CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

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The 2002 CESNUR International Conference

Minority Religions, Social Change, and Freedom of Conscience

Salt Lake City and Provo (Utah), June 20-23, 2002

Empowering the Self - The Authority of Transformative Experience & New Forms of Religiosity in Secularized Dutch Society [1]

by Martin Ramstedt, Meertens Instituut, Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, Amsterdam
(please, send any comments or reactions to: Martin.Ramstedt@Meertens.knaw.nl)

A paper presented at CESNUR 2002, Salt Lake City and Provo. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author


I appreciate the opportunity to discuss with you the theoretical dimensions of a project, on which I have only recently embarked.

For fifteen years, I have carried out anthropological research in and on Indonesia on a variety of topics. Having concluded my three-year project on "Hinduism and the discrimination against ethnic religions in modern Indonesia" at the International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden, The Netherlands, in October 2001, I took up a five-year research position at the Meertens Instituut in Amsterdam the following November. The Meertens Instituut is a Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences institute specializing in the documentation of and research on Dutch language and culture, a field considerably closer to home, which, for me, lies in Germany.

Complementing my ongoing study of transnational religious networks and movements in Indonesia, my project at the Meertens Instituut involves research on a vast topic that can loosely be circumscribed as ‘New forms of religiosity and shifting notions of the sacred in contemporary Dutch society’. I am not probing into this broad field of study alone, though, as two of my colleagues at the Meertens Instituut are also involved in it. Both have been providing useful insights and generous support. I would therefore like to mention here Theo Meder, who is currently investigating the crop circle phenomenon in the Netherlands, as well as Peter Jan Margry, who is, at the moment, concentrating on modern heterodox devotional cults at the fringe of the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Theoretical & methodological framework

Until now I have mainly been studying pertinent discourses in order to zoom in on issues, which are relevant not only for understanding contemporary Dutch society, but also - and perhaps more importantly so - for wider discussions within the field of religious studies as well as cultural anthropology. The somewhat limited range of my activities to date notwithstanding, I have already carried out intense Internet research and have worked through a huge amount of clippings from various Dutch regional and national newspapers, which are regularly provided by a special service within the Meertens Instituut. I have furthermore also done some qualitative and quantitative empirical research, comprising non-standardized face-to-face interviews, [2] participant observation / observant participation [3] and setting up a standardized questionnaire, which is at present being distributed among the long-standing Meertens network of over one thousand correspondents, spread out over the entire Netherlands. Still, what I am going to present in this paper is very much a work in progress.

Rather than focusing on particular new religious movements (NRMs) in the Netherlands, I will first explain what I mean by using the term "religiosity" in general. On the basis of this more general definition, I will then elucidate what I refer to when speaking of "traditional Dutch religiosity" on one hand and "new forms of religiosity in secularized Dutch society" on the other. Finally, I will describe my particular research perspective, which focuses on the normalization of new forms of religiosity in contemporary Dutch society. This focus naturally implies that certain new forms of religiosity will be highlighted rather than others.

Eventually, the Dutch case will serve as starting point for comparative research on new forms of religiosity in Indonesia. When investigating Hinduism as a protective umbrella religion for ethnic minority traditions in modern Indonesia at the International Institute for Asian Studies, I realized that "New Age" has made headway into Asian societies at least since the 1980s, if not earlier, too. It will be illuminating to compare the conditions, under which the development of "New Age" religiosity in these two historically related, yet culturally very different countries actually took place. The results of such a comparison will help to conceptualize the relationship between religion and modernity more accurately. This, however, is a discussion, which will have to be postponed until some other time.

On a more general level, I want to define "religiosity" as "personal practice aiming at the realization of life-affirming values, which stress empathy with the whole universe, thus investing individual life with meaning that transcends, yet influences the functionality of the individual’s daily routines". This practice is holistic in the sense that it implies the cognitive, emotional, and physical involvement of the person, therefore influencing the person’s habitus, his or her subjectivity or "perception of self".

