“The Netherlands is no longer a religious country.”
As a pastor in Amsterdam, these words grabbed my attention. I didn’t find them in an op-ed piece, nor in an easy-to-dismiss Twitter hot take. It was the opening line of a report from the Social and Cultural Planning Bureau of the Netherlands. For the first time in the country’s history, a majority of the population classified themselves as atheist or agnostic.
According to the study, religion has left the building—and it seems many couldn’t wait to lock the door behind it. Most online commenters responding to this announcement seemed delighted. If religious belief in the Western world is declining, what are the implications of such a shift, and how should Christians respond?
Freedom from God
The Dutch pride themselves on being free and tolerant. And if freedom of self is the goal, then getting rid of God and religion is the last obstacle on the road to total liberation. With religion in the rearview mirror, they can experience life on their own terms—without the burden of divinely imposed restrictions and rules. For a growing number of people in the world, such “freedom” is quite appealing.
Be your own judge. Be your own compass. Be your own god.
If freedom of self is the goal, then getting rid of God and religion is the last obstacle on the road to total liberation.
Those who believe “I am the I AM” will, however, eventually experience the consequences of this “freedom.” Indeed, many Netherlanders are starting to feel the weight of such effects.
Weight of Meaning
A person “free” from God inherits certain responsibilities a religious person doesn’t carry. One is particularly heavy: giving meaning to life. The Dutch report includes a crucial observation: “Instead of looking for the meaning of life, individual non-believers look for meaning in their life.”
Without God, meaning is not a given. No wonder the irreligious attempt to find or create meaning for themselves. They bear the weight of making their lives matter. But that’s a burden humanity was never meant to carry, and it shows. The report goes on: “This can lead to greater mental pressures, and a possible increase in problems associated with this, such as burnout.”
Those who attempt freedom from a deity find themselves needing to act like one.
Those who attempt freedom from a deity find themselves needing to act like one. The result? People are physically and mentally breaking under the burden of trying to be God. This is a trend I’ve personally seen while ministering in Amsterdam. As religious belief has waned, stress and burnout have grown. The weight of playing God is more than people can bear.
Freedom in Christ
The report raises the inevitable question: What will set me free?
This is one of the big questions our culture is asking. Fallen humans desire to be released from whatever we feel is keeping us from flourishing. Thankfully, this desire is not futile. Freedom is possible—just not from within ourselves. Freedom is possible—just not from belief in a generic god or a set of spiritual practices. True freedom is experienced only through knowing the triune God through his Son, Jesus Christ. If irreligion crushes adherents under the weight of trying to be God, and other religions offer vain attempts to reach God, Christianity offers freedom in God apart from anything we could create or earn.. Freedom is given in Christ as a gift—a gift God wants us to enjoy now and eternally. As Paul declares, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1; cf. John 8:32).
This is good news for the people I serve in the Netherlands. And it’s good news for your irreligious friend, neighbor, colleague, or family member. Seize their yearning for freedom as an opportunity to share the source of real liberation. For only in Jesus can we finally be free.