Speech for Marinus Verweij at Icco

Yvonne Zonderop

More | Personal Experiences

Speech for Marinus Verweij at Icco

Yvonne Zonderop

More | Personal Experiences
[origineel]

This text was presented by Yvonne Zonderop on September 26th, 2019 at the farewell symposium for Marinus Verweij, president of the board of directors of the originally Protestant development agency Icco.

You may not be familiar with the scientific The Economic Journal, but recently it boasted an article that should interest you. It showed the results of a global survey on people who had experienced an earthquake. Very many of them became, or became more, religious afterwards. They actually turned to religion as a means of dealing with, what the researcher called ‘unpredictable and unbearable life events.’ Even their children would become and also stay more religious, the data showed. Not just in Haiti and Japan, also in Christchurch New Zealand for instance. All over the world. Danish economics professor Jeanet Bentzen, who did the survey, said: all religions provide a psychological coping mechanism. They make the unbearable bearable. This may help explain why religion has not vanished, as some scholars once predicted.

Indeed, I would say. Last year I published a book called: Incredible, on the surprising comeback of religion. It seemed to hit a nerve. The book had several reprints, eight actually, and even now, one and a half year later, I am still invited to speak about the subject. I feel there is something important about religion, but we seem to have lost the language to discuss it.

And although I write about the Netherlands and its specific religious history, which partly explains the diminishing of religion for the last fifty years in this country, I have come to see not just the value and importance of religion for humans all over the world, but also I have become convinced that a re-evaluation of religion is at hand in the western world.

Just ask mathematician Chris Arnade. Chris worked on Wall Street as a trader and made himself a very nice living, until the lack of meaning of his life ‘in the front row’ as he called it, started to bother him so much that went to look how people in ‘the backrow’ actually lived. He travelled all over the USA, usually staying at McDonalds for hours, talking, observing, listening. Taking photographs for a beautiful book, just recently published, called Dignity.

Chris was interviewed for a science magazine about his project. My most surprising finding, he said, were my changed views on religion. I had never expected to have my atheism challenged, certainly not in the drug dens of the South Bronx, but that is what happened.

Part of it, he said, was recognizing a simply utilitarian value in faith – like people having experienced an earthquake. Science is not very appealing for those dealing with trauma. But my views developed. I came to realize that being educated and wealthy had removed me from the best evidence for the truth behind faith. When you shield yourself from the messy details of life, it’s easy to convince yourself that humans can figure it all out. Or that with enough data, thinking and computer power, we could figure it out. But maybe we can’t. Maybe there is stuff just too big and too complex to understand and perhaps that is the essential truth.

Could Chris be right? Have we in the west been taking our wealth and our luck for granted? Thinking religion is ‘stupid’ or ‘God is a delusion’, while in fact we are the shortsighted ones. Unable to see the uniqueness of a system that gives space to individual and collective experience, that boasts a history and provides a future, that boasts rules of life and rituals, while giving space for multiple interpretation. It’s truly ingenious, as 85 percent of the world population can testify. Off course religion has its cons, like many things in life. It has been used and misused to discriminate, to exclude, to use violence. But I’m afraid that’s part of our human character. Blaming religion for these misdeeds is a bit like shooting the messenger who carries the bad news.

After millions of Dutchmen and -women left church in the seventies and eighties, religion became a sort of non-topic in our country. The idea was that faith should retreat to the private sphere, to personal beliefs. Which is off course a huge misunderstanding. Because if you believe something you to tend to act accordingly in real life. But we almost forgot. We thought we could do without. The comeback of religion, by immigrants for instance, from Islamic but also from Christian faith, but also by a young and curious generation, unburdened by their parent’s negative associations, took many by surprise.

So now I am invited by the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs to explain to prospective Dutch diplomats why religion is important and why we almost forgot in our country, because that’s the main topic of my book. I hear the same applies at the UN. Many highly educated and wealthy diplomats, removed from the best evidence for the truth behind faith, to quote Chris Arnade, may know the declaration of universal human rights by heart, but they find it very difficult to understand how religious views actually shaped this declaration, and how strong and important religious views actually are all over the world. That you should take them very seriously. From what I hear this may also apply to you, here at Icco. Are you familiar and at ease with your roots? Do you acknowledge the convictions that shaped your organization; the beliefs that made your predecessors go into the world trying to help those in the backrow of life? I really think you should.

Religion is not just a matter of personal faith, it’s also a shared culture with shared ideas. So is Christianity. It’s about time, I think, to acknowledge this, even when you are not a religious person, like me. You may know Tom Holland, a British historian, who wrote many beautiful books about Roman history. He recently wrote the book Dominion, the making of the western mind. Romans, he writes, used to treat slaves absolutely horribly, like animals, not like people. This bothered him more and more. So he went out to find the roots of this idea that all people are worthy and are equal of worth, regardless of their contribution to society. He sort of stumbled on Jesus. That’s when Tom Holland started to recognize that Christianity has built our morals. It’s no coincidence that all countries that boast democracy and rule of law have Christian roots. We prefer to attribute this to Enlightenment thinkers, but even they were religious, they just differed on the role the church should play. And many still do.

So I hope to inspire you to take your heritage seriously. It will help you to understand yourself, your organization and the world you are working in much better. Religion is an obligation, said rabbi David Wolpe. But it’s also about faith that provides strength and hope in hard times. I think Henk Wildschut captured this perfectly in his photograph of this provisional church, erected from cardboard, in the Calais refugee camp. These are the strong people you work with. It’s time to acknowledge the source of their strength.

About the author

Yvonne Zonderop

Yvonne worked for a long period as a (parliamentary) journalist for a series of newspapers and magazines. Actually, she works as an independent author and manager concentrating on social issues. She wrote a series of books, among others the book “Ongelofelijk” (Unbelievable), on the surprising come-back of religion in the Netherlands, which drew a lot of attention both within and (even more) outside of the churches.