On holy ground, a hollow sound

Prague, Czech Republic - The Czech capital is cluttered with churches. From humble parish chapels to the Gothic grandeur of St. Vitus Cathedral, the wonderment of Christian faith seems to ooze out of the city's every pore.

But the churches are mostly empty, and the only wonder to most Czechs is why anyone at all bothers to go.

Czechs are among Europe's most fervently secular people. According to a European Union survey published last year, only 19 percent of Czechs said they believed in God; most of the rest proclaim themselves atheists. Only the former Soviet republic of Estonia had a lower percentage of believers.

Jan Kittrich, a 30-year-old Prague lawyer, is typical. He described himself as an atheist but quickly added that he had nothing against churches.

"I love to visit them," he said. "But I see them as historical objects, not as religious places."

The Czechs are not alone. From Ireland to Italy, church attendance across Europe is down drastically, and apart from Western Europe's rapidly growing Muslim communities and the staunch piety of Poles in the east, religion as a moral force in public life continues to wane.

By all accounts, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is a devout Christian. But when Blair recently told a television interviewer that his religious faith informed his worldview, he was lambasted from the left and right. The message for British politicians was clear: If you happen to have a religious urge, keep it in the closet.

Mark Lilla, a professor of social thought at the University of Chicago, has described present-day Europe as "the closest thing to a godless civilization the world has ever known."

Europeans and Americans share a common civilization and many common values. But in matters of faith and religion, Europe and the U.S. appear to be headed in opposite directions.

Especially since the 2004 U.S. elections, Europeans have expressed surprise and alarm at the increasing intensity of American religiosity. Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission, has spoken of a widening "values gap" between Europe and the U.S.

But religion has long played an important role in U.S. civic life. God's name is invoked in the Declaration of Independence and on currency. More recently, "God Bless America" has become the sign-off of politicians across the spectrum.

President Bush is hardly the first president to proclaim America to be God's instrument on Earth. John Kennedy, in his 1961 inaugural address, declared with certainty that "here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own."

Europeans are more diffident about God, and the Czechs more so than most Europeans.

Lori Gregory grew up in Philadelphia and is a Christian missionary in the Czech Republic. She and her husband, Bill, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, came to Prague 13 years ago to work for Young Life, a Colorado-based organization that focuses on teenagers. It has not been an easy path.

"When we bring up the subject [of faith], it's like asking if you believe in UFOs. That's what we're up against here," Gregory said. "In the States, you can assume most kids know why Christmas is celebrated. In the Czech Republic kids think baby Jesus is like Cinderella or Shrek. ... They think it's all a fairy tale."

Given four decades of communist rule, perhaps that is not surprising. Kittrich, the lawyer, had one grandmother who told him stories from the Bible, and another, a police colonel, whose home was filled with statues of Lenin and Stalin. "That was her religion," he said.

His mother, he said, was a member of the "hippie generation" that rejected all religions and ideologies. Kittrich's first encounter with a church group came while he was a teenage exchange student in Elkin, N.C. He began attending services at the local Methodist church.

"Three times a week there were church activities--suppers for homeless people, youth groups. I joined the soccer team. The people were really nice, and it opened my eyes," he said.

"But it always seemed more of a social community than a religious community, so when I got back here, I didn't follow up."

Kittrich acknowledges he often thinks about religion.

"But I don't think I'm missing anything," he said with a shrug.

Rev. Tomas Halik, a Roman Catholic priest and professor of philosophy at Prague's Charles University, is not surprised at this spiritual indifference. He believes Czechoslovakia's communist rulers and their masters in Moscow targeted the country for "an experiment in the total atheization of society."

The crackdown on the church and clergy was much harsher than in Poland, Hungary or even the Soviet Union, and the decades of repression did serious harm to the Czech religious identity, Halik said.

"Czech society is not really atheistic--it's worse. Czechs today hardly know anything about religion," he said.

Halik, who likes to joke that he "converted from agnosticism," was secretly ordained in East Germany in 1978.

During the communist era, he became well-known as a spokesman for the Charter 77 group, which later would play a key role in the 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended communism. Throughout those years, he kept his ordination a secret from everyone, including his mother.

