Atheism and Areligion in the Czech Republic: Unmarked Identities of the Czech Redditsphere

Based on self-declared religious affiliation, the modern Czech Republic is regularly cited as the most areligious country in Europe and one of the least religious countries in the world according to internal and international survey data.[1] When asked, most Czechs choose not to affiliate with, or perhaps affiliate against, a church or religious tradition.[2]

With that said, the Czech Republic, as with most nations, possesses a quite complex religious environment. In some ways it might be characterized by widespread irreligiosity evidenced by unparalleled levels of church absence, while at the same time home to an alternative spiritual milieu resembling that of many Western nations.[3] What is clear however is that the prevailing attitude among Czech natives is one of church avoidance and indifference, if not opposition, toward primarily Christian institutions and their adherents, and a more general concept of “organized religion” and religious people.[4]

To investigate how areligiousness in the Czech Republic manifests itself in the every day life, I conducted Reddit-mediated interviews with self-identified atheist/agnostic and non-identified areligious Czechs. Based on the Redditors’ responses and within the framework of social unmarkedness (described below), three themes emerged: non-identification of nonreligious identity, non-discussion of religious topics, and marking religious people. Overall, the Redditors described their environments as devoid of religion, both in its manifestation in social dialogue among homogenous groups of (assumed) areligious people and in the degree of its relative importance for the Redditors’ self-concept.


 

Historical Context

A century of gradual secularization and centuries more of historically ingrained anticlerical sentiments have produced a uniquely Czech culture of “churchlessness,”[5] which is generally credited for the recent dominance of religiously unaffiliated Czechs.[6] Just prior to World War I, the region that is now the Czech Republic was dominated by Roman Catholicism.[7] In 1921, the first post-World War I census of Czech lands estimated that 82.0% of the population were Roman Catholic and 7.2% were religiously unaffiliated.[8] By 2011, 10.4% identified as Catholic and 79.2% responded as having “no belief” or did not declare a religious affiliation.[9] Other religious groups that comprise the Czech religious landscape include various small Christian Protestant denominations, a ballooning “other” category, and the emergence of new religious movements.[10]

The dramatic cultural shift from majority-religious to majority-areligious is attributed to several historical factors, namely the fall of the Austrian Empire and the Habsburg Monarchy in 1918. The Monarchy, which ruled over the Czech lands for over four centuries, forcibly (re)converted the Czech population to Catholicism and at one time banned other forms of Christianity.[11] A wave of Czech nationalism immediately followed the collapse of the Empire, characterized by widespread anticlerical and anti-Catholic sentiments due to the Church’s association with the oppressive Habsburg Monarchy.[12]

In successive years, over a million Czechs left the Catholic Church, half of which joined the newly established semi-protestant nationalist Czechoslovak Church and the other half rejected religion altogether.[13] Decades of state atheism and repression of religious institutions under communist rule (1948-1989) only served to strengthen extant Czech anticlericalism and support for a secular state.[14] Notably, this attitude has not persisted in most other post-communist states, which have witnesses a “religious revival” following the collapse of the Soviet Union.[15]

Social Markedness and Unmarkedness

The inversion of the Czech relationship to religion and secularism represents a dramatic shift in culturally determined norms of identity and behavior. By virtue of overwhelming demographic control by the areligious, religiously affiliated Czechs now represent a minority social class. This fact is particularly striking considering the relative minority status of self-identified atheists in the Czech Republic only a century ago[16] and the presence of social stigma, even hostility, experienced by atheists in many countries today.[17]

In relation to identity and social behavior, the concept of “markedness” can inform the way in which dominant cultural traits define the norms and standards for a society and consequently shape the identities of its members.[18] The unmarked, dominant trait is that which is inconspicuous and neutral, lacking a distinct feature relative to the surrounding cultural environment, while the marked trait(s) are dependent on their relationship to the unmarked; those possessing the trait are visible because of their distinctness from the norm and are often the subjects of societal labeling.[19] Marked people are typically aware of their otherness; unmarked people are typically unaware of their sameness.[20]

Within this framework, the dominant religious category in many areas of the Czech Republic would be considered nonbelief and non-affiliation. This discussion will focus primarily on the effects of unmarkedness as they relate to the identity and social behavior of areligious Czechs.

Reddit Interview Method

The psychosocial effects of this phenomenon on those living in areas of the Czech Republic dominated by areligion was the primary interest of this Internet-mediated interview project. In areas where the absence of religion is considered “normal,” I questioned: How do self-identified atheists and other non-religious people in the Czech Republic, responding to questions on Reddit, conceive of their (a)religious identity and how does that influence their behavior related to discussing the topic of religion and spirituality with others?

