In 1918, an independent secular State of Czechs and Slovaks was established, which was soon followed by the foundation of a national Czechoslovak Church (1920) by an ex-Catholic priest. The life of Churches and of the faithful was profoundly influenced by nearly 50 years of totalitarian regimes (Nazi in 1939-45, Communist in 1948-89), and characterized by various forms of persecution. With the fall of Communism in 1989, religious freedom and pluralism of worldviews returned to the Czech public sphere.
The institutional developments after 1989 have been basically derived from the incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Liberties into the constitutional order of the Czech Republic (1993). An international general agreement between the Czech Republic and the Holy See was signed in 2002, but so far it has not been ratified by Parliament. The relationship between the State and Churches was originally regulated by Act No. 161/1992 Coll. on the registration of Churches and religious societies, which in 2002 was replaced by Act No. 3/2002 Coll. on the freedom of religious expression and the position of Churches and religious societies. This new act reduced the number of adherents necessary for State registration of Churches and religious organizations from 10.000 to 300 adults (with permanent residence in the Czech Republic). It also introduced a two-level system of registration/recognition which further contributed to the differentiation of religious subjects in terms of their rights and privileges.
Churches and religious societies registered at the first level are allowed to educate their clergy and laity in their own schools and institutions, as well as in theological faculties in universities. They can also apply for special rights that are reserved for subjects at the second level. These include teaching religion in public schools and establishing Church schools, performing pastoral care in the army and institutions responsible for detention, imprisonment and reformative treatment and training, performing marriage ceremonies with civil effects, and benefiting from State subsidies in order to pay ministers’ salaries.
To be eligible for these rights, at the date of submission an organization needs to have been registered without interruption for a minimum of 10 years, and to perform its obligations toward the State and other third parties in a proper manner. The organization’s application has to include the original signatures of its adherents, who have to be citizens of the Czech Republic or foreigners residing there permanently; their number has to be equal or superior to at least 1/1000 of the entire Czech population. Currently, there are 38 registered Churches or religious societies. The majority of them are Christian, whereas three are Hindu, one Buddhist, one Jewish and one Muslim. 21 religious subjects have been granted special rights by the Ministry of Culture.
Unlike many post-Communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic did not witness any substantial religious revival at the individual level after 1989. In the 1991 census, a question about religious affiliation re-appeared after 40 years of absence. According to the data obtained, almost 44 % of all people declared to be affiliated with a Christian confession (89 % of them were Catholics), less than 1 % with a non-Christian one, 40 % declared no confession and 16 % simply did not answer. Ten years later however, the percentage of religiously affiliated people was 32, while non-confessional people represented 59 %. The interpretation of the most recent census data (2011) is problematic, as 45 % of all participants did not answer the question.
Alternatively, when the data from the latest European Values Study (EVS 2008) is used, it appears that 31 % of Czechs declare religious affiliation, while almost 70 % of them self-identify as non-confessional. Among the people from the first group, more than 85 % define themselves as Roman Catholic and about 10 % as Protestant (of various denominations). All other confessions (Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Jews etc.) make up less than 1 %. Concerning religious practice, numbers are even lower. Approximately 13 % of Czechs attend religious ceremonies at least once a month. More than 57 % never do.
Yet, these numbers do not fully prove the legitimacy of the widespread image of Czechs as the “most atheist nation”. Indeed one should not confuse institutional religious affiliation and religious belief. As EVS data shows, only a minority of the Czech population (16 %) regard themselves as convinced atheists, while 50 % say they are non-believers, and 34 % believers. 12 % believe in God as a person, 31 % in some kind of life spirit, 24 % are not sure about their attitude towards the supernatural, and only a third does not believe in any god or spiritual force. This picture suggests that the predominant stance on religion in the Czech Republic is neither traditional religious belief, nor conscious atheism, but rather a mix of “fuzzy fidelity” and religious indifference.
Other significant features of Czech religious identity are a pronounced opposition to mixing religion and politics, and high levels of distrust towards institutionalized religion (Churches). According to the EVS, about 52 % of Czechs agreed with the statement that religious leaders should not influence government decisions, whereas 25 % of them disagreed. Only 10 % of respondents advocates belief in God as a qualification for holding public office, while almost 70 % reject this supposition. Data from the International Social Survey Project (ISSP) from the same year shows that only 40 % of respondents expressed at least some confidence in Churches and religious organizations. This is confirmed by longitudinal data from public opinion surveys conducted by the Public Opinion Research Centre, showing evidence of low levels of trust in Churches. In the long term, Churches are the least trusted public institutions – since 2005 the share of those who trust them has never been higher than 30 %.
This last feature can best be illustrated by the heated debates surrounding Act No. 428/2012 Coll. on property settlement with Churches and religious societies. After many years of fruitless negotiations between the State and Churches, an agreement was reached between the center-right government (supported by a majority in the Lower House of Parliament) and representatives of Churches. The Act which came into force in 2013 has led to a substantial transformation of the existing model which dates back to the communist period, which was characterized by the subordination of Churches and religious life to the State. It combines the restitution of Church property with financial compensation for non-restored property. Its underlying, long-run motivation is to establish Church-State separation and to make Churches and religious organizations financially independent from the State.
Another recent controversy concerns the presence of Islam in the public space. Despite the fact that Muslims are very few and all but omnipresent in the public sphere, the majority of the population perceives Islam and Muslims as a significant threat for the future. According to EUvox 2014, the Czech Republic is the European country with the highest share of people agreeing with the opinion that Islam represents a threat to their country’s values (almost 70 %). In recent months this trend has been evidenced by increasing public activities of the organization Islám v ČR nechceme (We don’t want Islam in the Czech Republic), as well as of a series of minor political parties and movements (e.g. Úsvit přímé demokracie – Dawn of Direct Democracy).
The two above presented topics illustrate the two biggest challenges for the future development of religion in the Czech Republic. Traditional Churches have a chance to strengthen their influence through the money and property they get from the State. They will be pressed to become more active and, as a result, more attractive and beneficial to society. It is hard to predict how they will manage the opportunity to play a more prominent role in civil society. The current activities of some Christian Churches, such as helping Syrian refugees, suggests one possible trend. This aspect is closely related to the issue of Islam, which the majority might continue to perceive as a threat to identity and cohesion. Such a situation might produce a need for identification (at least cultural) with Christianity and with the Christian heritage. Not accidentally, calls for granting asylum primarily (or exclusively) to Christians are often being voiced in public. However, at the level of individual religiosity no dramatic changes are to be expected.
Roman Vido (Masaryk University).