This story was produced in partnership with Reporting Democracy, a cross-border journalism platform run by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
Population data since 1989 has supported the stereotypical view that Slovaks are the more religious people of the onetime common Czecho-Slovak state. However, Slovakia's latest census, whose preliminary results were released on January 20, shows that the number of people without any religious affiliation has increased significantly over the past decade, during which time the Roman Catholic Church, the one most Slovak citizens claim allegiance to, lost some 300,000 believers.
“It is not a drastic drop of the like seen in the Czech Republic, where the number of people who claim allegiance to the church is down steeply,” says Miroslav Tížik, a sociologist of religion at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.
However, Tížik points out it is possible to observe a linear decrease in the number of Slovaks who claim allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church, meaning he expects a further fall over the coming decade.
And rather than the much-discussed topics surrounding abortion and the rights of sexual minorities in society, the sociologist sees natural developments as principally behind this decline.
In 2021, 1.3 million people in Slovakia, which translates into 23.8 percent of its inhabitants, did not claim allegiance to any church. In 2011, that number was 725,000 people, or 13.4 percent.
The Roman Catholic Church, which remains the largest and most influential religious organisation in the country based on the census results, lost some 300,000 members since the census 10 years previously. The 2021 census showed that there are 3.04 million people claiming allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church, which is about 55.8 percent of Slovakia’s population. Ten years ago, that figure was 3.347 million people, or about 62 percent.
As well as a quarter of the population claiming to have no religious affiliation at all, there has also been an increase in the number of people who claim allegiance to other churches outside of the major registered ones. Eastern religions have seen an increase in adherents, but, as Tížik notes, these are still statistically insignificant.
Most people without any religious affiliation live in the Bratislava Region, almost 40 percent. Districts where the number of inhabitants without religious affiliation reached more than 40 per cent are those within the capital and the south-eastern district of Rožňava.
From a regional point of view, the Catholic Church remains the dominant church in all Slovak regions, with more than a 50-per cent share with the exception of the regions of Bratislava and Košice.
The district of Námestovo in northern Slovakia, which includes the town of the same name, was the only one where more than 90 percent of inhabitants (92.4 percent) claimed allegiance to the Catholic Church. At the other end of the scale was the district of Medzilaborce in north-eastern Slovakia close to the border with Poland, where just 8.7 percent called themselves members of the Catholic Church. Here, most inhabitants chose the Greek Catholic Church over the Roman Catholic one.
The Catholic Church, perhaps not surprisingly, has its own take on the situation. Catholic bishops say they regard the census results in the current shifting context of the Covid-19 pandemic and new electronic ways of gathering the data.
“In terms of the records kept by the church in the baptism registries, we can say that we have seen a stable, even slightly growing, trend over the last 10 years – both in the Roman Catholic and in the Greek Catholic ceremony,” states Stanislav Zvolenský, the archbishop of Bratislava and chair of the Conference of Bishops of Slovakia.
The only year in which the number of Catholic baptisms dropped significantly was 2020 – a year marked by significant constraints on movement and the size of gatherings due to the pandemic, he explains.
The Catholic Church has also published data for the past 10 years based on parish registers that shows two-thirds of children born in Slovakia are christened.
“As for the higher number of people who filled in the ‘no religion’ box [in the last census], it certainly reflects the secularisation of society,” Zvolenský says. “In any case, it is a motivation for believers to evangelise more intensively, to live their faith actively.”
In essence, the difference between the two approaches, the sociologist Tížik explains, is that while the census measures people’s attitudes and relationship towards the church, the church looks at the data of active believers.
“The census only follows the number of people who claim an allegiance to a specific church, it means nothing else,” Tížik says. “It says nothing about [religious] practices, about traditions, about the intensity of the relationship towards the church.”
Church leaders, however, speak about the factor that is most important for them, which is that if the number of christened children increases or remains stable, then that says much about how practicing believers, though perhaps fewer in number, are behaving towards their church.
