How many Germans believe in life after death?

Since I took it up in my previous post, I went back to have a closer look at this study from 2009. I still remember the headlines two years ago: “2/3 of Germans believe in life after death and so forth”. Of course knowing that a conservative think tank by the name of the Bertelsmann Foundation made me suspicious, as what they produce usually cannot be called independent research.

So let’s take a look at the description of the study. Apparently 21,000 people were polled in 21 countries. They do not explain the exact methodology and so forth, for which you’d need to cough up 50 Euros to buy their 800-page book on the study. Thanks, but no thanks… Though there seems to be a table showing the numbers from nine countries, Germany, Austria, Australia, France, the UK, Italy, Poland, Switzerland and the US. We will just assume their methodology was sound enough to withstand scrutiny.

Based on their website, the results were as follows:

  • 33% of Germans asked believed in life after death “strongly” or “fairly”, 33% “half-half” or “a little”, and 32% “not at all”
So, from the get-go, we have massive spin. All these headlines about 2/3 believing in life after death turn out to be a case of spinning. Looking at the tabled figures, we discover that the researchers used five categories to measure degree of belief, i.e.
  • sehr “very” (5): 22%
  • ziemlich “fairly” (4): 11%
  • mittel “half-half” (3): 17%
  • wenig “a little” (2): 16%
  • gar nicht “not at all” (1): 32%

In feeding headlines to the press, the think tank combined all the categories except for “not at all” to arrive at that 2/3 figure of Germans believing in life after death. Two can play this game.

  • Only 22% of Germans strongly believe in life after death, while more than 3/4 of Germans have doubts about it.

Let’s have another look at the other claims made, and double-check it against their own numbers.

Regional variation: 60% of East Germans do not believe at all or only a little, whereas this is only the case for 25% of West Germans: This is an outright lie! Checking their own numbers, 60% of East Germans is actually the category “not at all” alone, if you add “a little” as suggested by the think tank, it would be 78%! The same thing for West Germans would be 25% of “not at all” and 15% of “a little”, amounting to 40%.

Gender: the only thing said is that women believe more in life after death than men, but this seems correct, using numerical values, the average for women was 2.9, for men 2.6.

Generational differences: Germans younger than 30 years of age believe more in life after death than older people. Young people 30 years and less that believe strongly or fairly were 41%, while for people older than 60 years of age there were only 32% in the same categories. On the other hand, those that do not believe at all, number 19% for the young people, and 37% for older people, emphasising that this is a stark difference. What’s with the omitted degrees “half-half” and “little”? If we combine “not at all” and “little”, then the number do not look as dramatic, i.e. 39% for the youngest cohort, and 47% for the oldest. Again, this looks a little bit like cherry-picking. The study used the age cohorts of (1) 18-29 y.o., (2) 30-39 y.o., (3) 40-49 y.o., (4) 50-59 y.o., (5) 60 y.o. and more. The average numerical value for the first, youngest group is 3.1, while for other groups, not just the 60 y.o., was 2.7.

Denominational differences: while 30% of baptised Protestants do not believe in life after death at all, this is only the case for 15% of Catholics. Now  adding “a little” to these figures, we arrive at 47% for Protestants and 31% for Catholics. Looking from the average numerical value, which is 3.4 for Catholics and 2.7 for Protestants, all in all this might be fair.

Muslims: and then Muslims enter the picture. I was first suspicious, as they seemed to have done two different surveys, one about “Germans” with 1,000 interviews, and another about “Muslims in Germany” with 2,007 interviews, as though Muslims wouldn’t be Germans. However looking at the “Germans” table, tallying the numbers under “confession” you get:

  • Catholics 309
  • Protestants 325
  • no religion 258
which amounts to 892, i.e. 108 short of the total. There is no explanation in the table, but probably these 108 would comprise adherents of other religions, such as Islam, Buddhism, what have you. So with that out of the way, let’s have a look at the figures for the German Muslims:
  • sehr “very” (5): 63%
  • ziemlich “fairly” (4): 11%
  • mittel “half-half” (3): 8%
  • wenig “a little” (2): 5%
  • gar nicht “not at all” (1): 10%

With figures such as those, was it really necessary to conflate “very” and “fairly” again? 63% v. 10% is as impressive as 74% v. 10%…

The non-religious: the Bertelsmann think tank is famous for having introduced some kind of “religiosity” matrix into the discussion, by differentiating between three degrees of religiosity, “highly religious”, “religious” and “non religious”. Now in order to make their point, the authors of the press release go into full spin mode, combining three categories to make this statement: From those that regarded themselves to be non-religious, still 13% believed strongly, fairly, or half-half in life after death, with yet another 19% at least “a little”. What this statement leaves out is that 67% of the non-religious do not believe in life after death at all, combined with “a little” this would make 86%. The actual figure for strong believers in life after death is actually only 1%, which looks much less impressive than the combined number of 13%.  Here the actual percentages for the non-religious:

  • sehr “very” (5): 1%
  • ziemlich “fairly” (4): 2%
  • mittel “half-half” (3): 10%
  • wenig “a little” (2): 19%
  • gar nicht “not at all” (1): 67%

The final statement by the foundation’s Dr. Martin Rieger shows the actual agenda behind this, fighting against secularisation and pushing the idea that Germany is much more of a religious country than commonly thought:

“The belief in life after death – in whatever form – correspond to a high degree with our investigations into religiosity in general. Thus we can see that for instance Germany remains a religious country. On the one hand, it can be shown that even among those who are members of a church, there are people indifferent to religion. On the other hand, there are also those who are not members of any church, who have certain religious ideas and continue to respond to them.”

The agenda behind this is to re-proselytise Western Europe and spin the data as much as you can, so you get big headlines in tabloids such as “2/3 of Germans believe in life after death”.
Well done, Bertelsmann… NOT!

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2 Responses to How many Germans believe in life after death?

  1. Miriam says:

    How come the only religion this German study doesn’t mention is Jewish people? Is it because this is still a taboo subject or is it simply because today there are hardly any Jews left in Germany because of what they did to them in world war two? My family are Jewish but I doubt if we’d be around today had my great grandparents been unlucky enough to be born there.

  2. euroatheist says:

    Hi Miriam,

    thanks for your comment. The foundation did two studies on Germany, one on the German populace in general, and one on German Muslims specifically.

    As I wrote above, the first study had 108 respondents of “other religions”. I mentioned Muslims and Buddhists, but not Jews, and that was an oversight on my part. But in the context of the first study, only four categories were distinguished:

    - Protestants
    - Catholics
    - other religions
    - non-religious

    So from the tables, there’s no way to know how many of these interviewed were Jewish. According to Wikipedia, Islam is the largest of the unmentioned religions, with around 5% of the German population being Muslim. The next would be Buddhism with only 250,000, followed by Judaism with 200,000, which is about 0.3% of the population (then there’s Hinduism with 90,000, with all other remaining religions with less than 50,000). Since the first study had interviewed 1,000 people, that would amount to 3 people interviewed if the sample was representative.

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