Despite being some of the most secular of nations in the world, Dutch culture is still very much shaped by religion, specifically Christianity. Coming to you in the days between ye old Crucifixion and ye old Resurrection: a brief overview of religion in The Netherlands.



After the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine, Christianity quickly became the dominant religion in Europe and would be so for many centuries. However, under the influence of Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, the quickly growing understanding of natural and social sciences, and increased literalism and wealth, religion lost more and more of its influence

Today, the The Netherlands embodies the liberal middle road of having both freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion. This is to say that while people are free to express and practice their religion (with a footnote banning hate speech and criminal acts), it is equally true that no one can force religion on another person. People are as free to worship as they are to ridicule.


Today, Jews (be it ethnic or religious) are a very small minority in the The Netherlands. Due to its liberal culture, The Dutch Republic was a popular place of refuge for those who were persecuted for their beliefs, be it Judaism, Protestantism, or otherwise. The sizeable minority of Jews, mostly living in Amsterdam was decimated in The Holocaust. Living in the most densely populated country in Europe with an advanced social administration (left intact after the swift and decisive Nazi invasion of 1940), only 35,000 of the initial 140,000 Jews living in The Netherlands survived the war.



Ietsisme and non-religion

There a list of Dutch words that have made it into the English dictionary. Among such proud concept such as apartheid and Yankee, there is also ietsisme, a word that is the result of making an -ism out of the word iets (“something”). Best described as “faith without religion”, ietsism is a broad term that encompasses everyone who basically says: “I don’t believe in God, but I do believe that there is something out there.” To be an ietsist means to believe in a supernatural being, but without following any kind of established dogma or set of beliefs.

Not being religious is also on the rise, praise be Richard Dawkins (unholy is his name)! All jokes aside though, not believing in gods has slowly become the new norm, with only one out of three Dutchies being religious as of 2015. Whereas some worry about moral decay and nihilism (when Nietzsche said that “God is dead!”, he wasn’t exactly celebrating this), others see it as a new wave of liberation from dogma.



With circa 900,000 Dutch people professing this faith, Islam is a sizeable minority in the country. It quickly rose after the immigration of Turkish and Moroccan immigrants in the 1970s.

Islam is also a somewhat controversial religion in this country. Though Muslims are as free to practice their religion as anyone else, there is increasing tension between Muslims and non-Muslims. Needless to say, the recent wave of terrorist attacks, such as in Ankara, Ivory Coast, and Brussels, have only added to the suspicion. The Netherlands has both a tradition of liberal tolerance as well as fierce resistance against the multi-cultural society, with the murdered Pim Fortuyn (1948-2002) and Theo van Gogh (1957-2004) as some of the most outspoken critics of Islam.

This critique of both Islam and non-Western cultures can be a nasty and out-right racist affair, but there are also more rational and intellectual responses. I think Frits Bolkestein made a very accurate judgment when in his book The Intellectual Temptation, he claimed that, if we ever want to see a moderate Islam, it has to open up to relentless criticism and scrutiny. Just as Christianity has been shaped (for the better) by philosophers such as Voltaire, Nietzsche, Marx, and Bertrand Russell, as well as ridicule as the above mentioned Life of Brian, so must Islam open itself to criticism.

Only time will tell if the religious/ethnic divide in The Netherlands will become greater, or smaller. In the meantime, I think it is best if we keep walking the middle road of freedom of religion and freedom from religion.



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