Are theists more numerous or atheists

Analysis: Atheist Movement in Catholic Poland

Theo Mechtenberg

to person

Dr. Theo Mechtenberg is a theologian and has a doctorate in German studies. For many years he was a lecturer at the Pan-European Studienwerk e. V., Vlotho, of which he is currently chairman of the board. He is the author of numerous magazine articles and book publications on the subject of democracy and the Catholic Church in Poland

An atheist movement has been developing in Poland since the beginning of the 21st century. It is above all a politicization carried out by parts of the church, their open support for the national Catholic party Law and Justice, which negatively determines the image of the church in public and provokes counter-reactions.

St. Mary's Church in Krakow is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (& copy picture-alliance, Robert Harding)

On the last weekend in March 2014, "Days of Atheism" took place in Poland for the first time. Lectures, film screenings and discussions in Warsaw served to make atheism in Catholic Poland public and to promote it. The spectacular highlight on March 30th was the execution of Kazimierz Łyszczyński, an ex-Jesuit and member of the Sejm, which was re-enacted in the market in the old town. It was in this very place that the death sentence was carried out by the rope in 1689 for his writing "De nonexistentia Dei" (On the nonexistence of God).

Poland's atheists see this early martyr of atheism as their patron. His writing contains the foundations of atheist conviction that are still valid today. With his view that God is a chimera made up by humans, he anticipates Feuerbach's projection thesis, as it were. And his opinion that the believers are being cheated by their religious guardians, whereby religion is merely a means of dominating people, shows a clear closeness to Karl Marx and his interpretation of religion as the "opium of the people".

Similar rallies preceded the Warsaw "Days of Atheism". In October 2009 around 500 professing unbelievers marched through Krakow, past the official residence of the former Metropolitan Karol Wojtyła, who later became Pope John Paul II, who shaped this city in a particularly Catholic way. There are now such marches in various Polish cities. Slogans such as "Neither God nor Lord", "Secular Europe, secular Poland" or "I do not kill, I do not steal, I am not an adulterer, I do not believe" can be found on banners - a commitment to the moral values ​​that are believed of atheists do not need any religion. This motto in particular - among other slogans - currently fills large billboards. Initiator is the foundation "Freedom from Religion" (Wolność od religii)

There are also calls on the Internet to come out as an atheist. So you can sign up on a list that has three headings: atheist, agnostic or unbeliever. This list now shows over 20,000 names of people who express their departure from the Church and faith in this way. But in the eyes of the Church these are not yet cases of apostasy. Because there is no church tax agreed between the state and the church in Poland, as is the case in the Federal Republic of Germany, which is deducted from the salary, leaving the church cannot be linked to a refusal to pay church tax. Rather, the Polish church insists that a resignation from the church be declared personally before the pastor of the responsible congregation, a procedure that only a few willing to resign are willing to take. Neither the internet list nor church data are therefore a reliable basis for determining the number of Polish atheists and their motives.

The public activities of Polish atheists show that this is a thoroughly effective movement, even if it is statistically negligible compared to the majority of Poles who still profess to be 88 percent Catholics. But their attempt to gain a foothold politically has failed for the time being. The political party, led by Janusz Palikot, Your Movement (Twój Ruch), a reservoir of atheists and anti-clericals, reached 10.1 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections on October 9, 2011, but it has now and should have become meaningless fail in the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections due to the 5 percent hurdle. However, their short-term activity has noticeably contributed to an intensification of mutual discrimination within society - between believers and the church due to attacks against Christian symbols in public and the political influence of the church and, in response to this, through no less harsh attacks from believers and officials Church on such anti-church actions.

The novelty of the phenomenon of Polish atheists

It may come as a surprise that there would be an atheist movement in post-communist Poland. The terms "atheism" and "unbelief" were discredited by the communist system and aroused negative associations. They associated not with freedom but with oppression. After all, the Communists in power in Poland made no secret of their atheism. But on the contrary. They too, like the rulers in the GDR, tried to atheize society. A separate "Society for the Dissemination of Secular Culture" (Towarzystwo Krzewienia Kultury Świeckiej) propagated socialist rituals and lifestyles, albeit with moderate success. While the GDR succeeded in largely turning the population away from the churches and the Christian faith they proclaimed, with the introduction of socialist naming, marriage and funeral, but above all through the youth consecration, which was carried out under considerable pressure, Poland remained atheist before this Break-ins spared. As in the time of the partitions of Poland in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, the Catholic Church proved to be a protective refuge for the nation and the preservation of its identity. She won the battle for souls. With the end of communist rule, the atheism advocated by the communists also seemed to be a thing of the past, as the church emerged victorious from this dispute. But she succumbed - unfortunately - to the temptation of triumphalism.

