According to a 2011 census, 79% of the Czech Republic’s population are either openly atheist or do not affiliate themselves with any religious standpoint. Even in the increasingly secular Europe of today, such figures are surprising. What explains the apparent non-religiosity of the Czechs?
It would be tempting to see the disdain for organised religion in the Czech Republic as a hangover of the communist era, which lasted from 1948 until 1989 in the country. Notorious for its anti-religious doctrines, communism could be interpreted as having eradicated religiosity from mainstream Czech society. Yet many other former Soviet-influenced and, indeed, global communist states show a different pattern. In some nations, organised religion has experienced a significant revival in the post-communist era as people initially resorted to divine faith as a means of coping with the turbulent times confronting them after the fall of the totalitarian system. It is arguable that in many cases, whilst organised religion was sidelined, personal religion persisted under communism, a commonplace in history when one belief system is artificially subverted by another.
A more distant historical explanation for Czech scepticism towards religion can be found by examining the Thirty Years’ War; particularly, the Bohemian Crisis that initiated it. Having been supplanted as King of Bohemia (an area that makes up the predominant part of today’s Czech Republic) by the Calvinist Elector Palatine Frederick V, Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II elicited the support of his Catholic allies to remove the rebels by force. Culminating in the Battle of White Mountain on 8th November 1620, Ferdinand’s mercenaries, led by the German Catholic League and Spain, retook Bohemia for the imperial crown.
In the space of just over a year, the religious landscape of Bohemia had been uprooted. Prior to Frederick’s usurpation of the crown, much of the population had been declared Utraquists, a heretical branch of the Catholic Church. There were also considerable numbers of Lutherans, Calvinists and Anabaptists. On the rise of the Calvinist Frederick to power, precedence was given to the Protestant cause and many Catholic lands and churches were destroyed or supplanted by the state. The regaining of Bohemia by Ferdinand just over a year later saw the converse happen, as Protestantism in all its forms was viciously rooted out, along with the Anabaptists, and “pure” Catholicism enforced, largely with the help of new emigrants from Imperial Austria.
This turbulent period, in which the laity were forcibly converted and reconverted may have played a significant part in distancing the native Czech people from organised state religion. Unlike their French, German, Spanish and Italian counterparts, the next few centuries saw a steady decline in Czech religious fervour and an increase in occultism and spiritual teachings.
Perhaps communism destroyed the last vestiges of Czech religiosity, or maybe it is simply the phenomenon of the 21st century and the ever-increasing challenges posed to religious teachings by logic, historical evidence and free speech. But the Thirty Years’ War cannot be ignored when examining the bond between the Czech people and organised religion. Without the Bohemian Crisis, Catholicism (in its corrupted form) may have retained a position of prominence that it still holds in some European countries today.