If Desiderius Erasmus were to step down from his pedestal to see what happened to religious life in Rotterdam, his surprise would probably make his bonnet fall right off his head. Faith is rapidly leaving the Netherlands.

Of course, secularisation already began when Eighteenth Century Enlightenment thinkers placed Reason above – apparently unreasonable – faith. The idea was that man should not navigate on assumptions, but solely on empirical facts. But while traditional religions –like Christianity and Islam – were mostly replaced by all sorts of spirituality, plain disbelief is becoming a more and more popular option. Nowadays, over 25 percent of the Dutch population claims not to believe in anything supernatural at all.

‘After ages of solid belief and decades of secularisation, the Netherlands seems to have entered the age of doubt’

Bas Blokker, NRC journalist

According to Bas Blokker, journalist for the Dutch newspaper NRC, scepticism is today’s norm: “After ages of solid belief and decades of secularisation, the Netherlands seems to have entered the age of doubt”. When Erasmus made his effort to reshape Catholic belief into a more individualist, humanist form, it was certainly not his aim to generate disbelief or doubt (in stark contrast to his later colleague, Spinoza). Because doesn’t a lack of faith leave one with rather little existential footing?

Those who do not believe in a higher power or some form of energy are usually categorised as atheists. But in practice, many of them do have a more or less articulated belief that there must be ‘something’ that goes beyond our senses. That’s why we label those that believe neither in a Higher Plan, nor in a metaphysical energy, ‘religious nones’. They have a scientific attitude towards the world. According to the scientific system, people are the product of all kinds of meaningless coincidences, and as a result, they have to live without a supernatural roof above their heads that protects them from the chaos and arbitrariness of the cosmos. The eleven Rotterdam-based religious nones that we interviewed for an on-going cultural-sociological research about non-religious meaning-making in the year 2016, illustrate that it is nonetheless possible to find lust for life precisely within its purposelessness, nullity and finiteness.

Liberating

It might be hard to keep existential angst at bay when you depart from the nihilist idea that your life is finite and inherently pointless. Leo (35, Rotterdam-West) subscribes to that logic: “If you don’t believe in a religion at all, you might say: my life is totally pointless, I’m here now, I won’t be here later. So what am I doing here, really?” Bruno (34, living in the centre of Rotterdam) is not always comfortable with this purposelessness: “It just sometimes makes me cynical about all kinds of things, about the big things you have to do in life, about love, about work. If I inflate that idea too much in my head, if I really think for too long about the point of it all, yeah, I have to conclude: nothing really matters, nothing really makes sense”.

‘It’s just a very liberating thought. If nothing matters, you can do anything you like.’

'Bruno'

How lovely. Still, there is an alternative to this disenchanted view. The cynical conclusion arises from life’s lack of direction, but remarkably, this same lack of direction is also its antidote. This is related to a frequently heard objection among the Rotterdam religious nones against religion of the dualistic type, whose adherents believe in a supernatural being that transcends and controls the world. The absolute truths this being – God – has to offer are perceived as posing limits on the individual.

Related to how sociologist Niklas Luhman describes contingency, namely “nothing is necessary, nothing is impossible, so everything is possible”, the undetermined character of life turns existence into a playground with little rules and consequences. Bruno therefore immediately continues his story with this other side of the coin: “It’s just a very liberating thought. If nothing matters, you can do anything you like. When I’m afraid to do something or am uncertain about it, that thought can be the little push to think: who cares! It doesn’t make sense anyway. It doesn’t make a difference whether I succeed or not”.

Positive twist

A pessimistic framing of the purposelessness of life can therefore smoothly co-exist alongside a positive one, as they are two sides of the same coin. Meaning-making is seen as an active process, something you have to and – as a result of meaninglessness – can do yourself. Whatever you choose does not change the fact that life is inherently pointless. That’s why the religious nones try to assume an optimistic attitude as much as they can. As Timon (69, Rotterdam-West) explains: “There isn’t some sort of cause of that meaningfulness. That lies in yourself. You give life meaning. You choose to find it meaningful. You can make it as interesting as you want. I want that”.