The decades after the collapse of the communist system in 1989/90 are determined by the efforts of the church to exert political influence while disregarding democratic institutions and rules of the game. For example, the regulations for the parliamentary elections of autumn 1991 provided for a ban on election events in church rooms, which was withdrawn under pressure from the church, although church law forbids the use of church rooms for political purposes. Church statements before the elections, which were used to recruit parties and members of parliament that were acceptable to the church, were also a popular means. With these and other initiatives, the Polish church exposed itself to the suspicion of striving for a Catholic confessional state. Backlashes were inevitable, and these did not just come from outside the Church. There were also internal warnings about their politicization. If anti-clerical voices spoke up in Poland soon after the turnaround in Europe, then the Polish church itself contributed to this through its political influence.

First study of the phenomenon of Polish atheists

The atheist movement in Catholic Poland raises questions that need answers. In what sense do the participants in the atheist marches see themselves as unbelievers? What are the main reasons for your decision? How do you justify your atheist belief? To what extent is their unbelief influenced by the behavior of the church? A study by Dr. Radosław Tyrała at the chair for "General Sociology and Social Anthropology" at the Kraków University of Applied Sciences AGH [1]. 7,500 people who do not believe in God were interviewed.

As far as the age structure of Polish atheists is concerned, the majority (54 percent) are teenagers and young adults between 16 and 26 years of age. Mainly big cities are affected, hardly the rural population. Traditional unbelief, inherited from generation to generation, is (still) rare in Poland. About 88 percent of Polish atheists belonged or still formally belong to the Catholic Church. A possible non-religious influence in the family comes mainly from the father (50 percent), less from the mother (30 percent). Typical of the respondents is a facade-like religious socialization, a purely ritual practice without a fundamental belief. The prevailing moment to end this purely external practice coincides with the reception of Confirmation, which paradoxically by its nature serves to strengthen faith and enable us to testify.

According to Western experiences, personal unbelief does not necessarily have to be linked to a hostile attitude towards the Church. However, this is the case with the Polish atheists. Over 85 percent of them profess their hostility to the church. This shows that Polish atheists have a very negative relationship with the Catholic Church. On the other hand, their relation to the church is not clear. Despite their negative attitude, many of them still have church ties. More than 10 percent take part in the Sunday mass, albeit mostly due to external pressure; 30 percent of them are available as godparents; 75 percent have their children baptized. This contradicting phenomenon is explained by the fact that these and other religious rituals are understood by them not as a profession of faith, but as part of Polish culture. Only about 8 percent took the formal step towards apostasy.

The main reason for their disbelief was given by the respondents to a scientific interpretation of the world (54 percent) and a negative attitude towards the church and its representatives (50 percent). Theodicy problems (8.4 percent), atheistic family influence (2.5 percent) and a Marxist conviction (2.1 percent) hardly played a role in the information.

Controversy about the "New Atheism"

Although anti-clericalism soon developed in post-communist Poland, we can only speak of an atheist movement at the beginning of the new millennium. The fact that 54 percent of Polish atheists cite a scientific interpretation of the world to justify their disbelief suggests that there is a connection with the influence of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Ronald Dworkin and Christopher Hitchens, the representatives of the "New Atheism" . They all published their works, which already refer to their atheist tendencies in the title, after September 11, 2001, the day on which the Islamist hijackers launched their terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and deeply shook the United States . The American neuroscientist Sam Harris started with his book "The End of Faith. Religion, Terror and the Light of Reason", which, as he himself says, he wrote under the impression of September 11th. In it, he takes these Islamist terrorist attacks as an opportunity to express himself fundamentally on religiously motivated violence. He sees it as an integral part of any religion, including Christianity, whereby, in addition to the crusades and the burning of heretics, he also refers to Christian anti-Semitism, which paved the way to Auschwitz. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, a particularly combative atheist, has also called for everyone to publicly acknowledge their atheism. In addition to the thesis advocated by him that there is no need for a creator or a planning projector for biological development, but can be explained conclusively through selection, he turns in his book "Der Gotteswahn" against the three Abrahamic world religions, whose beliefs he as purely irrational and to which he ascribes only negative effects on the course of history.

The journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, who died in 2011, also argues similarly. In his book "The Lord is not a Shepherd. How Religion Poisons the World" he describes religion as "violent, irrational and intolerant". All of the aforementioned works have been translated into Polish and are cited by Poland's atheists.

Is the allegation of violence by any religion made by these authors justified? There is little point in dealing with him merely in a polemical manner. After all, violence in the name of God and religion, including Christianity, is so evident that it cannot be denied. But is violence really an integral part of any religion? Is it part of their essence or is it not rather a degeneration of religion? And can religion be reduced to violence and intolerance? Isn't the gospel a counter-message of love, mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation? And even if one were to agree with the thesis of religion's potential for violence, would a world without religion be free from violence? Definitely not. After all, in the 20th century we had plenty of experience with two godless systems and suffered badly from their inhumanity - also and above all the Poles.

In addition, as far as the non-existence of God is concerned, the evidence of the "New Atheists" is by no means as conclusive as they claim. The fact that Dawkins does without God in the explanatory description of evolution does not mean that God does not exist. His negative assertion represents one of the many border crossings in which the centuries-old conflict between science and theology is extremely rich - on both sides. The arguments repeat themselves, so that the justifications of the "New Atheists" are by no means as new as they lead to believe. This is also the opinion of the Dutch zoologist Frans de Waal, who describes himself as an atheist. As a behavioral researcher, he discovered a moral behavior in the animal kingdom, especially among chimpanzees, from which he deduces in his book "The Bonobo and the Atheist" that moral principles can be proven before religion and are not justified by it. While he could point to this new finding, his colleagues did not contribute anything new to the problem. They aimed more at "finding new garments for each of the arguments that had been gathered against religion for centuries." In Hitchens one can recognize a true Marxist on the basis of his statement that "religion poisons everything". Harris took over "the Parisian torch of reason" by longing for a "religion of reason", and Dawkins' "illusion" is not that different from "Freud's illusion" [2]. Religion could not - so de Waal further - be replaced by a scientific worldview. In addition, it is difficult to find guides for ordinary people in science. Even if one can see a triumph of reason in the emergence of science, this does not mean "that people are by their nature entirely rational beings". Psychological studies would prove "that we often deviate from logical rules in our everyday life." [3]

Apart from this discussion within the "New Atheism", there are many theists, especially among physicists, who recognize the work of a creator god in the harmony of space and its mathematical natural laws. Both they and the schism among the "new atheists" should be a challenge for the Polish church to deal with them objectively and critically instead of negating them or merely fighting the "new atheists" with polemics. It seems that this task is currently not being adequately fulfilled by the Polish church. There are plenty of church statements on in vitro fertilization or "gender or genderism", but not a critical and self-critical, theological and pastoral neglect of the "New Atheism", even though it is obviously in favor of the Polish decision Is of particular relevance to atheists.

Negative image of the Polish Church

If more than 50 percent of Poles who profess to be unbelievers cite a negative attitude towards the church and its representatives as the reason for their atheism, then this should be an occasion for church self-criticism. The question arises as to what image the church gives to the public.Does it correspond to the idea that Pope Francis outlines of her in his Apostolic Exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium"? Is it the image of a church that does not close itself off, does not cling to its own security, but goes out to the people? That of a church "that is not concerned about being the center", that does not "get caught up in fixed ideas and disputes"? The image of a church that does not shut itself off "into the structures that give us false protection, into the norms that turn us into relentless judges, into the habits in which we feel calm while a hungry crowd is waiting outside Jesus repeats to us incessantly: 'You give them something to eat!' "These (49) and other statements in" Evangelii Gaudium "could form the basis of an examination of conscience for Poland's church.

