Looking for alternative forms of faith in the streets of postmodern Czech Republic

Looking for alternative forms of faith in the streets of postmodern Czech Republic

PRAGUE -- The Czech Republic's capital has long been called the "city of 100 spires" and there are many church steeples among all those soaring medieval landmarks.

But along the winding, cobblestone streets, something else is happening at eye level in the bookstores, artsy shops, coffee hangouts and sidewalk posters. This is where yoga mixes with sacred rocks, folk religion bumps into numerology and dark themes in fantasy comics blend into pop versions of Hinduism and Buddhism.

In today's Czech Republic, people are "still asking questions about what is good and what is bad, and questions about life and death," said Daniel Raus, a journalist and poet known for his years with Czech Radio, covering politics, culture and religion.

"What is different is that (Czechs) are saying, 'I will decide what is good and I will decide what is bad. No one can tell me what to believe about any of this.' "

These trends can be seen in revealing numbers in a new Pew Research Center study entitled "Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe."

Looking at the big picture, the survey shows that the influence and practice of faith is slipping in lands long identified with Catholicism, those closest to the European West. Eastern Orthodoxy is rising, especially in lands in which faith and national identity blend. Among the Orthodox, however, statistics linked to prayer and worship remain sobering.

But the location of the most stunning changes is clear.

"The most dramatic shift … has occurred in the Czech Republic, where the share of the public identifying as Catholic dropped from 44% in 1991 to 21% in the current survey," noted the Pew summary document. "Today, the Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries in Europe, with nearly three-quarters of adults (72%) describing their religion as atheist, agnostic or 'nothing in particular.' "

Love, hate, apathy, faith

One of the most important facts to grasp about the small, but growing, flock of Americans who call themselves unbelievers is that most of them are converts. "When you meet people who identify themselves as 'atheists' or 'agnostics,' these are people who are taking a stand, they're committing themselves to a strong stance in this culture," said Greg Smith, senior researcher with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "People just don't wind up in the atheists-and-agnostics camp. They are there for a reason."

While some came of age in atheistic homes, the vast majority of atheists -- four out of five in one survey -- were raised as Baptists, Catholics, Jews or in some other faith, he said. Then they changed their minds, usually after intensely personal experiences, years of reading or both.

"When you say you're an 'atheist' that usually means that you've made a choice," said Smith.

This is a crucial fact to remember when reading news reports about the recent "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey" released by the Pew Research Center.

While the New York Times headline calmly stated, "Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans," the Los Angeles Times was more typical of the national norm, offering a zinger that said, "If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist." USA Today proclaimed, "Unbelievers aced out the faithful when it comes to religious knowledge."

In this survey, 3,412 Americans -- 18 years old and up -- were asked 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity, other world religions and America's laws that govern faith and public life. Jews, Mormons, atheists and agnostics were "oversampled to allow analysis of these relatively small groups."

Overall, atheists and agnostics -- who were grouped together -- answered an average of 20.9 out of 32 questions correctly. The score for Jews was 20.5 and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints scored 20.3. There was a sizable gap, at that point, before reaching white evangelical Protestants, who scored 17.6, and white Catholics, who scored 16.0. Members of liberal Protestant churches scored 15.8.

The survey found that atheists and agnostics knew the most when asked about the beliefs of world religions. Mormons and evangelicals knew the most about the Bible and fine details of Christian beliefs.

Those who dug deeper found other complex dynamics at work, noted Smith. For example, while many noted that atheists and agnostics scored well, few commentators noticed the low score -- 15.2 -- earned by the much larger group of participants who choose the "nothing in particular" option when describing their beliefs.

This finding is significant in an age in which the number of Americans who describe themselves as "spiritual, but not religious" continues to rise. Some of the "nothing in particular" Americans are quite secular, said Smith, but others have their own "beliefs and religious practices that they say are quite important to them."

At the same time, it's important that believers who reported attending religious services once or more a week had higher levels of knowledge than those who attended less often. These scores rose higher when believers reported that they frequently read scripture, educational websites and books about religion. Believers who practiced their faith more often were also more likely to discuss religious issues with other people, further raising their scores.

The bottom line: People who hold strong beliefs about faith -- positive or negative beliefs -- seem to know more about religion than those who are less committed. Passion, not apathy, is what leads to knowledge.

Consider, for example, this crucial Catholic question. In one of the Pew survey's most surprising findings, 45 percent of the Catholics polled did not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine consecrated during the Mass are not merely symbols, but are believed to truly become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. However, nearly 70 percent of white Catholics who attended Mass once a week answered that question correctly.

