Facts and Figures of Reincarnation Belief in Europe

"Comment is free but facts are sacred". Charles Prestwich Scott

Belief in the migration of souls has taken root in our western culture. This fact is all the more remarkable because of a double clash: a clash with the traditional Christian view of afterlife, and a clash with the secular, scientific world view.  Reincarnation seems to defy the logic of the moment.

It is not my task within this forum to analyse the historical development of this belief. Experts from different disciplines will offer their findings, insights and conclusions. I see it as my main task to present a clear picture of how the belief in reincarnation manifests itself in everyday life. What does it mean for people when they believe in reincarnation?

I will adopt more than a phenomenological approach. Rather than merely indicating the external appearance of the belief, I will attempt to analyse its inner psychological structure.  I will raise questions about the motivations in which it is anchored, and their implications for our Christian ministry.

The European Values Systems Study

Over the past decades sociological studies have demonstrated that a sizable proportion of the population in western societies have embraced the belief in reincarnation. Among the various studies, the most prominent one without any doubt has been the so called European Values Systems Study which was conducted on a Europe-wide level both in 1981 and in 1990. It allows us an insight both in the spread and the growth of the belief in a very wide area. The findings of this Study have been thoroughy analysed and published in recent years. In the figures presented in this section, I base myself on these publications, though the interpretation of the facts is often my own.

A select bibliography of the European Values Systems Study shows its wide coverage:

Abela, Anthony M, 'Transmitting Values in European Malta', Jesuit Publications, Malta, 1992

Abrams, M, D Gerard, and N Timms (eds), 'Values and social change in Britain', Macmillan, London, 1985.

Ashford, S. and N. Timms. 'What Europe Thinks: A Study of Western European Values', Dartmouth, 1992

Fogarty, M, L. Ryan, andJ Lee, 'Irish values & attitudes. The Irish report of the European value systems study', Dominican Publications, Dublin, 1984

Gubert, R, 'Persistenze e mutamenti dei valori degli Italiani nel contesto Europeo', Reverdito Edizioni, 1992.

Halman, L., F. Heunks, R de Moor and H Zanders, 'Traditie, secularisatie en individualisering. Een studie near de waarden van de Nederlanders in en Europese context', Tilburg University l'ress, Tilburg, 1987

Halrman, L., 'Waarden in de Westerse Wereld', Dissertation, Tilburg: Tilburg University Press, 1991

Harding, S, and D. Phillips, with M. Fogarty, 'Contrasting values in Western Europe. Unity, Diversity & Change', Macmillan, London, 1986

Inglehart, R., 'Culture shift in advanced industrial society'. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1990

Kerkhofs, J., R. Rezsohazy, (eds.), 'De stifle ommekeer, Oude en nieuwe waarden in het Belgie van de jaren tachtig', Lannoo, Tielt en Weesp, 1984.

Kerkhofs, J., K. Dobbelaere, L Voye, B Bawin-Legros, 'De versnelde ommekeer, De waarden van Vlamingen, Walen en Brusselaars in the jaren negentig', Lannoo, Tielt, 1992.

Melich, A (Hrsg ), 'Die Werte der Schweizer' Peter Lang, Bern-Wien, 1991. 'Les Valeurs des Suisses', id

Noelle-Neumann, E and R Kocher, 'Die verletzte Nation Uber den Versuch der Deutschen, ihnen Charakter zu andern', Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart, 1987.

Orizo, F A, 'Los nuevos valves de los espanoles Espana en la Encuesta de Valores' Fundacion Santa Maria, Madrid, Ediciones SM, Madrid, 1991.

'El Sistema de Valors dela Catalans, Catalunya dins l'Enquesta Europea do valors dels Anys 90' Institut Catala d'Estudis Mediterranis, Generalitat de Catalunya, Barcelona, 1991

Riffault, H., (ed ), 'Le systeme de valeurs des Fran,cais', Presses Universitaires de France, Collection Sociologies.

Stoetzel, J, 'Les valeurs du temps present: une enquete euroepeenne', Presses Universitaires de France (PUF), Paris, 1983.

Timms, N, 'Family and Citizenship, Values in Contemporary Britain' Dartmouth, 1992.

Voye, L and J. Kerkhofs, 'Beiges heureux et satisfaits, Les valeurs de beiges den les annees 90' De-Boeck-Wesmael, Bruxelles, 1992

Zulehner, (et al), 'Vom Untertan zum Freiheitskunstler, Eine Kulturdiagnose anhand der Untersuchungen Religion im Leben der Oesterreicher 1970-1990 - Europaische Wertestudie Oesterreichteil, 1990' Herder, Freiburg-Basel-Wien, 1992.

I have also had access to special print-outs of inter-connected data regarding reincarnation, kindly provided to me by Prof. Loek Halman of Tilburg University. The diagrams and graphs are my own.

Geographical Variations

When people in Europe are asked: "Do you believe in reincarnation?", 24% will answer in the affirmative. Reincarnation is, however, not uniformly adhered to by citizens of all countries. Whereas reincarnation is more commonly accepted in Great Britain, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Austria, Italy, France, Germany and Spain, it is less popular in Eire, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Norway (see Graph 1).

