Fading Faith in Czechoslavakia

Fading Faith in Czechoslavakia (Milan Jaros, Knight Ridder Tribune / April 11, 2006)

The Czech capital is cluttered with churches. From humble parish chapels to the Gothic grandeur of St. Vitus Cathedral, the wonderment of Christian faith seems to ooze out of the city's every pore.

But the churches are mostly empty, and the only wonder to most Czechs is why anyone at all bothers to go.

Czechs are among Europe's most fervently secular people. According to a European Union survey published last year, only 19 percent of Czechs said they believed in God; most of the rest proclaim themselves atheists. Only the former Soviet republic of Estonia had a lower percentage of believers.

Jan Kittrich, a 30-year-old Prague lawyer, is typical. He described himself as an atheist but quickly added that he had nothing against churches.

"I love to visit them," he said. "But I see them as historical objects, not as religious places."

The Czechs are not alone. From Ireland to Italy, church attendance across Europe is down drastically, and apart from Western Europe's rapidly growing Muslim communities and the staunch piety of Poles in the east, religion as a moral force in public life continues to wane.

By all accounts, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is a devout Christian. But when Blair recently told a television interviewer that his religious faith informed his worldview, he was lambasted from the left and right. The message for British politicians was clear: If you happen to have a religious urge, keep it in the closet.

Mark Lilla, a professor of social thought at the University of Chicago, has described present-day Europe as "the closest thing to a godless civilization the world has ever known."

Europeans and Americans share a common civilization and many common values. But in matters of faith and religion, Europe and the U.S. appear to be headed in opposite directions.

Especially since the 2004 U.S. elections, Europeans have expressed surprise and alarm at the increasing intensity of American religiosity. Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission, has spoken of a widening "values gap" between Europe and the U.S.

But religion has long played an important role in U.S. civic life. God's name is invoked in the Declaration of Independence and on currency. More recently, "God Bless America" has become the sign-off of politicians across the spectrum.

President Bush is hardly the first president to proclaim America to be God's instrument on Earth. John Kennedy, in his 1961 inaugural address, declared with certainty that "here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own."

Europeans are more diffident about God, and the Czechs more so than most Europeans.

Lori Gregory grew up in Philadelphia and is a Christian missionary in the Czech Republic. She and her husband, Bill, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, came to Prague 13 years ago to work for Young Life, a Colorado-based organization that focuses on teenagers. It has not been an easy path.

"When we bring up the subject [of faith], it's like asking if you believe in UFOs. That's what we're up against here," Gregory said. "In the States, you can assume most kids know why Christmas is celebrated. In the Czech Republic kids think baby Jesus is like Cinderella or Shrek. ... They think it's all a fairy tale."

Given four decades of communist rule, perhaps that is not surprising. Kittrich, the lawyer, had one grandmother who told him stories from the Bible, and another, a police colonel, whose home was filled with statues of Lenin and Stalin. "That was her religion," he said.

His mother, he said, was a member of the "hippie generation" that rejected all religions and ideologies. Kittrich's first encounter with a church group came while he was a teenage exchange student in Elkin, N.C. He began attending services at the local Methodist church.

"Three times a week there were church activities--suppers for homeless people, youth groups. I joined the soccer team. The people were really nice, and it opened my eyes," he said.

"But it always seemed more of a social community than a religious community, so when I got back here, I didn't follow up."