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Religion in the Netherlands: Trends, influences and discussions

by Sipco J. Vellenga

Despite the progress of secularisation and the decline of church membership in the Netherlands, religion is a central aspect of Dutch society. The number of Muslims is growing and thus also the influence of Islam. How does this affect public discussion of religion?

Paradiso Nightclub
The Paradiso nightclub in Amsterdam is located in a former church (until 1968). It has hosted the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols and many other bands.

Since the beginning of the 60's, religion in the Netherlands has changed in a big way. Until recently, the changes were described by the term "secularisation”, which is no longer suitable for the very different developments taking place. Of course, a clear trend in secularisation is not undeniable but this does not result, contrary to all expectations, from the big decline in religiousness. What is remarkable, above all, is the growing number of Dutch who belong to the "no denomination” category. Over and above that, the number of Muslims has grown since the 60's with astonishing speed. This trend is also reflected in the public mood. Whilst some Christian organisations find themselves on the decline, others are on the rise. Islam no longer manifests itself purely in the streetscape but also in the establishment of particular organisations. In the Netherlands, religion is also an important topic of public discussion. Here, Islam is a central element. The murder of the Dutch film director Theo van Gogh on 2nd November 2004, committed by the 26 year old Mohammed B, a Dutchman of Moroccan descent, has triggered a discussion on the following theme: To what extent do the religious beliefs of Muslims contribute to tensions in Dutch society? The following article examines the development of religions in the Netherlands since the beginning of the 60s: How does religion affect the public mood and what discussion goes hand in hand with it?

Religion, churches and Islam: Three trends

In the 50's, over 80% of the Dutch belonged to a church. Since the 60's, this situation has seens a sharp decrease in church attendance in the Netherlands (see table 1). Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant church in the Netherlands have been affected by secularisation.

Table 1: The composition of the Dutch population according to religious affiliation, in percenta

  1966 1979 1996 2006
Roman Catholic church 35 29 21 16
Protestant church 25 22 19 14
Other religious groups 7 6 7 9
Non-ecclesiastic 33 43 53 61

However, not all religious groups are affected by decreasing church attendance: Evangelical groups in particular are enjoying an increase in interest. Since the 60's, this growth has been due to a faith directed towards person and experience, modern views and a business orientated mode of practice. Over the last 15 years, the high influx of immigrants from the Christian regions of Africa and South America has assisted its growth.

Increase in unattached religiousness

It is important to differentiate between religiousness and church attendance. These terms are not identical. It emerges from this that the trend for secularisation has not led to a comparable trend in declining religiousness (see table 2).

Table 2: Belief in God or a higher power, in percentages

  1966 1979 1996 2006
There is a God who personally devotes himself to each person 47 33 24 24
There must be something like a Higher Power who rules life 31 40 39 36
I don't know whether there is a God or a Higher Power 16 18 27 26
There is neither a God nor a Higher Power 6 9 10 14

In actual fact, secularisation is usually accompanied by growth of the "spiritually unassociated” category, to which, according to a study recently carried out, approximately 25 percent of the Dutch population belongs. Typical characteristics are a transcendent orientation, a pragmatic lifestyle, a sense of responsibility and an attitude aligned to harmonious coexistence with the environment. A disproportionate amount of women, people aged between 35 and 49, city dwellers and people with a high level of education are found in the "spiritually unassociated” category.

The emergence of Islam

At present, there are approximately 900,000 Muslims living in the Netherlands which corresponds to 5.8% of the population. Of whom, the majority live in and around the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. The Turkish community comprises 360,000 members, the Moroccan community 315,000. Other important groups are the Surinamese Muslims with 70,000 members and people of Muslims, Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans and Somalis.

Muslims in the Netherlands are for the most part organised according to Ethnic origin. Of the 436 registered Mosques currently, more than half, 225 in total are administered by Turkish organisations. 139 are administered by Moroccans and 47 by Surinamese and Pakistanis. The state recognises "Contactorgaan Moslims en Overheid” (CMO, Link between Muslims and the State), which was founded in 2004, as the most important representation of Muslims. It unites all the larger Mosque associations with different origins.

