While the number of people belonging to atheist and other secularist organizations remains low in Germany and Austria, representatives of atheist views have managed to gain more media attention in recent years, and atheism is on the rise, according to the current issue of Weltanschauungen – Texte zur religiösen Vielfalt (No. 101), a Catholic publication dealing with contemporary worldviews.
Matthias Neff reports that in Germany, atheism had long been a fringe phenomenon, given little public attention. But German reunification changed that, since atheism had been strongly promoted by the Communist State in Eastern Germany. Moreover, the image of religion in general has become less positive, and people are leaving mainstream churches in growing numbers. The oldest groups have roots going back to the 19th century, such as the Bund für Geistesfreiheit (League for the Freedom of Thought) in Bavaria, though its current shape and name dates from the early 1990s, and its members (around 5,000) describe themselves as humanists. Other groups include the Internationaler Bund der Konfessionslosen und Atheisten (International League of Non-Religious and Atheists), formed in 1976 with 1,000 members, and the Humanistischer Verband Deutschland (Humanist Society Germany), which brought together several smaller groups in 1993 and has 15,000 members.
Besides these, there are coordinating groups as well as a variety of smaller or specialized associations. A key role is played by the Giordano Bruno Stiftung (GBS), which describes itself as a think tank “aligned with the guiding principle of evolutionary humanism.” Moreover, tens of thousands of young Germans go every year through the Jugendweihe (“youth consecration”), a coming of age ceremony that appeared in the 19th century as a secular alternative to Christian confirmation, and was strongly supported in Eastern Germany. According to Neff, atheist and secularist groups in Germany have succeeded in attracting public attention through launching specific campaigns such as critical gatherings simultaneously held with major events organized by Christian churches, advertisements, and criticism of various cases of privileges granted to churches. But non-Christian religions are not spared; a central council of ex-Muslims was created in 2007, and secular groups attempted to have male circumcision banned. Neff adds that while classical atheism offers ground for discussion with churches, this is much more difficult with more aggressive forms of “new atheism.”
In Austria, the freethinkers organized themselves in the late 19th century, and its main group, the Freidenkerbund, was re-launched after WWII, following years of suppression under the Nazi regime. It currently has 1,000 to 1,500 members. In recent years, the movement has experienced competition from various newcomers on the scene, including a schism by people who wanted to promote a stronger atheist orientation, reports Wolfgang Mischitz, expert for worldviews at the Diocese of Innsbrück.
There are also a variety of small groups and initiatives reminiscent of the German secular scene—including a local branch of the Giordano Bruno Stiftung. Since 2010, there is even an Atheistic Religious Society in Austria, seeking recognition as a religion and participating in interreligious events. The developments in Germany and Austria seem quite similar to those in America, with atheism managing to get more attention and a diversification of the atheist scene. The impact of “new atheism” is significant, with its uncompromising critique of religion as a potential source of trouble, such as 9/11 debates about creationism and the clash between religion and science.
(Referat für Weltanschauungsfragen, Stephansplatz 6|1|2|6, 1010 Vienna, Austria – http://www.weltanschauungsfragen.at)