Behind the Iron Curtain part 3 – Religion

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

Today’s Czech Republic is one of the most, if not the most, atheist countries in the world. I encountered people both in meatspace and on the internet who “blame” the former totalitarian socialist regime for this. Mostly such people are coincidentally also people who assign to this godlessness all kinds of moral failings of today’s Czechs and blame their lack of faith for exceedingly high divorce rates, crime rates etc.

When one looks at the actual data though, none of this does fit. Today’s Slovak Republic was under the same regime in the former Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, yet Slovaks are much more religious. Not to mention Poles, who are almost 90% catholic until today. The crime rates etc. are similar in these countries, only abortion rate is very low in Poland – but only because it is mostly illegal and inaccessible, during the socialist regime when abortion was legal, Poles used it at a rate that was not out of the ordinary for the time.

So my (lack of) religious experiences as a child were not to be ascribed only to the regime, but at least partially they were. It was complicated.

The regime was in fact overtly anti-religious. Priests were poorly paid state employees and private donations to churches etc. were not legal to my knowledge. Being religious was not illegal per se, but it was not encouraged either and there were some obstacles put in the way of exercising beliefs. Like all official religions had to register with the state and there were some specific religions and religious sects that were illegal (like Jehovah’s Witnesses).

My grandfather was a devout catholic asshole on whose grave I do not spit only out of respect for my father. My father became disillusioned with religion early on and possibly as an act of rebellion against it he entered the communist party at the age of 18 and was banished by my grandfather as a consequence. My father is the only atheist in that branch of the family. After I was born and my grandfather became deadly sick, my mother and father took care of him in his last years. Grandfather has obliquely acknowledged the child abuse he inflicted on my father, but he never apologized to him directly, only indirectly by saying to my mother that he wronged him yet he is the only one who cares for him on his sickbed. He died before I was old enough to know him.

So I grew up in an atheistic family and went to public school in a regime that did not acknowledge any religion as true and only reluctantly allowed people to exercise some religious beliefs.

At home, religion was never spoken about and I never felt the need to ask about anything. We had plenty of books and I was an avid reader, so I knew about the existence of religions and mystical figures. I feared the devils from fairy tales despite never believing in their real existence. Similarly I knew christian God also only as a fairy-tale father figure granting favors for good deeds. It was not before ten years of age that I learned that there are still people who really believe in Christianity, including in my family. Until that age I thought it was all over, a thing of the past just like Zeus and Hera. After I learned that my favourite auntie is religious, I was completely flummoxed and to this day I never broached the subject with her.

At school, there was some talk about religion in civics, history and literature classes. In fact a very good overview of the development of religion from polytheism to monotheism in Europe from Classical age through Middle ages to Modern era. I do not remember any overt hostility towards any religion during the lectures, only dry information about them and an occasional argument that proves false some specific claim. Later on I learned that religious parents could send children to a sort of sunday school, but I never knew anyone who did so.

Even the christian creation myth was taught – as a myth. And the gorgeous movie La Création du Monde was aired on TV and I loved it as a child.

All in all in my opinion the regime did a good job informing children about religion but did discourage indoctrinating them with any. However I do not think the Iron Curtain played exquisite or even major role in it because Czechs as a whole were seemingly lukewarm about religion for centuries. Which, again, is a different story.


  1. says

    So I grew up in an atheistic family and went to public school in a regime that did not acknowledge any religion as true and only reluctantly allowed people to exercise some religious beliefs.

    Interestingly, I made the very similar yet totally different experience of being a kid from an atheistic family in a country that does not really know separation of church and state and man did it suck. Still to this day my kids are softly bullied into christianity at school: mandatory christian religious education from which you can oppt out, but where no true alternative is provided. The little one takes part in Lutheran religious education because being a smart kid who wants to learn things she just cannot do nothing sensible during those lessons and therefore takes part.

    Even the christian creation myth was taught – as a myth. And the gorgeous movie La Création du Monde was aired on TV and I loved it as a child.

    Now this is getting weird because one of the books I loved so much as a kid was this and my favourite part was, the creation story.
    I loved it in fact so much that I got myself the book when I moved out.

  2. rq says

    Quite often I see religuon here falling under the umbrella topic of “If the Soviets forbade it, it must be a Good Thing”. At the same time, people mostly aren’t religious; those who are, are quite fervently so. And I’m afraid science education isn’t keeping up with the right-wing religious crap (a.k.a. patriotic duty and Last Bastion of Christian Values) creeping into the education system (see: the morality clause).

  3. wereatheist says

    My parents own a book by Jean Effel, Les Plantes et Animaux, of his Création du Monde series.
    I liked it as kid.

  4. says

    My parents, both German, were definitely atheists when they emigrated to Australia in 1963. I never questioned their lack of belief, just thought it appropriate for parents of the space age. Religious instruction was still a 1 hour a week session in our state school back then but about 10% of the students sat it out in quiet study. Hardly any kids mentioned anything about religion in school, it was something old fashioned their parents did. Although there was one kid who handed in a report on Moses, and when I taunted him with “Moses Skeeto” he flew into a white hot rage. Quite educational for this little atheist.

  5. secondtofirstworld says

    It’s a very good post, it does however lack an important factor, strongly tied to how communists grabbed power. The number one reason people did not attend church was because prior to seizing power by any means, infiltrators have weakened churches and church related organizations, so by the time people could go there, chances were that in 9 out of 10 cases the priest was a paid or coerced informant for the state.

    That brings me to my second point, which enrages me. I loathe acknowledging that what forced Soviet socialist type countries had was atheism as atheism is based in reason. The state has indoctrinated children from kindergarten to whistle the tune of the party line, that is nothing more than giving a doctrine in place of organized faith, using the tools of organized faith. It’s akin to claiming the sting of a scorpion on the swimming frog is actually good for the leg muscles, and not, what it is, poison.

    I totally agree however on the “Die Mauer in der Köpfe” as evidenced just recently by the Hungarian elections. Create and foster a fear alien to the limited options you already have, and people will be willing to reject it. As for the Czech sentiment toward Catholicism… one huge factor was forced recatholization under Marie Therese. It’s nigh impossible to determine how the Czech Republic could react to certain factors as an independent nation due to the short time that has passed since its establishment, and the governing opinion was always influenced by the Soviets, the Habsburgs and Nazi Germany. The more pressing problem, applicable to all V4 countries, is the lack of compassion, empathy and human decency toward those (including many born and bred Europeans) people of color who reside there, otherwise it’ll resemble the words of Angela Davis, defending her inaction toward Czechoslovakian political prisoners as “they just seek to provoke”. Last but not least it could also help to not have an Euroskeptic as president.

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