CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Religion in the Post-Communist Epoch

 Maria Marczewska-Rytko (UMCS Lublin Poland)
A paper presented at The 2001 Conference in London

Terminological problems


            Considerations concerning the condition of religion in the post-communist epoch necessitate the identification of the methodological problems involved in the definition of the concept. First, in relation to this concept it can be observed that we tend to speak of religion as such or about religion in general. In fact, no such religion exist. We are always dealing with concrete religions existing in history.[1] Second, in the face of the ambiguity of the concept no single satisfactory definition of the concept has been worked out so far.

            In view of the above several aspects of religion must be pointed out. As a result of the complexity of the problem religion can be considered as a historical, social or theological phenomenon. The Latin concept of religion was originally invested with a legal-administrative colouring. The dichotomous view of religion (Christianity against all other religions) had survived in the European culture until the eighteenth century. Under the influence of comparative ethnological studies the possibly broadest conception of religion has been formulated, encompassing all cultures and peoples. Religion tends to be treated as a set of features characteristic of its historical forms. Thus it is assumed that particular religions emerged at a certain time, when their history began.

According to Mircea Eliade we are faced here with the manifestations of sacrum in history and the ways of human communication with it: “Through the experience of sacrum the human mind has grasped the difference between what manifests itself as real, powerful, rich and meaningful and what is devoid of these attributes – a chaotic and dangerous stream of objects, a stream of their accidental, meaningless appearances and disappearances.” [2] In another formulation, religion is seen as an essential part of the social system. Thus, it cannot be understood in isolation from society. Religion is identified as an important factor in solving crisis situations and protecting against chaos, anomy and alienation. In terms of the theological approach religion is a phenomenon of divine origin, the revelation of the Absolute, human response to the revelation of the divine. Religion is described here in a normative fashion, since it is declared what religion should be within the framework of the accepted revelation. Zofia J. Zdybicka, a philosopher of religion, states that “Religion is a real and dynamic personal relation of man to the transcendental reality of the Absolute (God), understood in our culture as a person, from whom man feels dependent in existence and action and who is the ultimate aim imparting meaning to human life.” [3]

            Taking into account the doctrinal aspect, Alfred N. Whitehead  defines religion as a system of general truths capable of transforming our character when they are sincerely believed in and internalised.[4] Thus, according to him, all conceptions claiming that religion is primarily a social fact should be rejected. Social facts are of major importance to religion, but in its essence religion is loneliness, because only the lonely can be religious. In this conception religion is a use that an individual makes of his/her loneliness.[5]  That is why different forms of religion in the shape of institutions, holy books, codes of behaviour, rituals or collective ecstasies can turn out to be both useful and harmful. Looking critically at history Whitehead points to the dark side of religion in the form of human sacrifice, cannibalism, orgies, superstitions, racial and religious hatred, hysteria, or bigotry.

The choice or description of a certain group of phenomena seems to predetermine the evaluation of religion in the post-communist epoch. Generally speaking, it can be observed that, first of all, religion has faced the challenges of the post-communist epoch and, at the same time, found itself in a state of crisis. Secondly, the attitudes towards religious cognition encompass a whole spectrum from idolatry to extreme scepticism.


The challenges of the post-communist epoch


            The notion of contemporary challenges involves the problems of the condition of the individual as well as of whole communities, reaching back to the erosion of the accepted systems of values. In this regard it would be justified to state that what is at stake here is formulating the patterns of social, political, cultural or national identification in the conditions of a transitional epoch. It was Peter Drucker, among others, who pointed out that we are living in a transitional period.[6] In his opinion, our times are a period of a breakthrough not limited merely to the Western societies and Western culture. The shape of future society, however, will be decided by the way of addressing the challenges of the transitional period.

            Similar problems are the subject of Zygmunt Bauman's considerations.[7] He attempts a diagnosis of the postmodern epoch and the postmodern man. The Enlightenment idea of progress and the development of the human spirit is negated. On the other hand, history confines itself to describing fragments and episodes of reality. According to Bauman, life was once a pilgrimage since man knew both the point of departure and the destination he was heading for. Today he knows neither the one nor the other. This view is only a step away from the thesis of the chaos of the transitional epoch and the functioning of an individual in a state of emptiness and anomy. Deepak Chopra points out: “Some people feel that God is within reach, or at least within stalking range, while others feel he is totally absent. It is typical of modern life that we explain our haunting feelings of meaninglessness as neurotic -–or perhaps nature is set up to be random and chaotic. In truth, most of the pain in modern life, I think, is due to outmoded reality. Millions of people have come to the end of what materialism can offer, good and bad. They have hit a wall, and until they break through it, the feeling that life is sterile and unfulfilling will prevail. The material world is infinite, but it is a boring infinity.. The really interesting infinity lies beyond.”[8]