Market in The Hague
The market in The Hague. People from all cultures and religions do their daily shopping at this market.

Different tendencies can be seen within Islam in the Netherlands. A large majority of the first generation have a tendency towards the Islam which they brought with them from their homeland, they hold onto it and practise it in this sense. This Islam has a traditional and moderate character. There are two tendencies in the second generation: On one side, radicalisation, on the other side, secularisation. Radicalisation is the tendency to go back to the roots (Radix) of Islam. There roots are usually looked for in the Koran and the Sunna. Every now and then, religious radicalisation accompanies political radicalisation. The politically radical Muslims discuss intensively the means that can be used to implement religiously-political goals. The majority are against the use of violence. A small number however, regard violence to be a legitimate means. On the other hand, the trend for secularisation is where Muslims let go of their faith. The prevalent trend in the second generation of Muslims appears however to be religious individualisation: Believers adopt a more independent position in relation to the handed down traditions. On the other hand, they fulfil these traditions in their own way. This development results less in letting go of Islam, like for instance with the trend towards secularisation, but rather in new individual forms of Islam.

Religion and social life

Between 1880 and 1960, the Dutch society was "solidified” and oriented vertically to religious and ideological pillars. Amongst them was a Catholic pillar, an Orthodox-Protestant pillar and a socialist pillar. These pillars consisted of networks of organisations branching out in all directions, like for instance, schools, hospitals, broadcasting corporations, newspapers, political parties, trade unions and youth organisations who created their own world for supporters.

In the 60's, this three-pillar system came together. Since then, three trends have emerged in the development of social organisations: Fragmentation, transformation and pillar formation. The prevalent trend is for fragmentation. In the 60's, many supporters turned their back on their pillar organisations whereupon many of them disbanded. On some occasions, pillar organisations merged with other general organisations. A good example of this is the amalgamation of the Nederlands Verbond van Vakverenigingen (NVV, Dutch Trade Union Federation) with the Nederlands Katholiek Vakverbond (NVK, Catholic Trade Union Federation of the Netherlands) to become the Federatie van Nederlandse Vakverbonden (FNV, Federal Dutch Trade Union Association).

The process of fragmentation has however, not been fully executed equally on all social levels. Therefore, there are still Protestant-Christian and Catholic schools, special universities, identity-bound broadcasting corporations and Christian-political parties in the Netherlands. The role of religion and identity has however no doubt changed within the organisations. This serves as a source of inspiration rather than as programme of principles with fixed values and standards. Here, talk is of transformation.

The main process of fragmentation with a series of small Orthodox-Protestant groups, amongst them the Evangelical movement, has lead to a reactionary process, namely, renewed pillar formation. These groups contain several schools, newspapers and publishing houses. In some social areas, they work intensively together. Thus, in the Netherlands, there is an Orthodox-Protestant Christian party, the Christen Unie (CU Christian Union) and an Orthodox, Protestant broadcasting station, Evangelische Omroep (EO Evangelical broadcasting).

Unassociated religion in general organisations

The fact that many organisations have no religious basis does not necessarily mean that religion does not play a role within these organisations. Particularly in health and education, as well as in industry, religiousness and spirituality are experiencing a renaissance. Management courses, advisory services and seminars to find oneself deal with this topic. Sometimes, the motivation of individual employees takes priority. Terms like determination, vocation, talents, energy and abilities play a significant role. Sometimes the aim is to look into the significance of socially responsible actions. In this case, values like honesty, integrity and sustainability are core terms. Spirituality is also a component part of team development seminars with the aim of strengthening the team spirit of employees in the company and transforming companies into so-called Learning Communities. The number of companies who are turning towards the theme of spirituality is not known. Nevertheless, it is certainly the case that spirituality is a trend in the workplace.

Islamic Organisations

Since the mid 1970's, Islam has seen a growing emergence in the public domain. Although most Mosques are located in buildings which originally served a different purpose, there are 60 newly erected Mosques in the Netherlands, some of them large in size. In some communities, the Mosques are permitted to call believers to prayer over a loudspeaker at certain times. Apart from Mosque associations and the associated centres, other Islamic organisations have also emerged over the last decade: book stores, publishing houses, youth and women's organisations and organisation for social activation work. Currently, there are approximately 40 Islamic primary schools and two secondary schools in the Netherlands which are financed by the state which amongst others are based on the principles from the era of pillar formation. Furthermore, there is also an Islamic broadcasting corporation, the Nederlandse Moslim Omroep (NMO, Dutch Broadcasting Corporation for Muslims).

