Democracy kills Christianity: whatever happened to Poland?

The Christian Science Monitor reports

Two decades after the collapse of the USSR, history’s most atheistic state, the vast majority of Russians attest to a belief in God – more than in any other European country – according to a new opinion poll.

The survey, carried out in April by the independent Public Opinion Fund (FOM), found that 82 percent of Russians say they are religious believers, while just 13 percent say they do not believe in any deity.

According to the Ipsos poll, 56 percent of Russians are firm believers in a “divine entity,” while a further 18 percent believe “sometimes.”

But that still puts Russia at the top of the list in Europe, where 51 percent of Poles, 50 percent of Italians, 27 percent of Germans, and just 18 percent of Swedes declared themselves definite believers in a divine entity.

I don’t know about you, but the Polish number really jumped out at me.   From stories about the fall of communism, I remember that Poland was a strongly Catholic country twenty years ago, with a huge majority of the population actually attending mass.  And that was under a communist government.  Now, after twenty years of democracy, half of the country has gone atheist (or at least undecided–which always means atheist but not willing to admit it yet).

What better proof could one ask for that democracy itself destroys the Christian faith?  Of course, we’ve already seen this in every other European country, so it shouldn’t be surprising, but people always seem to be eager to find ways of denying it.  So, for example, it’s often said that Europeans abandoned the Church because they thought it was tied to “oppression” or that it was an enemy of political freedom or national self-determination.  But in the case of Poland, not only do these accusations not apply, but in each case the exact opposite is manifestly true.  Poland was suffering under a foreign tyranny tied to atheism (and still is, if you count the EU), while the Catholic Church has been the most effective agent promoting classical liberalism and national independence.  After a heroic but bloodless revolution, the Poles got these things and have kept them since (again, excepting the EU–for which atheism rather than Catholicism is to blame).  Of course, Poland is no paradise, but there haven’t been any really big national disappointments since.  And yet, half the country has left the Church to embrace atheism, the creed of their enemies and oppressors.

Why is this?  Could it be that when the people are worshiped as a god–as in a democracy–they will have no other?  So they follow Bonald’s iron rule of historical progression:

Democracy –> Atheism –> Cultural pigsty

The only question is why it took us Americans slightly longer to get to this point.

13 Responses

  1. Whatever you want to say about his other issues I think John Paul II foresaw this. The downfall of communism was not a vindication of Western Classical Liberalism never mind what George Weigel says. Then again one has to wonder whether communism was unseated by the social libertarianism that afflict us today. As one historian put it ” It was John Lennon and Paul McCarthy not Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson” that finally defeated the Soviet Union.

    So what are we to do when we have Libertarians like Tom Woods telling us that not only is America/Classical Liberalism compatible with Catholicism it was Catholicism in fact that gave birth to these notions! They act as though this is so self-evident.

  2. The problem isn’t democracy, per se. Interwar Poland was a sort-of democracy for a few years, and had little of the cultural pollution it has today. I travel to Poland regularly and can attest to its rapid secularization, though it is still far more pious, and resolutely Catholic in a cultural sense, than pretty much anywhere in Western Europe.

    The problem is post-modernism, which does destroy all traditional cultures; you will notice that al-Qa’ida says pretty much the same thing.

    What is wrecking everything is The American Way of Life: cultural permissiveness, nihilism, materialism, feminism, perversion, and atheism (frequently masquerading as Christianity Lite). We invented it, it’s our main export now. Very little can resist it effectively. Certainly the Poles are weakened by a reflexive pro-Americanism which makes them, save the hard Right, accept our warped culture whole-hog.

    The Russians might have a chance, since they’ve already been through Hell, and they have a reflexive anti-Western mindset that helps. Also, Orthodoxy is far more immune to post-modern silliness than Catholicism. Even so, I’m not exactly brimming with optimism about the Russians either …

  3. The stunning thing is that The American Way of Life smashes Christianity better than outright communism.

  4. In those places where religion is an important part of cultural or national identity, a great many people will identify themselves as members of the church and even take an active part in church life, even if they lack personal conviction. This is especially true, if the culture is seen to be under threat.

    Many Catholics of Irish descent in the West of Scotland are of this type. They live in Catholic areas, send their children to Catholic schools, because they regard the state schools as “protestant,” and take them to church They buy expensive First Communion dresses for their daughters. They are strongly endogamous. They support Celtic FC. Their religious convictions are of the vaguest type. For some, they are sufficient to provide comfort in times of distress and a glow of contentment in declining years. Others are, frankly unbelievers – They will tell you that “when you’re dead, that’s you,” but they tend to believe in ghosts, apparitions and demonic possession.

