Thursday, January 1, 2015

Czechs and religion

I was asked how is it possible that so many Czech people don't belong to any of the churches. What caused current situation when almost 70 percent of whole Czech population isn't registered in any of the existing churches? Why are so many people in the Czech Republic atheists? I'll try to answer these questions.

We have to start deep in the past. We can say it all started in the beginning of 15th century. Most of you probably already heard about Hussite wars and their reason - disagreement with the catholic church, which had many flaws those days. New movements and church which appeared from the Hussite Wars, so called Hussites or "Chalice People", was really strong - almost 80 percent of Czech population belonged to them before the 30 years war. 

Catholic church was percieved as a rich, but hostile, selfish organisation. And this was valid even during the 30 years war. But after the Czechs lost their fight for new king (they wanted another king, not one from Habsburg family, but this is looong story), recatholisation started. It means situation when common people are given only one chance - to change their faith from protestant/hussite to catholic. Noblemen were given more chances, they could leave the country which was not allowed to common people (but it happened anyway and many Czech people left to other European countries because they were not willing to change their faith). 

Stone cross from the beginning of 19th century near Zbožice, Vysočina region.

Then we have about one and half century when only Catholic church was allowed in Czech lands. Josef II.'s law from 1781, Patent of Toleration, showed that many people were hidden protestants - many people, whole villages in some areas such as Vysočina region, declared themselves protestant in very short time after the Patent. But the numbers were low, just about 5 to 10 percent of the population (low number compared to those 80 percent of non-catholics before the 30 years war). 

The rest of population remain catholic. And here the problem rised. When Czech nation began its way to the modern nation in the second half of 19th century, Catholic church was still percieved as something foreign, German and hostile to Czechs (as it was during the Hussite wars and 30 years war and the years after it). Hussite period was percieved as a golden age of Czech nation - and Catholic church was losing worshippers. 

And this continued after the breakdown of Habsburg monarchy. People were allowed to leave a church from 1872 but not too many of them did it before 1920 - the pressure from the church was still quite large because people meant money. But since 1920 the number of believers has declining tendency. People were leaving Catholic church by thousands as they still percieved it as a hostile organisation. Many people declared themselves "without confession" (bez vyznání) or belonging to new Czechoslovak (Hussite) church. And many people of the elites (such as first Czech president Tomáš Garrique Masaryk) were presenting this tendency.

And then - the Second World War and then Communism came. And communism wasn't regime friendly to religion. The percieving of Catholic church as something hostile was maintained by the communists because church was still quite strong in 1940's and 1950's. Communist propaganda against church was strong, really strong. Physical repression, liquidation of church orders, political show trials with prelates and priests... But all this had no chance to success if there wasn't that historical background.

All this led to the current Czech situation when almost 70 percent of people are "without confession"...

19 comments:

  1. Do you think, then, that this was a reason to leave the country in the late 19th century? Or were the reasons still mostly economical and not religious? My Kovar line was catholic at that time and married in a Chicago catholic church but never baptized any of their children here. My Nemec line was Evangelical when they lived in the Litomerice area but still dropped their religious practices in the US.

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    1. Religion wasn't the case for leaving the country in 19th century - money and wealth were the reason. :) People expected that they will be able to earn more money across the sea, they expected their lives will be better. I suppose the "loss" of religion is connected to the fact they weren't forced to visit the church as they most probably were in Bohemia (not directly, but by social rules etc.).

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    2. Google "Czech Freethinkers." It may provide you with some answers.

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  2. Economics and the possibility of owning land were the main rains to emigrate, almost never religion. This is one of the great American myths about immigration beginning with the Pilgrims, who in fact did not tolerate other religions. Do we have freedom of religion? Can an atheist be elected president today? Can a Muslim child in America aspire to be president?
    Czechs often dropped religion in urban America. There were some Catholic loyalists like the Moravia settlements in Texas.

