Czechs may go to mass on Christmas Eve, but are they really religious?

In just over a week's time many thousands of people in the Czech Republic will leave the warmth of their homes on Christmas Eve to attend midnight mass. The tradition remains strong in this country, despite the fact that some surveys suggest the Czechs are among the most atheistic nations in Europe. To find out how religious the Czechs really are as a nation, I spoke to Jesuit priest and academic Josef Blaha.

"The Czech lands are the most atheistic in Europe. According to the census some thirty percent of Czechs say they are Catholics, but for example you have these funny people who when you ask them 'are you Catholic?' they say 'yeah, I'm Catholic'. 'And do you practice?' 'Of course, I go to Mass every Christmas'. Some five, eight percent of Czechs are practising Catholics, some one percent are Protestants."

But why is there such a lack of interest in religion in the Czech Republic? Priest Josef Blaha says the main reason is 40 years of communist rule.

"We can't forget the pressure of the communist regime, which really actually had an ambiguous attitude in the sense that officially freedom of religion was guaranteed by the constitution. But in fact if you were a teacher, for example, and you were seen in a church you were dismissed from work. So actually there was strong pressure from the communist regime."

But does that explanation really suffice? After all, neighbouring Poland also experienced four decades of communism, yet the Poles are among the most religious nations in Europe.

"In history, Poland was somehow a buffer zone in between Protestant Germany and Orthodox Russia, and so the Catholic Church in Poland stands behind the people. Whereas in the Czech Republic, from the times of John Hus, they dislike the Catholic Church. Catholicism was often conceived as something alien to Czech nature. Poland is very religious, some 90 percent of Poles are Catholics, but here it's vice versa, the other way around."

And it would be a mistake to think that Czechs have no spiritual needs, says Josef Blaha, pointing to a growth in faiths new to this country in recent years.

"With the collapse of communism people had a hunger for religion. There especially is a new fashion to embrace eastern religions, like for example Buddhism or the religions of India. Everybody believes in something but I don't think that people would fit into the framework of, let's say, the Catholic or Protestant Church."

How likely Czechs are to be believers may depend on where they live. Josef Blaha, who is from Brno, says people from Moravia are much more religious than those from Bohemia. And that difference, he says, is most noticeable in the countryside.

"The Bohemian countryside is really pagan. But especially in the cities like Prague or Ceske Budejovice or Usti or Decin, the Jewish and Protestant and Catholic communities are very active. It reminds me of a pastoral letter by an East German bishop, my friend Wanke, who wrote that cities are places of worship whereas the villages are places of paganism."