religious Change in Spain, young people and the Church


By Ruben Crespo | Student of Sociology at the UNED.

To study the religious change of the Spanish society in the last 35 years, according to Miguel Requena (2008: 319-343), it is convenient to decompose the phenomenon in three levels of analysis are complementary.

First, the thesis of secularization (TS), that tries to explain how much more modernisation is experiencing a society, the less influence it has in the religious sphere in it. The TS has been until now the dominant paradigm for the sociological analysis of religious change in modern societies. Although, like any paradigm, it has its critics, the TS enjoys a broad consensus in the theoretical field of sociology. Is more, in the southern countries of Europe charges even more relevance, since, in cases like Spain, the religion has had in previous decades a role in social, cultural and political relevant. There is a basic assumption about what is predicted for the TS: “the greater the homogeneity of a religious and more high political status of institutional religion before the start of the process of social modernization, and economic policy, the greater the degree of disassociation of religion of individuals when advancing secularization” (Op. cit.). There are three analytical levels of the thesis of secularization: the macro-level: the secularization societal; the meso level: organizations-religious and secular; and the micro-level: the secularization of the individual (Dobbelaere, 2008).

Second, the particularities of the process of secularization in Spanish society that can be grouped into two basic dimensions: on the one hand, the decline of the catholic Church in its ability to define moral values, as well as the loss of political influence; on the other hand, the decay of the religiosity of the spaniards. In this last dimension, what has happened is not that in Spain there is a community overwhelmingly atheist or agnostic; rather, what has happened is that it has dropped the practice of the catholic religion, that is to say, the number of practicing catholics has declined, while it has increased in those who consider themselves catholic but not practicing. This phenomenon has as a consequence a form of religiosity that is diffuse, that is what Requena referred to as “catholicism nominal”, that is, though he calls himself catholic, has a religious identity diffuse. In this dimension ―as we will see later― the Sunday attendance at mass is an indicator suitable to measure religious practice, in this case, the catholic.

Third, the determination of the effects that have occurred from the change of the religious practice of the spaniards in the last decades. Effects that can be broken down mainly into four types: structural, composition, period, and survey (see Chart 1).

Figure 1. Different effects on the fall of the religious practice of the spaniards in the period 1975-2002

Cambio religioso en España, jóvenes e Iglesia
  1. Structural effects: refer to the change in the time of the impact of those factors (age, sex, education level, type of habitat, etc) that affect the phenomenon of religious change. If the effect of these factors changes over time, so too will the intensity of the religious change. Of the postulates of the TS is extracted in the social strata more modernized is expected to find a rate of secularization higher, because we find in them a greater resistance to the religion of the church, such as counselor in their ways of life and values acquired in one sociocultural space changing (CORNWALL, 1989). According to many studies of religion in Spain, the structural factors most relevant to the phenomenon of religious change are the age and the sex. The educational level and the habitat presenting more complex relationships and it has been shown that don’t have as much impact as the age and educational level (Requena, 2008). On the age factor, it seems clear, as we are told in Requena, in the younger generation, have been socialized in an environment becoming more modern, present rates of secularization higher and a level of religiosity lower than the previous generations.
  2. Composition effects: are those which are derived from a change in the demographic composition that has various factors involved in religious change. Changes in the composition of the population, if the rest of the conditions remaining constant, will cause these factors involving a change in the magnitude of aggregate of religious change, regardless of other factors, not demographic. In the last 35 years, the Spanish population has changed its composition greatly: the average age has increased (demographic ageing), the level of training has grown, and the population is now concentrated in core residential of greater size and density. The results of the empirical analysis (Requena, 2005) have shown that the composition effects have little importance in the reduction of religious practice. The only ones worthy of mention (and as negative for the religious practice, although weak in its effects) are the level of education and the habitat.
  3. Effects of period: are those that alter the diffusion of religious change on the entire population in a uniform manner. This type of effect, affect the whole population equally, regardless of the structural effect and the composition. Requena resorts to the strategy of estimating the probability of being a practicing catholic in each year, in comparison with the 1975, and equality of the rest of the independent variables. In the results of this analysis (Requena, 2005) it can be seen that the change of greater intensity occurred between the years 1975 and 1980 (see Graph 2, below). Are the years of the political transition where the effect of period represents the tipping point the more remarkable. Between 1980 and 1982 the effect of period continues to be important, but minor with respect to the previous five years. From 1992 to our days, the effect period has been reduced to be almost negligible.
  4. Effects of survey: they are the ones that come from the measures heterogeneous applied to study the phenomenon of religious change.

