinking water and relieving oneself in the morning. A discussion about this question broke out during the seminar. They ultimately decided to include such places in the study. “As opposed to back-pain exercise courses, which solely serve physical health, such a studio is religious in our opinion,” Hafner says. “It does not necessary have to worship a deity.”

How, then, does one determine religion? Do you proceed from people's self-conception, or can religiosity also be assumed from the observers’ point-of-view? After all, Hindu concepts of karma or European ideas of energy and vibrations are widespread, even among those who do not consider themselves religious. Another marginal case is freemasonry: According to Hafner, it emerged during the Enlightenment as an alternative to Christianity. “Freemasonry is the religious celebration of human virtues such as friendship or freedom, regardless of religion or status.” Hafner himself visited the Masonic lodge Teutonia zur Weisheit, which offers both open- and closed-door meetings. The secret worship services are called “work”. The members go through a three-degree system.

Religions have different relationships with places

“There are also two religious self-perceptions in Potsdam when it comes to locality,” says the scholar. “The 'temple theology' is based on the special consecration of a particular place. God is bound to this place.” The churches of the mainstream Christian denominations belong to this type. They are an important part of Potsdam's cityscape: the Protestant (Lutheran and Reformed) and the Catholic and Orthodox communities. The Old Synagogue at the former Wilhelmsplatz (now Platz der Einheit) was destroyed by the Nazis during the Kristallnacht pogroms in November 1938. Brandenburg and the Jewish community have long since tried to build a new synagogue.

“Tent theology” looks, instead, for functional places and does not insist on their sacrality. Such religious communities pitch their tents where they are visible and accessible to citizens. They often use temporary places due to, for example, gentrification. The approximately 80 members of a mosque, for example, pray in an apartment at Platz der Einheit. Representatives of religious communities are also found in Potsdam's public squares. Scientologists regularly displayed their materials in Brandenburger Straße, but they have not been very successful in Germany. According to Hafner, there are only 5,000-10,000 members and hardly any increase in membership in Germany. Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, who are obligated to missionary work in the streets, distribute information material and make themselves available for conversation. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat, a 19th-century Muslim reform religion, is also active in public.

Since the “Wende”, East Germans have renegotiated religious and socialist relics

The churches played an important role before and during the peaceful revolution of 1989/90. After the reunification the western ecclesial systems, like Caritas and Diakonie or the structures of the dioceses, were transferred to the new federal states. The existing, predominantly family-oriented structures were largely disregarded. According to Hafner, people were skeptical of authority; the “credit of trust” placed in the church began to fade after the upheaval. Jugendweihe – a secular version of a religious confirmation marking the transition to moral and legal maturity had been implemented under socialism – became less attractive yet remains the most common ritual performed by young people in the region. It no longer contains an oath or ideological elements. “The literature given to young people before Jugendweihe focuses on their biography.” This has become, in Hafner’s opinion, the religious subject matter, the "god term" of this ceremony. It no longer means entering a community (state or working class) but, rather, focuses on the individual‘s path in life. “You could call it an ego project.” The speeches during the ceremony refer to their responsibilities.

The fierce, years-long discussion about the reconstruction of the Garrison Church, which was blasted in June 1968, also says something about the importance of churches as places of cultural memory, as Hafner describes it. The arguments against its reconstruction pertain to the historical connection between the church and imperial Prussia and the German Reich. The church long served as a place for state-sacred acts like battle victory celebrations. “The connection between the throne and the altar becomes particularly apparent in Garrison Church,” he explains. Opponents of reconstruction also argue that there are already enough churches in Potsdam, even in the immediate vicinity, which are also hardly visited. According to Hafner, proponents argue not to concede the damage caused by the bombing and demolition by the socialist regime. Garrison Church belongs to the city’s silhouette. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit parishioners that traditionally met there were pacifists. In light of this, its reconstruction could be seen as a sign of peace.

The Project

The research project “Non-Religiosity in East Germany” at the Chair for Christianity started in 2012 and examines the extent to which lifestyles, norms, and ideologies in East Germany reacted to forced secularization by the former communist regime. 

An anthology including articles and portraits of Potsdam’s religiousness will be published at the end of the research project. The contributions from Irene Becci and Johann Ev. Hafner include essays and portraits of students and the editors discussing the foundations of faith, rites, locations, and structures of Potsdam’s religious groups. The volume is part of the joint project “Non-Religiosity in East Germany” at the Chair of Christianity. It includes the dissertation “The Role of Wedding Sermons in the Ritualization and Consecration of Civil Marriage Ceremonies in Germany” by Jenny Vorpahl and the habilitation project “Atheistic Conceptions for the Extinction of Religion” by Dirk Schuster.

The Researchers

Prof. Irene Becci was a research associate at the Department of Lifestyle–Ethics–Religion until 2012. Since then, she has been Assistant Professor at the Institut de sciences sociales des religions contemporaines der Université de Lausanne. Her research interests are religious plurality, post-socialism, and new spirituality.

Université de Lausanne
Institut de sciences sociales des religions contemporaines
Email: Irene.BecciTerrierunilch

Prof. Johann Ev. Hafner has been Professor of Religious Studies with a focus on Christianity at the University of Potsdam since 2004. His research interests are religiousness in Brandenburg, system-theory of religion, and angelology.

Universität Potsdam
Institut für Jüdische Studien und Religionswissenschaft
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam
Email: hafneruni-potsdamde

Text: Jana Scholz
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published online by: Agnetha Lang
Contact for the online editorial office: onlineredaktionuni-potsdamde


Read this and other articles on research at the University of Potsdam in our research magazine Portal Wissenhttps://www.uni-potsdam.de/en/explore-the-up/news-and-announcements/university-magazines/archive-portal-wissen.html