“The invisible hand”: what do Czechs believe in?

Tomáš Sedláček, Sylva Fischerová, David Vaughan, Jana Fraňková

The medieval vaulted cellars of the Shakespeare and Sons bookshop offered an atmospheric backdrop to the second of Radio Prague’s series of public discussions, organized in cooperation with the Czech Literary Portal. The discussion took place on December 9, in the middle of Advent and on the last day of the Jewish holiday Chanukah – the festival of lights. We asked the question: does the Czech Republic’s rich Christian and Jewish legacy still have meaning in today’s secular state? Does and should this legacy continue to define our ethical decisions?

Listen – short version:

Tomáš Sedláček,  Sylva Fischerová,  David Vaughan,  Jana Fraňková
Taking part in the discussion were:

The highly acclaimed Czech poet, Sylva Fischerová, whose poetry is rich in irony, chaos, God, whisky and beer. Some of her verse has been published in English in the collection “The Swing in the Middle of Chaos”.

The economist, Tomáš Sedláček. He is the chief strategist of a major Czech bank, but also the author of a fascinating book, called “The Economics of Good and Evil”. The book argues that economics is a great deal more than just a science and is very closely tied with our sense of morality. It is to be published in English translation by Oxford University Press in March.

The translator and interpreter, Jana Fraňková. She studied at Oxford in the late 1960s, but ironically, following the Soviet invasion of 1968, the fact of having studied in Britain became a hindrance rather than helping Jana in her career. Over the years she has taken a growing interest in her Jewish roots – more at the level of identity and culture, rather than at a religious level.

The audience also played an active part in the discussion. Below is a transcription [edited down from the original two-hour debate]:

I’ll start our discussion with a cliché. We are always hearing that the Czech Republic is the most atheist country in Europe. But how do you measure how atheist a country is? As we have an economist here, Tomáš Sedláček, can you measure how atheist a country is?

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “Well, the standard way of doing this, of course, is by asking people where they would put themselves, which usually doesn’t say much. I think we Czechs are very weak believers in our own atheism! Because of the history, I think what people resent here is some sort of pressure that they associate with the church, because of the wars that we had during the Protestant era. People tend to address themselves as atheist, but if you ask them, ‘Do you believe there’s a higher power?’ many of the so-called atheists would acknowledge one, but they’re not church-goers per se. I personally think that we are very keen and strong believers, only we don’t like to admit it. It’s something considered so private and so personal that we keep it to ourselves.”

Sylva Fischerová,  photo: David Vaughan
Sylva Fischerová, the “God” that appears in your poetry does seem to be very personal. It is also hard to define.

SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: “God is always personal, I think, for anyone. It cannot be different. People sometimes don’t want to admit their feelings, but I do!”

Jana Fraňková, do you agree with the statement that the Czech Republic is the most atheist country in Europe – or do you believe it has any sense to say so?

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “I’d agree with Tomáš, because I don’t really know myself what atheist is, and I think that Czechs as such are anti-church, anti-authority, and church is something that stands for authority. I myself would say that I can’t say myself that I believe in God, but I do believe that we do have something in common. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t think that this is an atheist’s position. I think many Czechs are like me.”

Václav Havel has described it as the “mystery of being”…

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “…mystery of being, something higher up above us.”

SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: “If I may add something, it’s an important word, because Tomáš Halík, a Catholic priest [and former dissident], quite often says that there’s a big, big number of people who just believe in something and they are so-called ‘somethingists’. There’s a big number of people in this country who are somethingists.”

I have the impression in the Czech Republic that the situation is very different from some countries, such as Poland, Ireland or the United States, where religious belief seems to be quite strongly tied with patriotism or with national identity. Almost by implication, being Polish means to believe. If an American President were to say, “I don’t believe in God”, it would probably be electoral suicide, whereas here, in the Czech Republic, it seems that we’re fairly liberated from that kind of pressure. Believing in God or being a member of a church doesn’t seem central to national identity.

Jan Hus
JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “I think that Czechs actually can’t associate themselves with a given religion because of their history. Czechs have a greater tendency to associate themselves with historical figures. They’ll speak about Jan Hus or Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk – nowadays Havel. They are always moral personalities, but I think, due to the historical development, due to the development between the wars, due to the forty years or so of communism, people just didn’t have a chance to associate themselves with a church.”

I’d like to ask you about the legacy of the communist regime, of the overtly atheist regime. Some people have pointed out that under communism it was possible to talk about “truth” without ever needing to use inverted commas, because “living in truth”, as Havel put it, amounted to not living the lie that the regime offered as reality. I would be interested to know to what extent the legacy of that more simple sense of what’s right and wrong is still felt today.

