Andrzej Dominiczak


What's happpening in Poland?

The studies on religiosity conducted in recent years in Poland have revealed two coexisting, though contradictory, processes. On the one hand, secularization progresses unceasingly (though at a slow rate) – religious faith is weakening and participation in church activities is shrinking. On the other hand, however, one poll after another has shown rapidly growing support for the policy of the Catholic Church and its flagship political spoils, as the ban on abortion, the presence of the crucifix in the parliament or the refusal to legalize civil gay unions.

In 1990s, nearly half of Poles advocated for liberal laws on abortion. At the end of 2012, after years of secularization and the self-proclaimed “Palikot revolution,” abortion was nearly totally forbidden, and public support for the right to terminate pregnancy if a woman is in a difficult situation fell to just 13 percent. In just four months between August and December 2012, immediately after a vigorous anticlerical pro-choice campaign, the number of supporters of the liberalization of abortion law plummeted by one-third.

Almost identical shift in opinion has occurred in regard to the crucifix in the parliament. In 1997, when it was secretly hanged in our temple of democracy, its presence there was supported by 52 percent of Poles, while 29 percent were against. Fourteen years later, 70 percent of respondents are in favor and only 20 per cent want to remove it. The number of crucifix supporters has increased by 40 percent!

And yet, at the same time, and especially after the death of John Paul II in 2005, the percentage of people participating in religious activities has clearly dropped and the number of those who practice only occasionally has increased considerably. That is not all. Successive polls have shown serious decline in the percentage of Catholics who declare faith in mortal sin, in Hell, Heaven and the afterlife. Instead, the number of agnostics and atheists doubled, from 2.1 percent in 2009 to more than 4 percent today. It is not insignificant, considering that further third of declaratory believers have doubts about the existence of God, every sixteenth admits that “it is only sometimes that he or she believes in God," while only 9 percent declare that their faith is deep.

From humanist point of view equally important is more selective and individual approach to the moral doctrine of the Catholic church. Studies show that believers often do not accept the basic moral truths of their faith and recognize the views contrary to the teachings of the Church. Only 22 per cent of those surveyed by CBOS in 2012 consider the moral principles of Catholicism to be the best. Nearly half of declarative Catholics are of the opinion that “although these rules are mostly correct, they are not sufficient.” All studies and all our experience show that they certainly do not agree with all of them.

From our point of view, equally or even more promising are the results of foreign studies revealing that many somehow religious Poles reject belief in personal God. According to the poll conducted in 2010 by Eurostat, 14 per cent of respondents believe only in “some form of spirituality or life force." This is certainly a very diverse group, but mostly not obedient to the Catholic Church. One of them is certainly Janusz Palikot, the leader of political and anti-clerical zealots. In an interview with Agnieszka Kublik from Gazeta Wyborcza, he admitted to the belief in the transmigration of souls. From a rational point of view, belief in reincarnation or metempsychosis is as wise as the belief in immaculate conception, ­ from a political point of view, however, it seems safer, at least in the near future, when Mr. Palikot and his followers have no visible chance of taking power.

The results of surveys quoted here, probably do not fully reflect the scope and pace of secularization, as people's responses are influenced by the so-called “variable of social approval.” Some respondents are afraid to express the views which they consider unacceptable to their neighbors and/or family members. The real number of religiously indifferent is certainly greater. This hypothesis is confirmed by the results of the survey by Eurostat, in which only 79 percent of Poles admitted to belief in God. This is much less than in the Polish studies, probably because the respondents were more honest in surveys conducted by a foreign institution.

Another justification of this presumption comes from the results of a dozen or so psychological interviews on the content and strength of religious belief held last year among practicing Catholics from the district of Mazovia. Practically all of them admitted that they really were not sure about the existence of God, eternal life or the reality of other promises of the Church. They generally agreed that the word that best describes their state of mind in religious matters is not “faith,” but “hope.”

What can we do?

First of all, we have to ask ourselves to whom we address our critiques and political projects: to a narrow and unfortunately shrinking group of readers of one weekly or another, or to millions of Polish people who do not believe deeply or only from time to time? Do we only address those who give the Church wide berth or also those who continue to practice but no longer believe and only partially accept Catholic morality? These people do not want a radical break with the Church because this institution remains an important part of their lives, if only out of habit or because many of them simply do not have anything better to do on Sundays. Attending services is still free “entertainment” and quite an attractive form of social life. That is why many people identify with the Church, even if they have a very critical attitude towards it. They may not even realize it, but they feel hurt when they hear the tirades of overly excited anticlericals. What they certainly feel is anger. People semiconsciously compare these attacks with their own personal experiences and what occurs as a result of this examination? The local priest is not a pedophile, or at least nothing is known about that. The privileges and financial scams of the clergy cause short-lived outrage, but Poles are forgiving – after all, who does not, from time to time, engage in some shenanigans? A priest with a lover sets tongues wagging, but if he is amiable, they will like him more than if he were a perfect prude. That is the way people are (apart from a handful of fundamentalists on either side,) and we have to take that into account if we really want to persuade them to support our social and political goals. We should not avoid nor artificially soften our criticism of the Church, we should, however, emphasize that despite philosophical differences we take seriously the views, habits, and life choices of the majority of Poles. It is to them that we need to reach out if we really want to weaken the political position of the Church.

A good example of this kind of political project is the legislative bill drafted by the Humanist Association and submitted to Parliament by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) amending Article 196 on offending religious feelings. The bill contains a variety of proposals that in practice abolish this article, although it formally retains a watered-version of criminal liability for offending feelings through insulting the objects of worship, if this happens on the grounds of a church or other place of worship. In the past 24 years, there has not been even one such case, so the law would effectively protect freedom of speech and artistic expression, and ­ on the other hand ­ would give many less ardent Catholics the feeling that the authors and promoters of the bill take their feelings, views, and system of values seriously.

If we want to fight against clericalization more effectively than before, more political projects of this type will be necessary, along with more statements made in a similar vein. If a bishop again appeals for subordination of democracy to the Catholic Church, commentary from our side should be critical and firm, but also ostentatiously elegant. Not because we are afraid of the negative reaction of the Church, or because we have angelic characters, but because we are speaking to the majority, who will listen to us only if they do not feel insulted. Threatening a bishop with reporting a crime to the police is both unwise and undemocratic, like the demands of the most politicized members of the Church hierarchy. Of course, this does not mean that all left-wing politicians should speak with one voice. This is neither possible nor necessary. But we should remember that a column in an anticlerical weekly is one thing, and a political speech, where we address a broad spectrum of society, quite another. If we wish to influence their choices and views, we have to use appropriate methods and not indulge passions or the strong urge to amuse a group of fans.

Towarzystwo Humanistyczne
Humanist Assciation