Why Amsterdam students are not turning away from religion

Laura Illeris, our newest addition from Denmark, embarks on an investigative series about the role of religion among students in Amsterdam. This will provide a look into the lives of young Christians, Jews, and Muslims who still actively practice their faith and explore what the decline in religious affiliation means for them.

During a conversation about the oldest man on earth, Roos Hup said to her friend: “But you know about Methuselah, from the Bible? He was 900 years old. Everybody knows this, right?”

Roos Hup, 19, is a medicine student at the Vrije Universiteit (VU) and a devout Christian. It is widely known that the church’s authority and influence is waning in the Netherlands, and as a result less and less people grow up learning about Methuselah as Hup did. Among university studentsstories like these are perhaps rarest of allAs such, there is a good chance that you have not heard of him either.

How can someone be well educated,
and still be religious?

Instead, for some university students the concept of religion seems utterly distant. “How can someone be well educated, and still be religious?” This sentiment was frequently expressed to me during a project surveying people’s perception of religion.

Jacob van der Ham, a student at Amsterdam University College (AUC), finds that there is a notion among his peers that intelligent people generally are not religious. He also does not understand what people get out of religion, and admits he has a bit of a bias. “I find it weird that people look for some higher power to justify their life.”

Many university students are likely to share Van der Ham’s view, given the low levels of religious affiliation among the young and the highly educated. Only 32.6 percent of the people between the age of 18 and 24 belong to a religious denomination, making them the least religious group in the Netherlands. For people with a higher education background the number is similarly low at 37 percent, according to the Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics (CBS) .

Thus, this month I am attending churches, synagogues, and mosques, and talking to young people who still actively practice their faith or are active in a religious community. What does the supposed declining religiosity mean for young people, and society at large? And what are the experiences of the statistical minority in Amsterdam that is young, highly educated, and religious? These are some of the questions that I will answer in the articles of the upcoming weeks.

Do you know about Methuselah, from the Bible? He was 900 years old. Everybody knows this, right?

State of Religion

While the Netherlands is a secular country, religion still has a role to play. Religious affiliation, or lack thereof, affects how people vote, think, how they raise their children, and their perspective on life and death.

According to Thijl Sunier, professor of Cultural Anthropology of Religion at the VU and chair of Islam in European Societies, there is not one definition of religion as it means something different in different contexts across time and place. As he describes it, religion ultimately has to do with ways of connecting to and engaging with the world rather than just a way of explaining the world.

Nonetheless, the question is often asked in the media: Is religion disappearing, or becoming irrelevant in our society? In other parts of the world this is surely not the case. But what about here, in a secular country where more than half of the population officially has no religious affiliation?

The spiritual and the supernatural does not seem to be becoming irrelevant, even if the church’s authority is

Indeed, for the first time in history, 51 percent of the Dutch population say that they are not religiously affiliated, compared to 40 percent in the late nineties, according to CBS. When looking at the Amsterdam municipality the non-affiliated are a bigger majority, constituting 62.2 percent.

Even of the people belonging to a religious group, the share of people who regularly visit their place of worship is markedly low. For example, while 37 percent of people with a university degree belong to a religious denomination, only 12 percent attends worship services at least once a month, as CBS reports.

Interpreting Statistics

We already know that while young people are typically the least religious, they are more likely to turn to religion later in life. Moreover, increased migration has meant that religion is being kept alive, in particular in big cities like Amsterdam. While the number of places of worship is going down overall, Amsterdam is host to an array of different places of worship and caters to several different religions.

There is also no real evidence that belief in the supernatural, or spirituality is dwindling. Studies on the beliefs of non-religious people show us that it is an unavoidable part of human nature to wonder about the universe and existence. In this sense, the spiritual and the supernatural does not seem to be becoming irrelevant, even if the church’s authority is.

In some cases, this leads to what is called ’believing without belonging’, referring to those who believe in a God, but do not feel the need to be formally registered with a church, synagogue, or mosque, or take active part in a religious community.

They feel a strong sense of community, security, or purpose through developing spiritual relationships, or simply by belonging to a church

On the other hand, we know that education and financial security spurs a move away from formal religious affiliation. If we have everything we need to lead a stable life, we are simply less likely to search for something more to fill our lives. Thus, it makes sense that young people in the Netherlands are less religious because they are better educated and relatively well off in comparison to their peers elsewhere in the world.

Some say that young people’s aversion to religious institutions can also be partly explained by parenting. The Baby Boomer generation generally puts less emphasis on obedience, and more on independent thinking. Consequently, millennials have become less obedient to religious institutions.

Behind the Numbers

Thijl Sunier, professor of Anthropology of Religion at the Vrije Universiteit. Source: VU.nl

However, superficial explanations of statistics do not show us what is happening behind numbers and trends. Despite all the signs suggesting the demise of faith among young people, there are still plenty of young, well-educated people in Amsterdam actively practicing their faith.

These are people who often feel a strong sense of community, security, or purpose through developing spiritual relationships, or simply by belonging to a church or religious community. At the same time, some feel that religions have gained a bad reputation, suppressing open dialogue about it and giving people the impression that religion only consists of outdated and problematic ideas.

There is both harmony and diversity within these groups, just as there is among the non-religious

According to Sunier, statistics on the state of religion are confined by traditional markers of religiosity, such as going to church or mosque, and other religious obligations. Instead, Sunier sees religion as being “on the move,” and undergoing transformations that allow for spirituality to be manifested in new ways.

The upcoming series will provide a peek into the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities of current university students and recent graduates. It will become clear as young religious people share their views on science and religion, living in Amsterdam, and the rise of the unaffiliated that there is both harmony and diversity within these groups, just as there is among the non-religious.


This is the introduction article of an investigative series on faithful students in Amsterdam. You can now read the next in-depth articles on Christianity and Judaism as well.