Imagine arriving in the Netherlands after having read a lot about the history of this wonderful country, expecting beautiful Gothic Cathedrals everywhere, a strong Protestant base, a huge Catholic following and an atheist minority. Only to be hit with the biggest surprise I’ve ever had. Oh, there were beautiful Gothic church buildings alright, but it was the atheist majority that took me totally unawares. I remember visiting a few nightclubs and bars only to find out that they were once churches. Can you imagine that? But if you observe the Dutch closely you’d definitely notice a Calvinist nature to them.

I find it quite fascinating that a people with an atheist majority still model their lives around the teachings of a 16th-century religious preacher like John Calvin.

Before we go any further on the Calvinist nature of the Dutch, let us find out what Calvinism is all about.

1- First things first, what is Calvinism?

According to Wikipedia, Calvinism is a major branch of Protestantism that follows the theological teachings of John Calvin. While the core doctrines are predestination and election, its basic principle is that the Bible must be interpreted by itself, meaning the parts that are harder to understand are explained in other passages where the Bible is more explicit on the matter. Simply put – if you don’t understand a passage in the Bible, just read on, there are parts of the Bible that explain the ones you don’t understand.

So, back to the Calvinist nature of the Dutch.

It is no secret that the Netherlands has been a Protestant nation since the begin of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Martin Luther and John Calvin’s teaching were very popular among the Dutch and even in the period, King Henry VIII of England was “having a fight” with the Catholic Church, the region that is now the Netherlands was already a strong Protestant part of Europe. It must be noted that William of Orange or Willem van Oranje as he is called in the Netherlands was a Calvinist. The Eighty Years’ War wasn’t just a war of independence, it was also a war between the Spanish Catholics and William of Orange’s Protestant Calvinists. My point is: of course, not everyone who fought under William of Orange in the Eighty Years’ War was a Calvinist, but a majority of them fought on his side because they disliked the Spanish and their strange and Catholic ways.

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Calvinism arrived in what is now the Netherlands in the 1540s, as both the nobles and the common folk converted. Under Phillip II, the Spanish government started harsh persecution campaigns against the Dutch and as a reaction to this persecution, the Calvinist population rebelled. History buffs never forget the Beeldenstorm in 1566. The Beeldenstorm is a Dutch term that refers to the wave of disorderly attacks carried out by Calvinists in the summer of 1566, that spread rapidly through the Low Countries from south to north. These Calvinist Protestants destroyed Catholic art and many forms of church fittings and decorations. It was in that same year that William of Orange started the Eighty Years War in order to liberate the Calvinist Dutch from the Catholic Spaniards. There was definitely little love for Catholics or Catholicism in the Netherlands back then and driving the Spanish away was one extraordinary way of showing it.

Atheism in the Netherlands

It is already an established fact that religion isn’t a trend in the Netherlands. I’m pretty sure more Dutch people have read Harry Potter than a Bible and that a majority of them only say Jesus Christ (Jesus Christus!) out of frustration than in a moment of prayer. Still, religion in the Netherlands remains an interesting topic of discussion. Results of a research carried out at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in 2016, showed that there seemed to be a steady decline in the number of Christians or believers in the Netherlands. This has led to the Netherlands no longer being seen as a Christian nation. The truth is, she has not been considered one for a very long time. The research provided evidence to the fact that more than 82% of Dutch people no longer attend church or believe in God. It also stated that there were more atheists (25%) than theists (17%) in the Netherlands. (Vrije Universiteit Research On Religion In the Netherlands). Research results are in Dutch.

But the question still remains; How is it that a nation with an atheist majority, do so well at living by the teachings of a religious preacher?

Before we answer that, let’s find out who John Calvin was.

2- Calvinism in the Netherlands: Who Was John Calvin?

(and why do the Dutch follow his teachings?)

John Calvin was a French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation. He was a principal figure in the development of the system of Christian theology which later came to be known as Calvinism. He was one of the fathers of Protestantism and his teachings (along with that of Martin Luther) played a major role in how the Netherlands went on to become a Protestant nation. Although born into a family of the Catholic faith, he converted to Protestantism in 1533 after studying philosophy, humanism and law.

While John Calvin may never have set foot in the Netherlands, his teachings in the period of the Protestant Reformation found no more fertile soil than here (in the Netherlands). Almost every political party (in the late 1800s) adopted his teachings and despite not being Dutch, there is a pride the Dutch feel when his name is mentioned. They see him as one of their own.

