Atheists Haven’t Forgotten Poland

I’ve mentioned in the past that as the Catholic church dwindles and ages, it’s increasingly having trouble finding enough people who want to join the priesthood, and it’s relying heavily on the few Catholic-majority countries remaining, such as Poland, that are net exporters of priests. At the time, I mused:

Even former Catholic strongholds such as Italy and Spain, the article points out, have only a 10-20% rate of church attendance. In this respect, it seems that Europe is leading the way; now only if we can make headway in Poland, the Vatican’s last European stronghold, the results might truly be worth seeing.

Well, what do you know: it looks like the gods of atheism have answered my prayers! (I knew that extra burnt offering would do the trick.)

“It seems we are Catholics in a cultural way; we identify as Catholic, but do not attend church,” said Tomasz Terlikowski, editor of Fronda, a conservative Catholic magazine, who said he was upset with what he called the lack of effective church leadership against the secular tide.

Mr. Terlikowski said he was astounded when he heard that church leaders in Poland were so frustrated with what was being said about the church in the national newspapers that they ordered their staff members to stop bringing them the papers.

This article observes that Poland, in recent years, is experiencing the same secularizing trend we’ve seen in other European countries. A majority of Poles still identify as Catholic for cultural reasons, but church attendance is plummeting, the influence of church leaders is waning, and large majorities reject the church’s harmful and archaic moral beliefs. In major cities like Warsaw and Krakow, church attendance has fallen as low as 20 percent, similar to the numbers in other former Catholic strongholds like Italy and Spain.

The papacy of John Paul II, who was hugely popular in his native country, probably masked this trend for a while. But since his death, the church has grown more rigid and doctrinaire, and Poles’ warm feelings are beginning to ebb. A key turning point was the Vatican’s recent, shockingly heavy-handed intrusion into Polish politics over in vitro fertilization. When Parliament took up a proposal to regulate the popular procedure, bishops demanded that it be banned and openly threatened to excommunicate any politician who didn’t fall in line. Even Poland’s center-right government was disgusted by this naked attempt at blackmail:

A spokesman for the centre-right government, Pawel Gras, said: “The threats and attempts to blackmail are amazing.”

…Prime Minister Donald Tusk said politicians were responsible to citizens, not the Church hierarchy.

On behalf of the atheist movement, I’d love to take credit for the decline of the Catholic church in Poland. I’d love to say that our slashing rhetorical attacks and dazzling wit are persuading people to quit the church in droves. But the truth is that they brought it on themselves. With their clumsy and brutish intrusions into politics, with their arrogant demands that Polish people put their own opinions and moral beliefs aside and bow down before their betters, they’ve shown themselves to be a gang of thugs and bullies, and the people are responding accordingly. But even if atheists didn’t have anything to do with this, we can take heart: even as the church shrinks and fades, it steadfastly refuses to change course, continuing to confidently steer its way into irrelevance.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Benjamin

    Coercion, not blackmail.

    It seems a very interesting trend in much of Europe, however, to become increasingly secular over time and letting go of traditional religions. Catholicism in Poland and France, Anglicanism in the UK, Lutheranism in Scandinavia. I would have predicted that people would have adopted new religions instead of becoming increasingly irreligious, but that’s not what seems to be happening.

  • TEP

    But even if atheists didn’t have anything to do with this, we can take heart: even as the church shrinks and fades, it steadfastly refuses to change course, continuing to confidently steer its way into irrelevance.

    It should also have a feedback effect. The people who are most likely to leave the Catholic Church will be the more moderate believers, meaning that the people remaining in the Church will tend to be the more arrogant, fundamentalist types. As such, the more members the Church loses, the more arrogant it should become, with this driving away more of the moderates. Hopefully this will continue until the entire Catholic Church comprises 40 or so of the most fanatical fundamentalist hangers-on, living in a single building in the Vatican, who are seen as little different to the followers of Jim Jones or David Koresh.

  • http://journal.nearbennett.com Rick

    it steadfastly refuses to change course, continuing to confidently steer its way into irrelevance.

    My fear is that the RCC will change just a few policy stances (e.g. birth control) and suddenly people will find them more palatable.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    My fear is that the RCC will change just a few policy stances (e.g. birth control)

    Don’t worry too much about that, this is an organization which has great difficulty changing anything, which sounds too much like admitting error. Look at how long it took them to apologise to Galileo, and the furor that resulted from arch-conservatives after Pope Indulgence’s recent remark on condom use.

  • TEP

    But never know, it could do a lot for the Church’s image when they embark upon a policy of ‘swift action’ and decide to actually begin reporting paedophile priests to the police a few centuries from now. And it will do further wonders for their popularity about 800 years from now when they allow women and gay priests, and also claim that it was the influence of the Catholic Church that was responsible for gay rights in the first place.

