I’ve just returned from Poland and with the help from Liberté, Świecka szkoła (Secular School), Stowarzyszenie Ateistyczne | Atheist Association Poland, swieckaszkola and Fundacja Wolność od Religii (Freedom from Religion Foundation) among many other organisations I was able to speak to several people on my research trip to Warsaw.
Bullivant (2018) reports from the ESS (2014-2016) that only 17% of Polish young people (aged between 16-29) identify as having no religion. Rather exceptional when compared to their neighbours to the south (Czech Republic) & the West (East Germany) as Bullivant notes that not only does Poland ‘have a very high proportion of Catholic affiliates, but they exhibit remarkably high levels of actual practice: almost half attend Mass at least weekly, and only 3% never attend’.
One reason Poland may have a ‘very high proportion of Catholic affiliates’ is due to the hassle one must go through to no longer be institutionally tied to the Catholic Church – to become an ‘apostate’.
I discussed with Anna, a participant I met in Warsaw what impact she felt religion had on her life, she told me ‘to be honest, it’s impacting my life now, I want to finally get my apostasy papers done, because the Catholic Church in Poland tends to say that, “Oh, there is 90% of Catholics in Poland”. Well, I do not consider myself as Catholic. That’s why I want to get out of the Church for good, and that’s why it impacts my life, because my parents baptised me due to tradition, and it’s not very easy to get out of the church. And now, well not religion, but the church has impacted my life because they are trying to influence the government over the anti-abortion and the other laws’. I followed up with Anna after I returned to London to see how the process went. She described the experience:
‘Today I had to go to the parish where I have been baptised to acquire my baptism certificate. Next thing I had to do is go to the parish where I currently live and deliver them my statement of will (in 3 copies) and my baptism certificate. They will have to send it to the curia and make an annotation in the baptism books. And this is it, “Dobby is free”*. However, usually, they try to discourage people trying to get apostasy. I was questioned in my parish today, why I would want to hand in an apostasy, and what caused me to lose my belief. Seems that everything went fine, though on every stage they tried to reason with me, to make me change my mind. Guess I was too tired to go through all these discussions again and again, so I just cut them off. I was glad that my boyfriend went with me to the parish church, because it is connected with monastery and I would feel a little weird if I was alone there (they’ve left me to wait in a waiting room, the whole building seemed to be desolated, quiet and cold – so it felt creepy a bit). Anyway, they gave up on reasoning and finally I got what I’ve wanted, so now I am free to live in accordance with my conscience and values. So yeah, indeed “Dobby is free” now’.
Not all of the Polish participants had gone through this apostasy procedure because the Catholic Church has made it difficult (more so in the past) to leave. It was only in 2016 that procedures were somewhat “relaxed” by abolishing the obligation to appear in the presence of two witnesses and a two-day visit to the parish priest. If E.U law makes it easier in the future, one couple told me how they will throw an ‘apostate party’ for their friends, dressing their dog up as the Pope to celebrate. When I asked another participant Monika if she had officially left the church she told me:
‘No. No, it’s too much hassle, I think. You need to have, as far as I know, three or four witnesses to this, and so many papers. I also have a goddaughter, so I can’t really do that until she has communion and so on, or at least I shouldn’t. But if I get properly angry with the church at one point, I might consider it. The thing is, if it was organised the way it’s organised in Germany like you need to pay tax to the church that you are a member of, I would definitely leave church immediately. Why do I have to pay for them? But in Poland, I think my money doesn’t really go to the church directly, so it’s just not worth the hassle for me right now, I would say. But maybe in the future. I don’t really cross it off.’
When I asked Monika, what being a Godparent meant to her, she replied ‘nothing really’. She went on to tell me that her Godchild’s parents are not religious either but ‘she just baptised her children because her family wanted her to. She doesn’t really care. I remember when we were at a meeting at church right before the baptism, me and her and the godfather of my goddaughter, we would just sit in the back behind a pillar and just pretend we’re not there. Yeah, she doesn’t really care about it. She just … I would say she does what she thinks should happen like chronologically, I would say. Like when the baby’s born, they’re baptised, and then eight years later or nine years later, there’s communion’.
And, thus what we see is a strong societal conformity to religious traditions, even from nonreligious people, with the pressure often coming from older generations. If you do not conform, Kamila told me people can feel ‘marked somehow socially’ because ‘you were signed in [to Catholicism] as a baby, usually, when you were baptised, like 95% of people are baptised, it’s like everyone you ask’.
Despite there being a great symbolic presence of religion in Poland, it’s common to see priests and nuns roaming the streets (and even taking photos of each other at Sigismund’s Column), and a map of the parishes in Poland leaves no space empty covering the entire country. Yet, my findings suggest unbelief is much more prevalent in Millennials than we are led to believe in larger cities like Warsaw. To support this, Dominicantes (calculated as a percentage of Catholics attending the Sunday Eucharist in relation to the total number of those obliged) in 1980 was 51% which has fallen to 36.7% in 2016. In Warsaw specifically, the number is lower at 30.4%. Whereas, Communicantes (Catholics receiving Holy Communion) has doubled in the same period from 8% to 16%. But if you avoid religious traditions and practices, I was told ‘it’s like you’re letting down the people you love’, and Monika felt that her ‘grandma would be really mad if she finds out’ so she just avoids the subject of religion, she goes on to say ‘she’s old and she has a weak heart, so I don’t want to risk anything’. But there were strong voices coming from the nonreligious in Poland about changing cultural religious practices – ‘we have to be the wind of change’ and with the potential of a change in the law to make leaving Catholicism easier, I think Millennial Poland will display some interesting decline in religiosity within the next decade.
*If you’re not well versed in the Harry Potter books… Dobby the house elf (who serves a cruel wizarding family – the Malfoys) receives a sock in Tom Riddle’s Diary (Voldemort) from Lucius Malfoy in a clever ploy by Harry Potter, thus granting his freedom.