"We already knew that Catholics who attend Mass every week act differently and even vote differently than other Catholics," said Smith. "What this survey shows is that Catholics who are more active in their faith think differently than other Catholics, too. ... Of course, it isn't surprising that people who enthusiastically practice their faith also know more about their faith, and even religion in general, than those who do not."

Voices of unbelievers, in pulpits

On Sunday mornings, you will find him leading hymns in one of the independent Church of Christ congregations somewhere in South Carolina. Call him "Adam." He is a church administrator, a "worship minister" and a self-proclaimed "atheist agnostic." That last detail is a secret. After all, his wife and teen-aged children are devout believers and he needs to stay employed.

"Here's how I'm handling my job. ... I see it as playacting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing," he said, during an interview for the "Preachers who are not Believers (.pdf)" report from the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

"I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don't believe what I'm saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that's what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that's what I'm doing."

The researchers behind this report do not claim they can document whether this phenomenon is rare or common. What they have right now is anecdotal material drawn from confidential interviews with five male Protestant ministers -- three in liberal denominations and two from flocks that, as a rule, are conservative. An ordained Episcopal Church woman was interviewed, but withdrew just before publication.

The authors of the report are philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, an outspoken leader in the movement many call the "New Atheism," and Linda LaScola, a clinical social worker with years of qualitative research experience. She is also an atheist, but, until recently, was a regular churchgoer.

"We started with a pilot study because this is very new ground," said LaScola, who conducted the interviews. "We are planning to do a larger study in the future."

The key is circulating this early material and then finding more ministers who are willing to be interviewed. The initial participants were found through contacts with the Center For Progressive Christianity and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. As this report candidly states: "Our sample is small and self-selected, and it is not surprising that all of our pastors think that they are the tip of an iceberg, but they are also utterly unable to confirm this belief."

What unites these ministers is their isolation from the believers in their pews, their awareness that they cannot honestly discuss their doubts and evolving beliefs. They also struggle with labels such as "atheist" or "agnostic," often insisting that they remain believers of some kind -- although they reject Christian doctrines or even theism.

This tension, the authors stressed, is "no accident" in these postmodern times.

"The ambiguity about who is a believer and who a nonbeliever follows inexorably from the pluralism that has been assiduously fostered by many religious leaders for a century and more: God is many different things to different people, and since we can't know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all," noted Dennett and LaScola. "This counsel of tolerance creates a gentle fog that shrouds the question of belief in God in so much indeterminacy that if asked whether they believed in God, many people could sincerely say that they don't know what they are being asked."

More than anything else, the report offers a striking mix of voices and motives.

"Darryl" the Presbyterian still calls himself a "Jesus Follower," but adds: "I reject the virgin birth. I reject substitutionary atonement. I reject the divinity of Jesus. I reject heaven and hell in the traditional sense, and I am not alone."

There's "Wes" the United Methodist: "I think the word God can be used very expressively in some of my more meditative modes. I've thought of God as a kind of poetry that's written by human beings."

A retired United Church of Christ pastor, "Rick," has learned to add this subtle disclaimer when reciting creeds: "Let us remember our forefathers and mothers in the faith who said, 'dot, dot, dot, dot'."

"Jack" the Southern Baptist has concluded that the "grand scheme of Christianity, for me, is a bunch of bunk." Thus, he is quietly planning a new career.

"If somebody said, 'Here's $200,000,' I'd be turning my notice in this week, saying, 'A month from now is my last Sunday.' Because then I can pay off everything."

Hitchens, Hitchens and God, too

When Peter Hitchens was eight years old, and his older brother Christopher was 11, their father asked the two hotheaded young Brits to sign a peace treaty. "I can still picture this doomed pact in its red frame, briefly hanging on the wall," noted Peter Hitchens, in a recent essay published in The Daily Mail. "To my shame, I was the one who repudiated it, ripped it from its frame and angrily erased my signature, before recommencing hostilities. ... Our rivalry was to last 50 years, and religion was one of its later causes."

Under ordinary circumstances, a column in a London newspaper about a fractured relationship between two brothers would not warrant much attention among readers who care about matters of faith and doubt.

The Hitchens brothers, however, are not your usual brothers.

As an adult, Peter Hitchens regained his Christian faith, after years as an atheist and his new book is entitled, "The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith." The title of this column was more conciliatory: "How I found God and peace with my atheist brother."