  • jack

    With their clumsy and brutish intrusions into politics, with their arrogant demands that Polish people put their own opinions and moral beliefs aside and bow down before their betters, they’ve shown themselves to be a gang of thugs and bullies, and the people are responding accordingly.

    Let’s not forget one more rather significant item in the list of their transgressions: child rape.

  • Rieux

    On behalf of the atheist movement, I’d love to take credit for the decline of the Catholic church in Poland.

    That seems to me like a specific case of the more general trends: first, religious belief and identification are increasingly giving way to secularity in both Europe and (somewhat more slowly, but still surely) North America—not to mention East Asia and Oceania. And second, though it would be great for us atheists (especially Gnu ones) if we could claim that the decline is due to our actions and awesomeness and whatnot, all indications are that it’s the result of very broad social and demographic factors, and there’s very little we (or any small number of people… who are not in possession of WMDs) could possibly do to help or hinder it.

    Religion is slowly dying, and it’s not even because of us. Oh, well.

  • G.C. Arlt

    I would like to hope it is dying but I for one will not hold my breath.Government finds religion much too useful to let it die completely

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    Rieux, we aren’t freedom fighters, really. That people change, that demographics change, well, I say it’s just fine. Some of the more vocal folks like the Four Horsemen might be disappointed if it wasn’t at least in part due to their efforts, but I think it’s even better if people are just changing on their own: it means there really is no prophets in atheism, no leaders, no missionaries. People change because people are becoming smarter, not because someone (de)converts them.

  • bbk

    Pope John Paul was an important figurehead for Poland because he supported Solidarity and helped inform the rest of the world about it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martial_law_in_Poland Under martial law, going to church was a sort of silent protest where you could align yourself with the protests and hear a nationalistic message without having to fear reprisal. As a result, even the most well educated atheists went to church and encouraged everyone to rally around the pope. It created a lot of goodwill towards the church and gave it a reputation as a populist and pro-democratic institution.

    Poles may be Catholic, but the one thing you don’t want to do is step on their hard-won sovereignty. Looks like the Nazi pope is screwing the pooch on that one.

  • Brock

    “Looks like the Nazi pope is screwing the pooch.”
    Try to get that image out of your mind.

  • Hugo

    we may not be the cause but since atheism is now open and visible those moderates can become actual atheists instead of wishy washy (self described) agnostics (I know atheism does not exclude agnosticism at all) or worse “cultural catholics”.
    Lets welcome them with open arms and guarantee they never get those delusions again :)

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    I knew that extra burnt offering would do the trick.

    Have you been burning Bibles again? :)

  • Eurekus

    Being from a RC family I have to say, their resistance to change is working in our favour. An indication, in Tasmania the church is importing Nigerian priests. Changes within that church just aint gonna happen. After all, the Pontiff actually does think he’s god on earth.

    When I debate fundies and Catholics I think, what chance does humanity have? But then, when I read a post like this, I realise our future is bright.

  • Charles

    Speaking of Poland, what’s the deal with the huge Jesus statue in Poland? I thought the Ten Commandments said “No making of idols”. And why would the creator of the cosmos need to wear a crown?

  • Jeff

    I don’t see this as being quite the good news the rest of you seem to. As the Church loses ground in Europe and the US, it continues to gain it in Africa and Latin America, among the poor and downtrodden. As a result, the priests that come from these ranks, who will probably comprise the majority of priests in the years to come, are increasingly conservative, reactionary and opposed to any and all forms of progress. It would be better, from our perspective, if priests were to come from the West and try to maintain a progressive line. Then again, with Emperor Palpatine in charge, how likely is that? As Eurekas said, change just ain’t gonna happen.

    Well, I’m somewhat consoled by the fact that we haven’t got much time left as a civilization, anyway…

  • Rieux

    Jeff:

    It would be better, from our perspective, if priests were to come from the West and try to maintain a progressive line.

    I disagree. The scenario you posit (and it’s not a crazy one) would all but inevitably lead to an American and European Catholicism that’s even more, and ever increasingly, out-of-step and divorced from the secularizing and humanizing trend those societies are going through more broadly. That will really suck for people trapped inside the religion—which is very unfortunate—but it will also render the RCC a considerably less powerful and respected institution. That seems like a good outcome to me, and one that can only hasten the deterioration of religious privilege writ large.

    The excesses of right-wing religion are, indeed, awful for those who are directly in the line of fire. But those same excesses have salutary consequences: they do plenty to discredit religion more fundamentally. In the long run, I think that does considerably more good than clergy who can talk a good progressive game, all the while lending aid and comfort to religious faith and privilege.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Mr. Terlikowski said he was astounded when he heard that church leaders in Poland were so frustrated with what was being said about the church in the national newspapers that they ordered their staff members to stop bringing them the papers.

