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The Netherlands

In recent decades Dutch society has undergone deep changes in the field of religion. On one hand the links between individuals and religious communities have considerably loosened, whereby religion has lost its former socio-cultural role, mainly as a result of secularisation. Nevertheless, among those who nowadays indicate no religious affiliation, still more than 40 % do not declare themselves atheists or agnostics (de Hart, Geloven binnen en buiten verband. Godsdienstige ontwikkelingen in Nederland, 2014). On the other hand, after WW II new (non-Christian) religious communities have marked the religious outlook of the Netherlands, with Islam as an example. 

The dynamic character of the changes in religiosity in Dutch society can be illustrated using Church membership data. While in 1909 approximately 5 % of the Dutch did not belong to any confessional community, in 2014 this percentage had increased significantly (49,2 %). Age seems to be an important factor (72 % of those older than 75 declared religious affiliation, while among the respondents aged between 18 and 25, only 41,4 % did), as well as the level of education – higher levels of education imply lower percentages of religious affiliation. In 2014, 76,6 % of the Dutch declared that they rarely or never attended religious services, whereas those who declared regular attendance accounted for 16,4 % of the population.

Historically, religion has played a significant cultural and socio-political role in the Netherlands; it was the basis of the Dutch so-called verzuiling or ‘pillar-based’ system. This system goes back to the turn of the 19th century, and it determined all spheres of social life – the political party system, the shape of interest groups and the nature of socio-economic relations. Each community (i.e. Protestants, Catholics, liberals, socialists) had its own instruments and institutions, ranging from media to insurance agencies, trade unions, sports and youth clubs, and political parties.

One of the crucial elements in the formation of the Dutch pillar-based society was the educational system. Under pressure from Catholic and Protestant groups urging for State funding of faith-based schools, from 1917 on State funding was offered to all schools, regardless of their orientation. Since that time, the popularity of faith-based (Catholic and Protestant) schools has significantly increased. In spite of increasing depillarisation and secularisation, this trend seems to be ongoing. The Dutch school system remains a product of the pillar-based pattern, and it is based on the traditional division between public and ‘special’ schools (bijzondere scholen). The latter schools are equally financed by the State, which guarantees freedom of education and the opportunity to establish schools in accordance with one’s religion or worldview. Some ‘special’ schools are ideologically inspired (Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu etc.), whereas others promote particular pedagogical approaches and methods of teaching (e.g. anthroposophic schools). Public schools on the other hand have adopted a ‘universal’ value system.

While faith-based schools are usually managed by private boards and financed by the State at the condition of fulfilling universal pedagogical and didactic requirements, public schools are established by municipalities, managed by public entities and accessible to all pupils regardless of their religious or philosophical convictions. Contrary to public schools, and even if Dutch law prohibits any forms of discrimination (cf. draft amendment of the General Act on Equal Treatment, TK 2009-2010, 32476 no. 2), faith-based schools have the right to refuse the enrolment of pupils whose denomination or worldview compromises the school’s religious or ideological orientation. Finally, Dutch law (Art. 50 of the Act on Primary Education) also provides the possibility for public schools to organise religious or worldview courses (e.g. humanistic ethics).

For a long period of time, and even if a State Church was never established, the Protestant Church (the Dutch Reformed Church) had a privileged position in Dutch society. According to 2014 data, Protestants make up 15,8 % of the Dutch population. In May 2004, through the union of the three largest Dutch Protestant Churches (i.e. the Dutch Reformed Church, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and the Evangelical Lutheran Church), the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN) was established. Some 60 % of all Dutch Protestants joined the PKN. Interestingly, and indicative of the nature of the union, a considerable number of Dutch Protestants still declare membership to the Dutch Reformed Church (6,7 %) or to the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (3,4 %) rather than to the PKN.

Since the 1960’s, modernisation and secularisation trends have challenged the Catholic Church, contributing to the gradual decrease in Church membership. While the Second Vatican Council brought along significant changes within the structures of the Catholic Church, Dutch Church hierarchy went even further, and created the Pastoral Council (1966-1970), a series of gatherings of Catholic bishops during which Vatican policy was debated, and the main threats and challenges discussed. The main goals were to build bridges between the Dutch Catholic Church and modern lifestyles, to adapt Church structures and traditions to an increasingly democratic society, and to ‘open up the Church to the world’ (Roes, “Het pastoraal Concilie. Een experiment in vernieuwing en kerkvinding”, Katholiek Nederland na 1945, 1985).