Big brother Christopher, meanwhile, has become famous as an evangelist for atheism, a scribe who revels in stabbing sacred cows with his pen -- as in his book, "The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice." Then there is his bestseller, "God is not Great: Religion Poisons Everything."

"There are," he argues, "four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking. ...

"God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization."

Hitchens the younger understands that logic, in large part because he once walked the same road. As a teen, he burned his Bible outside his Cambridge school. To his disappointment, "Thunder did not mutter." He set out to rebel against everything that he had been taught was good and right and holy. This is what smart British boys of his generation were supposed to do.

Eventually, he stopped avoiding churches and great religious art -- leaving him open to unsettling messages from the past. While gazing at one 15th century painting of the Last Judgment, he found himself emotionally and intellectually moved.

"These people did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own generation. Because they were naked, they were not imprisoned in their own age by time-bound fashions," noted Hitchens. "On the contrary, their hair and the set of their faces were entirely in the style of my own time. They were me, and people I knew.

"I had a sudden strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time. My large catalogue of misdeeds replayed themselves rapidly in my head."

Then came the great oaths of his wedding rites, followed by the baptisms of his formerly atheistic wife and their daughter. A fellow journalist heard that Hitchens had returned to church and, with "a look of mingled pity and horror," bluntly asked, "How can you do that?"

The twist in this story is that while Peter Hitchens has returned to faith, and Christopher has grown more and more outspoken in his crusade against faith, the brothers have gradually regained their affection for one another. And while many have urged them to turn their personal debates about God and the nature of moral truth into an intellectual traveling circus, neither of the brothers wants to do that.

"I am 58. He is 60. We do not necessarily have time for another brothers' war. ... I have, however, the more modest hope that he might one day arrive at some sort of acceptance that belief in God is not necessarily a character fault," noted Peter Hitchens.

"I can only add that those who choose to argue in prose, even if it is very good prose, are unlikely to be receptive to a case which is most effectively couched in poetry."

'Lying' about God onscreen

When it comes to comedian Ricky Gervais, journalist Paul Asay openly confesses that he is a fan. This may seem strange since Asay works for Plugged In, a media Web site sponsored by Focus on the Family -- a powerful brand name in evangelical media. Yes, he knows the hip writer, actor and director is a proud, articulate atheist. However, he also thinks that Gervais is "actually quite talented and a very funny guy."

Thus, Asay had mixed feelings when he reviewed, “The Invention of Lying,” the comedian’s new comedy. After all, Gervais had publicly pledged that it would be both a “sweet Hollywood” romantic comedy and the “first ever completely atheistic movie with no concessions.”

For Asay, watching the movie became a “frustrating, disturbing, deeply saddening experience. And it was funny. Which makes it, in some ways, that much worse.” While the movie displayed Gervais’ talents, it also revealed that he has “very little knowledge of what he seeks to skewer. He takes an infantile interpretation of spirituality -- one that most of us leave behind for deeper truths by the age of 3 or 4 and deconstructs it to the point of imbecility,” wrote Asay.

But here’s the plot twist. While “The Invention of Lying” has received bad reviews from most religious critics, it has not provoked headline-friendly calls to arms by the usual suspects on the religious right.

This has not, in other words, been “The DaVinci Code,” “The Golden Compass” or even the anti-faith “Religulous” sermon from provocateur Bill Maher. So far, the Gervais opus is drawing small crowds into theaters and zero protesters onto sidewalks. As it began its third week, it had grossed only $16,956,375 while sliding to 16th place at the box office.

“The whole movie industry today is such a one week and you’re done affair,” noted Asay. “If you don’t make waves right away, you’re kind of over. ... In retrospect, Gervais and his people may have wanted to pump up that atheism angle in the marketing to get a bigger splash in the press. They needed to do something.”

“The Invention of Lying” takes place in a parallel world in which people cannot lie. Thus, advertisements are rather blunt. The Pepsi slogan is, “When they don’t have Coke,” and a nursing home is called, “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.”

Then along comes Mark Bellison, a pudgy loser who, in a moment of desperation, intentionally overdraws his bank account and gets away with it. This discovery changes his life, but he also learns that lying cannot solve all his problems. In the movie’s pivotal scene, the liar played by Gervais comforts his dying mother by telling her she soon will be reunited with her loved ones in a land of peace, love and happiness, where there is no pain.