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    1. Religion was a reason for immigration to the U.S. The Pilgrims were Saints & Strangers (Separatists) and they were not in the Kings favor and allowed to leave for religious reasons. In the Czech area look up "Free Thinkers"

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  3. Very interesting analysis! When you mention people that declared themselves "bez vyznání" does that include "freethinkers?" And did freethinkers come to be as organized in the home country as the did in the U.S.? See this article about freethinkers in Chicago, for example: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/487.html.

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    1. Mike, people who were "bez vyznání" were not organized - they just didn't belong to any church anymore.

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  4. Nice post. It is important though to include the Freethought movement when speaking of Bohemians (Czechs) and religion. In the United States the split was almost 50-50 between those Bohemians who were religious and those who were Freethinkers. This can lead to many issues in searching for records, etc.

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  5. My father was a member of a Board of Education in a Chicago suburb which was heavily Czech. The local clergy both Catholic and Protestant requested that the Board allow Children to leave school early one day every two weeks. Members of the public spoke pro and con. One member of the clergy spoke up reminding the people of Jan Huss. A man shouted "And the Catholics burned him at the stake". This happened in the late 1940s.

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  6. "Bez vyznání" actually means that people don't consider them selves catholic, protestant or any other religion. Basically means that they do not practice religion regardless of their believe, even though in a lot of cases they were baptized as children.

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  7. Very informative article. Now I understand why my grandmother from Bohemia disliked churches. She wasn't fond of public education and took my Dad out of elementary school. The city made him go to a trade school. Grandma didn't win that one!
    But my grandparents from Carpatho-Rusyn background did come to America partly because of religious persecution. They were Orthodox and entire neighborhoods were formed around their churches in America. They still exist. My family eventually went to Roman Catholic churches. As everyone began moving to the suburbs their Orthodox Church was to far away and they needed a neighborhood church, especially for their children. The Orthodox Church eventually was sold and there were two smaller Churches which became one church in a southern suburb. It is exquisite and looks just like a European Orthodox Church.

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  8. Does any one know why all the headstones in a Catholic parish church yard (in Malsice, near Tabor) would have been removed? Someone told me the soviets made the churches remove them... is this true? I was recently in Malsice and was hoping to find my Drevo and Podhrazsky ancestor's headstones but every single one had been removed from the yard... I know they had been there at one time!

    Cammi Drevo-Amezcua
    Reno, NV USA

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    1. Cammi, many old cemeteries were moved to new locations during the 2nd half of 20th century because of the hygienic norms. And those tombstones which were not under care of some family were destroyed (and often used as building material which is really sad). So, if no one from the family stayed in Bohemia and paid for the burial place and tombstone right before the move, the tombstones (and people buried under them) were not moved to the new location.

      If I'm not wrong, the cemetery was originally around the church in Malsice and then moved to the current location which is out of the village - so it's exactly the case I have described. New hygienic rules --> cemetery had to be moved --> no one paid for tombstones --> tombstones were not moved, but destroyed.

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    2. In the Czech Republic, the laws do not allow ownership of the grave site, but only its lease. The lease can be transferred to another person once it is up, or it could be renewed for another 20 years. Once the lease is up, and it is not renewed, the municipality that maintains the cemetery, will size the spot and reuse it for another burial. The headstones became the property of the municipality as an abandoned property. The way a family maintain cemetery plot is that they transfer the lease from one generation to another.
      Subsequently, the majority of the cemeteries in the Czech Republic were established after 1781, when a new law forbade a burial within the city limits. However, the cities expanded, but with a few exceptions, you will not find any cemetery (except Jewish) that will have a burial headstone prior 1781.
      If you are looking for your ancestral burial site, it was most likely abandoned 20 years after the last funeral as the lease was up. The municipality should still offer information where the human remains rest. Many places, the remains are dug up and placed in common burial pit after 50 years from the last funeral.

      Additionally, Czechoslovakia was NOT Soviet state, nor ever part of it; therefore, Soviet rules did not apply to it. It was only Soviet allied satellite, and hosted Soviet troops between 1968-1991. For communist regime, it was totally irrelevant what was located around the church for burial site. The church funerals continued in the communist Czechoslovakia without any problems as they were not an issue for the communist government.