    This pretty much says it all.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Have you been burning Bibles again? :)

    Stop oppressing my religious freedom, chaplain!

    And second, though it would be great for us atheists (especially Gnu ones) if we could claim that the decline is due to our actions and awesomeness and whatnot, all indications are that it’s the result of very broad social and demographic factors, and there’s very little we (or any small number of people… who are not in possession of WMDs) could possibly do to help or hinder it.

    I wouldn’t go that far, Rieux. Even if the Gnu Atheists aren’t the primary cause of faith’s ebbing in the Western world – in fact, I think the opposite is true, that our rise is a symptom of religion in retreat – I would argue that we can still accelerate the process. Like a self-catalyzing chemical reaction, we’ll naturally become more influential as society becomes more secular, and the increased volume of our collective voice will lead to religion diminishing still more quickly. It’s a virtuous cycle!

    Don’t worry too much about that, this is an organization which has great difficulty changing anything, which sounds too much like admitting error.

    And to back up Reginald’s comment here, I’ll point out that we already have an example of this. As Michelle Goldberg noted in The Means of Reproduction, in the 1960s, Pope Paul VI assembled a papal commission to study whether the Catholic ban on contraception should be lifted. The commission recommended that it should. Amazingly, the pope then overruled his own committee’s advice and issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reiterated the Vatican’s absolute ban on artificial contraception. Goldberg quotes several bishops who explained that he had to do this, because changing the rule would be tantamount to admitting that their previous position was wrong, and that’s something the church must never do regardless of the circumstances.

  • Alex Siyer

    The RCC still stomps civil rights in my country. It sill powerfull.

    I’m happy for europeans, but it seems that the church last tentacle-lashes could occur in my home region, and that make nervous. “Shivers”.

  • Anna

    As a recovering Catholic, this is great news to hear. It seems like common sense is busting out all over Europe. And it is starting to wiggle a bit in the US. I wouldn’t give up hope on Latin America and Africa. Latin America is already showing signs of rejecting the RC with an atheist president in Argentina and gay marriage rights in Mexico City. As the RC continues to bleed membership it will only retain its most conservative elements which will continue to erode its power and influence, like a domino affect. At least I hope this is the case.

  • Rieux

    I think we’re largely in agreement, Ebonmuse. I’m just a little less convinced than you are that atheists have, or are likely to have soon, the power to do much to change the secularizing trend. That trend is just so long temporally and broad demo- and geographically; organized religious skepticism is so much smaller.

    …Which doesn’t mean I think we should stop being outspoken or anything. Open atheism (and I’m partial to the Gnu variety) can and does improve lives. I’m just less optimistic than you are that the salutary results of our efforts are likely to extend, in global terms, very far beyond ourselves.

  • Demonhype

    I think that any atheist claim that can be made for this decline has to do with visibility.

    People can be smart, but if all you’ve ever been exposed to is people who believe in god, if you’ve been taught all your life that all good people believe in god (either your particular flavor or in god/s in general) and you’ve never experienced anything to contradict that standard, you might never come to that concept in the first place.

    Kind of like when I was a kid, where there was racial tolerance but it was unheard of for black and white people to date or be together–I’d never seen nor heard of anything else, and it wasn’t that people were actively bitching about it to me. It was just not on the list as an option at all, either good or bad. I could see a black person as an equal, even acknowledge a black man as “looking very handsome”, but it never occurred to me to look at any black man as a woman looks at a man. It was an unspoken cultural rule ingrained in my subconscious that whites and blacks could only have platonic relationships, and blacks are off-limits to us as whites, and vice versa. It wasn’t until I got older and started seeing interracial couples on TV and then on the street–and heard the angry reactions of my elders at such an insidious normalization of miscegenation–and I wondered why this should be such a hateful issue for people who had otherwise taught me to be fair–that that concept changed in my head. Not that I’ve dated any black guys (or white guys, or anyone, yet), but now I realize it is a perfectly viable possibility, and that, should I decide to start looking, color needs not be a barrier or crucial deal-breaker to having a relationship with a person that I might otherwise want to be with.

    So just the increasing visibility of atheists as nice, normal, perfectly viable members of society can be a possible factor in this decline in the influence of religious institutions, because it makes people realize that no, you don’t “have to believe in something”. You have a choice to opt out of the whole mess, which is a choice that might not have really occurred to some people if they hadn’t been exposed to our existence.

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    My husband is a Polish Agnostic.

  • Lion IRC

    Same old stuff.

    Get rid of religion in Poland and give someone else a chance to exercise authority. It’s no surprise that atheism and communism go hand in hand.