We study below what have been the changes of religiosity in the Spanish population in the last three and a half decades, how they have changed the autodefiniciones and religious practices in the individual dimension of the secularization in Spain. Then, taking one of the factors of the structural effects are more relevant, the age, we will see what changes have been experienced by the young spaniards in their religiosity in comparison with the population as a whole in general, and we will present the main conclusions of the Report , Young spaniards 2010 (GONZÁLEZ-ANLEO, 2010) in its paragraph 3: the religious beliefs of young people.

Change of the religiosity of the spaniards

Within the theoretical framework of the thesis of secularization, situating ourselves at the micro level, that is to say, the secularization of the individual (Dobbelaere, 2008), we analyze the change of the religiosity of the spaniards in the last 37 years. Chart 2 reflects a very intuitive evolution of the religiosity of the spaniards from the year 1975 through 2012[1]

It is apparent that from 1975 to our days there has been a significant decline of catholicism practitioner at the same time that there has been an increase in the catholics are non-practising and the appearance of a mass of the population non-religious, becoming more and more visible (indifferent, agnostics, non-believers, atheists).


Figure 2. Change in the religiosity of the spaniards, 1975-2012.

Cambio religioso en España, jóvenes e Iglesia

The fall of the practicing catholics (those who attend religious services frequently, sometimes or more) has been reduced significantly, dropping from almost 60% in 1975 to a little more than 23% in 2012. Between the decade from the mid sixties to the mid-70s, as well as the second half of the 90s, there were two periods of intense decline in the religious practice catholic. Between 2004 and 2006 there is a slight recovery, but starting from 2006 the decline of practicing catholics return to be constant.

On the contrary, those who consider themselves catholics, not practicing, you can observe how it has followed an inverse trend to that of the practitioners, having gone from 35% in 1975 to 50% in 2012. The greater tendency of increase occurs in the period that goes from 1975 to 1990. By 1995, and then experience a big rise in 1998. After this year remains more or less stable until 2004, declining significantly until 2008 and then, we will continue to increase until 2012 and maintain more or less their highest, 50%.

More significant is the remarkable increase of the non-religious (indifferent, agnostics, non-believers, atheists), as it has come to in 2012 the same percentage of those who consider themselves practicing catholics, 23%. This trend has two periods of remarkable rise: the first, from 1992 until 1995; and the second, from 2002 until 2008.

With respect to that manifest believers of other religions, while it is true that they are still a great minority throughout the period studied, from 1975 until 2012, the number of believers in other religions has been multiplied by 4, going from 0.3% in 1975 to 1.3 in 2012.

The data in figure 2 reveal that in our days there is a religious situation very different to that of 37 years ago. There has been a clear decline of the religious forms that are most committed to the Church. Therefore, we can say that ―at the individual level of secularization― the Church has lost influence in the definition of values and moral orientations of the spaniards.

According to Requena (2008), this sharp decline of religious practice is consistent with three phenomena. In the first place, and from the several studies of opinion, there are very few spaniards who hold any religious belief’s own catholicism, as it is in heaven, the afterlife, sin, hell, and the devil. This shows a growing distance between the Church’s doctrine and its potential membership. In the second place, every time, there are less Spanish than you think that in the catholic Church can find answers to their spiritual needs, their moral problems or to the difficulties of their life-course trajectories (divorce, abortion, contraception, gay marriage). Thirdly, the distancing of the doctrine and the magisterium of the Church has increased not only among non-believers, but also among catholics. “The religious conscience of the catholic spaniards has become modern in recent years.”

We could say with Diaz-Salazar (1993) that what has occurred is a shift from a “religion total” into a “religiosity desinstitucionalizada”; or summarize with González-Anleo (1999) religious change in Spain as the “greatest emigration spiritual” that has occurred throughout our history that has taken place in the last third of the TWENTIETH century. The target of this “emigration spiritual” has been a way to diffuse religiosity, Miguel Requena called “catholicism nominal”:

Catholicism nominal maintains a religious identity is weak, are ignoring the traditional forms of devotion, do not agree with the rituals, has become very flexible since the dogmatic point of view and, in consequence, is morally very permissive. […] Catholicism nominal distrusts the catholic Church. Also, it tends to reject some of the theological faiths with the same ease with which he accepts others, but, above all, considers the role of the ecclesial orientations, residual in many key areas of both personal life and of social existence.