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “I think in those days, people in their private lives were much more convinced about their own truths than they are nowadays. Perhaps it’s much easier if you are confronted with something that you disagree with. Nowadays you are supposedly absolutely free to think what’s right, what’s wrong, and I think this might be the legacy of communism – that people are not used to it that they are given the choice, or range of choices, and it’s up to them to choose.”

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “Well, I think we are making one quite widespread mistake. We are considering atheism ‘areligious’. Atheism is a belief system like any other, and this happens quite frequently that Czechs think that atheism is something where you don’t need any faith. This is absolutely wrong. An atheist must believe in many more things than a believer. Atheism is not a neutral ground. You can’t step out of your belief systems. And I want to make two last comments. Those of us who are Europeans must realize that we had scientific atheism and scientific communism, and we had scientific racism. My beloved anthropology started as a scientific field where we studied the difference between the skulls. This, of course, at the time was considered proper science.”

Aren’t you equating the scientific atheism of the communist regimes with the atheism that many people feel in a democratic, pluralist environment, where it isn’t reduced to an ideology or a religion in the sense that it was under communism?

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “Well, atheism is an ideology, whether it’s under communism or under free democracy. Atheism is a belief system, like Christianity, like Islam, like communism, like many other things. There are so many things you have to believe – the only difference is that we don’t trust priests, but we trust the scientists.”

I’d like to change the subject completely and ask Jana Fraňková how she feels about being Jewish in today’s Czech Republic in the wake of the Holocaust and the forty years of communist rule. How do you experience your Jewishness?

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “Well, to tell you the truth, the same as I did before 1989. I knew I was Jewish since the age of six, I think. Having been born after the war, I was the same as many Jewish kids, who were never told they were Jewish, because their parents wanted to protect them, and because the parents just closed their eyes. They wanted to pretend they had nothing to do with it. But, since I knew since the age of six, who I was, in a way it was a relief. I remember a funny story. I was six, walking to school with a girl from the floor above. We were in the same class, and she asked me, ‘By the way, isn’t your auntie Jewish?’ She meant my cousin, who was bringing me up, because my mother was the breadwinner. And I thought about it and said, ‘No, she would have certainly told me.’ But then, as we walked back from school, I suddenly realized that, actually, although she didn’t tell me, she was Jewish. So this was how I learned and I think that after 1989 I felt exactly the same as before, because it was already part of me.

“The good thing is that you don’t have to hide it – it’s not that I would have been hiding it then, but you don’t have to be careful about who thinks something wrong about you. You can go to the Jewish Community, you can actually live like a normal person. I think the same must apply to people who used to go every Sunday to the Mass, and they must have been afraid who sees them, who sees their kids, who’s going to take it against them. It’s great that you can call your daughter Ruth and you don’t have to worry, as I did 34 years ago when my daughter was born.”

You were worried in the sense that it was a sign…

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “No, I was not allowed to call her Ruth and we had a fight with the magistrate.”



SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: “Did you win?”

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “I won, because I said, ‘Okay, she’s going to have no name.’ They said, ‘No, you must give her a name.’ I said, ‘I gave her a name, but you don’t want to accept it.’ So, in the end they gave up. They just deleted the ‘h’ at the end of her name. And then we had it put back on. We paid 1,000 crowns for it and her father, who’s a journalist, wrote one of his best pieces: ‘The Most Expensive H in My Life’, which, when you turn it into Czech, is good.”

One of the things that I found very moving was last year, at the beginning of Chanukah, when there was the candlestick, the Menorah, placed, as it is now every year, on Jan Palach Square, and the Czech prime minister, who at the time himself was Jewish [Jan Fischer], lit the first candle.

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “In a way it is moving, but I would say that, for us Jews, it’s a sort of satisfaction that we are part of this nation, because we are Czech Jews. Jews always must belong somewhere. They want to be Jews, but they belong to the place where they live. And I think it’s a normal ambition of any person, of any community, to know that you are accepted, that you are part of the bigger community. With the Menorah on Jan Palach Square, that’s a great thing that everybody sees. People walk around and they see that the Menorah is being lit, and they learn about it. In the past few years that I hear people who otherwise don’t know anything about Chanukah, ask me, ‘When is your Jewish Christmas?’ Through this Menorah in the centre of Prague, they learn what the different holidays are, and I think they accept it.”

SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: “I grew up in a family, where, from a religious point of view, the most important person was my grandfather, who was Czech Protestant, and I grew up among Bibles. As a child, I used to go to church, but my mother lost her faith, and when I asked her, ‘When did it happen?’ her answer was very strange. She said, ‘In 1942, because, face-to-face to all those horrible cataclysms, I just couldn’t believe that God exists at all.’ Which is very strange, because in those years almost everybody tried to believe in something. But it happened, and so I had to find my Catholic God!”

And you opted for Roman Catholicism…



SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: “I think, if someone says, ‘From reason to faith,’ it’s a cliché. I think it cannot happen. What can happen is ‘from faith to reason,’ as a way of trying to understand it, although the heart of any religion is a mystery, I think. So, something happened and I experienced something. I even tried to write about it, but I failed. I cannot speak about it, but it was just very personal and very dramatic.”

So it is a God beyond words…


Tomáš Sedláček, what was your path to faith?

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “It was also completely irrational. It had nothing to do with anything!”

Did you grow up in a religious household?

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “No, no, no. On the contrary, I grew up in an atheistic household. It was funny though, because I was brought up in Finland, as my father worked for Czech Airlines, and we would travel there and fro quite constantly. The irony was that to the Finnish kids I had to explain that I come from a country where there are actually atheists. They said, ‘What does it mean?’ ‘Oh, they’re actually people who don’t believe in God.’ ‘No, you’re kidding!’ And I said, ‘No, really, there’s one at the embassy.’ ‘Okay, next time she comes, you show us.’ And I literally remember – her name was Maruska – she was the daughter of someone who worked at the embassy, and she was a self-proclaimed atheist. And I had these kids come up and queue in the door to see… ‘So how do you think the world was created?!’

“And then I went back to the Czech Republic and I was telling my friends, ‘You know, I live in a country where everyone believes in God.’ They went, ‘No, you’re kidding!’ And then they say, ‘You believe in God because your grandmother told you,’ and then I say, ‘You’re an atheist because your grandmother told you.’ As I said, there is no difference in the belief system. We’ve both been told – by scientists or by someone else. You just have to choose who you believe.

“So, back to the more personal question. When I had my conversion it was 1989 or 1990, quite close after the revolution. Only later on did I start reading Aquinas and Augustine and the rest – and I find God in reasonable things, which is my little deviation.”

Do you also find God in numbers – as someone who works in a bank?

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “….hmmm… I’m not sure. I haven’t looked there, but it’s funny, because in the Old Testament you often have this swap from singular to plural and sometimes jokes are made of numbers: for example, when Abraham argues about the number of the righteous people, he keeps arguing – he goes fifty or forty, and it’s quite long – you’ve probably read it – and then, at the end of the day, do we read of counting of the righteous? No, this whole debate vanishes in thin air and the angels don’t go round saying, ‘One, two, three, four, five… okay, burn it down!’ So it’s as if this whole numbering and counting was made fun of. It absolutely didn’t matter. He didn’t destroy the righteous with the unrighteous. He took the righteous out.”

SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: “If I may, it’s one of Isaac Newton’s sayings: ‘Mathematics is a language, in which God wrote the laws of the universe’ – Isaac Newton, ‘Principia Matematica. It’s great, isn’t it?”

I’d like to ask about today’s Czech society, because there is a strong sense among many people of disappointment at their politicians’ degree of corruption. One thing I know that Tomáš Sedláček has been very interested in is reconnecting the world of business, the world of economics, and the world of morality. I’d like to ask all of you – to come back to the original question that I brought up in my introduction – is it relevant to bring religion back into the debate about politics and economics in the Czech Republic today? I’ll start with you, Jana, because you say you’re not a believer, or not an active believer, unlike our other two guests. Do you think this is a good thing or a danger, or simply individual?

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “If you’re asking about the morality, about the ethics of the society, yes, I think there is a danger. I think that this society has, in a way, lost its faith in morals. Unfortunately, people don’t realize, when they criticize, quite rightly, the politicians and members of parliament and all these public figures, that they are one of them.”

It’s not “them and us” but “us and us”….

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “Yes, it’s ‘us and us’, even though I can’t say I believe in the God of the Old Testament, even though I’m afraid to say I don’t believe in him, I think that something like being brought up in surroundings that have certain rules – and those rules can be usually only the religious rules – and it doesn’t matter which religion – whether my God of the Old Testament or whether the God of the New Testament – but among, for example, young people, I recognize those who were brought up in a certain system of values that nowadays actually distinguishes them from their contemporaries. And I think this is what we miss. I don’t think we miss religion as such.”

