Czech society seems to be very secular even in comparison with relatively highly irreligious Western Europe. According to censuses and international sociological surveys such as the European Values Survey or the International Social Survey Programme, the Czech Republic rates as one of the most secularized countries in the world. Sixty to seventy per cent of the population consider themselves being irreligious or even atheists. Hence if a country proves the secularization thesis, this would be the Czech Republic, at least at the first glance. However, the situation is more complicated, as I argue elsewhere (see attached bibliography). Here I would like to focus on mutual relations between Czechs’ (ir)religiosity and their attitudes to the new religious movements (NRMs) and other forms of new or alternative spiritualities.
Let me start with brief historical overview. Czech anticlericalism has a long history starting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After the creation of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918, as many as one and a half million people (of a total 13.5 million) left the Catholic Church, of whom only twenty thousand were different than Czech nationality. And this was only the tip of the iceberg, as many people simply found the formal steps for leaving the church too complicated or bothering. However, most of the dissenters were not abandoning religion at all. They were looking for another, personal and “modern” religion, as shown by Bláha’s survey on intellectual religiosity from 1930. Hence the new religious forms, both organized and those functioning more like a network, widely emerged in the Czech society in the interwar times. When communists took power in 1948, they pursued all kinds or religion, i.e. all the churches. However, they paid little attention to the non-institutional forms of religiosity. This lead to a differentiation: while unofficial small churches like the Jehovah Witnesses and the NRMs were victimized, unchurched spirituality was able to grow, though only besides the official public space and channels.
The Velvet Revolution in 1989 has opened space for church religion and certain pro-churchian movement occurred. For example, some 40 per cent of Czechs declared themselves to be Catholics in the 1991 census, while the proportion decreased to 27 per cent ten years later. The desecularization of the “oversecularized” Czech society was thus short-winded. After while, majority express strong anti-church attitudes and everything labelled religion has been taken under great suspicion. The reason why can be found in a survival of communist and pre-communist anticlericalism emphasizing the “datedness” of religion and its anti-scientific character, but also in churches’ behaviour in a free society. Churches and especially the Catholic Church have become widely suspected of being inappropriately “sectarian”, too authoritarian and antidemocratic.
This is also true about the organized new religions that took the advantage of new freedom after 1989 for their official establishment. The society saw the influx of NRMs and Pentecostal movements from abroad, as well as reestablishments of older “new” churches like the Jehovah Witnesses, the Mormons and others, but all of these were seen without any pleasure by the majority. The anti-cult movement that also emerged in the 1990s was rather much more welcomed. The media, political-religious interest groups and the state itself thus employ negative assessment stereotypes on the new religious forms, often under the pretext of making an “objective” study and/or adopting the Western European approaches. My colleague Dušan Lužný observed that after adoption of relatively liberal post-communist churches act in 1991, discrimination and repression of new religious movements has occurred. This tendency has persisted to a considerable degree even in a new legislation, in the Act on Churches and Religious Societies of 2002. Non-believing majority thus does not mean religious liberalism, rather the contrary is true. Regarding religion, Czech society resembles French laïcité and its negative assessment stereotypes toward churches and other religious groups, which similarity is not limited to the very case. Among others, it is also true about the society’s attitudes to the immigrant religions that are more or less seen as “inappropriate”.
The latest accessible data are from a survey on Detraditionalization and Individualization of Czech Religion conducted by the Institute of Sociology in Prague in 2006 on the sample of twelve hundreds Czechs. According to the survey, Islam was rather unpleasant for 76 per cent of population while only 3 per cent liked the Muslims and their faith, and similar attitudes occurred in the case of the small churches. When we asked about Jehovah Witnesses, 83 per cent of people answered they do not like them, and only 2 per cent express some sympathies. It must be said that according to the 2001 census 0.2 per cent of population were members of the very church. However, Czechs show only slightly more positive attitudes toward churches as such. In 2006 no more than 12 per cent expressed higher trust in churches and religious organizations, while 59 per cent do not trust them at all or only marginally. To conclude this part of my paper, I have to emphasize that the process of outchurching makes the negative attitudes to the NRMs even stronger.