            Another philosopher, Luc Ferry, claims that, in spite of the encouragement to get involved in practical activity, contemporary man has not been freed from the question about the sense of existence. According to Ferry, 'he (i.e. man (M.M.-R.)) feels he is not on the Earth merely in order to go on buying ever more perfect automobiles or videos. Of course: money, fame, power, personal appeal do seem to him desirable values, but they are relative. Above values of this kind he would rather put different ones, considered more substantial, such as love or friendship. Those relative values do not at all deserve to be scorned, but they cannot become our ultimate goals, even if we did not know human destiny [...].[9] In any case, the particular feeling of emptiness that the author is talking about appears as one of the most important problems of the secular world. A world, let us add, in which great utopias gave a sense of living to a great many people; to some because the people believed in them and supported them, to others because they fought them. Ferry's look at the contemporary world is one of a pessimist. What has happened is that any sense (whether of world history or of personal life) has disappeared and nothing has been able to replace it. In his opinion the end of communism (or, as others would have it, the breaking down of the systems of real socialism) has left in its wake a greater emptiness than might have been expected. This emptiness could only be filled with another ideology characterised by features of theological thinking.

            The idea of posthistory has also been invoked by Jacques Le Rider.[10] It involves the conviction that history in the 20th century has lost sense, bringing downfall and catastrophies as it were independently of the human will. The author has pointed to the fact that the fall of the socialist revolution programmes has so to speak negated the political heritage of Enlightenment modernity. In a postmodern world, therefore, the questions to do with the notion of development have become legitimate. According to some approaches, development would mean creating communities on the basis of national and religious links, while according to some others - building postdemocratic systems.


            The crisis of religion


            The adherents to the scientific view of the world maintain that religion as such is dying and so it ceases to play the role it has played so far. Its place is taken over by science and technology. Hence, they are treated as new idols to be worshipped. Such opinions belong to the broadly understood trend of secularisation.[11]  We are dealing here with the gradual removal of various fields of life from under the influence of church institutions or religious systems.

            The transformations initiated in Central-East Europe led, among others, to a new view of religion. During the first period of transformations the increased importance of the Churches met with popular support. On the one hand this can be explained as a reaction to the political persecution of religion in the period of the so-called “real” socialism, and on the other as a search for support in the changing reality. Hence, religion, often regardless of the will and attitude of the Church hierarchy, is becoming a part of political games and, in this way, an element of political life. This is particularly visible in the former Yugoslavia or some of the republics of the former Soviet Union. In the rising social and political conflicts, religion is becoming an important element. We can observe the rising tide of fundamentalism in different civilisational and cultural areas. Without underestimating the significance of those tendencies, the selectivity of religious beliefs, regardless of the intensity of the declared faith, must be pointed out. Thus, in Poland, where during the period after the Second World War, about 80% of the population have invariable declared themselves as believers, there is a high selectivity of attitudes, especially towards moral problems. On the basis of studies conducted in 1992, 28% of the adult population regard sex before marriage as inadmissible; 17% are against contraception; 78% believe that “in sex, anything goes”.[12]  There is also a clear discrepancy between the declared faith and the declared trust in the Roman Catholic Church as an institution.[13] 

            The problems of secularisation of the twentieth-century societies have been subjected to numerous studies. We can say about non-confessional or churchless religiousness. An increasing number of people, especially among the young, look for a place for themselves outside the recognised, traditional Churches. It is a kind of a confession of faith: “yes” to religion, “no” to the Churches. In any case, attention should be paid to the development of various “cult” movements, amorphous beliefs (where faith in God is replaced by faith in supernatural forces) or magic cults. They appear in the form of various groups, associations, or even universities. Traditional Churches are replaced by new religious movements.[14] On the basis of their studies, Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge have identified well over one thousand religious groups in the United States.[15] In relation to the processes of secularisation, Dymitr Kirov of the Bulgarian Theological Academy in Sofia observes that they are not a factor destabilising religious life.[16] Nevertheless, they give rise to religious, moral and social problems, which the Orthodox Church attempts to counteract. One of the problems that have appeared in that country is the choice of religious allegiance: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc.

            In the realm of religion the following problems should be observed: the taking over of the functions of religion by secular organisations; the decay of various forms of religiousness; the discrepancy between the Church as an institution and the millions of believers; the increase in the number of believers in the so-called new religions; the processes of secularisation. The above problems lead to undertaking attempts at finding the way out of the crisis of religion. They also give rise to an awareness of the need to establish universal principles and to combine systems of values with processes of cognition.


Science and religion


            According to Alfred N. Whitehead there is no opposition between science and religion, because scientific discoveries lead to the formulation of philosophical questions which, in a different way, can be taken up by religion.[17] Confronted with the facts, religion is capable of reducing neither the moral evil in the world nor pain and suffering.[18] Nevertheless it is religion that makes a contribution to the immediate experience of man. It consists in the recognition of the fact that our existence transcends the mere sequence of naked facts.