My definition is quite obviously inspired by Max Weber, Clifford Geertz and Pierre Bourdieu, emphasizing agency or "practice" as the focus of the study of individual engagement in processes that render life meaningful. Such study must necessarily involve much participant observation and observant participation, i.e. participation in the experiential context of the informants in order to be able to divine and place individual endeavors to render life meaningful.

Traditional Dutch religiosity was structured by Calvinism and - albeit to a much lesser extent - by Roman Catholicism. Although there has already for several centuries been a significant Jewish community in the Netherlands, Judaism has never played a part in Dutch identity formation; neither has freemasonry for that matter. And yet it seems to have been "irregular" [4] freemasonry that had given rise to many of the "new forms of religiosity" that since then have constituted the so-called "New Age".

As Max Weber and others have pointed out, Calvinist religiosity is based on the intellectual and emotional acknowledgment of the sovereignty of a transcendent, ineffable, All-Powerful God who has predestined the lot of every person after death. Since it is already predestined whether a person goes to heaven or to hell to spend his or her afterlife, no emotional appeal to God in the form of prayer, nor the transformation of sinful or conflicting emotion - let alone behavior - by ritual will alter one’s fate. Not knowing whether one is already saved or doomed, the only appropriate form of religiosity is to praise the Lord through rational and pragmatic action that furthers the welfare of the righteous.

Calvinist religiosity thus entails rigid repression of socially and personally disturbing emotions without ever fully abating feelings of eschatological insecurity. Since success in one’s social environment provides the only indication about the quality of one’s afterlife, strict conformity to commonly accepted norms is the only chance to receive some psychological reassurance. This ethos has survived even in secularized Holland, where it is perhaps best captured by the saying "doe maar gewoon, dan ben je al gek genoeg", which translates as "act normal, then you are already crazy enough".

Traditional Roman Catholic religiosity consists of various practices, which do induce in the individual a sense of eschatological security. They thus do provide emotional reassurance, based on the conviction that a transcendent, All-Powerful, yet Merciful God grants salvation. Salvation is believed to be attainable through the transformation of troublesome emotions and behavior by confession and subsequent penitence or appeal to a saint in pilgrimage and prayer. The means to attain salvation, are, however, strictly controlled by the priesthood, leaving the laity in a state of eschatological, and thereby emotional, dependence on the clergy.

What is "new" about "new forms of religiosity"? Their novelty lies both in the content of their practice and in their historical dimension. Let me start with their historical dimension first.

Like Peter Berger, Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, I hold that the emergence of new forms of religiosity was facilitated by the so-called "detraditionalization" of primary institutions, such as Church, state, family, or social status group, which entailed the increasing democratization of the various social, political, and economic sectors. Democratization in turn is a process, in which the individual is empowered to actively participate in all the decisions that influence his or her life. This, however, takes a psychological toll, which Emile Durkheim and Peter Berger described as the increasing danger of "anomy", whereas Jean Paul Sartre curtly called it the fear of freedom.

The detraditionalization of church-religion in the Netherlands began in the second half of the 19th Century, when Calvinism lost its status as state religion. As a result, Dutch society became "pillarized" (verzuild), entailing the emancipation of Roman Catholicism, which was now to form one of the so-called "pillars" (zuilen) of Dutch society, alongside Calvinism, Liberalism, and Social Democracy. These four pillars were in fact ideological groupings that obtained equal political and cultural representation. Along with the pillarization of Dutch society in the late 19th Century, new religious movements and belief systems began to emerge at the fringes of Dutch religious life: spiritism, Theosophy, the Pentecostal movement, yoga, Buddhism, Sufism, and others.