Leeway is not only provided by the arbitrariness of the symbolic order, but also by the coincidental nature of the material order. That specifically you are here is just dumb luck from the perspective of the religious nones: the chances that that particular ovum and that particular sperm cell found each other, are practically zero percent. So now that you’re here, you better enjoy life, according to Maria (33, Rotterdam-West): “I do not think that life really has a purpose, as we are here because of all kinds of coincidences. So let’s then at least make sure that it’s bearable, and perhaps even nice and fun”.

In sharp contrast with the spiritual adage ‘coincidence doesn’t exist’ and the Christian concept of predestination, the foundation of the religious none is disorder. However, these non-believers agree that one event is universal and inevitable: death. And while being might be essentially void, non-being is, of course, the greatest void. This is from time to time experienced as a grim prospect by some respondents, but above all as extremely important and useful. “It’s part of it all”, says Leo, “because if nobody dies, life is even more meaningless than it already is. Then you don’t have the need to do anything at all anymore”. For Steven (24, Rotterdam-South), a hereafter is “really the most depressing thought ever. The idea that it always continues sounds terrible to me. If that were the case, nobody would do anything, you’d just stay in bed. I find it very important, in order to make things, that I always realize: I’m growing older, I’ll have to work hard for that.” Death gives life urgency, or, as Steven laughingly continues in millennial lingo: “a kind of ultimate deadline”.

Doing good

In short, where religion offers a fixed worldview with a more or less outlined path for the individual, the scientifically disposed religious none feels rather unguided. A chaotic and uncertain basis, perhaps, but this issue is drowned out by the possibility of freedom to make choices and to shape one’s own lifeworld. The prospect of death functions as a motivator to get started with that right away, before it is too late. Still, this attitude appears quite nihilistic: will these religious nones become miserable cynics at worst, and egoistic hedonists that do whatever they feel like, at the cost of others if necessary, at best?

The latter, too, is unnecessary, according to the nones. They often care deeply about other people, animals and nature. “It’s not as if I live without norms”, says Maria, “on the contrary, I am very sensitive to injustice. Now that we’re here, I think it would be nice if we try to live a decent life”. In addition, there is pleasure to be gained from being nice: “it feels good, it feels better than being unkind”.

But the feeling of powerlessness against large-scale processes can lead to a lack of willingness to dedicate oneself to big societal issues. While Leo was once concerned about such matters, he indicates to “now concern myself more with helping the people close to me, rather than people in Africa”. Bruno likewise underlines his preference for doing good in a smaller circle: “Simply with the people around you, the things you like to do, without harming others”. Perhaps they are not the most fervent do-gooders, but we certainly cannot conclude from these cases that religion leads to moral decline.

‘When someone becomes very angry, I can find that really funny. That someone takes something really seriously, while it all doesn’t matter. Without humour, I wouldn’t be able to cope’

'Bruno'

The folly of pointlessness

Given the conviction of the nones that all aspects of existence are relative in the eyes of the interviewees, their attitudes towards life are consequently mainly characterized by relativism. They therefore claim that we should not take ourselves too seriously. “Come on!” says Timon, “you’re not that important. If you think things are really directed against you, then I think, yeah, who do you think you are? Why should the world bother! You don’t really matter”.

“Shit happens”, says Nicole (67, Rotterdam-West) laconically. Humour is the Nones’ weapon of choice for putting matters in perspective: during the interviews, the most morbid comments were often accompanied by laughter. This points to an ironic wink-and-nod to existence that resolves the apparent paradox of a search for meaning in meaninglessness. Bruno: “When someone becomes very angry, I can find that really funny. That someone takes something really seriously, while it all doesn’t matter. Without humour, I wouldn’t be able to cope”.

And with that conclusion, Erasmus can rest easily after all. For here we do find a striking parallel with his famous satirical essay on the Catholic Church and other European traditions. Without an absurdist attitude, Erasmus also thought it would be impossible to deal with the nonsense of life. The attitude of the religious nones can thus be seen as a kind of song of praise to the absurdity of existence.

The names of the respondents are fictitious; the editors know their real names.

A co-operation between Erasmus Magazine and Vers Beton.

In 2016 Rotterdam celebrates the 550th birth date of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus. In this series, Vers Beton explores the meaning of Erasmus’ thinking for the city of Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Vers Beton is a journal for people in Rotterdam who like to reflect on their city.

This series has been made possible by a financial contribution by the city of Rotterdam.

This piece was published earlier in Dutch in the online magazine Vers Beton.

Translation: Melissa van Amerongen.

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