I’m honored to be invited to give you some of my views on religion, here at the beginning of the new academic season. The invitation to speak came as an honor, but also as a bit a surprise, to be honest. I’m not an academic. I also wouldn’t consider myself a truly religious person. I have been having some interesting experiences regarding religion in the last few years, while writing my book on christian heritage in The Netherlands. It has made me develop some thoughts on the subject I suppose the organisation thought might interest you.
Let me start by telling you about a friend who sent me an unexpected letter, only two months ago. I had known her for a few years as the wife of a foreign colleague. She would always be ready to lend a hand, to make a cake for someone else’s celebration, to be wise, warm and quiet. A modest person.
One day she wrote me a letter about her religious convictions. It came out of the blue. She sent me a small book: what can you learn from the Bible? And she wrote: my religion is based on the Bible. Its doctrines have helped me so much. They provided me with answers to fundamental questions regarding our life. Faith had given her some guidance and strength in her life. Even if it was just for herself and her own way to live. Nobody would have known.
I was moved . Because she cared to share something very dear people will not easily share nowadays, certainly not in western Europe. I was also touched. Somehow she got the idea that her secret, her confession, would be safe with me, and, even more important, would also understood by me. Even though she is obviously aware I don’t go to church, I do not profess, she knew, she felt that I would value her values, her convictions.
And she was right: I do. I think faith is important to very many people. It’s even important to people who do not profess, as religions shape and mirror the cultures they are part of. They amount to value systems people sometimes are not even aware of, and kind of take for granted. This is the point I was trying to make in my book.
But this view is not considered mainstream in The Netherlands nowadays. It’s probably one of the reasons the organisation invited me to speak to you today. You may all be very aware of the value and importance of religion. You may have been touched by the exceptionality, the timeless attraction of your faith. But in The Netherlands, where we are right now, you are considered a minority. A shrinking minority. Many Dutch expect religion to dissolve sooner or later, except for a small, persistent group who don’t seem to understand that all these religious claims amount to nothing more than make believe. That’s, I’m afraid, is what many Dutch people think.
They are wrong, to my opinion. And I wrote a book, called Ongelofelijk, which translates as Incredible or Unbelievable, to argue this. More than four out of five people in the world consider themselves religious. It provides for so many human needs that its succes kind of speaks for itself. Where else would you find a belief system where you can relate to spiritually and practically? That speaks to you as an individual and as a member of a group? A comprehensive system that reverts to a tradition, and at the same time provides space to new interpretations? It’s quite ingenious. We might call religion a smart system. At least as smart, and smarter perhaps, than those systems developed in Silicon Valley.
Many Dutch prefer to see it differently. From the sixties on, religion has been suffering from a bad reputation. I have some theories on that, how this could happen, and if you are curious, please read my book. I would argue that religion became so influential to societal developments and to politics, that people got lost to its spiritual message. And when the spirit dissolves, so does the flock.
The Dutch have been exaggerating, to my opinion. Religion provides people with a meaning of life, with culture, with stories and tradition. It make people take care of their brothers and sisters. It helps them through hard times. People find solace in belief and solidarity in church.
But ofcourse, religion also has some serious shortcomings. It excludes people with different views or backgrounds. It can be stern, heartless even, when rules and regulations prevail. When humanity loses to church authority. Believers should always be aware of this danger. And always stay open to criticism, I think.
Another reason I think many of my countrymen are wrong about religion is, that I can foresee a sort of comeback, at least in our country, and perhaps also in other parts of the western world where religion has faded in the last decades. There are no data to prove it (yet), but I have been noticing a new openness to matters of faith and spirituality amongst younger generations. I’m not the only one who claims to see this. And as I’m not a scientist, I thought I’d quote one whom I admire. David Brooks, a prominent social scientist at Yale University and pundit in the US. He has been an influential columnist to the NYT for years. Allow me to quote him on recent developments in NYC.