Nonetheless, all this is just a half-truth. Declaration of lack of belief or even atheism, on which the Czechs are so proud, signifies neither the denial of transcendence nor the absence of religious or spiritual need. Horoscopes, belief in fortune-tellers, or spiritual healing and similar alternative religiosities are in the Czech society as common as elsewhere in the West. Therefore it is more precise to say that Czechs are denying church religion, which they consider the only “proper” form of religion, but they are widely open to non-institutional religious and spiritual forms. Even in the mentioned 2006 survey that was devoted to religion and hence somehow biased, people expressed more positive attitudes toward unchurched spiritual forms. For example, neopaganism was evaluated positively by 7 per cent, which is not much, but negatively only by 32 per cent. And 42 per cent of Czechs said that they are somehow spiritual, but spiritual in their own way that is not connected to churches and religious organizations.
Outcome of the author’s more in-depths qualitative research tells the same. Czechs are highly unchurched, but not irreligious, and modern spiritual forms are as widespread as in the countries like Britain. Spiritual outlets and leaders, magazines and books and even “magic” stones, herbs and so on have become part of the mainstream culture. According surveys, beliefs in horoscopes, fortune-tellers, or spiritual healing exceed half of the population and they are growing. Popular demand for such things and opportunities remains high; however the availability of literature and the increasing interest in “magical” stones and similar goods has not led to the establishment of any wider spiritual social groups in the Czech lands. Indeed, Czech alternative spirituality is widely privatised and reserved for “home-use” or small informal circles of friends. My survey on religious and spiritual literature shows that the more the literature is seen to be connected with religion and formal authority, the less successful it is with buyers.
It must be emphasized, however, that in the case of “spirituality” the very opposite is true. It also does not struggle with any outer oppression being suggested by the media and without any regulation from the state. Hence those individualized and often detraditionalized forms of new religion(s) that do not use the label and do not behave like religious organizations are quite popular, widespread and highly positively evaluated. Besides the high level of formal irreligiosity in the Czech society and its particular development under the communism, it is undergoing similar changes as the Western European societies. Both established and new religions are seen from a secularist view as obstacles for social and personal progress, while holistic spirituality is not and it is widely supported by the media and popular discourse.
Further readings (available in English/German):
Lužný, Dušan & Navrátilová, Jolana. 2001. Religion and Secularization in the Czech Republic. Czech Sociological Review, 9, 85-98.
Němec, Ludvík. 1955. Church and State in Czechoslovakia. Historically, Juridically, and Theologically Documented. New York: Vantage Press.
Nešpor, Zdeněk R. 2004. Religious Processes in Contemporary Czech Society. Sociologický časopis/Czech Sociological Review, 40, 277-295.
Nešpor, Zdeněk R. 2005. Between Religion and Atheism: Hidden Religiosity of the Contemporary Czech Society. Pp. 254-274 in Silvia Jozefčiaková (ed.): Modern Religion. Bratislava: Ústav pre vzťahy štátu a cirkví.
Nešpor, Zdeněk R. 2008. Die Verwandlungen der tschechischen (Nicht)Religiosität im 20. Jahrhundert im Lichte der soziologischen Forschungen. Historisches Jahrbuch, 128 (forthcoming).
Nešporová, Olga. 2007. Believer Perspectives on Death and Funeral Practices in a Non-believing Country. Sociologický časopis/Czech Sociological Review, 43, 1175-1193.
Ramet, Sabrina P. 1998. Nihil Obstat: Religion, Politics, and Social Change in East-Central Europe and Russia. Durham – London: Duke University Press.
Schulze Wessel, Martin & Zückert, Martin (eds.). 2008. Religions- und Kirchengeschichte Tschechiens im 20. Jahrhundert. München: Oldenbourg (forthcoming).
Winter, Sidonie F. 1998. Quo Vadis?: The Roman Catholic Church in the Czech Republic. Religion, State & Society, 26, 217-233.