But you say it has to be, in some way, religious values – or in some way transcendental.

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “It must be transcendental and I said I don’t see anything else but religion as this set of values, even though I didn’t grow up in a religious family. I actually grew up in something that probably English listeners will understand. I grew up in a Jewish Bolshevik family! That’s Jews who entered the Communist Party at the end of the war, thinking: now this is what’s going to save all of us from future atrocities. They’ll never be repeated again. But there was something in the family, in my mother, in that cousin of mine that brought me up and who survived the concentration camp that actually was like a religion. They just didn’t call it religion. In a way, it was very strict, but it was simple, and I think that it did give me something.”

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “Well, this is an inconsistency. I mean, either there are transcendental laws that are given transcendentally, or there are no laws, and you can’t simply take the God person-thing out of it. It’s like taking papers out of a book. So this is an inconsistency and only proves that we are not atheists but agnostics. I think what you’re really saying is that you’re an agnostic, because you say, ‘I’m afraid of saying I’m an atheist’…”

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “… it’s safer…”

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “So you’re not sure. That means one is agnostic. The second point is the problem of evil, and this is my little side proof how very Christian we are, by the existence of evil. It is against our ideals that we perceive evil. I mean, we have an ideal that innocent people shouldn’t suffer, which is a Christian ideal. Nobody ever said that. It’s not written in the stars, it’s not a law of gravity. It’s a Christian ideal that we got from Christianity. And we’re very disappointed if reality doesn’t meet our own embedded Christian ideals and we arrive to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist. This is another inconsistency.”

SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: “I would like to introduce an idea which perhaps you do not know. It’s a distinction made by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a Canadian philosopher, who distinguished between belief and faith, which is, I think, of extreme importance, because belief, in his words, can be either scientific belief or religious belief, which means some set of rules, quite clear, quite simple; and there is faith, which is completely different, because, in his view, it’s something stronger and not that clear. It means that people believe in some sense of life, and he said that people can have belief, but they don’t need, necessarily, to have faith. He always stressed that what’s more important, of course, is faith. So I think that even in the Czech Republic and for the citizens of this poor country, if people will have this faith, this love of life, that’s what matters.”

I’m trying to think if the distinction between belief and faith exists in the Czech language. It doesn’t, actually, does it?

SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: “No, I don’t think so.”

Maybe this is a problem…

SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: “Also, he says that we can have belief in something – only in something – but that doesn’t apply to faith.”

I’ve been monopolizing on the questions, so I think it would be good to open the discussion to our audience, which also includes some distinguished guests here, also some experts. So, if anyone has a question, or anything they would like to comment on or add in connection with what we have been talking about or what we should be talking about…

MAN IN AUDIENCE: “I’m the Reverend Ricky Yates, the Anglican Chaplain here in Prague, and all I wanted to say was to endorse what Tomáš was saying. The saying that I have is that it’s amazing what you have to believe in order to be an unbeliever, because atheism is a belief system, and I think that needs to be emphasized. My other point, which is a slightly more humorous one, is on this question of national identity we were talking about earlier. You’re quite right. It’s often tied up with a nation. My wife lived in Spain for four years, and there they have an expression: ‘In Spain, we’re all Roman Catholics, even the atheists.’ It’s a cultural thing, not necessarily a matter of belief.”

Ricky Yates,  photo: David Vaughan
TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “Adding to what you said – during the summer I was in Ostrava for a music festival. We had a couple of drinks and Iggy Pop had a concert there. A friend of mine bumped into me at about ten or eleven in the evening and said, ‘Hey, are you here by accident?’ And I said, ‘Are you an atheist?’ And he said, ‘Yes, are you here by accident?’ ‘Now, if you’re an atheist, that’s a stupid question to ask, because everything is an accident. Don’t go around asking stupid questions. You’re an accident, I’m an accident, we’re both two accidents that accidentally, of course, met. There is no meaning in life, absolutely no meaning.’ The philosophers have been trying to work round that. If it’s not transcendental, there is no point. You can’t even have the whole idea of accident. ‘Telos’ – meaning or a sense of direction – is a luxury that the atheists simply cannot afford because it is again an inconsistency, a very simple inconsistency too.”

