Though religious statistics from before 1990 are scarce, what is in any case clear is that during the communist era, religious change did by no means know a linear decline. Rather this change followed a wave-shaped path, reaching its bottom level during the 1970’s as a result of a combination of factors such as widespread social anomie following the failure of the national uprising against the communist regime in 1956, the rejection of the official churches due to their collaboration with the regime, and social modernization and accompanying secularization processes. According to the results of the first representative empirical sociological studies on religion in Hungary conducted by Miklós Tomka, religiosity only started to increase in the early 1980’s, following the loosening of State repression as well as the spread of small religious communities, especially inside traditional churches.
After the fall of the communist regime, religious change was characterized by trends which vary depending on the measures taken into consideration. Regarding the frequency of church attendance and other traditional ways of religious praxis, the mentioned wave-shaped path was continued. Shortly after 1990, a further increase occurred, followed by stagnation and later on by decreasing levels of church attendance. Whereas according to their own account, in 1990 almost one quarter of the Hungarian adult population attended church services at least once a month (European Values Study 1990), more than 20 years later the share of regular churchgoers was only 15 % (European Social Survey 2012).
Another indicator of more individual ways of religious praxis is self-reported prayer frequency. Contrary to the declining church attendance trends, a slight but steady increase can be observed here, with 57 % of the population occasionally dedicating some of their time to prayer, meditation, contemplation or similar activities in 1990, a percentage that had slightly increased in 2008 (63 %, European Values Study 1990-2008).
When observing religious belief habits, the difference with church-related religious praxis trends is striking. The share of those believing in God, life after death, heaven and hell rose significantly since 1990. In all of these cases, the increase amounts to around 10 %. Re-incarnation, the only regularly studied non-Christian idea, also represents the only case of stagnation of belief, with levels of around one fifth of the population throughout the whole period (1990-2008). However, regarding Hungarians’ changing religious beliefs not only quantitative changes can be observed. There are indeed more and more people whose perception of God is impersonal, people who believe in some kind of higher spirit or life force rather than in a personified God (European Values Study 1990-2008).
Furthermore, trends of religious change in Hungary also differ in terms of their being either the result of individual biographical or of demographic changes. Declining church attendance is basically a result of generational change. Members of the older generations who were socialized before 1945 in conditions more favourable to a religious upbringing attend church services significantly more often than young people. They also more frequently consider themselves religious, following their Church’s teachings. Results of several youth studies conducted after 2000 indicate that this generational decline has continued after 1990, when religious upbringing was no longer sanctioned by the State and religious education became part of the school curriculum for large parts of the population. In 2012, only 10 % of Hungarians aged between 15 and 29 attended church services at least once a month, i.e. one third less than the 2000 situation (National Youth Study 2000-2012). In contrast, upward faith trends are probably mainly due to biographical changes; i.e. some parts of Hungarian society were non-believers earlier on in life and became believers later on. There are no long-term panel studies delivering absolutely certain proof of this statement; however, cohort analyses suggest such an interpretation.
When looking for theoretical explanations of religious trends in Hungary, both secularization theory and religious individualization theory seem to be supported by the data. In the last decades, secularization in Western Europe has predominantly occurred as a break in religious socialization, resulting in a slow decline of religiosity, as measured by different means. This seems to apply to Hungary with regards to religious affiliation and church-related religious praxis, and it is confirmed by the churches’ sacramental statistics. A constant decrease in the number of people making use of church ceremonies during important life events can be observed from childhood to young adulthood. To mention just one example, the rate of those being confirmed compared to those being baptized in 2007 was two thirds for the Calvinist Church and only two fifths for the Catholic Church.
However, it seems plausible that besides secularization tendencies, a religious individualization process, mainly in the form of the spread of non-Church-related forms of religiosity, also characterizes Hungarian society. The strong presence of religiosity ‘in his/her own way’, a growing percentage of people who believe in different elements of faith and a growing presence of private prayer and meditation, are all indicative of such a tendency.
One reason why increasing levels of faith are not reflected in Church-related religiosity is the declining reputation of traditional churches. Whereas in the beginning of the 1990’s a large majority of Hungarians thought that their Church provided adequate answers to social, moral and family problems, in the next two decades the proportion of people holding such opinions dropped quite dramatically, only reaching between 19 and 41 % in 2008 (European Values Study 1990-2008). A similar trend can be observed with regards to general trust in churches.
One important explanation for the churches’ declining reputation might be the fact that they did not entirely live up to expectations after the fall of communism. After 40 years of communist rule, both the Catholic and the Reformed Church struggled with considerable problems: over-aged clergy with often very conservative attitudes; low numbers of young Catholic priests being ordained; State confiscation of a large amount of properties during the late 1940s and early 1950s; bad image caused by measures taken by the churches to regain their former social and political influence; and unwillingness from the part of the churches to reveal and recognize the collaborative role some of their representatives had played during the communist era.
As mentioned before, another central issue is declining religious socialization. In 2012, only one out of four Hungarians aged between 15 and 29 claimed to have had a religious upbringing, i.e. 10 % less than a decade earlier (National Youth Study 2000-2012). Traditional churches have made great efforts to grow closer to the younger generations, first of all by setting up their own educational system, as well as by providing religious education in public schools. Whereas before 1990 only 10 church-run schools, subjected to close surveillance by the communist State, were allowed (eight Catholic, one Calvinist and one Jewish), their number has known a dramatic increase, topping at 972 in 2014. The majority of these institutions (60 %) are run by the Catholic Church. Some 11 % of all Hungarian pupils attend a Church-run public educational institution (Statistical Yearbook of Education 2013-2014). The presence of denominational schools is particularly strong among secondary general schools (gimnázium), of which 23 % are run by churches.
In the early 1990´s, nearly all new church-run schools were either re-established successors of institutions that were nationalized by the communists in 1948, or newly established schools. However, the expansion of the denominational public education system over the past few years – the number of denominational schools has increased by 58 % since the national-conservative government came to power in 2010 – is to be basically attributed to other processes. Until recently, most public schools were run by local municipalities, and co-financed by the State and municipalities. Indeed, due to changing financing regulations, maintaining public schools increasingly became a financial burden for local authorities. The financing of Church-run schools on the other hand is fully secured by the State, as laid down in the 1997 Agreement between Hungary and the Holy See. In addition, it also applies to non-Catholic denominational schools. As a result, the last couple of years numerous municipalities have handed over their schools to churches so as to avoid the burden of co-financing. This tendency arouses quite some concern to secular Hungarian forces, especially because an increasing number of local communities can only rely on denominational schools.
Another controversial measure taken by the current government is the 2011 adoption, by Parliament, of a new Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on the Legal Status of Churches, Religious Denominations and Religious Communities. The point of controversy was the new definition of churches as legal entities, drawing a sharp line between a very limited number of traditional churches and all other religious communities, whereby the former ones enjoy several advantages. In addition, the decision about the recognition of new churches now lies with Parliament, making it an essentially political issue. In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights officially stated that the new Church Act violates the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and association.
So despite secularization tendencies and political controversy, religion continues to be a central issue in Hungarian society. It remains to be seen whether declining Church religiosity and increasing religious individualization will continue to co-exist, or whether one or the other will prevail.
Gergely Rosta (University of Münster).