A bunch of European countries require residents to pay a “church tax,” which goes to the religious institution of their choice (or the official national church), unless citizens choose to opt out of the system. That means people baptized into the Catholic Church at birth, for example, may now give a part of their income to it even if they no longer believe.
There’s been a movement in recent years by atheist groups to make people aware of this and help them “deregister” from their religious institutions if they no longer believe in God. They’ve been successful enough in some cases to give local religious leaders a scare.
A new Pew Research Center survey, released today, takes a look at what residents in six European countries think about the “church tax.” The survey looked specifically at Germany, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Switzerland. It also attempts answer the question of how many people are opting out of the system, why they pay the tax if they no longer believe in God (or at least don’t attend church regularly), and whether the tax itself is pushing people away from organized religion.
Bear in mind that the funding for this survey comes partly the John Templeton Foundation, which gives money to damn near anyone with a scientific background who might say something nice about religion. (Christianity Today‘s take on this is the sort of thing Templeton loves to see: “Pew finds a majority in six Western European countries are content to pay their ‘church tax’ to support the common good.”) That’s not to saw Pew Research did anything wrong in the study — I have no doubt they would’ve produced the same results with different funding sources — but that Templeton has a long history of funding projects that have a pro-religion slant.
Here are the big takeaways:
1) A lot of people still pay church taxes, but many have stopped paying or say they plan to opt out soon.
This is all the more reason to educate people about the tax and encourage them to take the necessary steps to leave organized religion (and avoid the tax) if they no longer believe. It’s all about being honest. Church leaders should be fully in favor of honesty, right?
2) There appears to be no correlation between nations that have the church tax and nations where people attend church regularly.
You might think the church tax would push people away from church… but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Indeed, there is no evidence that church tax countries are experiencing more rapid declines in Christian identification than other countries in Europe. In all 15 Western European countries surveyed, fewer people say they are currently Christian than say they were raised Christian, and, in each case, more people say they are currently unaffiliated than say they were raised unaffiliated. But the countries with the steepest drops in Christian identification — including Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands — do not have church taxes.
Pew notes that it may seem contradictory for people who pay the church tax to support church/state separation, but that may not be a hypocrisy at all.
In fact, church-state separation is ingrained in the history of the church tax, which was introduced as an independent source of funding when many European governments began to scale back their financial support of clergy in the 19th century. And some Europeans argue that the church tax enhances the separation of church and state by creating a separate pool of funds for religious institutions to use as they see fit, without relying on government appropriations.
4) Younger people are less likely to be paying the church tax.
There may also be a life cycle effect at work. Young people generally are less likely to ever have paid income taxes at all, perhaps because many are still students or have very low incomes at the beginning of their careers. As they get older, some may start to pay church taxes along with income taxes. However, the evidence suggests that a surge of young adults starting to pay church taxes is unlikely: In countries where the adequate sample sizes of young nonpayers are available, most are religiously unaffiliated.
5) Among those who plan to opt out of paying the church tax, they are more likely to have a negative view of religious institutions in general.
For example, in Denmark, people who intend to continue paying the tax overwhelmingly say churches “play an important role in helping the poor and needy” (78%), a view that is less common among current payers who are considering steps to opt out (53%). The same is true in Switzerland, where church tax payers who intend to opt out are about half as likely as those who intend to keep paying the tax to say churches and other religious institutions play an important role in helping the poor and needy (34% vs. 62%).
Overall, the results don’t seem all that shocking when you look at them. But they do suggest there’s value in making sure people know how to opt out of the church tax if they choose to do so. Since religious leaders aren’t about to let people know those instructions, it’s up to atheists and critics of organized religion to lead the charge in every country where that’s possible.
(Top image via Shutterstock)