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The deal with Czech atheism

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Monday’s papers featured the results of a survey by STEM polling agency which show that only a quarter of Czechs adheres to religion. Nothing new under the sun, you’d say. Czechs are after all “the most atheist nation in the world”. Are they really?

Czechs somewhat take pride in the nation’s reputation of exhibting a record tepid relationship with religion. It’s another win in the race to overcoming its own global insignificance—a pursuit shared by all small nations. (The author has recently been to Sydney and the Australians are no different. Despite their continent outsizing Europe, the population is only somewhat bigger than that of Czechoslovakia and the show about “the biggest hustlers” features a yachting team which left everyone bulging their eyes 30 years ago, an event which no one outside of Australia remembers.

Czechs are pampering their atheist “record” similarly — we’re the men, consuming the most beer and spitting on God from high above. They’re convinced of their supremacy — after all, public opinion polls done within the borders, such as the one mentioned at the beginning, and also the way in which foreign media reported on the recent pope’s visit suggest just that.

But if we look at the matter in a wider context, then everything is more complex. The Gallup polling agency, for instance, presented a more accurate ranking in February when it published its three-year-long survey of 143 countries worldwide, discrediting a number of clichés—for instance, the belief that Americans rank among nations with the strongest religious sentiment. They don’t. While for 100% of the polled people in Egypt, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, religion is an important part of life, two thirds of Americans feel that way. And, what’s more: the intensity of a religious sentiment differs from country to country. In Mississippi, the people are as zestfully religious as those in Lebanon or Iran—80% of the population claims adherence to religion—while in Vermont or New Hampshire, numbers half of Mississippi’s resemble Canada or Switzerland.

Although the Czech Republic ranks among countries with the most tepid religious sentiment, other states top the chart. Estonians came out as the least religious in Europe and worldwide (religion is important for 14%), followed by Scandinavians. Czechs follow after Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians—religion is important to a fifth of the polled. Top ten also features countries like France that we normally don’t associate with atheism.

The global poll also shows that the most common explanation for Czech atheism—the devastating legacy of communism—is also wrong. Romania and Georgia which both have sore experience with communism report high “religious” numbers as three quarters of Romanians and Georgians consider religion as key in their lives.

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