June 19, 2017

Unlike their Central and Eastern European neighbors, most Czechs don’t believe in God

The vast majority of adults in Central and Eastern Europe identify with a religious group and believe in God, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey of 18 countries in the region. But those in one country are an exception to this pattern: the Czech Republic, where a majority of the population is religiously unaffiliated and does not believe in God. 

About seven-in-ten Czechs (72%) do not identify with a religious group, including 46% who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” and an additional 25% who say “atheist” describes their religious identity. When it comes to religious belief — as opposed to religious identity — 66% of Czechs say they do not believe in God, compared with just 29% who do. (While a lack of affiliation and a lack of belief may seem to go hand in hand, that is not always the case. In the U.S., for example, a majority of religiously unaffiliated adults — 61% — say they believe in God.)

Even in the former Eastern Bloc that was dominated by the officially atheist Soviet Union throughout much of the 20th century, the Czech Republic is a major outlier by both of these measures.

Belief in God is widespread across the region, with a median of 86% across the 18 countries surveyed expressing this belief, including 86% in neighboring Poland and 59% in Hungary. And when it comes to religious identity, the only surveyed country besides the Czech Republic where more than a quarter of people are unaffiliated is Estonia (45%). Ten countries in the region have Orthodox Christian majorities of roughly seven-in-ten adults or more, while four more are majority Catholic.

The Czech Republic has long had a large unaffiliated population, and scholars have cited centuries’ worth of historical reasons for this. In fact, 64% of Czech adults in the Center’s recent survey say they were raised without a religious affiliation. And another Pew Research Center report projects that the country will remain largely unaffiliated for the foreseeable future, as reflected in the survey’s finding that 79% of Czech parents are raising their children unaffiliated.

In addition, 29% of Czech adults who were raised in a religious group (largely Catholicism) are now unaffiliated, a far higher rate of disaffiliation than the regional median of 3%.

As might be expected with so many religiously unaffiliated adults, the Czech public tends to hold less-conservative social views and to participate in fewer religious activities compared with its neighbors. For example, Czechs have among the highest levels of support for legal abortion (84%) and same-sex marriage (65%) in the region. Similarly, they are the most likely to say they never attend religious services (55%) or pray (68%).

A similar pattern emerges when it comes to a variety of religious concepts, such as miracles, the existence of the soul, or fate. For most religious beliefs mentioned in the survey, the Czech Republic has among the lowest levels of belief in the region, and typically falls far below the regional median. For example, 19% of Czechs believe in hell, compared with a regional median of 54% – which includes roughly six-in-ten adults in Poland (62%) and Croatia (60%).

But that does not mean that the country is entirely devoid of religious or supernatural beliefs. Despite relatively low levels of belief in each concept, a majority of the Czech public (65%) believes in at least one of the nine concepts included in the survey (belief in God plus the eight items in the accompanying chart). Even among religiously unaffiliated Czechs, 52% believe in at least one of the concepts, including about a third (32%) who believe in fate (i.e., that the course of one’s life is largely or wholly preordained). And Czechs overall are much more likely to believe in the existence of the soul and fate than they are to believe in God.

Another sign of the Czech Republic’s complex relationship with religion is seen in attitudes toward religious institutions. Despite not affiliating with such institutions in high numbers, Czechs’ views of such institutions are not much more negative than those seen in the rest of the region.

For example, while Czechs are less likely than Central and Eastern Europeans overall to say religious institutions strengthen both social bonds and morality in society, 51% of Czechs agree that “religious institutions play an important role in helping the poor and needy” – almost identical to the regional median of 50%.

The survey also asked about a few potential negative traits of religious institutions, and Czechs are more likely than others to say religious institutions focus too much on rules. But the shares of Czech adults who say religious institutions are too focused on money and power (55%) or too involved with politics (42%) are similar to the regional medians (51% and 39%, respectively).

Topics: Eastern Europe, Europe, Religion and Society, Religious Affiliation

  1. Photo of Jonathan Evans

    is a research analyst focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.