Travelling around the Netherlands, you’ll spot tons of beautiful churches, and meet a people living simply and modestly — or as some might say, quite Calvinist. So, you might be puzzled to discover that the Dutch are in fact very atheist in nature. How did this culture come about?
With a largely atheist population strongly rooted in religious culture and tradition, you can easily end up visiting nightclubs and bars in the Netherlands, only to find out that they were once churches! While it may be difficult to imagine for some, the fact remains that if you observe the non-religious Dutch closely, you’ll definitely notice a Calvinist nature.
But, before we go any further on the Calvinist nature of the Dutch, let’s find out what Calvinism is all about.
First things first, what is Calvinism?
Calvinism is a major branch of Protestantism that follows the teachings of 16th-century theologian John Calvin. While the core doctrines are predestination and election, its basic principle is that the Bible must be interpreted by itself. This means that 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 sections of the Bible that explain the ones you previously didn’t understand.
How does Calvinism relate to the Dutch?
It is no secret that the Netherlands has been a Protestant nation since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Martin Luther and John Calvin’s teachings were very popular among the Dutch.
Even in the period when King Henry VIII of England was having a feud with the Catholic Church, the region that is now the Netherlands was already a strong Protestant part of Europe.
It’s also important to note that William of Orange was a Calvinist. Furthermore, 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.
This is not to say that everyone who fought under William of Orange in the Eighty Years’ War were Calvinist. However, the majority fought on his side because they disliked the Spanish and their strange Catholic ways.
Calvinism arrived in what is now the Netherlands in the 1540s, when both the nobles and the common folk converted. Under Phillip II, the Spanish government started harsh persecution campaigns against the Dutch. 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 most Dutch people are not very religious today. I’m pretty sure more Dutch people have read Harry Potter than the Bible, and the majority of them probably only say Jesus Christ (Jesus Christus!), out of frustration rather than in a moment of prayer.
Still, religion in the Netherlands remains an interesting topic of discussion.
Results of research carried out at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in 2016 showed 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, the country has not been considered one for a very long time.
The research showed that more than 82% of Dutch people neither attend church or believe in God. It also stated that there were more atheists (25%) than theists (17%) in the Netherlands.
But the question still remains: how is it that a nation with an atheist majority lives to much by the teachings of a religious preacher? Before we answer that, let’s find out who John Calvin was.
Calvinism in the Netherlands: who was John Calvin?
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 that came to be known as Calvinism.
Being one of the fathers of Protestantism, he played a major role in how the Netherlands went on to become a Protestant nation. Although born into a family of Catholic faith, he converted to Protestantism in 1533 after studying philosophy, humanism, and law.
While John Calvin may never have set foot in the country, his teachings in the period of the Protestant Reformation found fertile soil in the Netherlands. In fact, almost every political party in the late 1800’s adopted his teachings.
Despite him not being Dutch, the Dutch feel great when his name is mentioned. For whatever reason, they see him as one of their own.
So why do the Dutch, who aren’t really religious, follow the teachings of John Calvin?
If you’re a foreigner observing the Dutch, you’ll notice how hardworking, frugal, and straightforward they are. A look into the history books will tell you that the Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper played a big role in reviving Calvinism in the late 1800s.
A true believer in the separation of church and state, him 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
The Dutch (Calvinist) nature
If you lend a Dutch person money, they’ll typically pay you back straight away. Not because they think you would go broke without the money they borrowed, but because of the principle attached to it. Being orderly and straightforward is a way of life, without losing sight of open-mindedness.
Your word is your bond and if you don’t live up to your word, you will definitely be confronted.
The best of both worlds
The Netherlands is a perfect example of how you can be an atheist liberal (or progressive) and still live by the moral teachings of a religious preacher. It is a testament to the fact that even if one is an atheist, one can still choose to take on good things from any religion.
Even years after the death of John Calvin and the Dutch statesmen who laid the foundation of the society we know today, it is evident that while religious beliefs may not hold sway in the Netherlands, their virtues still linger.
The Netherlands is one of the world’s most liberal nations, yet its inhabitants are generally described as sober, reserved, rule-driven, and well-disciplined: all typical Calvinist characteristics.
Calvinism in the Netherlands is no longer as tied to religious beliefs as it once was, but Calvinism has nevertheless developed into a way of life for the Dutch.
What is your experience with Calvinism in the Netherlands? Tell us in the comments below!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in February 2018, and was fully updated in July 2022 for your reading pleasure.