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “I think that part of the set of values, or the reflection or expression of having the set of values, is that, if you do something wrong, you feel ashamed. I think that shame is one of the things that somehow evaporated from this society. Tomáš will probably protest, but I think that this is a very important thing, and this is what I spoke about: If you grow up in an environment – and I don’t think it is that important whether it is a religion or another set of beliefs – where you feel ashamed if you do something really wrong, that this is a precondition for growing up and ending up different from many of our politicians.”

MAN IN AUDIENCE: “My name is Ben Nielsen [?]. I’m a teacher here from America, living in Prague for a few years. My question was: how do you think spirituality affects the younger generation? When we talk about Czechs maybe being not religious or atheist, do you think that this is applying to the middle-aged generation, those people that grew up with their parents still under communism or under communism themselves? Do you think that this has affected the younger generation differently – those who have grown up under democracy? Has there been any change because of this or do you think it’s a continuation of life over the past forty or fifty years?”

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “I wouldn’t blame communism for this. It is the first thing that is at hand to blame for atheism, but look at the Poles!”

Tomáš, you are very young, still in your early thirties. So you were very much still a kid when the regime fell. You must feel a generational difference from people who are older than yourself.

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “Not in the belief system. I’m the last generation that still remembers communism. I was twelve when the walls came down. My brother, who is four years younger, remembers nothing of anything! I teach every year, so I see the change in the younglings, so to speak, but I see no difference. I mean they’re more open to it, and this is, of course, the danger of an inter-religious dialogue – rubbishing religion into diplomacy, which I often see in inter-religious dialogue. And this is also one of the huge follies of our age. The key mistake of psychoanalysis is that peace is possible. This is the basic folly of economists that equilibrium – i.e. peace in prices and demand or whatever – is possible. This is a belief that comes from schools that I don’t want to go into – Stoics basically, now that we’ve mentioned the Antique – but maybe we’re not made to all look alike and be nice and tolerant.

“Of course, I don’t criticize tolerance. My God, we mustn’t force our beliefs on anybody else, yet there’s a huge difference between respect and tolerance, and I don’t think this world needs more tolerance. I think it needs more respect.”

Jana, your daughter Ruth is about Tomáš’s age, I think. Does she have a very different perspective on Jewishness than you do?

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “She says, ‘My mum is a Jew who is Czech. I am a Czech, who is also a Jew.’ At first, because she sang in a Jewish choir in the Jewish Community in Prague, she was part of it. And then, when she was about sixteen or seventeen, she started rebelling like anyone else, which meant that she stepped back, made a distance between herself and the Jewish Community. But now I think she feels part of it, and she would hate not feeling part of it.”

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: “I listened to what you just said and I found it very interesting – what you say about the daughter who says, ‘I’m Czech, but I’m Jewish’. I say this because I suppose I just observe from an outsider’s point of view – I’m an American Jew who lives here with my husband, it’s an American-Czech marriage – and my experience here is that, for the first time in my life, I feel that Judaism is something outside of the norm within the Czech Republic. This is my view of it – that to just casually celebrate the holidays, to have a Passover Seder, to have Chanukah, as we did this week, is viewed more as a very religious act than as something very normal, the way someone would celebrate Christmas – with very little meaning but simply because this is the tradition, this is what we do.

“I was at the Menorah-lighting ceremony on Sunday and actually I was quite turned off by it. The Mayor of Prague gave a speech, and I found, unfortunately, that his speech seemed to emphasize the separateness of the Jewish community, rather than being a natural part of Czech life. If I got it correctly, he emphasized that he hopes that one day the community – and he used words that I thought were kind of bothersome – he said, ‘will not be something mystical and exotic’ to the rest of the Czechs. What I heard there was this emphasis on the separateness, and that’s in a way what I’ve seen here, as a foreigner, as a Jew. In a way, I find it quite nice to hear you say that the Menorah-lighting in front of the Rudolfinum is symbolic of the Czechness of the Jews here. I guess I had a different impression, and I’m just curious to hear more about this.”

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “I think that you were unlucky to hear a politician speaking about these things, because ever since I was fifteen or sixteen, all my friends knew about who I was and we were all part of one student community as grammar school kids, then one university students’ community. People came last week and said, ‘Oh, when are you lighting the candles? Can we stay?’ It was like, ‘Okay, we’ll invite you when we light up the Christmas tree’. It’s only the politicians who like to distinguish themselves as the ones who understand and are tolerant, those that embrace all the communities in Prague – especially if you are a new mayor! I think unfortunately this is what you will hear from the politicians. You won’t hear it from ordinary people.”

