Religion in the Netherlands explained

You can’t truly understand any country without knowing what the people in it believe, or don’t believe. Christianity used to dominate every aspect of life in Western Europe, but is the Netherlands still a Christian country? Have Dutch people stopped believing? What’s the role of other religions? And in which ways does religion still affect Dutch society?

Is the Netherlands a religious country?

According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, the Netherlands is the least religious country in Western Europe. At the time, 48 percent of Dutch people were religiously unaffiliated, 27 percent were non-practicing Christians, 15 percent were church-attending Christians, and the remaining 10 percent subscribed to a different religion.

The following chart shows how the Netherlands compared to other Western European countries:

In this report, the non-practicing Christians were defined as people who identify as Christians, but don’t attend church services more than a few times a year. In contrast to the regular churchgoers, many of them actually don’t believe in the Biblical depiction of God, but they do believe in a higher power or spiritual force in the universe.

Even more recent data from the Netherlands’ Central Agency for Statistics has revealed that the religiously unaffiliated now make up more than half of the Dutch population. In the agency’s 2020 report on religious affiliation in the Netherlands, it presented the following overview:

The report included more details on church attendance. It stated that 9 percent of Dutch people go to church weekly, 3 percent go multiple times a month, 2 percent go once a month, and 6 percent go less than once a month. The vast majority of Dutch people, 80 percent, essentially never go to church.

The report also noted that different religions aren’t equally represented in terms of attendance. The protestants are found in church most often. Half of them regularly attend church services. Among Muslims and other non-Christians, about a third regularly attend services. And only about one in seven Catholics go to church regularly.

Interestingly, some of the people who identify as religious openly state that they don’t actually believe in God. It appears to be more of a cultural identity for them. This is true for one in ten Catholics and one in fifty Protestants and Muslims. In general, Catholics express the most uncertainty about whether God actually exists, while Muslims express the most certainty.

When religious affiliation is put aside and Dutch people are simply asked if they believe in God or not, we get the following results:

So, even though the Netherlands is the least religious country in Western Europe, and therefore one of the least religious countries in the world, most Dutch people still believe God either exists or might exist. For many of them, this is more of an abstract concept, though. And the vast majority of Dutch people just see no point in going to church.

The data suggests that 33 percent of the Dutch are atheists and 15 percent are agnostics. When asked about it, however, most of these people don’t describe themselves that way. Only 14 percent say they’re atheists and only 3 percent say they’re agnostics, the remaining 31 percent just describe their religious identity as “nothing in particular.”

Of course, there are different ways to define atheism. If atheism is simply the absence of a belief in God, then half of the Dutch population qualifies. However, if only people who are certain God doesn’t exist count as atheists, then the number is much lower. That’s why different sources don’t always provide the same percentages.

Causes of the religious decline in the Netherlands

The Netherlands used to be a much more religious country than it is today, and to understand why that changed, you need to know a little bit about Dutch history. In particular, you need to know about pillarization.

Pillarization was a form of more or less voluntarily segregation. This came about in the late 19th century because there were various demographics with wildly different ideas about society and life in general: the Catholics, the protestants, the socialists, and the liberals. The latter were classical liberals, so very different from people who are called liberals today.

In a nutshell, these demographics couldn’t get along, and, eventually, they concluded that in order to decrease tension, they should just live as separately as possible. That was pillarization. So, if you were a Catholic, you didn’t just go to a different church than a protestant, you also attended a different school, voted for a different political party, read a different newspaper, listened to a different radio station, belonged to a different union, and much more.

This began to change during World War II. Partly because the Nazis occupied the Netherlands and ran it as they pleased, with little concern for pillarization, and partly because all these different pillars now had a common enemy. The biggest changes happened after the war, though.

Pillarization began to be seen as a restrictive and old-fashioned way of life which people had to free themselves from. And because the churches were so intimately linked to pillarization, they lost much of their appeal.

During that same period, the Dutch became more educated and wealthier, so they also decreased their reliance on the church for answers or aid. The government took over many services that were previously carried out by churches. And TV introduced people to different worldviews and ways of life, making churches look narrow-minded in comparison.

