During the last decade of the previous century, communist regimes in Eastern European countries fell one after another. There was a lot of turmoil, which in the end caused separation of the USSR, former Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.
"Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people". – Karl Marx
Since communists followed Marx’s philosophy, they turned away from religion. Unfortunately, their autocratic regimes were founded on the same principles as the monotheistic religions. The party leader took the role of god. His opinions were translated into laws. Many were elected presidents of their respective counties for life. Nobody had the right to oppose them; it was considered a blasphemy punishable by imprisonment, exile, and even death. Communist party’s public support was based on fear.
Religion Risen From Shame
After the fall of communism, many of the politicians regrouped and formed a multitude of parties. Former communist partisanship was pointed out whenever an opponent felt the need for ad hominem response. Soon enough, they started trying to prove in so many ways that they were not true followers of the communist ideology, but were simply there to be able to fight the enemy from within. One of the most obvious ways to prove oneself was to become a new born follower of religion. That trend was accepted by almost all the people in power. Ones that were most devout communists (army officers, police officers, company CEOs, etc.), that rose to power because of their party connections, all of a sudden were most devout in their respective religions.
This was most evident in the countries whose populace was predominantly Eastern Orthodox Christian, because Eastern Orthodox Christianity is organized with the autocephaly on the national level. In the times when countries got their independence, national pride was on the high, creating fertile ground for spreading of the religious national identity. National churches used this and slowly, but surely crept into secular society.
Many people fall victims of the False Scotsman fallacy, and simply accept their affiliation to the church as a part of their national identity. Many will openly criticize priests and their money grabbing tactics; still, the very same people will strongly defend the Orthodox Church and religion. Politicians balanced this to try to introduce some troubling policies into the public life, completely ignoring the constitution.
I’ll use some examples from Serbia, because I am most familiar with these creeping processes that took place here:
“The Republic of Serbia is a secular state.
Churches and religious communities are separate from the state.
No religion can be established as state or mandatory". – Constitution of the Republic of Serbia, article 11, translation
Some of the things politicians did were purely symbolical.
Following the death of the Patriarch, (head of the Serbian Orthodox Christian Church) in 2009, the nation declared three days of mourning. City of Belgrade government added an additional day of mourning, ignoring the fact that three days are the maximum allowed by the law.
In 2012, now former prime minister, after he was elected, asked for the blessing from the Patriarch. Blessings (votes) from the people of democratic, secular country obviously weren’t good enough for him.
One of the first true, and so far the biggest defeat of the secularism was the introduction of “Faith Science” classes into the public schools, in 2001. You guessed correctly if you assumed there would be some heavy opposition to that. It only resulted in making it an optional subject, with the only other option being the “Civic Education” course. Kids are now wasting two classes a week on one of these subjects for the entire duration of elementary and high school, for total of 11 or 12 years!
One of the rare wins for secularism was in 2004, when then Minister of Education (famous for her statement that she prays every night for Saint Sava, protector of the education, to give her wisdom,) chose to banish Theory of Evolution from the Biology classes, stating that it will be reintroduced only if the Creationism is taught along with it. Biology teachers rose against it, as well as most of the media and public, resulting in dismissal of the Minister, and reintroduction of the Theory of Evolution into schools.
Another fail of the secularism is the fact that Theological College is still a part of the Belgrade University, and is financed with the tax money. They, however, do not offer free education for the best of the students, like the rest of the colleges in the national system do. One of the prerequisites to even enroll is a letter of consent from the local Vladika (second highest title in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church). It isn’t a place where you can learn about the religion, but the place where they indoctrinate future priests, and it’s all financed by the secular state's tax money.
Introduction of the religion into the national education system hurts the most, but there are other parts of society poisoned by it.
In 2008, many state funded hospitals opened chapels on their grounds. In 2011, government reintroduced chaplain service to Serbian military. In 2013, state started paying for retirement, social security, and health insurance funds for all the priests, imams, and rabbis; all in all, more than 2000 people.
Such things were done on national and local level. In 2010, City of Kragujevac built an 18m high Orthodox Christian cross on the communal land, despite polls showing 80% of the local residents were against it. In 2010, City of Niš approved an 82m Cross to be built on the communal land. Luckily it was never built, due to lack of private funding.
End of the Tunnel?
All we are left with is hope that the initial shame of being part of the communist regime has left some of the politicians, and that younger ones do not carry that burden. Some of them already, with a high confidence, openly criticize public statements coming from the religious top, and create policies contradicting their wishes.