The detraditionalization of Dutch religiosity and the resultant appropriation, reinterpretation and localization of non-Western or non-Christian religious beliefs and practices at the turn of the century had a parallel in the intersecting fields of modern theatre, dance, music and fine arts. In detraditionalized religion as in detraditionalized art, experimentation with non-Western forms and techniques began to lead to new syncretic or eclectic expressions. In all these fields, traditional forms and techniques were increasingly experienced as conventional, devoid of fresh meaning and inspiration, powerless to induce transformative experience, in which one feels connected with life in its entirety. Experimentation in both fields frequently entailed a blending of new aesthetic, expressive and religious practices. This was certainly the case at the life-reforming colony on the Monte Verita near Ascona, in Switzerland, which was founded by Henry Oedenkoven and Ida Hoffman in 1900. Hosting all kinds of spiritual, cultural, and political reformers and innovators, the colony on the Monte Verita was soon to inspire many members of the European avantgarde, among others the Dutch painter Piet Mondriaan and the Dutch writer Frederik van Eeden. The arts, on the other hand, began to form conduits for new religious concepts, beliefs and practices into mainstream society. I will thus take the end of the 19th Century as the beginning - albeit not the focus - of my analytical time frame.

Let us now take a closer look at the practices, which constitute the new forms of religiosity that have emerged in the Netherlands since the late 19th Century. Alas, I do not have the space here to analyze individual practices in detail. Suffice it to propose to you a rough typology, which is based on how the different practices engage the imagination and emotion of the practitioner.

I contend that all these new forms of religious practice, which have emerged since the fin de siècle, stimulate the imagination of the practitioner in such a way that the personal narrative merges with a sacred narrative, prompting direct, unmediated experiences of either transcendent or immanent sacredness. Through these systematically induced experiences, the practitioner discovers within him- or herself a whole reservoir of life-affirming emotions. These life-affirming emotions reconnect the practitioner to the world at large, setting the "homeless mind" of the modern subject, as Peter Berger has called it, at rest, inducing joy, "flow", and reassurance. They thus take the individual out of a milder or wilder state of anomy, which has been caused, to a large extent, by the very detraditionalization of the primary institutions in the first place, simultaneously empowering the self by emphasizing the authority of direct, personal experience. Because the experiences induced by the new forms of religiosity reassert the individual’s trust in life and self, they are fairly "addictive", a fact, I will argue, which largely contributes to their attraction and successful dissemination.

Furthermore, I want to distinguish between two types of new religious practices: (1) those geared to induce life-affirming experiences of sacredness, the source of which is located outside the individual self, (2) practices geared to induce life-affirming experiences of sacredness, the source of which one is to discover within oneself. I aver that the practices classified under the latter type tie up better than those of the former type with both the demands and the disadvantages of modernity, as they simultaneously foster self-reliance and abate the "fear of freedom" to a higher degree than those of the former type. It is therefore not so surprising that it is precisely this category of practices that has become ever more popular with the increasing detraditionalization of Dutch culture. Since these practices are predominantly offered by the religious organizations of Asian origin, the neo-pagan movement and, indeed, large parts of the so-called "New Age" movement, it is no wonder that these religious groupings and currents have hitherto had the greatest "success" in terms of dissemination.

And yet, Dutch scholars, monitoring the religious developments in the Netherlands after World War II, have hitherto focused on what they have termed "ontkerkeling" (literally "dechurchization"). The fact that these scholars have mostly been theologians or church historians, who use a rather narrow definition of religion, might have boosted the equation of "ontkerkeling" with secularization in the official Dutch discourse. A study of the Dutch Office for Social and Cultural Planning (Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau), for instance, which was connected to the European Values Study, noted a higher than average incident of no religion, or at least of no denominational affiliation, in the contemporary Netherlands.

Parallel to this process of "dechurchization", however, NRMs and new forms of religiosity have proliferated. Unlike NRMs, such as evangelical Christianity, which has made headway into Holland since shortly after World War II, most of the new forms of religiosity that have emerged since the 1960s are "implicit" and less "visible", if not "invisible", when applying the criteria of traditional definitions of "religion". I refer here to the fluid, overlapping fields of non-organized "New Age" religiosity on one hand and "secular religion" on the other.

