PRAGUE — It’s easy to spot hoards of tourists wrapped around the base of St. Vitus Cathedral, pushing their way through the front door to take snapshots of the magnificent stain glass windows and the intricate tombs.
Finding somebody who has come to pray is a far tougher task.
While once influential churches may be crowded with tourists, churchgoers in the Czech Republic are becoming increasingly sparse. Religious affiliation in the central European nation of 10.5 million is on a steady decline — churches are shutting their doors and low attendance rates threaten one of the world’s oldest establishments.
According to 2010 data from the Pew Research Center , a vast majority of Czechs— 76.4 percent — consider themselves “unaffiliated”. The other largest category represented are Christians composing approximately 23 percent of the population, with Catholics being the overwhelming denomination.
The unaffiliated category will continue to grow by 2040 where they will comprise nearly 80 percent of the population, according to Pew. This growing shift will establish the Czech Republic as one of the most secular countries in the world. Some researchers even predict that religion will become obsolete for Czechs, as well as for other European countries such as Austria and Finland.
At first glance, it may be tempting to simplify the factors that have contributed to the decline of religion in the Czech Republic. Frequently the fall of communism is considered the major point of religious decline in the Czech Republic — as well as the majority of soviet nations — however, the factors are in fact much more complicated and start much earlier than 1991.
As early as the 18th and 19th centuries Catholicism started to face hostility because of its status as a “foreign Austrian import,” even though most of the population still identified as Catholic, according to historians.
However, this dissent continued to grow following Czechoslovakia’s independence in 1918 from the Habsburgs, when a record number of people — around one and a half million — formally left the Catholic Church. However, many Czechs fell in support of Protestant denominations instead, but their establishments were comparatively weak to the Catholic church and did not sustain.
Although, it would be a mistake to entirely disregard post- communism’s role in the current state of religion.
In a study published by Czech sociologist Dana Hamplova she analyzes the decline of religion following the collapse of communism. The study notes the stark differences in people who considered themselves “atheist” grew dramatically with only 5.8 percent in 1950 to 40 percent in 1991.
Although, Hamplova does note in the study that after the fall of communism affiliation to churches was often a political statement in addition to a religion one.
At first glance it may seem like a post-communist regime has resulted in a decrease in religious belief — while partly true — other key factors remain to understand the full picture of religious life in the Czech Republic.
“The Czech population had rather ambiguous attitudes towards the church even before the onset of the communism, which explains why none of the other Central European post-communist country displays a similarly low support for traditional religion as the Czech Republic’s population,” Hamplova wrote in an editorial for The Guardian.
Although, while the decline of formal and traditional religion seems to be on the decline in the Czech Republic there is another kind of religiosity that is often overlooked.
There is still a significant portion of Czechs that believe in more “spiritual” or “magical” traditions, despite overall low church attendance.
According to Hamplova’s 2006 research more than half of the respondents believed in supernatural forces or the abilities of fortune tellers. Still, approximately 47 percent of people believed in astrology.
Therefore, while participation in traditional religion has reached an all-time low in recent years however the belief in the supernatural remains strong among Czechs — even among those who still attend church, according to Hamplova’s research.
For churches, this is a problematic dynamic. There are the Czechs who dislike church establishment, but are still interested in spiritual concepts — how do religious leaders keep them from leaving?
It hasn’t been easy, and it has forced Czech religious leaders to get creative in how they market themselves to the overall population and the changing cultural landscape.
Michael Otrisal, a pastor with the Church of the Brethren, is one such religious leader.
“We [Czechs] have very strong opposition to organized religion,” Otrisal told the Huffington Post, “So, we are more anticlerical than atheist. If you talk about spiritual impulses or issues here you can find a lot of ears to listen. But the Church is not something that the general public is interested in.”
He continues in describing the increase in religious cults and sects — referencing Tarot readings and psychics — resulting from the rejection of organized religion that he notes as dangerous to the general population.
So Otrisal started a television program on Czech television, that broadcasted a non-denominational “Christian view” rather than preaching Catholic specific or Orthodox-specific messages.
“Our dialogues were not about subjects full of theology. They were about life. We also shared the view that Christianity is not a matter of belief based on pillars of dogma. Rather, Christianity is a way of life,” Otrisal said to the Huffington Post.
So despite low production value in the earliest days of the program — which started during communist rule in the Czech Republic — it was successful in attracting both religion and non-religious viewers, Otrisal said.
Therefore, this strategy established a way for non-churchgoers to be exposed to religion in a way that was not evangelical, but rather informative. Also, it became a way to reach people who rejected the organized religion, but were still interested in spirituality.
While there is not any data to suggest the effects of the programming, but Otrisal says it was more about public awareness and education.
The shift in religious belief in the Czech Republic, as well as the rest of Europe, is affecting life for everyone. For example, European’s are having fewer children and according to Pew a growing secular society is at the core of this phenomenon. Also, researchers attribute liberal tendencies in the Czech Republic — like the support of homosexuality — because of high rates of secularism.
Also, in the wake of the Syrian Civil War and political unrest in countries like Afghanistan and Turkey have prompted large swaths of refugees seeking asylum in Europe — bringing their culture and religions with them.
Islam has become one of the fastest growing religion in Europe, and while in the Czech Republic it represents less than one percent of the population — according to Pew — it’s social impact on the whole of Europe is undeniable.
By 2030 Muslims are expected to comprise around eight percent of Europe’s population, up from only four percent in 1990, according to Pew. Also, it is estimated by 2050 there will be 100,000 Muslims in the Czech Republic — a major shift from less than 10,000 in 2010.
It’s frequently cited that religious belief is on the decline in Europe. However, this is too large a statement to be applied to every country andevery religion. Yes, traditional Christianity — Catholic and Protestant denominations — are on the overall decline, but they still remain strong in countries such as Poland and Russia.
Also, Islam, Buddhism, as well as some evangelical Christian denominations seem to be increasing in parts of Europe. So while the Czech Republic will likely still remain one of the most secular countries in the world, it is not always as simple as religious or secular. There is an in between that is currently being explored, and religious leaders must find a way to adapt or face the threat of becoming obsolete.