(Requena, 2008: 333)

With what the data reveal, we can conclude that there has been in Spain a great process of secularization in the last three and a half decades. It has been a great decline of religious practice: for every five practicing catholics in 1975 (58.3 per cent), there are two (23.4 per cent) in 2012. The decline is closely related to the structural elements that promote a disenrollment religious and leads the Church to lose influence over the people whose social positions are more exposed to modernization. The secularization of Spanish society has been a gradual process and continuous transformation socio-cultural influenced by the structural factors of “sex” and “age”; and, above all, the result of the modernization of social, political and cultural, which has moved from a society homogeneous in religion in which the catholic Church enjoyed state support, to a society that is more heterogeneous where adherence to catholicism is presented vague and passive, there is a growing trend to subjectivating the religious or to reject it. In our days, the number of people who consider themselves non-religious is the same as that of those who consider themselves practicing catholics, 23%. In sum, the Spanish today are less religious than before.

Religiosity of young people in spain

Of the factors associated with the age of the structural effects seen above, we can expect that the younger generations, have been living in a sociocultural environment becoming more modern, have higher rates of secularization and an index of religiosity lower than the rest of the older generations.

Figure 3. Change in the religiosity of young people in spain, 1975-2010.

Cambio religioso en España, jóvenes e Iglesia

Source: Fundación Santa María. Graphic own preparation.

Figure 3 shows the previous (compare with figure 2)[2]. The percentage of young spaniards between 15 and 24 years, who considered themselves practicing catholics in 2010 is of 7% compared with 24.6% for the whole of the Spanish population in 2010. In addition, since 1975 we see a clear decrease of young people, practicing catholics, who have gone from nearly 20% to 7% in 2010, that is to say, have fallen by more than half, 65% with regard to 1975.

In the case of young people who are considered catholics are non-practising, although in the figure 3 we can observe that it has experienced some trends different in the series 1975-2010 compared with the Chart 1, the year 2010 presents an index very similar to that of the whole population, close to 50%.

The percentage of young people who declare themselves non-religious is 42% in 2010, that is to say, a little less than double that of the population as a whole is not religious (22.5 per cent) in the same year. It is interesting to note the trend of increase between the years 1994 and 2005.

With respect to young people who are considered to be of other religions that are not catholic, the trend is very similar to the one that has the whole population in general, but it’s worth mentioning ―since the graphics is not very significant― the percentage of young people is something greater, not more than double that in the population as a whole. However, it is clear that one cannot speak of a pluralism of religions in the case of Spain, since both the set of young people, as in the general Spanish population, the percentages of the number of those who profess themselves to confess other religions are very low, have barely exceeded 2% in any year of the series.

Finally, attention is called to the change of trend that have experienced young catholics are non-practising, increasing from 39% to 47% between the years 2005 and 2010, at the same time that young people are not religious have declined in that period from 46% to 42%. It would be very useful to have the data of the religiosity of young people in the last two years to see if the trend continues to increase. This could indicate, perhaps, that the process of secularization in the youth ceases to have effect in the year 2005, and from there, would that explain why it occurs, this change of trend. Let us see, then, that in the Section 3: The religious beliefs of the young people ‘s Report Young spaniards 2010 of the SM Foundation (GONZÁLEZ-ANLEO, 2010) we can find some clue.

Summary of the Report , Young spaniards 2010 of the SM Foundation

The religious beliefs of young people (Maite Valls)

Religion continues to occupy one of last places in a rating scale of the most important things for young people. Only 22% of young people considered to be very and quite important. 44% of young people say think like their parents regarding the religious theme, while 50% thinks different, although in different degrees.

Slightly more than half of young spaniards aged 15 to 24 (53’5%) is defined as a catholic. 2% is a believer of another religion and the rest (42%) is defined as non-religious. Is defined as indifferent to the religious fact that 16% of young people, the 9% as agnostics, and 17% as atheists.

Except for the belief in God (in 2010, 53% of young spaniards say they believe in God), not to exceed thirty the percentage of young people who accept the other beliefs related to the christian religion, or the belief in reincarnation.

For the 35% of young people there is no God. 32% of the young people argued that it was an invention of the Church and the priests, 31% that it is a superstition like any other, and 24% appeals to the existence of evil in the world. In the fourth place (almost 16%) appears as the argument of having more important things to think about and in last place (12%) listed the reason “the scientists say today that God does not exist”.

Cambio religioso en España, jóvenes e Iglesia

The first requirement to be a religious person, according to young, is the belief in God, continued to be an honest person and provide help to those in need. In fourth place is the pray.

Also a high percentage of young people considered to be expected in a religious person to get married by their Church (67%), wonder about the meaning of life (62%) and to follow the rules that says their Church (59%). Further away are not to take drugs (53%), not to accept abortion and euthanasia (50%) and, finally, not to have intercourse up to form a couple to get married (almost 38%).

