Is Prague the Least Religious City in the World?

Published October 30, 2017 by Caragh B Aylett

If you stand at the top of Petřin Hill in Prague, you will be astounded by the striking beauty of the city. From here, the river weaves before you dividing this ancient settlement into two. On the far side of the river stands the medieval Old Town Square, now complete with hordes of visitors and tour guides eager for your custom. In the winter; a place for bustling markets and the occasional snow fall. To your left, you will notice the spire of St.Vitus Cathedral peeking through the walls of the castle, where she stands, glorified, at its centre. If you’re lucky, the sun will set slowly behind her revealing a stunning silhouette celebrating the place where King Charles IV was laid to rest, and where, in the midst of Communism, Archbishop Beran preached his final sermon before internment. Perhaps, you will notice how the skyline is consistently interrupted by churches and you would certainly be forgiven for assuming that, this now popular tourist destination is brimming with Christian fervour. However, the statistics paint a very different picture.

The 2011 Census asserted that of almost 10.5 million citizens only around 1.5 million (14%) identified with a specific church or religious body, of these, over 1 million identified as being Roman Catholic. The census also indicated that 4.5 million citizens were not willing to provide an answer to the question. Statistically, this places the Czech Republic as one of the most irreligious states in the world, behind countries such as Japan and China. However, these statistics, often churned out in guide books, fail to capture the full experience of Czech Christianity.

In the fifteenth century, Jan Hus emerged as a figure in opposition to the Catholic Church. After his execution, war broke out between the Hussites and those loyal to the Roman Catholic Church. This demonstration of passion, and subsequent increase in Czech Hussites, highlights the importance of Christianity to the Czech people. However, after the Catholic victory at Bílá Horá in 1620 the country was subjected to recatholicisation. This brutal action resulted in Catholicism invoking bitterness amongst Czechs.

Jan Hus preaching, from a Czech manuscript, 1490s

The Communist era added yet another nail in the coffin of Czech Christianity. The coup of 1948 brought with it an attack on the churches, with specific brutality towards the Catholic Church; priests were imprisoned, monks and nuns were sent to concentration camps and the infrastructure of the church was swiftly brought under state control. In the years that followed, this control loosened only during the 1968 'Prague Spring', however, when the Soviet tanks rolled in during August of that year, the crack down on religion resumed. Following the end of Communism in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the church did seek a revival. This was evident in the Catholic Church's programme: '10 Years of Spiritual Renewal of the Nation'. However, it was not possible to regain all the congregations lost during the communist years, the huge decline of diocesan priests from 5,779 in 1948 to 2,691 in 1980 did, of course, leave its scars causing the community of Christians that existed in the city to become even fewer.

Today, Prague is a wonderfully international city. The number of expats has risen sharply in recent years and they have brought with them a new approach to Christianity. In Prague, many international, evangelical, congregations meet each week, and have outreach teams serving refugees, the homeless and sex workers in the heart of the city. Equally, the English speaking Anglican Church, alongside Orthodox and Catholic congregations of varying languages, has been increasingly populated by expats and international students. In a place where Christianity was once suppressed - it is now almost impossible to walk through Old Town Prague without being handed a religious leaflet, passing by a stand of the Watchtower, or stumbling upon some form of Christian performance especially around Christmas and Easter.

Old town Prague

Statistically, it is true that Prague is one of the least religious capital cities in the World. However, to limit understandings of faith to this census detracts from the vibrant Christian communities that do exist. The communities of expats in non-Czech speaking churches may be transient, thus not impacting the census, but this does not mean they aren't significant both in size and outreach. Additionally, in the Czech Republic, we must consider that the scepticism of religious institutions may be rooted in the collective memory of re-catholicisation, or in personal memories of Communism, which saw consequences for being Christian. Indeed, if this is true then it is possible to consider that many of the 4.5 million citizens who did not disclose their faith, are Christian. If this is true, then this so-called 'atheist state' could really be much more Christian than is suggested in the statistics repeated over and over again by Prague's tour guides.

Caragh B Aylett is a student at Durham University and completed the online course Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe: Modern Challenges with the Woolf Institute.

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