These days he leads a small but robust congregation in Prague made up mostly of university students.

"After 1989, there was a great expectation that the church would be an important force for the renewal of the nation," Halik said.

When Pope John Paul II visited Czechoslovakia in 1990, huge crowds turned out. But when he returned for a third visit in 1997, the crowds were embarrassingly thin. (Among Czechs who claim some religious affiliation, 83 percent are Catholic, 10 percent are Protestant and 6.4 percent are Orthodox, according to EU figures.)

Church missed a chance

Halik said the Czech Catholic Church wasted a golden opportunity in the early 1990s, mainly because it had no experience in public life and most of its priests "only knew how to operate in the old communist style--the liturgy and nothing more."

Dusan Trestik, a historian at the Center for Medieval Studies in Prague, agreed.

"I think you have to say the church failed in the needs of modernization," he said. "The church was offering traditional Christianity for grannies."

But Trestik noted that the Czechs' standoffishness toward religion predates the communists by centuries. Christianity arrived in the Czech lands in 865, but its defining moment came in the 1400s when Jan Hus, rector at the University of Prague, challenged the authority and teachings of Rome. For this, he was burned at the stake.

"In all aspects, it was a Protestant Reformation a century before Protestantism," Trestik said.

The Czech lands fell under the control of the Habsburgs. Catholic authority was restored, but Czechs henceforth regarded the church as something imposed.

When ordinary Czechs identify themselves as atheist, they usually don't mean it in the strict sense. When pressed, most Czechs acknowledge they believe in "something."

"Even rational people need to believe in something, something bigger than themselves to make sense of their lives," said Dana Hamplova, a Prague sociologist whose research has found that while Czechs mistrust organized religion, they rank very high among Europeans who believe in the power of fortunetellers and other non-traditional forms of spirituality.

"They are looking for something, for guidance, and in the pure sense, it's religious," she said.

Pavel Rican, a religion professor at Charles University, refers to this as "somethingism" and describes it as a "degenerated religiosity" that has become the norm in much of Europe.

"Superstitions, cults, interest in herbs--there are so many people now to whom salvation means good health," he said.

What caused the demise of traditional religion among Czechs and other Europeans? Is it the fault of the church, or did the faithful change in some fundamental way?

Church `gives me nothing'

"I go to church infrequently. It's boring. It gives me nothing," Rican said.

"Yes, it's a failure of the churches. But this is something that is characteristic for the whole of Europe," he said.

George Weigel, a leading American Catholic intellectual, argues that Europe is becoming a "post-Christian society" with a ruling elite that is openly hostile to religion.

"It would be too simple to say that the reason Americans and Europeans see the world so differently is that the former go to church on Sundays and the latter don't," Weigel wrote in his 2005 book, "The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America and Politics Without God."

"But it would also be a grave mistake to think that the dramatic differences in religious belief and practice in the United States and Europe don't have something important to do with those different perceptions of the world--and the different policies to which those perceptions eventually lead," he wrote.

Pope John Paul II believed Europe's poverty of spirit was linked to its postwar affluence, or, in the specific case of Eastern Europe, to its post-communist embrace of American-style consumerism. That may be a harsh judgment--if anything, the American experience seems to suggest that spirituality and consumerism need not be mutually exclusive.

Europeans tend to be disdainful of this American-style religiosity.

"This kind of do-it-yourself Christianity--people like Billy Graham and Jesse Jackson and all the TV preachers--would be impossible in Europe," Trestik said. "Christianity like some kind of supermarket is completely impossible in Europe."

But European religious leaders can't find a way to stanch the loss of faith among their flocks. While some are trying to make the institutional church more accessible and user-friendly, the Catholic Church, by far the continent's largest denomination, seems to be consoling itself with a "less is more" approach, arguing that the numbers in the pews matter less than the depth and quality of faith of those who do believe.

"We know we can't go back to the Catholic Europe of the Middle Ages, so we will have to find some compatibility between Christianity and secular humanism," said Halik, the secretly ordained priest.

But can Christianity and secular humanism be compatible?

"Faith and doubt are like two sisters," Halik said with a mysterious smile. "They need each other."