The data do not point to a strong influence of religion in the personal life of the youth and it seems that in recent years young people have become more gullible with respect to the methods pararreligiosos.

The religious practice

In terms of religious practices, almost 62% of young spaniards say they do not attend never or practically never to the church. Only 7% meet the Sunday obligation of going to mass, 5% go to church once a month, and a smaller number of young people, a 2 per cent, comes more than once a week. The percentage of young people who say they do not pray is never of almost 60%.

69% of young people who are considered to be catholics or believers of another religion says today that you can live the faith individually. A majority of young people believed that religion is a private matter that must be lived privately, 50%, versus 30% saying that it is a private matter that may or must have a public projection.

Attitudes and opinions about the Church

The Church is an institution that is little valued. Occupies the last place but improved compared to the data of Spanish Youth 2005. Only 3% of the young people believed that in the Church they say important things in terms of ideas and interpretations of the world.

With respect to the identification of young people with the Church, 20% of young people said to be rather in accordance with the guidelines of the hierarchy of the church. Almost 32% claims to be a member of the Church and plan to remain so, and 53% agree that you can be a part of the Church without having to follow all their guidelines. In addition, 53% agree that without the Church you can believe in God.

With regard to their views on the Church, it should be noted that:

  • 40% of young people stated that their rules help people to live more morally.
  • Almost 45% agree that the Church offers to man a spiritual Home, and sincerely religious.
  • The view that generates the greatest degree of agreement is referred to the wealth of the Church, the 76% believe that the Church is too rich.
  • 64% of young people believed that the Church gets too political.
  • 75% of young people believed that the Church has a stance out of date in regards to the sex life of the people.
  • 63% considered that the Church gets too much in the personal life of the people telling you how you should live your life.
  • 58% considered that the Church (with your guidelines) makes it difficult to enjoy life.
  • 56% think that the Church has much weight in the Spanish society of today and a smaller percentage, 34%, think that will have much weight in the Spanish society of the future.

It does not appear that the negative view young people have of the Church as an institution comes given by the experiences that you have lived in the Church nearby. Only 10% of young people say keep a memento negative, or very negative experiences with the local Church (parish, school, relationship with a priest or religious, retreats, pilgrimages…). 10% say they are not having experiences with the nearby Church. 32% says to save a memory positive or very positive of the same. The 44% are indifferent to the experiences that you have had related to the Church.

The class attendance of religion has decreased slightly from 2005, but we can not say that the evaluation is worse. In 2010, it has increased the number of young people who says not to attend religion class: almost 14% compared to 10% in 2005. The opinion is clearly positive (“I have served you well”) has improved, however, slightly: this year, the holds the 11%, versus 9% in 2005. Decreases in the percentage that says he has served, but not with much conviction (has served me of something): a 22% to 27% from 2005. Low in almost a point, the percentage that says that he has not served for nothing.

Finally, almost 93% of young people stated that they have not ever raised the possibility of religious life. Does not reach the 1% the percentage of young people who often thought of this, and almost 5% said he raised ever.


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Methodology of the study of the change of the religiosity of the Spanish 1975-2012

Technical sheet:

Font used

Data bank of the CIS (Sociological Research Centre):

  • Series of “Religiosity of the interviewee I”- May.1978-Apr.1994
  • Series of “Religiosity of the interviewee II”- Oct.1994-Dec.1997
  • Series of “Religiosity of the interviewee VII”- Sep.1998-Mar.2012
  • Study 2666 – BAROMETER, DECEMBER 2006
  • Study 2752 – RELIGIOSITY (2008)
  • Study 2856 – BAROMETER DECEMBER 2010
  • Study 2935 – BAROMETER MARCH 2012


Period of Study

1975 a2012[3]

Population studied:

Spanish population of both sexes aged 18 years or more.


Quantitative technique that obtains statistical data from surveys of a sample that represents the Spanish population of both sexes aged 18 years or more. In this case, the surveys performed by the CIS through the Barometers newspapers or other specific studies on the religiosity of the spaniards.


Table 1: Identification in religious matters of the spaniards, series 1975-2012.

Cambio religioso en España, jóvenes e Iglesia


The main objective of the present work has been to update the data on religiosity and religious practice of the spaniards in the last ten years, i.e. from 2002 to 2012. For such a purpose has been sought in the original source (Data Bank of the CIS) used by the authors of chapter 11: Religion and society: the secularisation of the Spanish society (Requena, 2008).