All of these factors combined turned churches from pillars of society into symbols of an old way of life that many people were eager to part with. And along with that came a decline in the belief in God.

Demolition of a church in the Dutch province of North Brabant in 2009

Which people still practice Christianity in the Netherlands?

When we take a closer look at the Dutch people who still believe in God, we see some general trends. Women are more likely to believe in God than men (27 percent versus 21 percent). Old people more often believe in God than young people (36 percent versus 20 percent). And most significantly, those with the lowest education levels are far more likely to believe in God than those with the highest education levels (40 percent versus 15 percent).

When we focus on communities that still actively practice Christianity in the Netherlands, we can identify two main groups: the orthodox reformed Bible belt and communities of Christian immigrants.

To understand how the Dutch Bible belt formed, it helps to first look at this map of the Netherlands, which shows the dominant Christian denomination in each municipality in 1849:


The Dutch Bible belt is essentially the protestant region that traditionally separated the two Catholic regions. While many people in the rest of the Netherlands lost their religion, that didn’t happen to the same extent in this region. This map, which shows who voted for the conservative Calvinist political party SGP in 2022, highlights that quite effectively:


Devoted Christians in the Dutch Bible belt are so traditional that they can often be recognized by the way they dress. They live lifestyles that are considered old-fashioned or downright backward by many other Dutch people. They don’t take it nearly as far as the Amish in the US, but the average Dutch person does view them in a similar way.

The Christian immigrants, on the other hand, form a religious group that’s much more often overlooked by Dutch people. Nonetheless, it’s estimated that about a million people belong to this group, which is a lot in a country as small as the Netherlands.

The number of immigrant churches is in the thousands. Some of these churches have existed for over a century, like the Walloon church (where they speak French) and the Norwegian sailors’ church. But many of them are newer and have been established by immigrants from outside of Western Europe, like Eastern Europe and Africa. There are also some expat churches, which are distinct because expats tend to be wealthier and usually only stay in the Netherlands for a few years.

Christian immigrants generally come from countries where religion plays a much bigger role than in the Netherlands and it can be quite shocking for them to find out how little the Dutch value it. This is especially true for people from non-European countries that were turned Christian by Europeans.

Immigrant churches don’t just provide Christian immigrants with a location to practice their faith, they also help them in other ways. After all, a lot of these people left their countries of origin under difficult circumstances and many haven’t completely found their way in the Netherlands yet. So, these churches offer them a place to connect with people with a similar background in their native language and get help with anything they need help with.

Muslims in the Netherlands

The third group of people who actively practice religion in the Netherlands is formed by Muslims.

Muslims make up roughly 5 percent of the Dutch population. The vast majority of Muslims are first or second generation immigrants, mostly of Moroccan or Turkish descent. Migration from these countries to the Netherlands took off in the 1960s, so most of them have lived in the Netherlands for many decades, if not their entire lives.

Religion plays a much bigger role among these two demographics than among the native Dutch population. Looking at the first and second generation combined, we find that 86 percent of people of Turkish descent and 94 percent of people of Moroccan descent identify as Muslims. Only 10 percent of people of Turkish descent and 5 percent of people of Moroccan descent identify as non-religious.

We can distinguish between five categories: Secular Muslims identify as Muslims but rarely think about it. Cultural Muslims do consider faith important, but don’t pray or visit a mosque. Selective Muslims participate in social and ritual practices, but not often. Pious, private Muslims pray a lot and are meticulous about dietary instructions, but they rarely visit a mosque. And strict, practicing Muslims are dedicated to Islam in their private lives and also frequently visit a mosque.

These categories give us the following pie chart for Muslims of Turkish descent:

When it comes to Muslims of Moroccan descent, however, we get the following pie chart:

So, people of Moroccan descent are significantly more often pious or strict than people of Turkish descent. This doesn’t mean, however, that they dislike multiculturalism. Even the strict Muslims generally value multiculturalism and disapprove of violence in the name of religion. But it does mean that they feel less connected to the native Dutch population.

For people of Turkish descent, we see trends that one might expect. The first generation is very religious, and the second generation, having grown up in the Netherlands and being higher educated than their parents, is less religious.

