Spain Religion: History and Statistics

Semana Santa in Seville
Holy Week in Seville is a major cultural religious event.

THEPALMER / Getty Images

Though Catholicism was abolished as the state religion in 1978, it remains the dominant religion in Spain. However, only about one-third of Catholics in Spain are practicing members of the church. The other two-thirds of the Catholic population are considered to be cultural Catholics. Spain’s bank holidays and festivals are almost exclusively centered around Catholic saints and sacred days, though the religious aspect of these events is often only in name and not in practice.

Key Takeaways: Spain Religion

  • Though there is no official religion, Catholicism is the dominant religion in Spain. It was the mandated state religion of the country from 1939-1975, during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
  • Only one third of Catholics are practicing; the other two thirds consider themselves cultural Catholics. 
  • After the end of the Franco regime, the ban on irreligion was lifted; more than 26% of the population in Spain now identifies as irreligious.
  • Islam was once the dominant religion on the Iberian Peninsula, but less than 2% of the contemporary population is Muslim. Interestingly, Islam is the second-largest religion in Spain.
  • Other notable religions in Spain are Buddhism and non-Catholic Christianity, including Protestantism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter Day Saints, and Evangelicalism.

After the end of the Franco regime, atheism, agnosticism, and irreligion saw significant identity increases that have continued into the 21st century. Other religions in Spain include Islam, Buddhism, and various denominations of non-Catholic Christianity. In a 2019 census, 1.2% of the population did not list any religious or irreligious affiliation. 

History of Spain Religion

Before the arrival of Christianity, the Iberian Peninsula was home to a multitude of animist and polytheistic practices, including Celtic, Greek, and Roman theologies. The Apostle James brought the doctrine of Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula, according to legend, and he was later established as the patron saint of Spain.

Christianity, specifically Catholicism, spread throughout the peninsula during the Roman Empire and into the Visigoth occupation. Though the Visigoths practiced Arian Christianity, the Visigoth king converted to Catholicism and established the religion as the religion of the kingdom.

As the Visigoth kingdom descended into social and political turmoil, the Arabs—also known as the Moors—crossed from Africa into the Iberian Peninsula, conquered the Visigoths and claimed the territory. These Moors dominated cities by force as well as by the proliferation of knowledge and religion. Alongside Islam, they taught astronomy, mathematics, and medicine.

Early Moorish tolerance shifted over time to forced conversion or execution, leading to the Christian reconquest of Spain and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims during the Middle Ages. Since then, Spain has been a predominantly Catholic country, spreading Catholicism to Central and South America, as well as the Philippines during colonialism.

In 1851, Catholicism became the official state religion, though it was renounced 80 years later at the onset of the Spanish Civil War. During the war, the anti-government Republicans allegedly slaughtered thousands of clergymen, stirring outrage from the pro-government Francistas, the political affiliates of General Francisco Franco, who would serve as dictator from 1939 to 1975.

During these oppressive years, Franco established Catholicism as the state religion and prohibited the practice of all other religions. Franco banned divorce, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. His government controlled all media and police forces, and it mandated the teaching of Catholicism in all schools, public and private.

Franco’s regime ended with his death in the 1970s, and it was followed by a wave of liberalism and secularism that continued into the 21st century. In 2005, Spain was the third country in Europe to legalize civil marriage between same-sex couples.

Catholicism

In Spain, approximately 71.1% of the population identifies as Catholic, though only about one-third of these people are practicing. 

Numbers of practicing Catholics may be low, but the presence of the Catholic Church is evident throughout Spain in bank holidays, hours of operation, schools, and cultural events. Catholic churches are present in every town, and every town and autonomous community has a patron saint. Most establishments are closed on Sundays. Many schools in Spain are, at least in part, affiliated with the church, either through a patron saint or a local parish. 

Notably, most holidays in Spain recognize a Catholic saint or significant religious figure, and often these holidays are accompanied by a parade. Three Kings Day, Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Seville, and the Running of the Bulls at the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona are all fundamentally Catholic celebrations. Each year, more than 200,000 people walk the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, a traditionally Catholic Pilgrimage.

Practicing Catholics

Only about one-third, 34%, of Catholics in Spain self-identify as practicing, meaning they regularly attend mass and generally follow the teachings of the Catholic Church. This group tends to live in more rural areas and smaller villages and profess more conservative political views.

Though the percentage of the devout has steadily decreased since the end of the Franco regime, recent academic studies have found not only higher fertility rates but higher rates of marital stability, economic growth, and educational attainment for practicing Catholics. 

Non Practicing Catholics

Non Practicing or cultural Catholics, who make up about 66% of self-identifying Catholics, are generally younger, born at or after the end of the Franco regime, and most live in urban areas. Cultural Catholics are often baptized as Catholic, but few complete confirmation by their teenage years. Aside from occasional weddings, funerals, and holidays, they do not attend regular mass.

Many cultural Catholics practice religion a la carte, blending elements of different religions to define their spiritual beliefs. They most frequently disregard Catholic moral doctrine, especially concerning premarital sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, and the use of contraception

Irreligion, Atheism, and Agnosticism

During the Franco regime, non-religion was prohibited; after Franco’s death, atheism, agnosticism, and irreligion all saw dramatic spikes that have continued to increase. Of the 26.5% of the population that falls into this religious grouping, 11.1% are atheist, 6.5% are agnostic, and 7.8% are irreligious.

Atheists do not believe in a supreme being, deity, or god, whereas agnostics may believe in a god but not necessarily in a doctrine. Those who identify as irreligious can be undecided about spirituality, or they may not believe in anything at all.

Of these religious identities, more than half are younger than 25 years old, and most live in urban areas, particularly in and around Spain’s capital, Madrid.

Other Religions in Spain

Only about 2.3% of people in Spain identify with a religion other than Catholicism or irreligion. Of all other religions in Spain, Islam is the largest. Though the Iberian Peninsula was once almost entirely Muslim, the majority of Muslims in Spain are now immigrants or children of immigrants who arrived in the country during the 1990s.

Similarly, Buddhism arrived in Spain with a wave of immigration during the 1980s and 1990s. Very few Spaniards identify as Buddhist, but many of the teachings of Buddhism, including the doctrines of karma and reincarnation, are perpetuated in the sphere of popular or New Age religion, blended with elements of Christianity and agnosticism.

Other Christian groups, including Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelicals, and Latter Day Saints, are present in Spain, but their numbers are increasingly low. Like Italy, Spain is known as a graveyard for Protestant missionaries. Only the more urban communities have Protestant churches.

Sources

  • Adsera, Alicia. “Marital Fertility and Religion: Recent Changes in Spain.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2004.
  • Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Spain. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, 2019.
  • Central Intelligence Agency. The World Factbook: Spain. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2019.
  • Centro de Investigaciones Sociologicas. Macrobarometro de octubre 2019, Banco de datos. Madrid: Centro de Investigaciones Sociologicas, 2019. 
  • Hunter, Michael Cyril William., and David Wootton, editors. Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment. Clarendon Press, 2003.
  • Tremlett, Giles. Ghosts of Spain: Travels through a Country's Hidden Past. Faber and Faber, 2012.