"Catholicism may not remain the country's first religion for long"

“Catholicism may not remain the country’s first religion for long”

One information chasing the other, we did not dwell on the religious teachings of the investigation Trajectories and origins from INSEE, known as TEO 2, which relate to data dating from 2019-2020 and which was made public in April. The comparison with the data from TEO 1 of 2007-2008 is nonetheless instructive.

The first observation is that things have been changing very rapidly over the past twelve years. This is all the more sensitive as the survey covers 18-59 year olds and not the entire population, i.e. people born after 1960, the watershed line now well identified by historians. We are dealing with generations without a strong religious background or from immigration who are available for profound reorganizations.

Decline of Catholicism

The major trends already perceptible in TEO 1 are accentuated. The only real novelty is the spectacular growth of evangelical Protestants. We can distinguish five main ones. The first is the increase in declared non-religious, which rose from 45 to 53%. With them, we are in a classic process of “exiting religion” as described since the 19e the theoreticians of secularization, from Auguste Comte to Marcel Gauchet.

The second is the decline of Catholicism, which goes from 43 to 25%, that is to say a quasi-division by two in twelve years. The “crisis of sexual abuse in the Church” amplified the trend but did not create it. We must no longer speak of decline, but of collapse, and no one can say at what level the stabilization will take place.

The third is the strong rise of “other Christians”, from 2.5 to 9%, especially evangelical Protestants. This is the strongest progression since TEO 1. The fourth is the progression of Muslims, who go from 8 to 11%, less by conversions of external elements than by reproduction of identity and fervor within the Muslim world. 26% of women wear the veil.

Judaism, the most identity religion

The fifth trend is the increasingly identity-based and fervent character of Judaism. It is even, in many respects, the most “identitarian” religion in France, if the survey is to be believed. The spiritual bestsellers of the liberal rabbi Delphine Horvilleur should not deceive us from this point of view on the dominant tendencies of the group. Buddhism finally remains stable, at 0.5% of the French.

The survey also delivers instructive lessons on the drivers of religious change in France. Immigration is playing an increasing role, both because it remains massive (more than 10% immigrants) and because the central group of French society without immigrant ancestry, often of Catholic origin, is increasingly more secularized. It powerfully recomposes religion who stays. This point is not without importance for understanding the collective impressions that accompany the process: a large number of French people look from quite a distance at these recompositions which seem to them secondary, linked to immigration and not modifying the meaning of their history which continues to be reduced, very often, to leaving Catholicism.


The second important factor is the rate of spiritual reproduction of the groups, that is to say their ability to transmit their convictions to the next generation. It is linked to the identity dimension of religion and fervor. The best is that of Islam (91%), the worst that of Catholicism (67%), but that of the Evangelicals (69%) is closer to the latter than to the former. Evangelical churches are also churches from which one leaves, which makes their progress all the more spectacular.

The third factor is the effectiveness of proselytism, that is, the ability to make converts. It is above all evangelical, Islam tending to specialize in the reconversion of the identity of populations of Muslim origin. The growth of evangelicals is also linked to immigration because the areas of departure, in Africa for example, have been affected by the evangelical revolution of recent decades and the migrants arrive already converted. The last factor is the unequal demographic dynamics of the groups, in particular in the second generation, before the tendential alignment of the third on French standards.

Announced downgrade

From all these trends, it emerges that the French religious landscape in the sense of the distribution of declared cults, which had hardly changed in its main lines since the XVIIe century and which had resisted the French Revolution, the industrial revolution, the two world wars, the collapse of the practice since the 1960s, is changing profoundly before our eyes. In 1872, in the last public census to have officially included a religious section, more than 97% of the French had answered that they were Roman Catholics and it was still practically there at the beginning of the 1960s.

In TEO 2, only 25% say so, and the reduction is not over. Under these conditions, it is not certain that Catholicism will remain the first religion of the country for long. Eventually, it could become the second or even the third largest religion in France. An announced downgrading which, strangely, arouses few comments in the Church, as if the bishops, stunned by the crisis of sexual abuse, only knew how to assist, silent and impotent, in the collapse.

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