Two Subreddits were selected for this project based on the likelihood of finding native Czech users: the Czech (r/czech) and Prague (r/Prague) Subreddits. Identical posts were submitted to each Subreddit asking how the users talk about religion in their everyday lives.

Of note, while these groups of Redditors are not geographically oriented (i.e., users are physically located in different parts of or outside of the Czech Republic), their Subreddit could be considered its own type of virtual community or “cyberculture,” with users bonded by common interests and characteristics, where they can form personal relationships using the web as a medium to connect, and which might cause effects in the “real world.” These individuals’ “real life” identities and offline environments are likely not representative of the diversity of the Czech religious and cultural landscape. Thus, it is important to consider that the information provided might only represent the thoughts and feelings of a distinct subset of areligious Czechs.

Non-Identification

According to respondents, atheism, agnosticism, and a general sense of religious disinterest constitute the standard for self-identification within their cultural environments. More often, non-identification via an act of omission[21] was suggested, meaning their lack of affiliation is not considered an important part of their self-concept; rather it is formed by default and without much contemplation. Many respondents who went on to explain this feeling suggested that they lacked the want or need to label themselves in an environment in which most people they encounter carry the same mark. Several also stated that they lacked much exposure to religion and had few, if any religious peers.

We just don’t really think about it. People don’t call themselves atheists or agnostics. […] Atheism on its own isn’t anything to identify with in a neutral world. It’s just a response to an unsupported religious claim that there is a god. Since [the Czech Republic] is one of the most atheistic/non religious countries and even the few religious people keep their beliefs for themselves, we have little to no reason to make it explicit that we are atheists. We just are who we are.

I don’t label myself an atheist and I don’t identify with or feel close to other atheists just because they’re atheist as well. We don’t have clubs, we don’t have a common worldview or anything like that. It doesn’t really make sense to ask about beliefs of an atheist. Anyway, my Christian friends are surrounded by literally hundreds of people like me, so I guess that another reason why they don’t ask about my atheism is that it wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary to them.

I wasn’t even aware there are religious people in the world until I had access to the internet. That about sums up the environment I grew up in.

A smaller number of respondents, while somewhat passively identifying with their lack of belief, actively chose to express their opposition to religion (i.e., through a conscious act of commission[22]) and considered other self-constructed labels (e.g., “anti-theist”) to communicate and organize those feelings.

Everyone begins as atheist. That’s what I find interesting. Neutral natural world has no need for these things. It’s easy to understand then, when anti-theists see religions as parasites, with quotes like “religion poisons everything”. I’m personally leaning more towards anti-theism the more I learn about some religious practices, but as long as I dont engage with anyone religious, I’m just me.

Non-Discussion

The overwhelming majority of Redditors who directly answered the question, “How do you talk about religion?,” suggested that religion was not talked about among their peers and in their environment, or that it was a private matter. Most who provided an explanation for this behavior implied that it was because they mostly talked to other areligious people and were not exposed to religious topics in their daily lives, suggesting that their inaction was the result of a passive act of omission. Redditors were less clear on whether they actively chose to avoid the topic of religion (i.e., through an act of commission).

We don’t talk about religion. It’s not taboo, but it’s a private thing and most people don’t really care / ask about it. And since majority of the population is atheist (there are some christians, but I’d say it’s mostly the older generations), rarely does anyone bring it up.

No, why would it be important? What would the conversation even be about? We all live in our own social bubbles and are in contact with like-minded people. Why would e.g. two atheists discuss religion? Religious people believe in god / some higher power, atheists don’t. You know all that, and you know you will not change the other person’s mind. I just don’t really see it as an interesting conversational topic.

However, some mentioned that they did discuss religion with others who they knew were religious, suggesting that exposure to religion and perhaps people who consider their affiliation to be a significant marker of their identity, might have acted as a catalyst for the dialogue.

“Marking” Religious People

In describing their sense of self and related social practices, Redditors often used religious adherents as a reference point. The extent of their remarking about them in itself was quite interesting, as with a pattern of labeling religious people in often negative terms. One Redditor who self-identified as religious expressed feeling uncomfortable publically declaring their identity, and another respondent relayed a similar feeling from a religious colleague.

People generally respect your right to believe whatever, but the majority will think you’re at least a little bit nuts if you seriously believe and are outspoken about it. It generally doesn’t come up, though.

A bunch of loonies, mostly.

