Yvonne Zonderop spoke, next to Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Ad van Nieuwpoort, on September 13th, 2019 at the so-called Prinsjesdag breakfast, .
If, like me, you write a book about the surprising comeback of religion, you get many – and very different – reactions. The other day I got a call from a journalist from Antwerp. Let me call her Anne. Anne wrote a story about the rapper Kanye West who started his own church with a worship service for himself – and who attracts an astonishing amount of interest from young people. As we talked about what this might say about the return of religion, she suddenly said: I am 32 years old, and I am jealous of my Muslim friends who carry their faith with them like a companion. Because I have nothing.
In all her honesty, Anne described a feeling I’ve been carrying with me for a while, and that I’ve been researching for my book. Yes, there is again – more – interest in and need for religion and spirituality. And yes, we’re shy about it. After the pillarisation and the subsequent de-pillarisation, religion has more or less disappeared as a public phenomenon in the Netherlands. It became a matter of: if you feel the need to believe, go ahead, but don’t bother me with it. And I don’t even mention the loud voices that labelled religion as ‘stupid’ or ‘backward’ and who made those who do believe shy if not to say reluctant to come forward with their convictions. I have spoken to them a lot in the past year, because they invited me en masse. Glad as they were with what they considered to be support from an unsuspected corner: a non-believing journalist who comes to tell us that religion also has good sides, that it deserves our serious interest, and that believing is not that crazy….
In my book I mention the pillar trauma as a major cause. I describe how I grew up as a Catholic girl in a pillar that felt like an empty cocoon, where commandments and prohibitions counted more than inspiration, and where church attendance was a matter of social convention: first go to church, then to grandma and grandpa, in your neat dress. Leaving that Catholic pillar was not so much a matter of resistance or a struggle of conscience, it was a one-way journey to freedom and self-determination. We could do very well without that church, couldn’t we? This farewell and this ideal of self-determination then set the tone for a long time, and when you hear Jeroen Pauw or Arjan Lubach, you sometimes think: they still haven’t quite processed it…
We are now 40, 50 years on, and the negative image that has become attached to religion leaves traces everywhere. There is a danger of a de-pillarisation trauma. Let me mention three domains where the consequences of the misunderstanding that religion is only a private matter become visible.
First of all, politics. After all, we’re sitting here at the Prinsjesdag breakfast. Faith as a source of inspiration for political action is no longer regulary quoted, and in any case not as a matter of fact, with the exception of the SGP and the Christian Union. In the CDA Pieter Heerma suggested changing the meaning of the C from Christian to Conservative. Prime Minister Rutte makes no secret of the fact that he is Dutch Reformed, but you won’t easily hear him refer to this in the House of Parliament.
Is it then understandable that some voters think that our Christian legacy has almost disappeared. That, to quote Anne, they have nothing? It’s no coincidence that Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet are appealing to that very legacy. There’s an indefinable sense of loss. If no one else claims the inheritance, they can pick it up, even if it’s for form’s sake. Then you get statements like “God is right-wing, I’m sure”. Or the Christian legacy is about ‘own people first’. All over Europe populists invoke Christian symbolism, think of Salvini with his statue of Mary. They give off a kind of nest smell and touch a nerve.
After all, religion is also a matter of roots and tradition, of shared culture and ideas. It is important to face this. British historian Tom Holland, famous for his books on Roman times, very recently wrote the book Dominion, the making of the western mind. It is about Christianity as the source of our Western mind, I can recommend it to you. Holland describes how the Romans mistreated poor slaves and actually didn’t consider them as human beings, and how he increasingly opposed that. He decided to look for the roots of the idea that every human being is of value, and is of equal value. He ended up with Jesus. Not that he became a believer, but Holland began to see how much Christianity has shaped our morality. It is no coincidence that all countries with a democratic constitutional system have Christian roots. We have only forgotten it, or we prefer to contribute it to the Enlightenment thinkers, in our outrage at everything the Church has done wrong. That is a loss.
Now that the patronage and importance of our liberal democracy are less obvious, I sometimes think: do we miss the inspiration of the Christianity that underlies it? That taught us that every human being is equal before God, and not, to mention an exemple, part of a caste.
I call myself a cultural Christian. Then people say: but so does Thierry Baudet, do you feel senang with that? To which I answer: did he get the exclusive rights to that? Sometimes you’d almost think so…
De-pillarisation trauma also manifests itself in the social domain. Few people still feel called to praise religion in general or Christianity in particular as such, so, not because they believe in it themseves but because they find it valuable. It has made us insecure in the arrival to our country of migrants with a different, visible, serious religious conviction. Many of us found and still find that scary, and that has not helped mutual understanding. Compare that with the attitude of the Financial Times, which dedicates a serious review of a book on religion on its book pages every two to three months. For, if 85 percent of the world’s population is religious, there must be something in it, and at least it is of social importance. We don’t know that.
What does the average Dutchman know about the social role that Pope Francis or the Anglican Church claims in the climate issue. Surely, church is about problems with child abuse and homosexuality? The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is now going to set up a course on religion for young civil servants who go abroad and who know or understand nothing about it. The department has just appointed a religious envoy in recognition of the fact that religion really matters abroad. They have asked me to come and tell them where our aversion comes from, and that it may well be a sign of provincial thinking rather than intellectual superiority.
In addition to the political and social, there is also the personal lack. Think of Anne. Where do you go when you are open to old stories, to the higher, to rituals, to inspiration? But not to the church? Do you know how to find Ad van Nieuwpoort, the gifted speaker we’re about to hear? Or are you, like those 40 million others, going to Jordan Peterson’s you tube channel to follow his Bible lectures? In the de-pillarised Netherlands, you must find your own way.
Take Laura. She studied at the art academy. And she wanted to do something with religion in her graduation, she wrote to me. At the academy nobody could help her, the teachers thought it was a scary subject. In her poverty, she turned to me. I wrote: dig inside yourself, then surely something will come up. Three months later she mailed me that she had passed her exam. She had made a mobile confession-bus. A personal translation of her own need for something tangible religious, squarely against her teachers.
May I say it in economic terms for a change. It’s not that there’s no demand… but where’s today’s supply? Do you know? Many of you are religiously inspired. There’s a need for that inspiration. The pillar trauma has passed its peak. We’ve entered into a next phase. Claim that legacy, translate it to now. Then you will participate in that surprising comeback of religion – which I announced in my book.