This leads to notable differences. In Great Britain, for example, one in every third person believes in reincarnation; in Norway one in every seven

Reincarnation goes up, God goes down

Is the belief in reincarnation on the increase?  The answer is: yes. When we look at findings that span European convictions from 1968 - 1990, we see a steady increase in the acceptance of reincarnation. In 1968 23% of people in France believed in reincarnation; in 1990 that figure had risen to 28%. In Britain it rose during the same period from 18% to 30%; in the Netherlands from 10% to 18%. This increase is all the more striking since during that same period belief in God declined.  While fewer people express belief in God, more are prepared to express belief in reincarnation (see Graph 2).


Reincarnation and youth

The increase in belief in reincarnation can also be demonstrated in another way.  When we distinguish within the total population the beliefs of the younger age group, we find consistently that the younger group is more prepared to accept reincarnation (see Graph 3).



In Austria for instance, reincarnation is adhered to by 29% of the total population, but by 33.7% of the age group of 15-30 years. In Sweden only 20% of the total population accept reincarnation, but 26% of the same younger age group. While reincarnation is no doubt a phenomenon among all age groups, it is a stronger conviction among the younger generation (see Table 1).

Prominence among Catholics

Another aspect revealed to us by statistics is that belief in reincarnation is more prominent in traditionally Catholic areas than in traditionally Protestant regions of Europe. This shows itself in two ways: the traditionally "Catholic" countries such as Portugal, France, Austria, Italy, Spain and Belgium show a higher proportion of reincarnation belief than more "Protestant" countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.  But even if we look at the various religious groupings on their own, we are more likely to find belief in reincarnation among Catholics than among Protestants.  In Germany, for instance, only 24% of Protestants believe in reincarnation but 27% of Catholics.  In Britain 41% of Catholics express belief in reincarnation.  In France, Portugal, Austria, Italy and Spain the Catholic communities manifested a higher belief than the Protestant counterpart (see Graph 4).

Frame 43

How to explain this prominence among Catholics?  Could it be that a number of people have confused "reincarnation" with "incarnation" or "resurrection"?

"Reincarnation" misunderstood?

There are some indications that such a confusion may partly explain the unusually high figures in some countries.

I found for the 1981 statistics a high correlation among Catholics, between weekly attendance at Church services and  belief in reincarnation.  31% of regular churchgoers confessed belief in reincarnation against 21% of the over-all total at the time. But we know from other studies that weekly attendance at the Eucharist is highly correlated with belief in orthodox doctrine, such as the belief in a personal God, in heaven, in hell, the resurrection of the dead and so on.  Since it is not likely that such orthodox Catholics would accept reincarnation, should we not conclude that at least a certain percentage of people were confused when they said "yes" to the question: "Do you believe in reincarnation?"


Sociologists involved in the Study have assured me that such a confusion is, indeed, a realistic possibility.

However, even though there may be some uncertainty about the exact figures involved, the overall situation seems clear.


When we study the relationship of reincarnation to other beliefs in Europe, we can distinguish different "clusters" of belief that may give us a better insight into the reality of what is happening.

The personal God of Christians

Orthodox Christian doctrine holds that God creates each person as a unique individual.  After the completion of one's life, each person confronts God as the final judge who either rewards the person with eternal life in heaven, or punishes the individual with eternal damnation in hell. This orthodox cluster of beliefs excludes reincarnation.

In the social surveys we find a correlation between belief in heaven, belief in a personal God, belief in the resurrection of the dead, and belief in hell. These beliefs also correlate with the view of those people who strongly consider that death is only meaningful because God exists.

If we assign a cluster value to these orthodox beliefs, we find that some countries still have a high value for this cluster, for instance 70% for Ireland and 60% for Portugal, while other countries have a lower value: 30% for Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, France and Belgium.

God as the spiritual Life Force

A new cluster around the concept of reincarnation can be clearly distinguished from the traditional Christian cluster. In this cluster God is more likely to be seen as a Spirit or a Life Force.  Great importance is attached to the soul.  Life after death is understood more as a form of immortality of the soul than as a Christian enjoyment of life with God.

If we evaluate this cluster, we again  meet discrepancies.  We find a value of 30% in Britain and 28% in France, with low values in other countries, for instance 17% in Belgium and 18% in the Netherlands (see Graph 5).

God as the great Unknown

A third cluster is the secular cluster, which binds together agnosticism regarding God, indifference or doubt about life after death, unwillingness to seek meaning in religion, and so on.

NOTE: The orthodox cluster value is calculated as the average of four data: belief in a personal God, in heaven, in the resurrection of the dead and the assertion "Death is only meaningful because God exists". The reincarnational cluster represents the average of belief in reincarnation, in God as a Life Force and the differences between the belief in heaven and those in "soul" and "afterlife".


This rather crude picture of the three clusters, gives us a simple way of seeing three major trends in Europe.

About half the population still adheres to orthodox Christian beliefs, while a quarter seems to be vulnerable to new forms of spiritual belief with reincarnation as a component.

Obviously, the boundaries between these clusters are very fluid.  All we can say with certainty is that between the Christian orthodox beliefs on the one hand and a totally secular humanism on the other, there is a new, rather vague but undeniable area of beliefs that incorporate reincarnation. It constitutes a fringe area, a noman's land, a melting pot where remnants of Christian tradition mix with new spiritual adventures.

From "Pragmatic Reincarnation. The belief in reincarnation among young people in western culture" by John Wijngaards

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