    Look at the Christmas Tree in South Korea which provokes so much ire from the anti-theists in the North. http://www.cathnews.com/article.aspx?aeid=24605

    Not every person who promotes the elimination of religion is doing so for the “enlightenment” of the world.

    The real motives of atheists are what deserve skepticism!

    There’s plenty of atheists willing to slag the things they dislike about religion. But how much of that is plain old fashioned competitive rivalry for power/authority? Marx and Stalin and Mao couldnt have cared less whether God is real – unfettered earthly authority was all that mattered. Thats why the “case for atheism” is so heavily skewed towards trashing religion rather than explaining what a world WITHOUT religion would look like. Like a politician asking for our vote, the atheist demands our trust without having done anything but negative campaigning against the other candidates’ policies. They want you to vote AGAINST their opponent rather than FOR the world without religion.

    As a competing worldview, atheism simply does not know the potential consequences of eliminating religion from society. So, instead, it spends most of its time complaining about religion in the world and not enough time promoting the “atheist utopia”.

    Sure, by all means, take away religion as the notional justification for wars, greed, politics, racism, genocide, etc and then what? Nobody believes atheists in China and atheists in Russia and atheists in America would all live happily ever after in a brave new “survival of the fittest” world without religion. Living like theres no tomorrow (afterlife). In fact, I would argue that such a scenario challenges/threatens the human psyche. Nietzsche would love it but I don’t know how nicely a global neighborhood of Nietzsche’s would get along.

    Are we really to believe that the carbon polluter on one side of the globe is going to say…”hey I’m an atheist now I have to stop putting my own economic self interest ahead of the planet? Is the pedophile going to change just because there are no more churches in which to hide, or are they going to say…”hey, no need to hide any more”.

    Here’s how Mr Hitchens recently answered (failed to answer) the atheist utopia question. It was much better live. He may as well have LITERALLY said…”mutter mutter, um, err, well, ahem.” Note the section marked (inaudible). Read his answer twice and while you are reading the second time, remember that here is a man who is probably the most linguistically qualified to put atheology/atheist utopia into language and the best he can come up with is…”I can’t”.

    http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/ … 069457.htm

    Lion (IRC)

  • Lion IRC

    TONY JONES: I presume actually you would imagine a world without religion would be utopian. But, let me ask you this: what do you think a world without religion, without all the cultural side-effects of it, would actually look like? I mean, would it be verging on pure commercialism and materialism? I mean, would it take people away from any spiritual side of themselves at all?

    CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Well, no, that wouldn’t be it because as we know from bitter experience, materialism and commercialism are unusually inordinately compatible with religion. That’s why there’ve had to be so many successive affirmations, because the religious life goes so well with greed and accumulation and acquisition.
    When asked where they really want power and influence, this world or the next?, they tend to think rather the same as the more crass materialists (inaudible) do. That doesn’t make it any easier to imagine a world without religion, and it’s not that I don’t think that I have too little imagination to imagine that, it’s just that I think it cannot in fact be imagined.

  • Nes

    Lion IRC,

    1. You borked your link. I wouldn’t worry about fixing it though, because you’ll probably just make yourself look foolish again.
    2. I’m not entirely certain why you make a big deal of the “(inaudible)” part, but just in case you are confused: Hitchens is obviously referring to the “only concerned with money” sense of the word (definition 1) when he talks about “crass materialists”, and not the “only matter exists” sense of the word (definition 2) with which most atheists would agree.
    3. Christopher Hitchens is not the atheist pope. Stop treating him as such.
    4. Kim Jong-il, Mao, Stalin, and other tyrants who happened to be (or allegedly are/were) atheists are not atheist popes. Stop treating them as such.
    5. I am now utterly convinced that you don’t actually read this website, or, at the least, nothing from the archives.

    Edit: I looked up the transcript and…. yeah, leaving out a bit of context again, are we?

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Yes Lion (or is it lyin’?) we all want religion to be gone so that we can be ruthless dictators. How did you see thru our clever ruses and subterfuges? How did you decipher the clues to figure out our true intents? Do we have a spy in our super secret atheist cabal? I’m amazed at your ability to infiltrate our organizations and our minds.

    Or, maybe we just rightly point out that people making bad decisions based on irrationality (religion) won’t be negatively affecting us if people leave religion behind. True, people will still make bad decisions. True, people will still make irrational decisions. But, the point is that we’d be eliminating a source that necessarily is irrational and often intentionally pushes people to act irrationally and make bad decisions (like invading countries for no good reason or flying planes into buildings for just a couple examples). What’s your argument for religion? You seem to be the one more concerned with trashing atheism than offering positive arguments for your position.

  • bbk

    Nes, I don’t think it needs any more context. What Hitchens is saying is that even in a world without religion, you still can’t underestimate the crass opportunistic sycophants like Lion IRC. Ironically, it went straight over his head.