Today in the CIS, through its website: (through the Bank of Data:, can be viewed three-part series on the religiosity of the respondents:

  1. Series of “Religiosity of the interviewee I”- May.1978-Apr.1994
  2. Series of “Religiosity of the interviewee II”- Oct.1994-Dec.1997
  3. Series of “Religiosity of the interviewee VII”- Sep.1998-Mar.2012

The first series breaks down the catholics among “catholics” and “catholics are non-practising”. The other two series[4], by contrast, collect only the aggregated category of “catholic”. Therefore, the last series is not enough to update the figure 11.1 of the manual, since Miguel Requena pays a lot of importance in the differentiation between “catholics” and “catholics are non-practising” to get an indicator of religious practice (orthopraxy catholic). An indicator to explain the way of religion diffuse into the cast by the spaniards in the last three decades, Miguel Requena called catholicism nominal. “The catholic nominal, although it defines itself as catholic, maintains a religious identity is vague, does not address the issue of the traditional forms of devotion, he is not involved in the rituals, it is flexible from the dogmatic point of view and morally very permissive”.

To be able to continue putting into perspective the intensity of the religious practice went, as did the authors of the figure 11.1 original, various periodic surveys of the CIS, especially the barometers and specifics of religiosity, which have been indicated at the beginning of this document. The data has been updated from the results of the question “In matter of religion, do you consider You….?” where you are given the following options: Catholic practitioner/Catholic not very practitioner/Indifferent/Agnostic/Non-believer or an atheist/Believer of another religion. To follow the graph of the “non-religious”, have been added to the frequencies of Indifferent/Agnostic/Non-believer or an atheist/.

However, not all studies explored was given to the category of catholics among “catholics” and “catholics are non-practising”. Thus, it has had to seek in these cases the following question: “how often assists You to mass or other religious services, excluding the occasions related to ceremonies of social type, for example, weddings, communions or funerals?” and has taken the same approach that in the manual considered as practicing catholics, to all those who declare to attend mass a few times a month or with greater frequency. It is clear, that in this case the results obtained have been weighted in the relationship between catholics and believers of other religions, to then disaggregate to the manifest to attend mass a few times a month or more of the category of catholics as “catholics”, and the difference: the “catholics are non-practising”.

With this procedure it has been possible to complete the table and graph of data that updates the Chart 11.1 until this year, 2012, and here we call it as in figure 2. Change in the religiosity of the spaniards, 1975-2012.



CORNWALL, M. (1989). “The Determinants of Religious Behavior: A Theoretical Model and Empirical Test”. Social Forces, 67.

DIAZ-SALAZAR, R. (1993). “The transition religion of the spaniards,” in: Religion and society in Spain, edited by R. Díaz-Salazar, and S. Giner. Madrid. CIS.

DOBBELAERE, K. (2008). “Secularization: theory and research,” in: Religion and politics in today’s society. Coordinated by Alfonso Pérez-Agote and Jose Santiago (Eds.). Editorial Complutense.

GONZALEZ-ANLEO, J. M. (1999). “The religiosity of Spanish: present and future” in: The Church in Spain (1950-200), edited by O. González de Cardinal. Madrid. PPC.

GONZALEZ-ANLEO, J. M. et al. (2010). Young spaniards 2010. Ediciones SM.

REQUENA, Miguel. (2005). “The Secularization of Spanish Society: Change in: Religious Practice”. South European Society & Politics, in press.

REQUENA, Miguel. (2008). “Religion and society: the secularisation of the Spanish society” in: Three decades of social change in Spain. Coordinated by Juan Jesus Gonzalez and Miguel Requena (Eds.). Alianza Editorial.

[1] Table 1 and Chart 2, as well as part of their corresponding interpretations, are drawn from the volunteer work that I did in the subject Social Structure of Spain II of the plans of study of degree in Sociology at the UNED (April 2012). Tried to update the data in figure 11.1 Change in the religiosity of the spaniards, 1960-2002 the heading of The secularization of Spanish society: the individual dimension chapter 11: Religion and society: the secularisation of the Spanish society (Requena, 2008). Completed series, which was desde1975 to 2002, until 2012. See the methodology used in this study in Annex I.

[2] The data from Chart 2 and Chart 3 are from different sources, which it should be noted that we can have, as we have seen, some kind of effect of survey, for example, different methodologies to collect the autodefiniciones of religiosity.

[3] Barometer March 2012 (Study CIS No. 2935): the most recent study to date is presented in this work (April 2012) where the question to the interviewees of the sample on self-definition in matters of religion, and the frequency with which they attend religious services to those who identify themselves catholics or believers of other religions.

[4] What distinguishes the series II of IV with respect to those who consider themselves non-religious is that II encompasses the categories of “non-believers”, “atheists” and “indifferent”, while in the IV eliminates the category of “indifferent.”

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