MAN IN AUDIENCE: “I’m Stephen Weeks, a writer, novelist and conservationist. First of all, I’ve got one observation, and then also a comment on or amplification of something Jana Fraňková said. The observation is that I last year bought a church to convert into a house. A lot of my Czech friends said, ‘My God, isn’t it creepy?’ And I said, ‘You believe, do you?’ and they said, “No, no, no, I’m an atheist’. So I said, ‘How can it be creepy?’ It’s just a building, where a lot of people met, who believed in magic that didn’t exist. So what could be creepy about that? So it was very interesting that the whole notion of creepiness connected with churches, is only for people who must believe in something about it. And also they see all these movies about devil-worshipping and everything else. They’d fall flat if they were total atheists. They’d just be looking at these strange people who believed in nothing. So I find that very interesting. There is, of course, underneath, a latent fundamental belief in the old traditions.

“There’s something that Jana Fraňková said about shame. Shame I find very, very interesting as a concept, because certainly, being English, if a politician does something genuinely bad, he will never show his face again. He is ashamed and he disappears from public life. Here that doesn’t seem to happen. What is interesting is that, in the law here, there is no law that says, ‘You shall not steal’. There is a law that says, if you are caught stealing, you will get six months for a button and a year for something else, or whatever. So there isn’t this fundamental pillar of Christian belief – and Jewish belief of course in the Ten Commandments – and the analogy is the famous example here of the pedestrian crossings. They started maybe thirty, forty or fifty years ago – black and white striped crossings – but people were often knocked down when they tried to cross them, because the law did not say you had to stop at the crossing. And only two years ago they changed the law to say you must stop at pedestrian crossings. So in a sense it’s the whole thing about ticking boxes. It didn’t say that there’s a fundamental concept that you shouldn’t run over pedestrians if they’re trying to cross a zebra crossing.

“So there’s this lack of connection between cause and effect, which to me is the biggest legacy of either communism or the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or whatever. There is, in this society a disconnect between cause and effect and somehow that disconnect is in my view related to a disconnect between belief and what you should be doing.”

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “I’m glad you said that, because it relates back to what I said about the set of values, whether they come from religion, or whether they come from somewhere else. In this country, because you don’t have this basic set of rules – what is right, what is wrong – we need those laws, and our politicians and our legislators believe that you have to have these laws that actually give you an exhaustive list of what you can do, what you can’t do, what happens if you do, what happens if you don’t. And I think this is one of the reasons why, for example, people are run over on pedestrian crossings. People seem to need, because they are used to it, this list of situations, when they are supposed to stop, how far the pedestrian must be from the crossing when you have to stop. I think this is what I was talking about. Shame is the most important thing, especially when it comes to politicians, because that’s why politicians in other countries just run away if they’ve done something wrong. In this country they say, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong’.”

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “I’d just like to react to the observation first, on the church – ‘I don’t believe in spirits but still…’ I must use Jacques Lacan, who is one of the most popular psychoanalysts after Freud and Jung. He used two jokes to describe something similar to what you described. He’s talking of Nicholas Bohr, the Danish physicist. A friend comes to his house and he has a horseshoe on the door. So his friends ask Nicholas Bohr, ‘Well, why do you have it here?’ ‘Well, people say it brings luck.’ And his friends say, ‘I can’t believe you’re so superstitious that you actually believe in it.’ And Nicholas Bohr answers, ‘Of course I don’t, but they say it works even if you don’t believe it.’ And that, I think, is a good line. So there is an inconsistency in our beliefs.

“The other joke is that there is a patient who believes he is a piece of grain. So he comes to the therapist and they spend years and years and years, and at the end of the day, he actually now believes he’s a human being and no longer a piece of grain. So he walks out of the institution cured. And the first chicken he meets, he runs away back to the psychoanalyst and says, ‘There’s a chicken that wants to eat me.’ And the psychoanalyst says, ‘Well, you know, you understand that you’re a human being.’ ‘Yes, I know, but does the chicken know?’ And this is the inconsistency of our belief systems. We’re actually extremely inconsistent. In other words, it’s improper, I think, to say that ‘I’m an unbeliever.’ It would be more appropriate to say, ‘I believe I’m an unbeliever.’ And, to be quite fair, it is also more proper to say, ‘I believe I’m a Christian,’ because, if we really believed Christianity, we wouldn’t be sitting here. We believe it quite a lot, but it’s the second derivation of a belief that we really actually believe.”

SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: “It’s in the New Testament. In Czech it’s so wonderful. It’s an old archaic translation: ‘Pane, věřím, pomoz mé nedověře’ – ‘Lord, I believe, please help me in my disbelief’ or ‘please help me in my lack of belief’ – two options, but the Czech word [nedověra] is nicer.”

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “It’s also like ‘dveře se dovírají’ [the doors are closing shut], which also has the sense of ‘nedověra’.”

SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: “It means that belief and disbelief – the one cannot be without the other. It’s dialectics.”

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “If you want to change your belief system, you mustn’t attack your proclaimed beliefs, such as Christianity or atheism or whatever, you must tackle the underlying structures of the archetypes: that I believe that I believe that I believe. And that’s where, I think, the change may lie.”

In connection with what Stephen Weeks said about the zebra crossings, there was a fascinating logic that some politicians used. After a year of the new rules being in place – that cars had to stop – they found that the statistics of people dying on crossings had gone up. And therefore, there were politicians – in all seriousness – saying, ‘The problem is that we need to remove the crossings.’ That was perceived as the problem. Sometimes making the logical connections isn’t enough.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: “My name is Anne, and I think that one of the really important concepts about the Fall, which can be explored forever, is how freedom and order became distorted. And I think it’s quite interesting, how people think about their belief or their faith. This distinction between belief and faith is also important here, because I think that faith leads you to something that’s outside yourself, and you begin to lose control. It seems to me that as people are searching for God – well, let me distinguish between an honest search and a search that satisfies your need to somehow be religious – they want to have control, but somehow without the legitimacy of being able really to defend what it is they believe and why. So I think a lot of people are very happy to be agnostic, because they feel somehow religious, but without the obligation that would come with any real belief. And so I’d be interested in anything you’d have to say in reaction, and also how you see from your own – maybe – path to faith, this play between freedom and lack of freedom, or loss of freedom.”

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “Quite a common mistake that we make is that we feel that freedom and rules work against each other. In fact, this is completely to the contrary. Rules and freedom work together. Let’s take the example of language. Language is lots and lots and lots of rules. Yet I’m not expressing my freedom more if I just go, ‘blah, blah, blah, blah.’ This is no expression of freedom. ‘I’ll now defy all the rules of language!’ Does it make me a freer person? No. And to bring the point home completely, take poetry, which adds hundreds of absolutely unnecessary rules. ‘Why would it have to rhyme, why does it have to have a rhythm? This is completely ridiculous!’ But isn’t poetry a most beautiful expression of the freedom of the human spirit? Yet, there is an additional set of rules on top of the rules that we have in grammar and language.”

SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: “I have a slight idea about what Jana said about it being necessary to have some religious basis for a set of values….”

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “No, I said that I don’t – myself – at the moment, see it anywhere else, but I can be wrong. There might be many sets of values that I myself don’t know about.”

SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: “I just remember that I heard a similar idea from a Protestant priest. But I told him that I cannot agree, because if you look at the French Enlightenment, the best heads of the French Enlightenment did their best to show that even if we won’t trust in God, there is a set of rules that people should observe, and that we don’t need God for having such a set of rules.”

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “I don’t think we need God. After all, we could have the Ten Commandments without a God. But I don’t know who gave them to us.”

SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: “I think that the French philosophers would say that because we are man, we have our nature, and our nature is of such a nature that we need the set of rules to survive as a species.”

Is it not also true that one of the most engaging qualities of Czechs is scepticism? The person in the audience asked a question about agnosticism and not being able to take the responsibility of belief. But isn’t this scepticism also an extremely healthy state of affairs, especially given Czech history, where, again and again, people have been told what to believe in?

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “Do you think that Czechs are sceptics?

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “They believe in their scepticism!”

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “I don’t think that Czechs are sceptics. I think that Czechs are cautious. They have the tendency to doubt, but I don’t think they are really sceptical as a nation.”

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “And again, I must reiterate, scepticism is yet another ideology. Scepticism is not getting rid of ideology. Scepticism is another ideology. We could go with René Descartes, who started this whole thing: ‘I doubt this and this and this…’ I doubt his doubting, because, quite frankly, if you read it very carefully, he just changed the belief sets from what was previously believed to new belief sets. You can’t get rid of ideology. You always have to swap one for another.”

