When the “corporate prayer” movement first started in 1996, few people in Holland took any notice. Why should they have done so? After all, Holland’s manifest destiny was to become a fully secularized country, in which prayer was considered at best an irrational but harmless pastime. That was then. Cue forward to 2006, when prayer in the workplace is fast becoming a universally accepted phenomenon. More than 100 companies participate. Government ministries, universities, multinational companies like Philips, KLM, and ABN AMRO—all allow groups of employees to organize regular prayer meetings at their premises. Trade unions have even started lobbying the government for recognition of workers’ right to prayer in the workplace.Of course, it is the growth of Islam in Holland that has attracted a huge amount of attention.
The idea that secularization is the irreversible wave of the future is still the conventional wisdom in intellectual circles here. They would be bemused, to say the least, at a Dutch relapse into religiosity. But as the authors of a recently published study called De Toekomst van God (The Future of God) point out, organized prayer in the workplace is just one among several pieces of evidence suggesting that Holland is on the threshold of a new era—one we might call the age of “post-secularization.” In their book, Adjiedj Bakas, a professional trend-watcher, and Minne Buwalda, a journalist, argue that Holland is experiencing a fundamental shift in religious orientation: “Throughout Western Europe, and also in Holland, liberal Protestantism is in its death throes. It will be replaced by a new orthodoxy.”
According to Bakas and Buwalda, God is back in Europe’s most notoriously liberal country. Or rather: The Dutch are moving back to God. It seems an implausible hypothesis. After all, Europe was supposed to have entered the realm of post-Christianity, to use C.S. Lewis’s term—a state of eternal unbelief from which there is no return. And yet, Bakas and Buwalda claim, the Dutch are turning back. Take the almost unnoticed reintroduction of crucifixes and other religious artifacts into the classrooms of Catholic schools throughout the country. Years of gradual but seemingly unstoppable secularization have given way to a reaffirmation of old religious identities. The change is also starting to affect the attitudes of pupils at these schools. In a recent newspaper interview, a head teacher at a Catholic secondary school in Rotterdam observed, “For years, pupils were embarrassed about attending Mass. Now, they volunteer to read poems or prayers, and the auditorium is packed.”
There’s statistical evidence to back up the “new orthodoxy” hypothesis. First of all, there’s the undeniable fact of the continued decline and fall of the old liberal religious order. Worst hit are the mainstream Protestant churches, whose membership declined from 23 percent of the population in the late 1950s to 6 percent today. According to government estimates, by 2020 this figure will have dwindled to a mere 2 percent. The decline of liberal Protestantism has been matched by that of liberal Catholicism. The once-powerful Catholic Eighth of May group—a liberation theology movement born out of a mass meeting on May 8, 1985, to protest against Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Netherlands—was disbanded in November 2003 because of lack of interest among its rapidly declining membership. More broadly, aging Catholic congregations mean that Roman Catholicism, too, will likely face another decade or so of declining membership. From 42 percent of the population in 1958 and 17 percent today, membership could fall to as low as 10 percent before leveling off around 2020.
In spite of this decline of the old religious establishment, however, the century-long wave of secularization seems to have crested, and may even have begun to recede. The Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) finds that the number of self-described Christians stopped declining as early as the beginning of the 1990s. Among the under-20s, the number has started to increase in recent years. If the CBS figures are to be believed, in 2005 a small majority of the Dutch population (52 percent) still called itself Christian. The figures are disputed, however, by another major government research body, the Social and Cultural Planning Agency (SCP). The SCP uses a stricter definition of religiosity, allowing only those who not only describe themselves as Christians but also belong to a particular church to be counted as “real” Christians. The others, the so-called “fringe Christians,” are not attached to a particular church and are excluded from the official head count. Even by the SCP’s strict standards, Christians still form a 40 percent plurality among the wider population. Much like the CBS statistic, the SCP’s 40 percent figure hasn’t changed since the early 1990s.
Since the founding of the first Dutch youth churches in 2001, their numbers have risen significantly—from 45 churches serving around 10,000 young people in 2003 to 88 serving more than 20,000 in 2005. In a way, these youth churches are the tip of another iceberg on the path of the SS Secularization. The number of churchgoing Christians is still dropping among all other age groups, but among the under-20s it is rising again, and by a significant margin. A CBS survey noted that between 2003 and 2004, church attendance among under-20s rose seemingly inexplicably, from 9 percent to 14 percent. As expected, the survey prompted a skeptical response from social commentators. Not from the SCP, however: In a recent report it basically confirmed the CBS’s findings, observing that “it is noticeable that since 1997, the secularization curve among 16 to 30-year-olds has leveled off. In the last few years, it even seems to be declining.”
Interestingly, there is a lot of Christian immigration into the country.
In the long run, Christianity rather than Islam has some real advantages in this currently very liberal and secular country.
It seems unlikely, then, that Dutch Islam will prove to be a serious long-term competitor with Christianity. The latter has little to fear from a rival that refuses to proselytize and has yet to go through the refining fire of the struggle with religious liberalism. Christians may even profit from their encounter with Islam. Muslims may not seek to convert, but unlike their Christian counterparts, they do speak confidently in public about their faith. And through their building projects, they also show that God can still be a very visible presence in the community. If Dutch Christians want to learn again what it means not to hide your light under a bushel, they could do worse than look at their Islamic neighbors.Clearly, secular Europe is on the decline, if for no other reason than that secular people there, like secular people elsewhere, fail to reproduce.
In this, as in other matters, demography is destiny.