Study: Religion dying out among Czechs

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Religion will be ‘nearly extinct’ in Czech Republic by 2050

It seems especially cold that religion’s extinction would be predicted not by an impassioned atheist or a humanist weary of the aggression perpetrated in God’s name, but by a trio of physicists and mathematicians who are altogether neutral about what their study suggests.

According to a study titled “Modeling the Decline of Religion,” by midcentury, more than 90 percent of Czechs will be nonaffiliated, a member not of any creed or physical church but rather the larger group of the irreligious.

Already, according to the last census, nearly 60 percent of Czechs disavow religious affiliation.

Daniel Abrams, from the Department of Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics at Northwestern University, had already used a similar method to plot the projected life-spans of languages in the world, and in this study used nonlinear dynamics and a “simple mathematical model” to explain a different social phenomenon, that of religion.

The paper, in fact, is filled with mathematical formulas that would seem complicated to laypeople, but they were used to express sociological theorems.

“These are two effects sociologists report as important influences in driving social change,” Abrams told The Prague Post. “The first one is the majority effect. That’s the idea that more people are likely to switch to a group with more members. But people are also more likely to switch to a group of higher personal utility, I mean, not just the agreement of spiritual beliefs but also social advantages, political or economic advantages from joining a group in some countries.”

The Czech Republic led the pack of nine countries the study examined, using census data stretching back 100 years. However, Abrams acknowledged a gap in the country’s census data between 1950 and 1991, meaning its predictive power was the weakest among the countries studied. Nevertheless, the team felt confident in being able to draw a conclusion.

That conclusion does nothing to support or contradict the common idea that the Czech Republic is the most atheistic in the world. The census data does not ask, “Do you believe in God?” but only in what religious organization a person claims membership.

“This is a neutral phenomenon, and we’re trying to find a scientific explanation for it,” Abrams said. “It’s not the same as atheism. This effect is going to happen whether people like it or not, and it’s useful to try to understand it.”

Communism vs. Catholicism

Communism is often forwarded as a lazy theory for the number of irreligious Czechs. It’s part of the reason, but by no means the only, according to religious leaders who spoke with The Prague Post. The 2001 census shows that the ranks of the unaffiliated swelled to 59 percent of the population, up from 39 percent in the 1991 census. The number of self-identified Roman Catholics dropped 31.8 percent between the two censuses, down to 2,740,780.

“In the first years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, there were many people in our country that had unrealistic expectations for church,” said Aleš Pištora, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Prague. “In the period of communism, the church was the center of resistance and the symbol of a new democratic time.”

The Catholic Church was itself persecuted by the communists, but as an institution it was not ready for the role it was expected to fill, according to Tomáš Halík. Born in Prague in 1948, Halík teaches sociology and religion at Charles University. In 1978, he was secretly ordained as a Catholic priest in Germany, and today is an active priest and leads mass at the Academic Parish of Prague.

“People were disappointed, but also there were politicians that were afraid of the influence of the church in their country, and they used the scandals and problems with church property and restitution to turn the general opinion,” he said.

In the ensuing two decades, the Czechs have remained spiritual but suffer from a sort of religious “illiteracy,” he added.

“You have very strong opinions but no education in religion, no solid information. There is a sort of belief that I call ‘somethingness’: ‘I don’t believe in God, I don’t go to church, but there must be something,’ ” he said.

As for the study itself, Halík dismissed it as “rather stupid,” and rattled off a long list of times in history when religion was predicted to die off. Thomas Woolston, for instance, the English deist who in the early 18th century predicted Christianity would be dead by 1900. Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, wrote the same prediction to Voltaire.

“This study is absolutely not serious,” Halík added. “We can predict by statistics the behavior of animals, but not religious trends. Religion was declining in the 18th century, but in the 19th century, there was the great awakening in America, and religion became more popular again. It goes up and down.”

Czechs, Halík believes, will come around once more to religion, but the church will need to adapt itself to the Czech mentality, or the national “soul” as he described it.

“It’s a discrete spirituality that has transferred from a church-oriented, traditional forum to a more private sphere. If the church is able to communicate with this mentality, then they have a chance.”

But if any one population could be said to have an “atheist” nature, it might be the Czechs, according to Karol Sidon, chief rabbi of Prague and the Czech Republic.

There might be something to this study, he said, citing historical precedents that have deepened their distrust toward any type of ideology. The Hussite wars, the Thirty Years War, the Catholic Habsburg monarchy, German occupation and then communism.

“The attitude of the Czechs has been shaped over the years as someone who is not in the position to change those in power – but instead developed a distance from what they were expected to do,” he said. “This has been similar for the Jews. Here, we are sitting in the Jewish Quarter. The Jews have suffered much more than the Czechs in history, and it’s hard to say that the majority of Jews who are secular have no faith. I doubt it. They are only afraid of showing excessive affiliation toward an ideology.”

Sidon, too, expects an eventual return to religion, though he does not believe it will be a “religious ecstasy.”

A society without a religion would not necessarily change in essence, he said, but the question that should be considered is whether a strict opposition to any ideology is warranted.

“In principle, I believe complete atheism can only happen in the case of a total fatigue of ideology and of being a victim of doctrines. Under those names, they are driven into wars and nonsensical killing, and we cannot deny this always happens under the name of some ideology.”

Modeling the Decline of Religion

What it studied: Census data dating back 100 years in nine secular democracies: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland

What it found: Religious nonaffiliation is "growing rapidly," implying an unstable co-existence of religious and irreligious segments; more than 90 percent of Czechs will not adhere to any religion by 2050

– Klára Jiřičná contributed to this report.

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