The term "secular religion" was coined by Edward Bailey and seems to be synonymous with his concept of "implicit religion". I find Bailey’s own definition of his concepts rather implicit, almost opaque. Let me therefore redefine secular or implicit religiosity as "personal practice aiming at the realization of life-affirming values, which stress empathy with the individual’s whole environment, thus investing individual life with meaning that transcends, yet influences the functionality of the individual’s daily routines without taking recourse to the supernatural". The field of secular religiosity includes, for instance, the various forms of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis [5], elements of youth culture, such as drug consumption or "partying", and Dutch Humanism.

The secular religious practices of Dutch Humanism can perhaps be best observed in the "geestelijk raadswerk" (literally "spiritual counseling") of Het Humanistisch Verbond ("The Humanist Association"), abbreviated HV, which was established shortly after World War II by the Dutch Jewish Socialist J.P. van Praag. Almost immediately recognizing the HV as the secular equivalent to the traditional Christian Churches, the Dutch Government permitted it to provide spiritual care in the same places, where the Churches had already been active for a long time: in hospitals, prisons, institutions for elderly people, and the army. Since several years, the HV also offers spiritual coaching and consulting in the corporate world, alongside celebrations of jubilees, births and funerals in more private settings. Spiritual care as provided by the HV is based on empathy with the individual person. It is geared to stimulate in the patient / client the capacity to find and formulate his or her own life orientation (zingeving) by confronting him or her with Humanist insights in the potential of human beings. Similar to traditional psychotherapy, Humanist spiritual care consists mainly of "sitting and talking", i.e. personal face-to-face communication. Van Praag himself had acknowledged a religious core of his Humanist movement, which he located in the endeavor to stimulate "an attitude towards life, which does not refer to a personal God, but which transcends all subjective knowledge of reality without negating it".

In a Dutch publication of 1996, Miranda Moerland and Anneke van Otterloo discriminated between three phases of the development of "New Age" religiosity in the Netherlands, which I cannot discuss in detail here. Suffice it to say that these different phases describe the shift from a basically counter-cultural movement in the 1960s to the integration of fundamental elements of the movement into Dutch mainstream culture since the late 1980s. According to Moerland & Otterloo, the integration of a vast array of "New Age" elements into Dutch mainstream culture coincided with a decrease in millenary or utopian traits. Instead of preparing oneself for the coming of a "New Age", people nowadays tend to seek transformative experiences, which enhance their ability to make the best out of themselves and their lives here and now. This shift in motivation was, for instance, also indicated in the name of the so-called "Eigentijdse Festival" ("Contemporary Time Festival" or "Our Time Festival") which annually takes place in the village of Vierhouten, in the Hoge Veluwe, since nine years. During the four-day festival one can attend all kinds of workshops offering a plethora of "New Age" practices that range from shamanic dreaming to bronze bowl therapy. The last "Eigentijdse Festival" took place in June, 2002, and attracted around 1,500 participants.

In the first phase of the development of "New Age" religiosity, participants of the movement typically consisted of visionary artists, intellectuals, therapists, and life reformers. The third and contemporary phase, however, is characterized by the fact that the movement has turned into a "spiritual market", in which people participate as vendors and consumers. With the relativization of the traditional meta-narratives, consumerism has become a legitimate and dominant mode of social interaction, in which autonomous subjects engage according to their own self-legitimized needs and interests. Instead of giving oneself over to somebody or something in order to acquire the service of someone or the quality of something, one rather pays for it, thereby protecting the boundaries of self against untoward claims from the outside world.

My research focus

Proposing to fill lacunae in the Dutch discourse on contemporary religious trends in the Netherlands, I will concentrate on the normalization of spiritual practices geared to induce life-affirming experiences of sacredness, the source of which one is to discover within oneself, in contemporary, supposedly secularized Dutch society. I will hence zoom in on the intersection between the "spiritual market" and the work sphere on one hand, and the intersection between the "spiritual market" and the sphere of leisure on the other hand. With regard to the intersection between the "spiritual market" and the sphere of leisure, I will concentrate on the overlapping fields of neo-paganism, particularly wicca and modern witchcraft, fantasy literature and movies, role game and the gothic scene. With regard to the interrelation between the "spiritual market" and the work sphere, I will concentrate on how concepts, such as "emotional intelligence" (David Coleman), "humanization of labor", or "inner game approach" (Timothy Gallway), and spiritual practices, such as I have circumscribed above, have been normalized in the corporate world, particularly in Human Resource Management.

