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Poland remains the Catholic stronghold of Europe, with 91% of Poles considering themselves Catholics. The percentage of self-declared “believers” remains equally impressive at 87%, and 43% of the population of almost 38 million attend church at least once a week.

But secularizing change is afoot. According to the authors of the latest CBOS survey of Polish religiosity, the question is no longer whether religiosity is changing but rather how. Religiosity levels may remain high, but there are signs of a slow but steady decline. Declarations of faith dropped from 94% in 1992 to 87% in 2022. Similarly, while almost 70% of Polish people attended church at least once a week in 1992, the percentage dropped to 43% in 2021. Over the same period, the percentage of Poles who are nonpracticing grew from 9% to 24%.

Gen Z (born in or after 1997) appear to be the driving force behind the rising declarations of non-belief. According to the Pew Research Center’s report from 2018, the gap in religiosity between the young and the elderly in Poland was one of the two largest in the world, with only 16% of under-40s claiming religion was very important, compared to 40% of the older cohort. The results of a cohort analysis by CBOS also reveal the most rapid rise in nonbelief among the Gen Z between 2015 and 2021. In 2015, 15% of 18- to 24-year-olds declared themselves to be non-believers, and by 2021 that percentage had nearly doubled to 28.6%.

Almost a third of the youngest generation of Poles are now nonbelievers.

Yet the overall number of Poles who do not identify with any religion remains relatively low: between 3% and 8%. If we combine those who ‘probably don’t believe’ with those who ‘definitely don’t believe’, the figure increases to 12.5%. And if we combine declarations of faith and religious practice indicators, we see a slight increase among practicing nonbelievers (from 1 to 2% of the national population) and nonpracticing nonbelievers (3-5% of the national population).

The group who do not believe and do not practice require no explanation. But why would people belong without believing?

One possible answer points to the continuing strength of cultural religion in Poland and the embeddedness of the Church in the fabric of society. Most people, including nonbelievers, rely on the Church for the provision of the key rites of passage, such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals, be it out of choice, or due to the lack of alternatives. In this sense, “practicing” could mean “conforming so as not to upset Granny,” and this is indeed a common theme in the qualitative studies of Polish Nones (nonbelievers) and everyday life. Religious symbols and rituals remain on standby “and may still be called upon to mobilize the faithful and the ‘faithless’ alike.”

“Practicing” could mean “conforming so as not to upset Granny,” and this is indeed a common theme in the qualitative studies of Polish Nones and everyday life.

As one of the participants in my study remarked: “My atheist friend baptized her baby only because granny insisted. Granny insisted because she worried about what people would say. She never goes to church, but it’s a small community, so people would be asking questions.” This quote sums up the interdependence between kinship structures and social norms in Poland. Together they make it hard to opt out unless one is prepared for a spot of trouble.

In keeping with trends identified in other populations, Polish Nones tend to be young urban dwellers, university educated, and more affluent than their religious counterparts. 63% of Polish Nones are men, and 37% are women. Nones are mostly left-wing or centrist in their political views. Of all the nonreligious only 36% categorically deny the existence of God, 24% believe in a higher power of some kind, and 6% say they mostly believe in God. While 55% believe there is no afterlife, 33% think there is something but it is impossible to tell what. 25% of all Nones could be described as atheists, if by atheists we mean those who categorically deny the existence of god and possibility of an afterlife. Nones’ values resemble those of most Poles. Family and health were the most important aspects of life for the majority of those surveyed (73% and 64% respectively). Nones tend to be more open and trusting than believers, and they are more relativist in their approach to social norms, i.e. their definitions of good and evil are more contextual and less absolutist than those of believers. Predictably, Polish Nones are more liberal than the religious in matters of private morality and in relation to euthanasia, abortion, contraceptives, and intimate relationships specifically.

Being a nonreligious person may still be an oddity in Polish society, but unless Gen Z somehow rediscovers Catholicism en masse, it is hard to see the secularizing trends reversing any time soon.  

Marta Trzebiatowska

Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Aberdeen, UK, and the co-author (with Steve Bruce) of Why are women more religious than men? (Oxford University Press, 2012). Her current research is...