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  9. This is a very interesting and thoughtful analysis, thanks for sharing! It confirms something I have often felt, that the resurgence of nationalism led to a feeling of the Church as foreign.

    I feel though, that most analyses I've read discount the extent to which many Czechs enthusiastically re-embraced the church. It is my understanding that because of the particular history of the Hussite church, that on the eve of the 30 Years War there was less of a stark divide between Protestants and Catholics in Bohemia and Moravia than there were in other countries, and more of a continuum. After the Compacta of 1436, the Hussites (excluding the Taborites) basically became a rite of the Catholic Church. The differences at that point between the conservative Hussites and the Church were relatively minor. Over the next 150 odd years, however, many drifted further and further towards Protestantism, while others drifted back closer to Catholicism. Thus at the outbreak of the 30 Years War you could find in the Czech lands a spectrum of religious belief, in contrast to the more rigid divisions imposed in other lands by the "Cuius regio, eius religio" settlement of 1555 in the Peace of Augsburg.

    Especially among the peasantry, the expressed faith was still in most ways Catholic. The push to Protestantism had been largely led by burgers and noblemen, who had financial as well as theological reasons for embracing the new faith. Obviously this is painting in very broad brush strokes, and as you mention there were often small villages that retained their Protestant faith even after the Habsburg reimposition of Catholicism. But thinking in these terms does help to explain the ease which with the Catholic faith was reimposed in Bohemia and Moravia in the countryside. Indeed, in the 1700's and 1800's the Czech lands were actually known for their piety, as witnessed by the popularity of pilgrimages such as to Svatá Hora.

    Sorry to go on so long, but I think the mindset of Czechs towards the Church as something foreign and imposed is in a significant measure an invention of the 19th century. A more accurate appraisal would factor in the many divisions that existed in the Hussite times, the diversity of religious beliefs in the period leading up to the 30 Years War, and the enthusiasm with which many re-embraced and practiced the Catholic faith over the next 200-plus years.

    Thanks again for posting this - it was a big help to me in understanding the situation.

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    1. Actually, the push toward the Catholic church in the 16th century started by the wealthy nobility than the peasantry. It gave them better social prestige in Hapsburg dominated state. While the ideological division between the Catholic and Bohemian-Protestantism was indeed small, the majority of people did not want rich church organization(s). Czechs believed that they could spend money for something better than on church. The peasantry disliked the Catholic organization because they were poor. Czech Recatolization was only successful on the surface, but the Czechs lacked zeal and identity with it. Even in the middle of the 18th century, when the Catholic church was dominant, many Czech communities lacked church, because its population was unwilling to invest a few resources they had for it. The Catholic faith was imposed from cities to the countryside, and it was possible due widespread depopulation caused by the 30 Years War.

      The modern Czech nation formed on a secular basis. Unlike in Poland, Serbia, Ireland, modern Czech identity was not formed from the Christianity. The Bohemian/Moravian catholic clergy and was not a nation/statehood forming organization. By the end of the 19th century, the Czech nationals identified the Catholic church as the main hindrance against full Czech emancipation. Two generations have grown in a country where they felt they were second class citizen, unappreciated by Vienna, with a church that was not even protecting their interest unlike in other Hapsburg lands. When Czechoslovakia was created, more than 1 million of its citizens left the Catholic Church in protest by 1920. The dislike between interwar Czechoslovak government and the Catholic church was well known, that had a hard time accepting independent Czechoslovak statehood. This was one of the reasons, why the Catholic church declined after 1918 well 30 years prior the communist takeover. The church national policy between 1867-1920 was the primary cause for secularization of the Czech society.

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  10. Is there any information online that gives listings of the dead buried in specific cemeteries...something like the volunteer contributed FindAGrave.com or even individual listings??? It would be great to know ahead of time if a cemetery of interest is worth visiting.

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    1. Well, there is no central database. There are several small databases but those contain maximum hundreds of records. I'll try to collect a links list to those which have at least few cemeteries online.

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  11. It is only then will the man realize he is not to fight in the name of religion because any religion is meant to unite the individual with the divine.guarantor

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