The creation of a religious infrastructure for Muslims is judged in different ways. Supporters of it see a vehicle for the emancipation of Muslims in this network. In the past, the pillars could contribute to the emancipation of disadvantaged Catholics as well as ordinary Orthodox Protestants and workers. Thus, today the possibility also exists that such a network ensures the improvement of the social position of large groups of immigrants in the Netherlands. Opposers consider this network to be an obstacle to integration. They emphasise that it isolates Muslims from the rest of Dutch society and in turn prevents the emancipation of those who would like to escape from time to time from the harsh conventions of the Islamic communities.

Religion and the public debate: Islam under fire

Over the past few years, religion has been a long-running issue in the public domain in the Netherlands. First and foremost, it is dominated by the emergence of Islam. This emergence places urgent questions about the place religion takes in society. Is the formation of Islamic schools desirable or not? Must Muslims be protected from expressions which they find offensive and blasphemous, or must they tolerate such discrimination in public society?
The discussion about Islam comprises many different themes. On the one hand, it involves the social discrimination of Islamic immigrants, the wearing of the headscarf in public, separate sports lessons for girls and boys; on the other hand it involves the Imam who refuses to shake hands with women, violence in the name of Islam or in the high rate of petty offences committed by Moroccan youths. The core topic of discussion is the problem of integration: How can (Islamic) immigrants and the rest of the population live together in peace and with equal rights?

There are two opposing sides in the discussion. On the one hand, the position of pluralists who support an open and multicultural society, on the other hand, the advocates of assimilation who support a monocultural society. In the 80's multiculturalism shaped the discussion and the motto was: Integration with the safeguarding of one's identity: In the 90's, criticism arose which became very strong after 2000 after the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001, thus the supporters of monoculturalism gained the upperhand. In this context, the charismatic politician Pim Fortuyn played a central role. He fought vehemently against the "Islamisation of the Dutch culture” and pleaded for a stronger awareness of the Dutch identity. On 6th May 2002, he was assassinated, only nine days later, his party won the second strongest majority in the Binnenhof, the seat of the Dutch government, in the parliamentary elections.

Since 2002, the discussion has been greatly polarised about Islam in the Netherlands. Supporters and opposers of a Policy of Assimilation regularly come to blows with each other. The murder of Theo van Gogh committed by a young man of Moroccan descent poured even more oil on the fire. The event is characterised by the so-called monoculturalists. Amongst the influential spokespersons of this trend in recent years were Ayan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders. They see Western culture, including that of the Netherlands, in stark contrast to Islam and fear that the influence of Islam in the Netherlands is increasing. They reject Islamic radicalism, plead for a stronger awareness of the Dutch identity and demand from the Muslims that they adapt to the core values of Dutch culture. Their views call for strong resistance and great reluctance amongst Muslims. With the emergence of Islamic leaders, the influence of Muslims has increased over the last few years.

In conclusion

In the 70's and 80's, one assumed that the Netherlands would develop quickly into a completely secular country in which religion would no longer play a role in public life. This expectation has not proven to be well-founded. Although members are walking away from churches, many Dutch people are orientated towards transcendent ideas. It is remarkable that in secular contexts, like for example in health and education as well as in industry, religiousness is quite a topic. Moreover, Islam has developed quickly and vigorously in the Netherlands. Instead of secularisation, a better description would be transformation. Religion remains a significant, cultural force which is always taking on new forms and which also has its place in Dutch society.

Sipco J. Vellenga
is Assistant Professor of Sociology of Religion at the University of Amsterdam. His main areas of research are evangelism, religious healing and Muslim immigrants in ...
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Original in Dutch

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Further articles on the subject » Public Culture, » Religion, » Integration, » Minorities, » Migration, » History, » Netherlands
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