For people of Moroccan descent, we essentially see opposing trends. While some second-generation Moroccan immigrants are less religious than their parents, others treasure it, and some even become more religious than their parents.

Ironically, that’s partly a response to native Dutch people’s disapproval of Islam, combined with the fact that people of Moroccan descent are more stigmatized than people of Turkish descent. Feeling like outsiders in society at large, some second-generation Moroccan immigrants gravitate toward Islam for a sense of belonging.

Religious elements in Dutch society

As you would expect, church and state are separated in the Netherlands. But this only means that church leaders don’t rule the country and politicians don’t rule the church. It doesn’t prevent politicians from forming political parties and implementing policies based on religion. As long as they get the necessary votes, that’s completely within the realm of possibilities.

Now, I should mention that the Dutch House of Representatives has 150 seats, which are usually filled by members of over a dozen parties, and in order to form a government, multiple parties have to team up to form a majority. So, a lot of different voices are heard, but the power of any one party is limited.

That said, there are multiple religion-based parties that Dutch people can vote for. The biggest ones are Christen-Democratisch Appèl (Christian-Democratic Appeal), usually abbreviated to CDA, ChristenUnie (Christian Union), and Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij (Reformed Political Party), usually abbreviated to SGP.

So, if you’re a Dutch Christian and you want to vote for a Christian party that explicitly states that God put men in charge of women, you can. And that party (SGP) actually has some seats in the House of Representatives. But because this is absurd to virtually everyone else, no one is worried about that. CDA is a much bigger party and they’re more willing to adapt to the times. For example, they support same-sex marriage and have multiple openly gay politicians.

So, the political power of truly conservative Christians is extremely limited. Many activities that are still controversial in other countries have been legalized a long time ago in the Netherlands. Prostitution has been legal since 1911, weed has been legal since 1976, abortion has been legal since 1984, and same-sex marriage has been legal since 2001.

Nonetheless, the remnants of pillarization still exist, including the religious aspects. For example, one of the public broadcasting associations with a heavily religious focus, Evangelische Omroep (Evangelical Broadcasting), maintains that focus to this day. It essentially produces  government-funded religious content. Although, in all fairness, it also broadcasts shows where Christians have honest conversations with people who don’t believe in God.

Another government-funded realm where religion still plays a role is education. Private education is rare in the Netherlands. Instead, the government funds a variety of schools. It funds public schools, known as “openbaar onderwijs,” as well as so-called particular schools, known as “bijzonder onderwijs.” Public schools are open to everyone and don’t teach children to believe in any religion. Particular schools, on the other hand, are grounded in a particular religious denomination or educational philosophy.

So, instead of trying to keep religion out of schools, the Dutch government actually helps schools with a religious foundation. And it doesn’t distinguish between religions. So, Islamic schools receive the same funding as Christian schools. The same goes for schools grounded in other religions, like Hindu schools, but those schools are much rarer.

How much attention is given to religion differs a lot per school. These days, many historically Christian schools put minimal focus on it and employ teachers who don’t even personally identify as Christians, but there are also Christian schools with mandatory daily Bible study. The fact that the government still funds these schools doesn’t actually line up with how the Dutch population thinks about religion.

Dutch people are also reminded of Christianity on holidays throughout the year. The official public holidays include Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Whit Sunday, Whit Monday, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. And although there’s no law against working on these days, most people get at least some of these days off.

By default, stores are actually not allowed to be open on Sundays and Christian holidays. This law is still in effect, but local governments have the power to overrule it. So, all the major cities make use of that power and more and more smaller municipalities follow their lead.

Other than that, the Dutch 2-Euro coin has an inscription on the side that says “God zij met ons” (God be with us). There’s no logical reason why that should be on there, but it was on the Dutch guilder as well, and the temptation to continue that habit when the guilder was replaced was apparently irresistible.

Lastly, the king makes a reference to God and prayer in his yearly speech, but the percentage of the Dutch population that actually listens to the king’s speech is in the single digits.

So, all in all, the Netherlands is significantly less religious than it used to be. It’s fair to say that religion plays a minor role in modern Dutch society. But it’s not completely devoid of religion, and some signs that religion used to be bigger are still there.