    The socially or geographically mobile tend to abandon their connections with the Church.

    A most sophisticated and cynical example is the “Catholic Atheism” of many on the French Right, very much in the spirit of Action Française.

  5. This is an interesting and complex question.

    In Poland, it appears that the support for the Church was artificially inflated during the Communist era because it was one of the only institutions which could carry on a semi-tolerated opposition to the regime. Similarly, a lot of left-wing atheists in 1930s Germany joined the (Lutheran) Confessing Church because it provided the nearest thing to a forum for opposing the Nazis.

    Other examples from Europe point in different directions:

    – Ireland remained a religious country for considerably longer than other western European nations (very broadly, the 80s rather than the 60s). Divorce and homosexuality remained illegal until the 1990s, and contraception was heavily restricted. Abortion is still illegal, and 90% of the school system is still controlled by the Church.

    – Italy was ruled continuously by an explicitly Catholic political party from the War until the 1980s. Italian democracy had been endorsed by Pius XII (the Vatican had initially toyed with supporting a Salazar-style authoritarian regime). Divorce only became legal in 1970.

    – Franquist Spain was fervently Catholic in its public culture, but beneath the surface the long-term de-Christianisation of Spanish society proceeded with only moderate disruption. Something similar can be said of Salazar’s Portugal.

    I would also question what “democracy” means. For most of the 20th century, Ireland’s democracy consisted of a choice between two socially conservative Catholic parties (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) and one further party (Labour) that at least pretended to be socially conservative and Catholic.

    There must be *some* lessons to be learned here, but I can’t think what they are.

  6. Too apt not to share:

    “If it weren’t for the modern experiment, it would still not be known that freedom can be more corrupting than a tyrant.”
    –Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Nuevos Escolios a un Texto Implícito I (Bogotá: Villegas Editores, 2005), p. 135

    The original Spanish is:

    Sin el experimento moderno no se sabría aún que la libertad puede corromper más que el tirano.

  7. I think Mr. Paterson-Seymour is pointing to something very important here. In a city like Chicago, we get a lot of the same thing. A lot of the Irish seem to believe that getting drunk on St. Patrick’s Day is the eighth sacrament. The Poles really turned out in force at my parish this past Sunday, not because it was the second Sunday after Easter, but because it was Polish Constitution Day on May 3. After Lech Kaczynski died in the plane crash, many more Poles came to church than usual. The Italians and Lithuanians are similar. The Germans, on the other hand, do not seem to have maintained as strong a group identity.

    This is not that there aren’t good people in these groups, but the group seems to be focused on ethnicity more than on the Church.

  8. It’s often assumed (e.g. for Italy, Spain, and Portugal) that when a country secularizes quickly after democratizing, it must have been secularizing in a hidden way before that. I wonder if there’s really any evidence for this? Is there any evidence against the proposition that democracy just destroys religious faith really quickly? We assume that democracy just gives public opinion a voice it didn’t have before, but I suspect that it significantly shapes that public opinion in the process.

  9. It frustrates me that nation and ethnicity always seem to win out over religion when people are forced to choose. What’s the matter with people’s priorities?

  10. It’s an interesting question. I think it’s a question of parallel, related processes rather than one thing leading causatively to the other.

    I suspect that the net reservoir of “religious” people in any society is pretty much constant. For this reason, I doubt that developments like the scientific revolution can really explain the decline in religious practice. Either you’re naturally religious (like me) or you’re not.

    But religious faith is to be distinguished from the social and political manifestations of religion. Traditionally, churches provided people with an identity, social services, welfare, education, community leadership, employment, etc, etc. With the rise of the middle class, the modern state, alternative social communities, mass entertainments, secular social services, etc, the churches were left without a role – except for those people who are irreducibly religious and actually want to practice their faith for its own sake. This process was parallel to, but in principle distinct from, that of political democratisation.

    Now, the liberal view would be that people are responsible for their own souls and it’s not up to the state to use secular means to herd essentially unreligious people into church. If I were a reactionary, however, I would want to take away the secular sources of social goods (healthcare, unemployment insurance and education being the main ones) and stop people from being distracted by mass entertainment. It wouldn’t matter if they kept the vote as long as parties and candidates were religiously conservative (as in most of C20 Ireland).

  11. Thank you very much! I’ll skim these when I get the time.

  12. The American Way of Life was little more than vapid secular hedonism (though containing some remnants of traditionalism like the pre-Vatican II Church) until the 60s New Left came along and started the process of transforming it into full-blown Cultural Marxism.

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