by Richard L. Smith
The Czech Republic is considered one of the most secular nations on earth. Most Czechs view God as pragmatically and psychologically irrelevant, while taking pride in the fact that they are unencumbered by any ideology, religious or otherwise.
The Czech Republic is considered one of the most secular nations on earth. Most Czechs view God as pragmatically and psychologically irrelevant, while taking pride in the fact that they are unencumbered by any ideology, religious or otherwise. One of my students said it thus: “In the Czech Republic, it’s not very usual to have religion and to talk openly about it. Most people my age think religion is something bad or even funny!”
Before I began teaching in Prague, I knew such an attitude toward religion existed. I knew that a deep opposition (apathy at best) pervaded, especially among the youth. Christianity in particular was often perceived as the religion of “blood and politics.” I therefore tried to be realistic about what could be accomplished in my classes. When I first entered the university classroom in 1995 to teach comparative religions, history of Christianity, biblical literature and business ethics, I expected the worst. But now I know that this is a nation full of “believers without religion,” of atheists of habit, and not of conviction. Many are in fact closet theists.
Many of my students were deeply influenced by the state-sponsored iconoclasm that was unleashed against religion via the media and schools during communism. A student told me:
In my childhood I never heard a word about religion or God. We were always taught only the materialist point of view.
My teacher at school mocked me, and so did my schoolmates. Everyone in town knew who are the Christians. I often heard, ‘That’s the one who prays to God.’
However, even before the fall of communism, the iconoclastic spirit turned on the god of secularism itself. Scholars such as Mircea Eliade and Jacques Ellul have delineated the implicit religiosity of communism, as well as the overriding, corrosive power of secularization. It was in this spirit that my students would often question the assumptions of their forebears:
Being brought up in an atheistic society left us with some kind of color-tinted glasses, and we can’t see the truth right now.
Going back to my younger age, I was convinced that no God exists. But as I’m older, I realize that the main problem still is that I didn’t even know what the word ‘god’ actually means.
I have always understood religion in a far too narrow sense, and this has probably closed my eyes to religion. Religion, with all of its connections to world view and meaning of life, seems to be so important and fruitful that I wonder how I could have neglected it so far.
Couple this uncertainty with the angst occasioned by the disruptive transitions taking place in Czech society, and the predictable result is an exceptionally cynical outlook. A student commented sardonically:
Carl Marx was almost my Godfather. He didn’t let me read all these dangerous [Western] books. I could watch only nice kids stories on TV, not like today when children watch the American rubbish (killing, fighting, sex)…we didn’t have to be scared of AIDS and drugs then. We knew who is the idol and what was the ideal. We felt happy…where should I look for an ideal today?
Looking back, it is amusing that our college president practically begged students to enroll in my first comparative religions class. He told me later:
We had, with considerable effort, persuaded ten of our students to attend, on the understanding that they had two weeks to transfer out if they desired. Not only did they not transfer out—they persuaded ten others to attend the course as well.
I have since learned, despite the rampant mistrust and skepticism that threaten to corrode Czech society, that there remains a guarded openness to religious ethics, spirituality, and to their indigenous religious heritage.
CURENT RELIGIOUS ATTITUDES
J. H. Bavinck, sociologist of religions at the Free University of Amsterdam until 1964, described what he called the “universal religious consciousness.” This was, more or less, reflected in my students’ comments. There are three aspects of such an awareness: the Religious Norm, Active vs. Passive and the Great Unknown in the Background.
The Religious Norm is the intuition that tells us not to follow our own individual desires unconditionally; it affirms our moral significance and our sense of personal responsibility. Among my students and also in the public at large, I believe, this is manifested in the outcries for ethics and for moral renewal.
Given the moral chaos fostered by communism and the amoral “jungle capitalism” developing in Central and Eastern Europe, the students are acutely aware of the need for ethics and of the explicit relationship between morality and religion. They wrote:
Until recently, I would have definitely said that Machiavellian pragmatism and goal (success) orientation, no matter what the costs of success, or who will bear the costs, is much closer to my world view. In light of the latest political and financial developments in our country, I have to say that we do need a set of firmly rooted spiritual values.
Even though the Czech Republic functions on certain laws and morals, these do not have a stable foundation. We just entered into democracy from communism, which did not represent ethics, but dictatorship and fear. But, what applies today? One can see that the moral and spiritual state is at a low in the Czech Republic, as evidenced by the high percentage of atheists and the increase in crime.
Surprisingly, a few also expressed the sentiment that:
Christianity should definitely play a role in the Czech Republic. I would say that one of its roles is to suppress bad things and behaviors in our country, and to be the model of a good life. I also think Christianity should play a role in education and also in politics.
Active vs. passive. Though my students and Czechs in general are attracted to the notion of responsibility, they are also free-spirited and non-committal, due to the many years of foreign absolutism— Catholic, Nazi and communist. For this reason they are sometimes attracted to Eastern religions and New Age spirituality, which appear to be less authoritarian and more open-ended. One student declared:
The thing that is difficult for me in terms of Christianity is the fact that what is God, what is the relation of God and man is dictated, taken for granted. It can’t be changed. In my opinion, it’s too restrictive. People can’t actually choose what to think about God. They are told. I see passivity here.