Hospital workers overhear this proclamation and the loser quickly becomes a pseudo-messiah, offering stunning revelations about a great “man in the sky” who controls people’s lives and decides whether they spend eternity in a good place (lots of ice cream) or a bad place.

Nevertheless, the prophet knows he is a fake. While visiting his mother’s grave he confesses, in a fit of guilt: “I know you’re not up there in a mansion. You’re right here in the ground and I’m the only one who knows that.”

It was impossible to watch that scene, and others in “The Invention of Lying,” without feeling some kind of compassion, said Thaisha Geiger, a language arts teacher who reviews movies for the Web site.

Since she was not familiar with Gervais, she did some online research to learn more about his beliefs. She was struck by the fact that Gervais lost his faith as a young child. However, he also told, “I always knew that if my mum asked me when she was dying if there was a heaven, I’d say yes. ... I think that’s how religion started — as a good lie.”

That painful conflict made it onto the screen, said Geiger.

“The movie really is about his beliefs ... so he was probably expecting Christians to yell and scream after they saw this movie,” she said. “But I didn’t feel anger when I saw it. I really walked away feeling sad. ... I thought, ‘He’s an atheist. We should pray for him.’ Maybe he’s disappointed that more people aren’t mad.”

Pullman vs. the Magisterium

Those values viewers in the heartland are at it again, clicking "forward" on yet another wave of hot emails about sin, evil, magic and Hollywood.

Here's the news, as harvested on the Internet by experts at, a giant website dedicated to researching urban legends.

"Hi! I just wanted to inform you what I just learned about a movie that is coming out December 7, during the Christmas season, which is entitled 'The Golden Compass.' ... What is disturbing to me is that this movie is based on the first of a trilogy of books for children called 'His Dark Materials' written by Philip Pullman of England.

"He's an atheist and his objective is to bash Christianity and promote atheism. I heard that he has made remarks that he wants to kill God in the minds of children, and that's what his books are about." researched the many issues raised in this message -- concluding that these emails are (you may want to sit down) essentially true.

It's even true that Pullman devotees have accused New Line executives of editing out some of the book's juicier heresies in an attempt to offend fewer Christian consumers. After all, the studio has about $180 million invested in this project and would like to make two more movies based on the award-winning trilogy.

"What's really amazing is that all of those evangelical and Catholic critics have been aiming their heavy artillery at J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books, when they could have been firing at Pullman, whose books came out first," said Sandra Miesel, co-author of the upcoming book "Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy Literature."

"Pullman is brilliant at hiding what he's really saying," she added. "Also, his books were marketed for people with more elite tastes. Once they started winning awards, they became more popular. And now, here come the movies, so people are really starting to pay attention."

Pullman has, however, never been soft spoken. In one famous interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, he expressed amazement that Rowling's Potter books took more flak in Bible Belt America than his own.

"I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God," he explained. As for his own beliefs, he added: "If we're talking on the scale of human life and the things we see around us, I'm an atheist. There's no God here. There never was. But if you go out into the vastness of space, well, I'm not so sure."

As a writer, Pullman greatly admires Milton's 17th-century classic "Paradise Lost," with its battles between good and evil to determine who will rule heaven. The "His Dark Materials" trilogy covers similar territory and tries to turn the tables through the triumph of two young adventurers, Lyra and Will. The goal is for this couple -- a new Eve and Adam -- to eat forbidden fruit and, this time around, destroy God.

Along the way, Pullman serves up clergy who kidnap and torture children, visitations from gay angels, fickle witches patrolling the skies, a wise shaman, warrior polar bears, a brilliant ex-nun and plenty of opportunities for children to get in touch with their inner "daemons," the talking-animal spirits who represent their souls.

At the heart of the story is a substance called "Dust," which may or may not be Original Sin in a physical form. Then again, Pullman recently told Atlantic Monthly that "Dust" is evidence of a godlike energy unleashed when people gain wisdom, explore their emotions, challenge authority and -- especially for adolescents -- explore their sexuality.

Meanwhile, evil incarnate has a name in Pullman's books -- the "Church." Its bishops wear purple, its cardinals wear red and there is a Vatican with fancy guards. By the end of the trilogy, the ultimate villain has been identified as, "The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty."

In the movie, however, "Magisterium" is always used instead of "Church." These forces of evil are, however, fond of Orthodox Christian iconography and Bible verses written in Latin.

"I guess it helps to know that the word 'Magisterium' is the term used to describe the teaching office of the Catholic Church," said Miesel. "That's really subtle. ... Actually, it's not very subtle at all."