It is often argued that the Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries in the world. This claim is usually based on the sociological surveys and census data which show that only a small proportion of Czechs goes regularly to church and that most of the Czech Republic's population does not report even a formal affiliation to any church
However, the idea that Czechs are almost completely indifferent to any religion is not accurate. The apparent lack of interest in traditional forms of Christianity is accompanied by the massive popularity of what sociologists call "invisible" or "alternative" religion and what could be best described as a belief in magic. Czechs may not be very enthusiastic churchgoers but many of them easily accept the idea that fortune-tellers can predict the future, lucky charms bring good fortune or that the stars might influence their lives. Moreover, claims about Czech non-religiosity are also complicated by the growth of charismatic and evangelical movements in recent years. Even though the total number of evangelicals and charismatics is small, some of these denominations have multiplied their membership several times in the 10 years between the last two censuses.
Weak support for traditional church religion is partly a legacy of Czech nationalism of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century and its interpretation of the country's religious history. Catholicism, which was the major religion at that time, was seen as an Austrian import that forcibly replaced the "true" religion of the Czech nation – Protestantism. The denunciation of the Hapsburg monarchy and German language and culture (though, paradoxically, the German-speaking urban intelligentsia played a major role in the first wave of Czech nationalism) thus also included also a rejection of the Catholic faith. Nationalist anti-Catholic arguments appealed to many Czechs even though most of the population remained formally affiliated to the Roman Catholic church.
However, in 1918, when Czechoslovakia gained independence from the Hapsburg monarchy, the country experienced a massive religious change without any parallel in Europe at that time. In the first three years of independence, one and half million of Catholics (mainly of Czech ethnicity) left the church and this trend – even though in a much weaker form – continued in the following years. As not much survived from the Czech Protestantism and the Hussite movement into the 20th century, the Protestant churches were too weak to step in and fill the gap. Some ex-Catholics joined a newly formed liberal denomination called the Czechoslovakian (Hussite) church but a significant number of them simply became "unaffiliated". And even the Czechoslovakian (Hussite) church itself did not prove to be a success as it lost about 90% of its members in the next decades.
Indifference towards church religion was, in the second half of the 20th century, further deepened by the anti-religious propaganda and persecution of the communist regime but we should not interpret the Czech non-religiosity simply as a legacy of the communist past. The Czech population had rather ambiguous attitudes towards the church even before the onset of the communism, which explains why none of the other Central European post-communist country displays a similarly low support for traditional religion as the Czech Republic's population.
However, as already mentioned, our picture would not be complete if we concluded that all churches are doomed or that Czechs are simply indifferent to any form of religion. On the contrary, small evangelical and charismatic denominations are thriving. While the numbers of evangelicals are still small and we can debate the real importance of their expansion, the substantial popularity of magic and superstition cannot be pushed aside as trivial. The growth of the evangelicalism, then, and persistence of an interest in the supernatural both suggest that, under the secular surface, many Czechs hunger after something beyond their everyday material world.
Dana Hamplová, a sociologist at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.