Man is aware, somewhere deep down, about the spiritual quality of life. That’s why he is attracted by the Eastern religions. They have a “human flavor,” a certain flexibility. There is room for man’s own way to be religious, to express his spirituality, his way on how to approach the divinity.
This spiritual orientation deals with the question of fate vs. freedom. Do human actions count, or are they controlled by destiny or divine will? Students commented:
I’m searching for a meaning in life, for directions how we could make the world better, for an explanation of evil on earth, etc. The question I’m concerned most with is, whether we are masters of our lives, or whether we are only victims of a managing supreme power.
Young people in the Czech Republic and in Eastern Europe in general feel the need to stress their individuality, they need to be seen and to be respected for his/her actions more strongly than anywhere else in the world, because now there is finally a chance for them.
The Great Unknown in the background. Many of the students were also preoccupied with the question of God. They possessed an awareness of (and a need for) a Great Unknown, somewhere in the background. One student said:
Man is religious. All need something to believe in, even if they don’t realize it. In the communist countries, they lost all of their religion. When there was still communism, it was something they could believe in. Now, there is nothing and this emptiness is reflected by chaos, unhappiness, and sometimes even wars.
Another wrote: “I can think about myself as almost a believer, because I know I believe in God, even though I don’t have any religion.”
The students were groping for a worldview that made sense of their environment. Perhaps this is the greatest testimony for a Universal Religious Consciousness or a “seed of religion,” as John Calvin described it. This theme was played out over and over again, as evidenced by the following student’s statement:
The big thing about today’s culture is that it allows you to search and express yourself. But I am not sure whether this almost absolute freedom is not just a sad call for help. We live without values. Life becomes poor without any meaning. We are fumbling in a darkness and cannot find anything even though we have this freedom to discover whatever we want to. Is there something to live for?
It is important to underscore the cultural dislocations that are taking place in the Czech Republic since the demise of communism. Czechs strive to develop attitudes, values, structures and practices worthy of civil society. They seek to move from isolation to reintegration with Europe, in particular to membership in the European Union. They struggle with the clash of modernism and post-modernism, as well as globalization and anti-globalization, especially among the youth.
Czechs are re-evaluating the role of religion and spirituality, especially their own religious heritage centered on Jan Hus and Jan Amos Komensk. In short, the Czech Republic is a nation in search of its soul.
With this in mind, there is indeed a guarded openness to religion. A poignant expression of this amorphous spirituality was a student’s candid self-assessment:
I grew up in a society where atheism was everybody’s supposed silent denomination. But is it mine? Can all my questions about the world and meaning of life be answered by atheism? Can they be answered by any religion? My approach is more of an agnostic one, and may need some more time to accomplish the final state.
There are several caveats. First, this new-found openness is strongly anti-institutional, and particularly anti-Catholic. Students commented: “The Catholic church in Europe became old fashioned and people look for something else.” But, more pointedly, many reflected this sentiment:
It is very difficult for me to say what I really think about Christianity without any prejudice, because Christianity has always been associated with Catholicism for me. So my attitude towards Christianity has never been very positive.
Second, some students were attracted to Protestantism, and saw it as an indigenous creed, snuffed out in its early development by the defeat of the Hussites at the battle of White Mountain in 1620, followed by forced Catholicism under the Hapsburgs. Some students were also intrigued by the people-oriented and Bible-centered, proto-Protestantism of Hus, as well as the Calvinistic world view of Komensk.
Third, the students were impressed by the Bible. Much to their surprise, they often discovered it to be very relevant, even “modern.”One student declared:
I think that in this country, people are tired by Catholicism. But many would find Protestantism and the Bible itself enriching.
Another student, initially quite opposed to religion, confessed:
By my visiting the Protestant church in Brno I have finally realized that to be religious, to have faith in God, isn’t really an issue of our grandmothers. I do feel that we will search for it more and more in the future.
Fourth, my students weren’t openly hostile or irreverent, only curious. In fact, we discovered that their parents, who grew up during the 50s, 60s and 70s, were actually the most anti-religious, whereas their grandparents were often believers. Students would tell how their grandparents read Bible stories or taught them to pray.
Finally, it is possible that the Czech reticence regarding spiritual things is rooted in their almost chameleon-like ability to adapt. Throughout Czech history, necessity required ideological flexibility time and again. Survival meant duplicity, compromise, and stealth—even if it meant the assumption of secularity. Humans qua humans, however, are incurably religious, which explains why many of my students were “believers without religion.” It also explains the latent nature of Czech spirituality.
Richard L. Smith, PhD, is a professor with the International Institute for Christian Studies, and former interim president of the Anglo-American College in Prague.
EMQ, Vol. 39, No. 3, pp. 346-350. Copyright © 2003 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.