                In fact, in the light of history we can talk of the separation between science and religion whose symbolic manifestation was the condemnation of Galileo by the Roman Catholic Church. In the post-communist epoch it seems that science and religion have entered a period of mutual recognition. The problems of relations between science and religion are the subject of more and more numerous discussions and publications. The Pope devoted his latest encyclical to science and religion. John Paul II writes:

“Faith and reason (fides et ratio) are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth; in a word, to know himself; so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”[19] And further: “In both East and West, we may trace a journey which has led humanity down the centuries to meet and engage truth more and more deeply. It is a journey which has unfolded, as it must, within the horizon of personal self-consciousness: the more human beings know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness, with the question of the meaning of things and of their very existence becoming ever more pressing.[20] At the same time, the Pope honours other civilisational-cultural areas, turning “to the lands of the East, so rich in religious and philosophical traditions of great antiquity. Among these lands, India has a special place. A great spiritual impulse leads Indian thought to seek an experience which would liberate the spirit from the shackles of time and space and would therefore acquire absolute value. The dynamic of this quest for liberation provides the context for great metaphysical systems.”[21]

            The latest scientific discoveries seem to bring us closer to the answer to the question posed by believers and non-believers alike. These are questions pertaining to the meaning of human existence, the essence of the universe or life. In connection with this, two kinds of questions appear: ”why” and “how”, forming the two sides of the same truth. The first question belongs to the domain of religion or philosophy, the second to the domain of science. More and more often it is argued that it is impossible to reach the truth by answering only one of them.[22] Thus, Pascal’s fear seems to be justified; he pointed to the two infinites between which the human drama called life was set. He wrote: “I see those frightful spaces of the universe which surround me, and I find myself tied to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am put in this place rather than in another, nor why the short time which is given me to live is assigned to me at this point rather than at another of the whole eternity which was before me or which shall come after me. I see nothing but infinites on all sides, which surround me as an atom and as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more.”[23]

            Analysing the relations between science and religion Józef Maria Bocheñski observes that there is no evident contradiction between them and formulates a number of theses.[24] First, the contradictions that appear concern faith and scientific theories. Second, scientific facts possess a high degree of certainty, whereas scientific theories are changeable. Third, in constructing scientific theories, scientists make use of the methods of deduction and reduction, which can be unreliable. Fourth, it is not true that natural sciences deal with problems which faith is also interested in.

            In the introduction to his book God and Science Jean Guitton writes: “scientific knowledge, contrary to common sense and without the participation of philosophers, creates a new image of the universe that everyday thinking finds objectionable, because its consequences are so extraordinary and difficult to understand,”[25] and further “each year brings us the results of new theoretical formula concerning the two fundamental areas of our reality: the infinitely small and the infinitely big. Both the quantum theory and cosmology move the limits of cognition further reaching out to the greatest mystery facing the human mind: to the existence of the transcendental Being, to the cause and meaning of the big Universe.”[26] Man is seen here as a being immersed in darkness enlightened by science and religion, which in the twentieth century came to be perceived as non-contradictory. Zygmunt Krasnodêbski points out: “However, today it is possible to doubt, and not without good reason, whether we can do without religion in questions of morals? The Christian cosmos eliminated by the world of natural causality based on science was an illusion – it did not form a system of ethics which, based upon reason, could have encompassed all domains of life with its universalist principles.”[27] Nevertheless, on the threshold of a new millennium we can talk of the destruction of various parts of the symbolic universum.[28] Among its elements we can find: relativist physics and quantum theory, non-Euclidean geometry, postmodernism, gnosis, New Age, or new theologies advanced by, among others, Teilhard de Chardin.[29] This foreshadows a new vision, a new paradigm aimed at restoring the unity of the divided world.


Christian-democratic movement in the post-communist epoch. Polish example


A challenge facing the Christian Democratic movement is the problem of forming a federation joining the various political groups describing themselves as Christian Democratic. On the whole, the movement is treated as potentially one of the main forces on the Polish political scene; a movement directed by the values of the Catholic social teachings. In this respect it is seen as an alternative to a liberal vision of the world, which a part of the society finds disappointing. The Catholic social teachings, referring to the principles of subsidiarity and social justice, would be a suitable challenge for liberal solutions or nationalist conceptions. In this situation, the Catholic social teachings would form an axiological basis for a restructuring society.