Non-Identity and Non-Behavior of Non-Religious Czech Redditors

As described by Czech Redditors, the absence of religion and religious adherents in parts of the Czech Republic has created a culture unlike much of the world. In these areas, the presence of religion is considered abnormal, something out of the ordinary and its non-presence is considered normal, unremarkable, and insignificant. The secular nature of the Redditors’ environments is a cultural reality of which they are generally unaware or uninterested in publically acknowledging. Accordingly, many respondents expressed that they did not feel that their areligiousness was a meaningful part of their identity, sometimes chose not to ascribe themselves an “atheist” or “agnostic” label, and did not discuss topics of religion in public. Religious adherents who make their affiliation visible are marked by the nonreligious majority and also might mark themselves in their awareness of others’ negative perceptions of religion.

The relative lack of importance afforded by the Czech respondents to their areligious (non)affiliation resembles a pattern described by P. Zuckerman in a study between atheist identities in the United States, where religion is ubiquitous and an integral part of societal discourse, and Scandinavia, where religion is relatively absent from the public sphere.[23] The study’s findings suggest that U.S. atheists experience a stronger and more personally meaningful level of irreligiosity in contrast to Scandinavians.[24] Similarly, R. Tyrała interviewed nonbelievers in Poland, who make up just 8% of the overwhelmingly Catholic population and observed a negative reference group effect that actively influenced the atheists’ self-concepts.[25] The majority of the nonbelievers were raised as Catholics and remained in contact with the religion and its adherents in some form, and were thus acutely aware of their atheism.[26]

Reddit’s various Subreddits related to the topic of atheism are also evidence that there are many people in the world who find meaning in self-identifying as an atheist. These Subreddits are devoted entirely to discussing the topic of atheism and its relationship to religion. The r/atheism Subreddit, the most popular of these virtual communities has attracted 2,151,975 subscribers as of writing. Online and off, ardent atheists are finding their voices in the voices of an unapologetically outspoken, at times aggressive, generation of “New Atheist” thinkers, while other self-identified atheists battle against what they view as the “combative, ridiculing, counterproductive, and evangelizing” rhetoric of the New Atheists for the rights to the name.[27]

These examples suggest that there is not something inherent within atheism, agnosticism, or other religiously non-affialited ideologies that causes areligious people to feel indifferent towards religion and toward their own unique group identities. More broadly, the examples support the idea that the surrounding cultural environment in which one lives influences their (non)identity. The way in which one does or does not conceptualize their religious (or ethnic, gender, etc.) identity might be significantly influenced by the surrounding cultural context in which they live and in relation to the identities of other identities, which appear in that cultural space. Had the Czech Redditors been born in the U.S. or Poland for example, they might have identified more strongly with or been more conscious of their nonbelief as members of a minority demographic.[28]

In terms of their social behavior, the Czech Redditors were guided by what they perceived as the non-presence of religion in their society, leading to inaction in the form of not discussing religion with their peers, which they consciously viewed as unnecessary and also brought up built-in cultural norms related to the “private” nature of religious ideas. However, many did suggest that as long as they were respectful, if someone (perhaps an anonymous stranger on Reddit?) asked them about their atheism or wanted to talk about religion in some form, they usually felt fine participating, but that those opportunities were very uncommon.

 


Note: This post was originally written as a student research paper and adapted for this format. Grammatical mistakes and the respondents’ “e-sociolect”[29] were not altered unless necessary for interpretation.

 


References:

Nešpor, Zdeněk R. “Attitudes towards Religion(s) in a ‘Non-believing’ Czech Republic.” Anthropological Journal of European Cultures, no 19 (2010): 68-84.

Nešporová, Olga and Zdeněk R. Nešpor. “An Unsolved Problem for the Modern Czech Nation.” Czech Sociological Review, no. 6 (2009): 1215-1237.

Spousta, Jan. “Changes in Religious Values in the Czech Republic.” Czech Sociological Review, no. 38 (2002): 345-363.

Hamplová, Dana and Zdeněk R. Nešpor. “Invisible Religion in a ‘Non-believing’ Country: The Case of the Czech Republic.” Social Compass, no. 56 (2009): 581-597.

Váně, Jan and Martina Štípková. “The National Religious Environment and the Orthodoxy of Christian Beliefs: A Comparison of Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.” Czech Sociological Review, no. 49 (2013): 403-425.

Czech Statistical Office. “Population by Religious Belief, Municipality Size Groups and by Regions,” 2011 Census Results (Public Database). Accessed March 17, 2018. https://www.czso.cz/csu/czso/population-censuses.

