PRAGUE -- The Czech Republic’s capital has long been called the “city of 100 spires,” and there are many church steeples among all those soaring medieval landmarks.
But along the winding, cobblestone streets, something else is happening at eye level in the bookstores, artsy shops, coffee hangouts and sidewalk posters. This is where yoga mixes with sacred rocks, folk religion bumps into numerology, and dark themes in fantasy comics blend into pop versions of Hinduism and Buddhism.
In today’s Czech Republic, people are “still asking questions about what is good and what is bad, and questions about life and death,” said Daniel Raus, a journalist and poet known for his years with Czech Radio, covering politics, culture and religion.
“What is different is that (Czechs) are saying, ‘I will decide what is good and I will decide what is bad. No one can tell me what to believe about any of this.’“
These trends can be seen in revealing numbers in a new Pew Research Center study entitled “Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe.”
Looking at the big picture, the survey shows that the influence and practice of faith is slipping in lands long identified with Catholicism, those closest to the European West. Eastern Orthodoxy is rising, especially in lands in which faith and national identity blend. Among the Orthodox, however, statistics linked to prayer and worship remain sobering.
But the location of the most stunning changes is clear.
“The most dramatic shift ... has occurred in the Czech Republic, where the share of the public identifying as Catholic dropped from 44 percent in 1991 to 21 percent in the current survey,” noted the Pew summary document. “Today, the Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries in Europe, with nearly three-quarters of adults (72 percent) describing their religion as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular.’“
Meanwhile, 21 percent of other Czechs remain Catholic, 1 percent Orthodox, less than 1 percent Muslim and 6 percent described their faith as “other.” The study also found:
-- Numbers for Eastern Europeans saying they “believe in God” were in the 80 or 90 percent range in various nations. Only 29 percent of Czechs shared that belief.
-- Only 9 percent of Czechs said they “pray daily” and, among Catholics, 22 percent claimed to attend Mass weekly.
-- In all Eastern European lands, 71 percent of survey participants affirmed that “homosexual behavior is morally wrong.” In the Czech Republic, 21 percent agreed.
The reality is more complex than the secularism seen in these numbers, according to sociologist Dana Hamplova of the Czech Academy of Sciences.
“The idea that Czechs are almost completely indifferent to any religion is not accurate,” she argued, writing in The Guardian. Fading Christian numbers have been “accompanied by the massive popularity of what sociologists call ‘invisible’ or ‘alternative’ religion and what could be best described as a belief in magic. Czechs may not be very enthusiastic churchgoers, but many of them easily accept the idea that fortunetellers can predict the future, lucky charms bring good fortune or that the stars might influence their lives. Moreover, claims about Czech non-religiosity are also complicated by the growth of charismatic and evangelical movements in recent years.”
Raus agreed, noting that recent research by Prague’s Median Ltd. firm found that 80 percent of Czech women read horoscopes, along with 46 percent of men. A third of Czechs fear black cats and believe Friday the 13th is a “bad day.” Prague’s NMS Market Research firm, in 2015 research, found that 76 percent of Czechs knock on wood “not to spoil something,” 78 percent believe in the power of fate, 62 percent say they believe in lucky numbers, 37 percent believe breaking a mirror causes bad luck and 31 percent affirmed they have a trusted amulet.
For many Czechs, Raus explained, answering “none” when asked about religion simply means they are not part of one of Europe’s old “official” faiths. Many prefer to duck questions about faith altogether, hiding their beliefs.
“We used to have a saying at Czech Radio: If you send 200 people to the moon you will soon have two political parties and three churches,” he said, laughing. “Religion is just part of what it means to be human. It will always be there -- somewhere.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)