So, what are the chances of halting or even reversing this decline in those claiming allegiance to the Catholic Church? Sociologists reckon there’s little likelihood over the coming years of that happening.
The peak in the number of Slovaks who claimed allegiance to the Roman Catholic church was in 2001, when the census recorded almost 69 percent of the population were believers. Between 2001 and 2011, this fell about 6 percentage points to 62 percent, and then between 2011 and 2021, this share fell by another 6 percentage points to 56 percent.
“It means that this is a linear decrease,” Tížik notes, adding it is a natural trend when one generation of people without any religious affiliation raises another generation.
On the positive side for the Roman Catholic church, Tížik stresses that the decline is at a much lesser pace than that experienced in neighbouring Czech Republic.
Data from censuses up to 1950 showed roughly the same share of Roman Catholic believers among the Czech and Slovak sections of the Czechoslovak population. After 1950, no such data of religious affiliation was collected under Communism. But since 1991, there has been a marked divergence, with the number of Czechs claiming an allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church falling from 40 percent to 7 percent in just 30 years.
“Czechia is still deepening its identity as an anti-clerical society and this position was strengthened in the [latest Czech census of 2021],” Tížik says. “The results of the Czech census showed that people are not less believers but they are believers without allegiance to any church. So, the Czech model is more built on not being confessional, where the relation to faith is more important than the relation to the church.”
But the same cannot be said about Slovakia with any certainty, because the Slovak 2021 census did not ask the same question.
Andrej Lúčný from the secular civic group Ethos, which ran a campaign during the census requesting citizens refrain from indicating any allegiance to a church, believes that the number of Slovaks who consider themselves believers but do not have an affinity with any particular church has increased. However, the census did not give a definitive answer to the question of how many people in Slovakia are such believers without any religious affiliation, as was the case in the Czech census.
“Their [Slovaks’] motivation to mark ‘no affiliation’ in the census was apparently that they could not identify with the attitudes of their church and simply did not have a good enough opinion of the church to formally relate to it,” Lúčný argues.
However, Tížik sums up the continuing dominance of the Catholic Church in Slovakia by noting that its adherents still make up 70 percent of all people who claimed an allegiance to some church.
Support among Slovaks for the Catholic Church also managed to hold up in the face of several campaigns launched by a variety of groups trying to sway people’s responses, such as the “Without an Affiliation” campaign of Ethos, whose long-term goal is to promote the separation of church and state.
“In the results of the census, we were pleased with the increase in the number of non-believers, because as an association of secularists we can automatically assume [rising] support for secularism,” says Lúčný of Ethos. “Unfortunately, we do not see in the number of believers how many of them reject any intervention by the church in the state and how many support it.”
The sociologist Tížik notes that the campaigns launched during the census, either those organised by the church or by other associations, would only really influence people who are undecided. “It is a bit like in politics – campaigns are not aimed at decided voters but at those who are still hesitant,” he says.
As for the contentious topics in society, including laws on abortion or the rights of sexual minorities, Tížik says that these are often topics that resonate more amongst the smaller Catholic orders, whose supporters are growing in number and who also hold firmer opinions on these divisive issues.
The decline in the number of Roman Catholic believers by 300,000, however, will not impact on the church’s financing, even though Slovak law stipulates that the financing of churches is directly related to the size of its congregation. This is because a church would only lose some of its funding from the state if the number of people claiming allegiance to it drops by 10 percent or more. That did not apply to any church in the 2021 census.
To the delight of secularists, the census has already pushed these issues of the separation of church and state and state financing into the realm of public debate.
The Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party, which is a member of the coalition government, argues the census result showing that even though there are fewer believers, the churches will still get the same amount of state financing is proof the current model is not well designed.
SaS has now called a roundtable to be held on February 15, at which all political parties and churches are invited to participate in order to address the issue of the separation of church and state.