So why do the Dutch, who aren’t really religious adhere to John Calvin his teaching?

Calvinism in the Netherlands
John Calvin

As a foreigner keenly observing the Dutch, you’ll notice at every turn how hardworking, frugal and straightforward they are. Check the history books and you’ll see how Dutch statesman and theologian, Abraham Kuyper played a big role in reviving Calvinism in the late 1800s. He was a true believer in the separation of church and state as he and other lawmakers of his time took it upon themselves to follow in the footsteps of Calvin in breaking the yoke of Catholicism in the country. Their reforms (which were very Calvinist in nature), laid the foundation of what the Netherlands is today. They were able to build a Dutch society based on integrity, respectfulness, acceptance, perseverance, reliability, self-discipline and efficiency. This is one of the reasons why, despite always being at war with the sea, the Dutch never lose or lag behind at showing how efficient they are with their dykes. Imagine how efficient you have to be, to live way below sea level and never fret because you trust your dykes.

For me personally, the Netherlands remains a very wonderful country filled with wonderful people. It is a country where hard work is valued, justice is frequently served, talents are nurtured (and appreciated) and being open-minded and straightforward is a way of life. When a Dutch person lends you money, they expect you to pay back at the exact time you promised, not because they would go broke without the money they lent you but because of the principle attached to it. Your word has to be your bond and if you don’t live up to your word, you will definitely be confronted. The Netherlands is a perfect example of how you can be an atheist liberal and still adopt and live by the moral teachings of a religious preacher. It is a testament to the fact that even if one is an atheist, they can still choose to take the good things from any religion without being a follower of that religion.

Even years after the death of John Calvin and the Dutch statesmen who laid the foundation of the society we know today based on Calvin’s teachings, it is evident that while religious beliefs may not hold sway in the Netherlands, the virtues still linger. The Netherlands is one of the world’s most liberal nations, and her inhabitants are generally described as sober, reserved, conscientious, rule-driven and well disciplined: all typical Calvinist characteristics. You could say that Calvinism in the Netherlands is no longer tied to religious beliefs as it once was but has rather developed into a way of life for the Dutch. Millions of Dutch citizens are atheists but the funny thing is that they all lead lives that can be described as Calvinist in nature.

Any other opinions out there on Calvinism in the Netherlands? Feel welcome to share them in the comments!

9 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Chuka for your insightful article. Being the product of Calvinist upbringing in the Netherlands myself I recognize many of your observations. My brother and I grew up in the bible belt of the Netherlands in the 1960s and 1970s.We were not allowed to watch television on Sundays or to ride a bicycle. At age 16 I realized the hypocrisy of the church and left it behind. My brother became an active atheist; I would call myself more of an agnostic. However, the values that the church and my parents tried to instill, are still with us. My brother and I have always been very socially and politically engaged. I worked in non-profit all my life. One of my peeves is that religions often claim the moral high ground. A University of Chicago study from 2015 found that Religious belief appears to have negative influence on children’s altruism and judgments of others’ actions. The Dutch seem to underline that living without religion can be quite OK.

    • Hello Willem,

      You’re very welcome. Thanks for the comment. I do love the Dutch spirit and Calvinist nature. I love how morally upright the Dutch can be without being religious at all. You have all set an example for the world to see that if people can’t be “morally upright” without religion, then what they lack isn’t a religion, it’s a conscience.

  2. “because they disliked the Spanish and their strange and Catholic ways.” You mean because Spain decided burning everyone who wasn’t catholic.

  3. I think, Before Calvin got influential in the Netherlands, the nature of the Dutch, Catholic or Protestant or non-believer, was already: hardworking, no-nonsense and conscientious . That made up for the teachings of Calvin being so successful: it rang true and was easily recognizable for the Dutch. It’s almost like the question of the chicken and the egg: which came first?
    That is why those characteristics are still seen in the Dutch today, even when they are non-religious.

  4. I have a Catholic background but I am atheist now like most of us. I am happy with the way you describe us all as Calvinists even if we were/are Catholic.

    The anymosity between the Catholic and Protestant churches has dissapeared because few people go there anymore. That is a good thing, I think.

    I have some spiritual outlets, I still pray to Maria and I sometimes chant with my wife who is a Budist. When I am in China or India, I like to pay my respect to local Gods too. Here in Brazil I like Iemanja. She is the Godess of the sea.

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