Tomka, Miklós. Expanding Religion: Religious Revival in Post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe. New York: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2011.

Pew Research Center. “Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe,” Pew Research Center Religion and Public Life. Published May 10, 2017. http://www.pewforum.org/2017/05/10/religious-belief-and-national-belonging-in-central-and-eastern-europe/.

Brekhus, Wayne H. Culture and Cognition: Patterns in the Social Construction of Reality. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2015.

Brekhus, Wayne H. “A Sociology of the Unmarked: Redirecting Our Focus.” Sociological Theory, no. 16 (1998): 34-51.

Scott, Susie. “A Sociology of Nothing: Understanding the Unmarked.” Sociology, no. 52 (2018): 3-19.

Kozinets, Robert V. Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd., 2010.

“Czechs on Reddit,” Czech Subreddit (online discussion forum). https://www.reddit.com/r/czech/.

“Prague,” Prague Subreddit (online discussion forum). https://www.reddit.com/r/Prague/.

“How do you talk about religion?” Czech Subreddit (online discussion forum). Published February 5, 2018. https://www.reddit.com/r/czech/comments/7vb29i/how_do_you_talk_about_religion/

“How do you talk about religion?” Prague Subreddit (online discussion forum). Published February 5, 2018. https://www.reddit.com/r/Prague/comments/7vb60b/how_do_you_talk_about_religion/.

Danesi, Marcel. Language, Society, and New Media: Sociolinguistics Today. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Zuckerman, Phil. “Contrasting Irreligious Orientations: Atheism and Secularity in the USA and Scandinavia.” Approaching Religion, no. 2 (2012): 8-20.

Tyrała, Radosław. “Living without God in a Religious Country: Polish Nonbelieving as a Cultural Minority.” Social Compass, no. 65 (2018): 131-144.

Stampach, Ivan D. “Unearthing Czech Religiosity.” The New Presence (Summer 2009): 16-17.

Pew Research Center. “Religious Landscape Study,” Pew Research Center Religion and Public Life. Published May 11, 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/


Endnotes:

[1] Nešpor (2010), 68-84; Nešporová and Nešpor (2009), 1216. Data are typically based on the Czech Census and International Social Survey Programme (ISSP). The former Soviet East Germany often matched the Czech Republic on measures of irreligion/irreligiosity according to the ISSP, but Germany as a whole is significantly more religious.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Nešpor (2010), 70; Hamplová and Nešpor (2009).

[4] See Stampach (2009); Nešporová and Nešpor (2009); and Nešpor (2010).

[5] Hamplová and Nešpor (2009), 1216-1217.

[6] Spousta (2002), 345-363.

[7] Tomka (2011), 216.

[8] Ibid. Slovak lands excluded.

[9] Czech Statistical Office (2011).

[10] See Nešpor (2010), 68-70.

[11] Nešporová and Nešpor (2009), 1216-1217; Spousta (2002), 345-363.

[12] Spousta (2002), 346.

[13] Nešporová and Nešpor (2009), 1216.

[14] Spousta (2002), 346-348; Nešporová and Nešpor (2009), 1216-1217.

[15] Tomka (2011). Tomka asserts that both religious revival and decline are occurring, however religious affiliation has markedly risen in most post-communist countries since 1989 and these countries are almost all (apart from the Czech Republic and perhaps Estonia) made up of majority religiously affiliated people. The degree of religiousity experienced by the states is of question. See also Pew Research Center (2017) for current estimates of religious affiliation across post-communist states.

[16] Tomka (2011), 216.

[17] For instance, atheists in the U.S. experience significant prejudice and are subject to mistreatment and discrimination. See Sims Brainbridge (2009), 324-325.

[18] Brekhus (2015).

[19] Brekhus (1998), 35-36.

[20] Brekhus (2015).

[21] Defined by S. Scott, act of omission, is when an individual is passively and unconsciously “not-being” and “not-doing” as the recipient of a default, dominant cultural trait. See Scott, 2018: 5.

[22] Defined by S. Scott, an act of commission is when one actively and consciously chooses to do or to be “nothing” in defiance or rejection of a disliked, marked trait. See Scott, 2018: 5.

[23] Zuckerman (2012).

[24] Ibid., 10-11.

[25] Tyrała (2018), 131-144.

[26] Ibid., 134-136.

[27] Brewster, 2014: 9-10.

[28] Atheists comprise 3.1% of the U.S. population according to Pew Research Center (2015).

[29] See Danesi (2016), 145-153.

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