MAN IN AUDIENCE: “My name is Bruce Konviser and I’m a freelance journalist and lecturer here in Prague. [Stephen Weeks] spoke a few minutes ago about the issue of people getting run over on crosswalks and he attributed it in part to a lack of faith or a lack of belief in society. I think that’s manifestly false. I think the problem of the crosswalks is another manifestation of a country twenty years after communism still trying to come to terms with civil society. It’s an issue of people still trying to come to terms with what they can do and what they can’t do, and what they should do and what they shouldn’t do, because after communism collapsed, basically everybody confused the freedom of democracy with a kind of anarchical freedom to do whatever they felt they could do and whatever they could get away with. And they’re still trying to come to terms with that, twenty years later. That’s not unique to the Czech Republic. It’s the same thing in Poland, a highly Catholic country; it’s the same thing everywhere in the former Soviet Bloc. I think that’s the problem with the crosswalks among many other things.”

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “I’ll be quite short, because this doesn’t really answer your question, but you’ve sparked off a thought in my head. The only time when our ‘should’ and ‘want’ are aligned – usually in an adult person ‘I want’ and ‘I should’ are disaligned – is in childhood. Looking at Nietzsche I could almost argue that we have ‘Übermensch’ among us in the form of little children. Let’s imagine a chamber, where everything you did in that chamber would be unknown to anybody, including God. What’s more, in that chamber, you could do whatever you want, all the fancies that you have in your head. Now, the first question is, would you enter such a room? The second question is, what would you do in that room, because you are left with your own restrictions only? So, in an adult person, we quite often actually want the things that we don’t want. Again, it’s the second derivation of a thing – I want to look at pornography, but I don’t want to want. You need first to tackle that. And it’s always interesting to study these inconsistencies that children don’t have but we do. So we put up a sort of artificial layer of mock beliefs and mock commandments, and those are exactly the mock commandments that you are left with in that chamber which nobody sees. Those are the ultimate restrictions that we put on ourselves. You could call it morals, but that would be a mishandling of the term a little bit. But, even in a room where you could do whatever you wanted to do, you wouldn’t want to do everything that you wanted to do!”

SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: “You know, in one of my poems I have a saying that we cannot want what we want…”

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “There we go! Poetry meets economics!”

SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: “It’s the poem, ‘Hell, The Soul, Banners’ and it’s about modal verbs. Modal verbs are very important, because, if you are in such a room as you described, it’s a situation for modal verbs. But I want to make a little observation. I think no one can say what he or she will do in that room until the moment when he or she enters it. You cannot say in advance.”

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “But would you enter it?”


[Reads poem:]

Hell, The Soul, Banners So, today love’s just
So, all of us who thought
  we can do what we want
  we needn’t we can’t just want
  we can want what we want all of us will meet in Hell
under extremely gruesome punishments
  in the midst of alien children, and find
  your own
  in the midst of alien women, and find
  in the midst of fathers and mothers
  and all of them yours
  amid gods and grain and sperm
  within the soul and free will
  where there’s nothing
  just winds fluttering
  like banners.

I face quite a problem: how to end this discussion. We are talking, as we sit here, on the last day of Chanukah, the programme is going on air on Christmas Day, there will also be many listeners to Radio Prague around the world who are neither Christian nor Jewish and might have a quite different set of values, so I’m not sure how to end this discussion. Maybe if one of you could help me…

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: “It may be that our professed belief systems are quite different: I profess Christianity or I profess Islam or whatever. But maybe again, coming back to the secondary relation, we have much more in common. I want to want this is much more common in mankind than what I actually want, and I think this is where we need to find unity between different beliefs. We all want to not want to kill, but occasionally we do want to kill. We despise that desire, but some desires we quite invoke, and I think this is where we can be united truly across many belief systems, because we actually put away our professed belief systems and look beyond what we actually want to believe are our belief systems to parts that we don’t believe in, yet we do believe in!”

JANA FRAŇKOVÁ: “If I may, it just occurred to me that even though, in Czech, we don’t distinguish between belief and faith, there is something about the word ‘faith’ which we actually have a word for in Czech – if you are faithful to something, you are ‘věrný’ and that’s something else than to believe in something. So I think that perhaps we need more faith because then perhaps we’ll be faithful to what we think is right or wrong, even in this crazy society – or even this crazy country – that we have nowadays.”

SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: “Speaking about faith, I forgot to say one point of Wilfred Cantwell Smith. When he tried to explain to his readers what faith is, if compared with belief, he said it’s something similar with the Latin word ‘credo’, and credo, etymologically, goes with ‘cors, cordis’ which means ‘heart’. And it reminded me of the classical statue of Saint Augustine where he has in his hand a heart which is burning, and in the burning heart he has a feather, a quill, for writing. It’s a point that you cannot write in a different way than in this way, as Saint Augustine did.”