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In Czechoslovakia, Religion Gets Little Practice

The World

Its residents are among a secular continent's most secular people. On matters of faith, Europe and the U.S. are headed in opposite directions.

May 07, 2006|Tom Hundley | Chicago Tribune

PRAGUE — The Czech capital is cluttered with churches, from humble parish chapels to the Gothic grandeur of St. Vitus Cathedral.

But the temples that symbolize the wonderment of faith are mostly empty; the only wonder to most Czechs is why anyone bothers to go.

Czechs are among Europe's most secular people. According to a European Union survey published last year, 19% of Czechs said they believed in God; most of the rest said they were atheists. Only the former Soviet republic of Estonia had a lower percentage of believers.

Jan Kittrich, a 30-year-old Prague lawyer, is typical. He described himself as an atheist but added that he had nothing against churches.

"I love to visit them," he said. "But I see them as historical objects, not as religious places."

The Czechs are not alone. From Ireland to Italy, church attendance across Europe is down drastically. Apart from Western Europe's rapidly growing Muslim communities and the staunch piety of Poles in the east, religion as a moral force in public life continues to wane.

By all accounts, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is a devout Christian. But when Blair recently told a TV interviewer that his faith informed his world view, he was lampooned and lambasted from the left and right.

Mark Lilla, a professor of social thought at the University of Chicago, has described present-day Europe as "the closest thing to a godless civilization the world has ever known."

Europeans and Americans share a common civilization and many common values. But in matters of faith and religion, Europe and the U.S. appear headed in opposite directions.

Especially since the 2004 U.S. elections, Europeans have expressed alarm at the increasing intensity of American religiosity. Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission, has spoken of a widening "values gap" between Europe and the United States that could strain future relations.

But religion has long played an important role in American civic life. God's name is invoked in the Declaration of Independence and on U.S. currency.

President Bush is hardly the first president to proclaim the United States to be God's instrument on Earth. John F. Kennedy, in his 1961 inaugural address, declared that "here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own."

Europeans are more diffident about God, and the Czechs more so than most Europeans.

Lori Gregory grew up in Philadelphia and is a Christian missionary in the Czech Republic. She and her husband, Bill, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, came to Prague 13 years ago to work for Young Life, a Colorado-based organization that focuses on teenagers.

"When we bring up the subject [of faith], it's like asking if you believe in UFOs. That's what we're up against here," Gregory said. "In the States, you can assume most kids know why Christmas is celebrated. In the Czech Republic, kids think baby Jesus is like Cinderella or Shrek. ... They think it's all a fairy tale."

Given four decades of communist rule, perhaps that is not surprising. Kittrich, the lawyer, grew up in a small town in Moravia. He had one grandmother who told him stories from the Bible, and another, a police colonel, whose home was filled with statues of Lenin and Stalin. "That was her religion," he said.

His mother, he said, was a member of the "hippie generation" that rejected all religions and ideologies. Kittrich's first encounter with a church group came while he was a teenage exchange student in Elkin, N.C. He began attending services at the local Methodist church.

"Three times a week there were church activities -- suppers for homeless people, youth groups. I joined the soccer team. The people were really nice and it opened my eyes," he said.

"But it always seemed more of a social community than a religious community, so when I got back here, I didn't follow up."

Kittrich acknowledges he often thinks about religion. "But I don't think I'm missing anything," he said with a shrug.

Tomas Halik, a Roman Catholic priest and professor of philosophy at Prague's Charles University, is not surprised at spiritual indifference. He thinks Czechoslovakia's communist rulers and their masters in Moscow targeted the country for "an experiment in the total atheization of society."

The crackdown on the church and clergy was harsher than in neighboring Poland, Hungary or even the Soviet Union, and decades of repression did serious harm to the Czech religious identity, Halik said.

"Czech society is not really atheistic; it's worse," he said. "Czechs today hardly know anything about religion."

Halik, who likes to joke that he "converted from agnosticism," was secretly ordained in East Germany in 1978.

During the communist era, he became known as a spokesman for the Charter 77 group, which played a key role in the 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended communism. In those years, he kept his ordination a secret from everyone, including his mother.

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