Fifty-eight percent Czechs are atheist, census reveals

The most surprising piece of information from the recent census was the increase in the number of atheists - from just under 40 percent in 1991, to 58 percent this year. The Statistical Office say that they kept re-counting the results to make sure there was no error - but there wasn't - the majority of Czechs ARE non-believers. Olga Szantova asked Erazim Kohak, professor at Charles University, whether he, too, considered this result such a surprise.

Erazim Kohak: Certainly it's no surprise to anybody who has to deal with religion. We see it all around us. After the change of government all of a sudden we had people coming in, who before would not even notice that there was a church in the street. In part they were curious, in part they thought it was a part of the new fashionable lifestyle, in part they were genuinely searching for some kind of values to fill in the gap left by communism.

Radio Prague: And they did not find what they were looking for throughout those ten years?

EK: Some of them did and others didn't. The numbers that you'd have to compare is the number of active believers now and the number of believers before the end of the communist regime.

RP: Fifty-eight percent atheists in a nation - how does that compare to other parts of the world?

EK: In a great many countries which I know and where I lived, such as the United States you would never get a high figure like that. Not that there are any fewer atheists, but they simply have not learned to speak of themselves as such. So, they will say - yes, I believe in God, there must be something, but it doesn't mean anything.

RP: There is a long tradition of atheism in the Czech nation, or at least the Czechs see themselves as atheists for centuries. Do they see themselves correctly?

EK: I believe so, because, remember that for us, after the Catholic conquest of Bohemia in 1620 religion was the propaganda arm of the Habsburg imperial power.

RP: That explains the situation as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, but there is the tradition of the Czech Brethren, the Hussite tradition.

EK: Active leaders who actually live their faith are a small minority all over the world.

RP: So, would you say that the anti-religious propaganda of the communist days did not really influence the Czechs' attitude towards religion?

EK: I don't think it needed to. The negative attitude was already there.

RP: Professor Kohak, why haven't the churches succeeded in winning young people, when there's such interest in various, for this part of the world non-traditional Eastern religions?

EK: They are finding the same values which I find in my own tradition, that of the Czech Brethren. I am older. To me the familiar is comforting. To the young people the familiar is boring, it is the different that is exciting. And I don't think that in this that the young people are particularly different now than they ever were.

Author: Olga Szantová
run audio