However, critical voices are not lacking. A sceptical attitude towards Christian Democratic groups was voiced by Jerzy Turowicz, who pointed to the British model in which a Catholic votes Conservative, Liberal or Labour. Also Stanislaw Stomma observed that the identification of the Church's social teachings with a party programme of the Christian Democratic movement was unwarranted. Hence the vision of a social order should assume the construction of a secular state, albeit arranged in a Christian fashion. In any case, in a country dominated by Catholics the Christian Democratic movement has not been a dominating political force. Nor is a viable political party likely to appear any time soon on the Polish political scene. At present the Christian Democratic movement is divided and dispersed. Despite that negative evaluation, the movement has potentially at its disposal a political and social programme necessary for Poland in the period of transition. According to Christian Democrats, the state is a subsidiary institution, whose task it is to support the activity of self-governing institutions.. In the centre of the Christian Democratic vision of the world there remains human dignity and the idea of the common good. As a movement of the centre of the political scene it should stay open to an agreement with other conceptions and visions of the world.

The programmatic and institutional diversification invites to draw a few final conclusions. First, the Christian Democratic movement tried to use the chance created by the 1989 transformations and to arise on the political scene of a free democratic country. Second, the lack of one significant Christian Democratic party testifies to the weakness of the groups invoking the canon of values regarded as characteristic of Christian Democracy. Third, a decisive majority of political groups appeals in their political programmes to the principles of the social teachings of the Church and, more broadly, to Christian values (of the many groups let us mention two: the Christian-National Union and the Polish Peasants' Party). Fourth, a Christian Democratic current may coexist within one group with a secular current (of the Freedom Union).








[1] Andrzej Bronk, Nauka wobec religii (teoretyczne podstawy nauk o religii), Lublin 1996, p. 78.

[2] Mircea Eliade, Historia wierzeñ i idei religijnych, vol. 1, Warszawa 1988, p. 1.

[3] Zofia J. Zdybicka, Cz³owiek i religia, Lublin 1978, p. 271.

[4] Alfred North Whitehead, Religia w tworzeniu, Kraków 1997, p. 30 (Religion in the Making).

[5] Ibidem, p. 31.

[6] Peter F. Drucker, 'The Postcapitalist World', The Public Interest 1992; Res Publica Nova 1993, № 6, pp. 70-75.

[7] Zygmunt Bauman, Dwa szkice o moralnoœci ponowoczesnej [Two Sketches on Postmodern Morality], Warszawa 1994.

[8] Deepak Chopra, ‘India is a Brain Map’, India Today June 2000, vol. 2, p. 89.

[9] Luc Ferry, Cz³owiek - Bóg czyli o sensie ¿ycia [Man - God or about the Sense of Life], Warszawa 1998, p. 15.

[10] Jacques Le Rider, 'Postmodernizm' [Postmodernism], Commentaire 1991, № 54; Res Publica Nova 1993, no. 9, p. 31.

[11] Bogus³aw Paw³owski, Religia u progu XXI wieku, [in:] Œwiat i Polska koñca XX wieku, ed., Marek ¯migrodzki, Lublin 1996, p. 86-87.

[12] Irena Borowik, ‘Religijnoœæ spo³eczeñstwa polskiego w procesie demokratyzacji’, WiêŸ 1992, no 7.

[13] Raport Centrum Badania Opinii Spo³ecznej, 1989, no 3; Raport CBOS 1990, no 10.

[14] Maria Marczewska- Rytko, Religie niechrzeœcijañskie w Polsce, Lublin 1997.

[15] Rodney Stark, Wiliam Bainbridge, The Future of Religion, Berkeley 1986; G. Melton, The American Encyclopedia of Religion, Santa Barbara 1978.

[16] Dymitr Kirow, Bu³garska cerkiew prawos³awna, [in:] Religie i Koœcio³y w spo³eczeñstwach postkomunistycznych, ed., Irena Borowik, Andrzej Szyjewski, Kraków 1993, p. 15.

[17] Józef ¯yciñski, Wprowadzenie, [in:] Alfred North Whitehead, Religia w tworzeniu, Kraków 1997, p. 20 (Religion in the Making).

[18] Ibidem, p. 56.

[19] Jan Pawe³ II, Encyklika Fides et ratio, Wroc³aw 1998, p. 3.

[20] Ibidem, p. 3-4.

[21] Ibidem, p. 107.

[22] Cf. Georges Minois, Koœció³ i nauka. Dzieje pewnego niezrozumienia. Od Augustyna do Galileusza, Warszawa 1995, p. 9.

[23] Blaise Pascal, Myœli, Warszawa 1958, (334) p. 335.

[24] Józef Maria Bocheñski, op. cit., p. 224.

[25] Jean Guitton, Bóg i nauka, Kraków 1994, p. 10.

[26] Ibidem, s. 13.

[27] Zygmunt Krasnodêbski, Upadek idei postêpu, Warszawa 1991, p. 274.

[28] W³odzimierz Pawluczuk, Religia a ideologie dzisiejszego œwiata, [w:] Religie i Koœcio³y..., p. 25.

[29] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Zarys wszechœwiata personalistycznego i inne pisma, Warszawa 1985.



The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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