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Eastern Germany: Rooted Atheism and Declining Religion

February 1, 1992

WITTENBERG, Germany (AP) _ The Gothic cathedral where Martin Luther transformed Western religion has become a lonely fortress of faith, encircled by apathy and atheism.

Nearly five centuries after the Protestant reformer nailed 95 theses criticizing the Roman Catholic papacy to the door of the Castle Church, the soaring stone edifice has been reduced to a relic.

″The church once overflowed with people,″ said Peter Freybe, 51, a lanky, bearded minister at the church where Luther began the Reformation in 1517. ″Those crowds are gone.″

Two years ago, East Germany’s Lutheran churches were crucibles of revolt. The passion of protest filled the pews.

″When someone wanted to criticize the government, they came to church,″ Freybe said. ″Now, they have other outlets. They don’t need the church.″

Eastern Germany’s economic free fall and tremendous cultural upheaval have been accompanied by a paradoxical plunge in religious worship, experts say.

″Usually, tough times are good for religion, but for now and the foreseeable future, east Germany is a de-Christianized society,″ said Erwin Scheuch, a Cologne University sociologist.

Wittenberg, a city of 52,000 on the Elbe River about 60 miles south of Berlin, is a dingy mix of medieval and socialist architecture smeared with the soot of dying rubber and fertilizer factories.

Thomas Ruediger, a 22-year-old native, seeks salvation in the seminary school built near Luther’s home just after his death.

Ruediger doesn’t study in the seminary; he practices in the cellar with his heavy metal band, Dirty Wishes.

″Church attendance during the revolt had nothing to do with religion,″ said the young man, who sported a pony tail and ″Megadeth″ T-shirt as he carried his drums down a winding stone stairway.

″I went for the same reason everyone did. The only people who believe are the old people.″

Researchers at the German Central Archive for Empirical Research, which Scheuch directs, find that atheism’s roots run deep after more than four decades of communism.

Some preliminary results of their survey of social attitudes, due for release in March, were given to The Associated Press. Among the findings:

Nearly 75 percent of easterners don’t believe in God, compared to 32.8 of western Germans, and nearly 86 percent in the east do not believe in life after death, compared with 45.2 percent of westerners.

The poll was based on questionnaires completed by 3,000 Germans from May through July. No margin of error was given.

Its results reflect a yawning cultural gulf that has caused friction between both politicians and churches in the two parts of Germany.

″The gulf between the churches is greater,″ said philosophy Professor Konrad Feiereis, assistant rector of the Catholic seminary in the eastern city of Erfurt.

Under West German law, which now governs the entire reunified country, people must declare their religion and pay a ″church tax″ equivalent to 8 percent or 9 percent of their income tax.

Churches are required to teach religion in public schools and offer pastoral services to soldiers. Such concepts are abhorred in eastern Germany.

″The people fear this new ideology, people coming into their schools and teaching religion,″ Feiereis said. ″The West had little understanding. They instituted these rules overnight. We forgot how great atheism is here.″

Freybe, the Castle Church minister, said eastern churches are resisting the school and military instruction edicts. He also thinks the church tax has discouraged membership.

″We want a stronger separation of church and state,″ he said. ″We had that before. The old time was also a good time.″

Catholics and Lutherans each claim about 40 percent of the churchgoers in western Germany, but the Lutherans dominate the east and acted as mediator between the opposition and communists.

Many eastern Germans now view that role with with contempt.

Newly unsealed files of the communist secret police reveal infiltration of the Lutheran Church and complicity by some clergy. Peter Michael Diestel, a former interior minister of East Germany, says even some bishops informed on dissidents.

No statistics are available yet on how many eastern Germans attended church or paid church taxes last year, the first after reunification. Church attendance is clearly far below that of 1989, the year of protest, and many clergy say it is even lower than the years before, when many people were simply afraid to worship in public.

Peter Kollmar, spokesman for the national Lutheran Church, said it struggles to compete in the soul rush of new sects staking Klondike-like claims on godless east Germany.

He said many groups offer simple answers, structured lives and clear authority figures - ready replacements for communism.

″Sometimes it’s easier to gravitate to fundamentalists and sects,″ he said. ″We have to fight hard against these one-dimensional groups.″

Luther is buried in the Castle Church. In east Germany, so are many of his beliefs.

″There is a vacuum of the soul here,″ Feiereis said.

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