All participants, including lay Catholics and representatives of other denominations, had the right to discuss issues that concerned the Dutch Catholic Church. Breaking with the principle of ultramontane loyalty of the Dutch Catholic clergy, this modus operandi met with a critical reaction from the Vatican. As a direct result, the Dutch Pastoral Council was called off in 1970. Finally, the 1980’s brought along increasing secularisation of the Catholic population, a process which was accompanied by a mood of increasing disappointment regarding internal Church policies.

As mentioned before, secularisation trends accelerated in the Netherlands in the 1960’s, when the traditional pillar-based system started to erode. The most radical decrease in membership numbers can be observed in the case of reformed communities, whereas this trend was less outspoken in the case of Catholics. However, the latter group’s commitment has also significantly changed, as for example illustrated by the level of regular church attendance (at least once a fortnight) which decreased from 71 % in 1970 to 19 % in 2004 – among the members of the two Protestant communities it decreased by respectively 4 % (from 50 % to 46 % in the case of the Dutch Reformed Church) and 26 % (from 89 % to 63 % in the case of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands). In recent years, both the Catholic and Protestant Churches have experienced further changes, i.e. a further decrease in church attendance. Statistics regarding ritual practices such as baptism or religious burial show the same picture.

The third most important religious community in the Netherlands is Islam. The number of Muslims, virtually absent in the Netherlands until WW II, has reached a level of approximately 5 % in just four decades, mostly as a result of post-war immigration, whereby two thirds of all Dutch Muslims are of Turkish or Moroccan origin. As is also the case for other religions (cf. supra), the older generations indicate higher levels of religious practice. However, levels of religious practice have also increased among second generation Muslims between 1998 and 2011, primarily among Moroccans. 2012 data also indicates a discrepancy between Turks and Moroccans regarding religious practices: mosque attendance, prayer and wearing Islamic headscarves by female Muslims are considerably more often observed in the case of Moroccans.

Increasing activity by Islamic communities has also triggered socio-political and legal debates regarding issues such as Islamic schools, mosques and prayer houses, burial practices, ritual slaughter, and the place of religious symbols in the public realm – it is worth noting that the Netherlands were the first European country where the facial veil issue was discussed at a parliamentary level (Szumigalska, Annotated Legal Documents on Islam in Europe: the Netherlands, 2015).

The Dutch religious mosaic is also enriched by the presence of over 300 smaller Christian (often immigrant) communities, such as the Presbyterian, Evangelical, Orthodox, Greek-Catholic and other Catholic Churches. Following post-war decolonisation and the influx of people from Suriname in the 1970’s, small Hindu (0,6 %) and Buddhist (0,5 %) groups are also present. As for second generation immigrants, a clear decrease in the popularity of traditional forms of religion, as well as increasing conversion to Christianity or Islam, can be observed. Finally, there is also the traditional presence of Jews, who account for 0,1 % of the population.

The relations between the State and religious communities in the Netherlands are based on the principle of mutual separation, State neutrality and religious freedom. The principles of religious freedom and equality are mentioned in the Dutch Constitution of 1983, as well as in a range of other legal acts (e.g. the 1994 Common Equal Treatment Act). Dutch law does not include any requirement to register religious communities, which usually operate as associations or foundations. They have special legal status, e.g. with regard to tax deductions, and the State does not directly support any particular religious community or activity. Nevertheless, the Dutch government may subsidise, inter alia, the renovation of religious monuments, religious education, chaplaincy in public institutions, and socio-cultural activities (at the condition that they are not of a strictly religious nature).

While it is clear that religion has played a crucial role in the formation of Dutch national culture and in the shaping of socio-political relations, in just a few decades Dutch society has experienced two deep transformations, i.e. socio-political (erosion of the pillar-based system) and socio-cultural (secularisation, pluralisation and liberalisation). As a result, the authority of ’traditional’ Churches and religious leaders has waned. Despite these changes, religion is still an important player in Dutch public life, as is for example illustrated by the (symbolic) invocation of God in the Throne Speech (troonrede) and in legal acts (‘by the grace of God’), as well as by the presence of non-Christian religious symbols (e.g. Islamic headscarves). However, the role of religion in the Netherlands is not only symbolic. Indeed it is at the heart of public debate concerning the relations between the State and religious communities, integration of ethno-religious minorities, and non-discrimination policy. 

Agnieszka Szumigalska (Masaryk University/VU University Amsterdam).

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