Such an examination of conscience is submitted by the Dominican Father Ludwik Wiśniewski with his reflections on Advent published in the Catholic weekly newspaper "Tygodnik Powszechny". He had already spoken out in 2013 and in particular opposed a politicization of faith by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk and his media empire of radio, television and magazines, which divide church and society. Nothing has changed in this situation. In his contribution "We are at a turning point" [4] he laments the Manichean worldview that finds its expression in the media controlled by Father Rydzyk. As pars pro toto, a quote from the mouth of Bishop Czesław Napierała in the right-wing national daily "Nasz Dziennik" is cited: "The preachers of the truth of the good news have a very difficult time. They are facing a world that is not just hostile to them, but one World that almost hates God, that breaks conscience, that pays homage to the debauchery and degeneration that the majority of the media have at their disposal. Behind this world stand the powers and forces of the Prince of Darkness, the liar and murderer from the beginning Prosecuting the truth is threatened with persecution, harassment and even social annihilation. " This is what a bishop of a country says, 88 percent of the inhabitants call themselves Catholics.

For Father Rydzyk's radio station "Radio Maryja", the enemies of the church include not only anti-clerical and atheist forces, but also an imaginary "political Jewish lobby" and representatives of an "open church" and its media. Above all, they are the target of Czesław Bartnik, professor of theology at the Catholic University of Lublin (Katolicki Uniwersytet Lubelski - KUL), one of the most prominent collaborators of Father Rydzyk. By distorting the facts and asserting half-truths, he insinuates that the "open Catholics" are trying to prove "that the connection of the Gospel with the Polish tradition, with politics, economy, culture, science and art is a betrayal of this Gospel [...] The representatives of the so-called open church [...] regard the voice of the church in defense of life as fundamentalism, the public confession of faith as fanaticism, patriotism as hostility towards minorities, the defense of the rights of the church as clericalism and the liturgical celebration of various Polish holidays as the spread of a Catholic denominational state. " The latest example of a national memory with church assistance is the Warsaw March against the ruling Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska - PO) organized by Jarosław Kaczyński and his opposition party Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość - PiS) on December 13, 2014, the commemoration day of Imposition of martial law, whose honorary committee included five bishops closely associated with "Radio Maryja", who, however, apparently under pressure from the nuncio, announced their withdrawal shortly before the start of the event.

It is above all this politicization carried out by parts of the church, their open support for the national Catholic party Law and Justice, which negatively determines the public image of the church and provokes counter-reactions. With this situation in mind, writes Father Wiśniewski: "In a free country one does not treat the democratically elected government like occupiers and thieves, with whom one does not speak humanely and who are only 'beaten' 'with a demonstration of many thousands - this very belief and this Action has become the daily bread, indeed the 'patriotic act' of many of our compatriots. It may be regrettable that partisan political masters profess this doctrine, but it hurts more when the teachers of the gospel of justice and love do so - priests and Bishops. This is this unfortunate 'Polish dialogue' which destabilizes the order of law and morality in our country, which infects many people with pessimism and anger and tears deep rifts between people from the same mother - the fatherland, but also between children of our second mother - the church." And who alienates many from the church and leads them into disbelief.

Alluding to "Radio Maryja", Father Wiśniewski notes that in recent years there has been a lack of a voice from the bishops to denounce the "lies, hypocrisy and common vulgarity" coming from the center of the Church. But instead of branding, the Krakow Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz recently expressed "due thanks from the Church and the people of goodwill" to the broadcaster at a celebration of the 23rd anniversary of "Radio Maryja" and emphasized: "You have a great good in Hands. " At a meeting of the bishops in September 2007 in the pilgrimage town of Częstochowa, the cardinal declared: "More and more often, Radio Maryja is not part of the unity of the Polish Church, but an element of political offers and a political tug-of-war." Why this about-face? "After all, the Thorner broadcaster has neither revised its worldview nor changed its mode of operation. Furthermore, it looks at the world through Manichean glasses, divides people into good and bad, sees a fortress under siege in the church and mixes pastoral care with you unilateral political commitment. "[5]

It is this image of the besieged fortress and the mixture of pastoral care and a one-sided political commitment that Poland's church gives to the public and that repels people instead of attracting them. Insofar as the atheism of the Poles has its reason here, it could have a cleansing effect for the church - provided that it takes the anti-church arguments seriously and does not immediately reject them polemically without being examined. Perhaps such a dialogue between atheists and the church could, if it came about, help to improve the image of the church.