He says: there’s a lot of people getting much more religious. If you walk through northern Central Park on a Saturday afternoon, you just see hundreds of Modern Orthodox kids who are trying to meet each other in the park there. So in Judaism, the Orthodox are surging. (and not, let me add myself, in Judaism only. Orthodoxy is on the rise in many religions nowadays amongst the younger generations. I could even mention the surge in veganism, which is not a religion, but shares several characteristics, an idea of purity, abstinence and strict food laws).
But, to get back to Brooks, he also says about Christians: if you go to New York, to the hip areas of New York, and you hang around 20-somethings, they’re going to churches. There’s a church called Redeemer, which has a bunch of plants around New York. There’s one called Trinity Grace. There’s one called C3. You go into these churches, and it feels like you’re going into the hippest nightclub on Earth, and they’re surging with enthusiasm.
According to Brooks there is a spiritual resurgence — especially among the the cultural vanguard. 15 years ago, if you were religious it was like having acne. It was sort of uncool. Then it went neutral, and now it’s sort of a plus. It’s seen of a sign of spiritual depth, even among those who are pretty secular themselves.
And why would this happen, I ask? Explanations may vary depending on cultural circumstances. But I would say that there are at least three important developments that kind of invite spirituality and religion back on the stage. Not just in The Netherlands but all around the western world.
The first one would be our datadriven technology boom. Algorithms have become extremely powerful already. Many people fear they may come to determine large parts of our life. The machine takes over. They thrive on logic, on things we can calculate. A will automatically lead to B, we’re all part of the system, it’s just a matter of mathematics. The best will win the artificial intelligence race.
But because humans are also irrational, sensitive, prone to experience, to wonder, to uselessness, this technological boom will raise its own counter-reaction. It will boost a need for the unknown, the unknowable, the metaphysical. The need for something you cannot pin down. It could be a God, a creature or a power triggering transcendence. Something that is not completely comprehensible – quite the opposite. It will trigger a rise in spirituality and wonder.
The second development I hope you might recognise is a quest for belonging. Globalisation has given a boost to diversity. Many countries boast more ethnical groups than they used to. Migration raises the question: where do I belong? It affects both the immigrants and the original inhabitants. Its a important reason why religion is on the rise in big cities like London or Amsterdam. Newcomers flock to their fellow believers for support and recognition. This may stimulate original inhabitants to take an interest in their own cultural and religious roots. Especially populist parties all over Europe have been advocating this impulse.
Third, but not least I would like to mention a need for frameworks that can help people make sense of their world, especially young people. Frameworks like religions or belief systems. For the last twenty years our culture has been dominated by the idea that anybody should be free to do whatever she likes. Freedom became a kind of dogma. The most valued values were individuality and autonomy.
Up to the point that young people by now feel they have to sort out everything important in life themselves. Which is difficult and tiring, confusing and alone. Faith, sacrifice, awe, gratitude are all making a comeback. Because young people experience that ‘living life to the max’ will not give you sustainable satisfaction. You need a goal, something you can be part of, something larger than yourself. Perhaps there’s even someone who will know you, see you, forgive you, who will love you – as many people experience their God to be. Freedom is important, and I would not do without. But when it becomes a pretext for laissez fare, for do whatever you like, I don’t care, freedom looses its lustre. We see signs of this now.
What I just argued is not what most media will tell you today in the Netherlands. While I emphasize the importance of trends, they will stick to the facts. For instance about the huge problems regarding sexual abuse in the Catholic church, which is ofcourse an outrage. These journalists ask me: do you really expect a surge in religion while the church has clearly done so much wrong? How could they ever survive this crisis?
That’s when I quote David Brooks once more. He says: the human being is such that there’s a spiritual hunger that seeks outlets. And when the church does really bad answering these outlets, which is what most churches have done over the last 50 years, people drift away. In my words: They back off. But then somebody invents something new, and the drive for transcendent experience leads people back.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that faith and spirituality are so much bigger than the church. I told you about my friend, the wife of the foreign colleague who wrote me her moving letter. Her faith, her need and her inspiration will persist, will prevail. It’s only human to look for answers regarding fundamental questions of our life, like she wrote me. To look for guidance and strength.
The idea that this would disappear, that religion would dissolve, for me is simply unbelievable.
Thank you for your attention.