These two foci link up with larger themes, such as "soft capitalism", "reinvention of tradition in a globalized world", "folklorization", "appropriation of ‘the other’", "syncretism", or "re-enchantment of the world". While my research will surely contribute insights into the general role of "religion" and "religiosity" in contemporary Holland, emphasis will lie on individual spiritual careers that can document the normalization of new forms of religiosity best. The function of the individual imagination in this respect will be highlighted. Imagination forms the ground for identification and thereby identity. I claim that the investigated spiritual practices correspond to a need to enhance "authentic" individual feeling, and thereby "self", in reaction to an ever more demanding corporate world and an ever more mediated and thus alienated environment. I start from the hypothesis that these spiritual practices have parallels to more secular aesthetic and psychological practices, which stimulate the individual imagination into similar directions for similar reasons. Describing these parallels in detail, I will endeavor to demonstrate how the psychological market, new business ethics, aesthetic life-styles, such as the gothic scene, or the virtual reality of the fantasy-hype, function as important conduits for the normalization of alternative spirituality in Dutch mainstream culture.


1. I plan to submit a more elaborate version of the paper for publication soon. [back]

2. Among the interviewees were three neo-shamans, two wiccas, a freemason, an owner of an esoteric bookshop, a spiritual consultant of the Dutch Humanist Association (Humanistisch Verbond), who is also a Buddhist, teachers at the University for Humanism (Universiteit voor Humanistiek) in Utrecht, the founders of the Foundation for Spiritual Development (Stichting Spirituele Ontwikkeling) in Vlissingen, an artist and her sister who participated in the summer solstice Stonehenge installation in Rotterdam on June 6, 2002, which attracted a number of young Dutch druids and witches, and various other people temporarily engaging in "New Age" practices. [back]

3. On April 20, 2002, I visited the ElfFantasy Fair at the castle De Haar in Haarzuilen, also attending two wicca workshops, which were organized there. Shortly afterwards, on April 24, 2002, I participated in a Beltane ritual, which was hosted and led by Charissa Schipper in her home in Zoetermeer. Ms. Schipper is an individual witch, who is not associated to a coven, but regularly teaches courses on "Modern Witchcraft" (Moderne Hekserij) at an esoteric bookshop in Leiden. In one of these courses, starting in September, 2002, I am going to participate. From June 6-9, 2002, I attended the "Contemporary Period Festival" (Eigentijdse Festival) in Vierhouten. During the four days, I joined various workshops on neo-shamanic soul travel, wiccan ritual, yoga, bronze and crystal bowl playing, overtone singing, inner flow of tennis playing, etc., which were offered there. Moreover, I have attended several esoteric fairs (paranormale beurzen) and shops in various locations. Equally important is perhaps the fact that I have acquired intimate knowledge of the "New Age" scene in Germany, the US and in the Netherlands through my personal social network, largely consisting of anthropologists, psychologists, artists and musicians. Inspired by friends, I had myself engaged in various forms of alternative spirituality and healing, such as Western Buddhist meditation, yoga, homeopathy, or contemplative dance, already prior to my assignment at the Meertens Instituut. [back]

4. In contrast to the "blue" or "regular" orders of freemasonry, which discriminate between three grades (apprentice, mate, master) of initiates and are therefore recognized by the Grand Lodge (now: United Grand Lodge) of London, "irregular" orders frequently indulge in occult practices associated with a much higher number of initiation grades. [back]

5. Katayoun Medhat’s interesting and daring paper elaborates on the parallels between psychoanalysis and religion from a somewhat different angle. [back]

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