I was born and raised in The Netherlands, and my painless deconfessionalization story will sound familiar to many people who have lived in that odd little country during the last decades of the twentieth century.
I can’t have been more than three years old when one day, my older brother coming home from playschool solemnly preached: ‘God sees everything’. His teacher had told him so, and in those days Missy ranked as the highest authority in scientific matters. I didn’t seem to like the message however, since I promptly hid under the table and crowed: ‘Now he can’t see me, ha, ha!’ I exhibited an ugly character at a very tender age, that is.
I suppose I had learned to accept absurdities by the time I went to school myself. I swallowed all those bible stories the way I swallowed Cinderella. A normal child usually takes quite a lot from adults, and I wasn’t much of a rebel after all. But those prayers. ‘Eyes shut’ was one of the rather few religious customs we were supposed to respect, but meanwhile the prayer was hardly ever interesting. Neither was peeping on the sly, but at least it had the sweet taste of forbidden fruit.
At home, praying was restricted to hastily asking the Lord’s blessing for our food, before we reluctantly started to dawdle over our obligatory vegetables. Our family belonged to a mainstream Dutch liberal protestant denomination. Sometimes, usually at a particularly dull Sunday morning, we even went to church. Boredom, and constrained disdain during the simultaneous children’s service, where we ‘might’ depict bible stories, cutting and pasting inferior materials. It has to be said that my parents were very laid back, and they didn’t have a problem with me accompanying catholic friends to their church. I was quite pleased with the fact that the catholic priest would actually feed the congregation, so I consumed my share of sacred wafers with an healthy appetite.
Meanwhile, I started to think a little, in brief flashes. At eight years old I didn’t know what a virgin was and didn’t see a problem with that kind of birth, but I remember being rather uncomfortable with the crucifixion story. Had Jesus died in order to pay off sins already committed by the time, in which case it wasn’t of any use to us now, or as an advance payment for future sins, which would clear me by definition no matter how naughty I might become? And then, why did the poor bloke have to be tortured and killed anyway? Couldn’t God have settled things differently? It always made me a little dizzy. At my protestant primary school, I never got a clear answer to this kind of questions. My faith in adult omniscience and the competence of teaching staff in general was slowly but steadily undermined.
A new reverend arrived in our church: the hairy, fiery reverend K. His predecessor had been a gentle, mild-mannered man whose main objective was to make everyone comfortable, but reverend K. was of an entirely different making. He would stick his beard up in the pulpit and thoroughly drum their moral shortcomings into the members of the flock. More and more my parents decided to stay at home on Sunday morning. Still it was taken for granted that I would attend confirmation classes, since I had reached the appropriate age. I was fourteen, a grammar school student, basically a non-believer and fairly fluent. The reverend’s bold claims proved easy to refute. His beard got a life of its own and at the end of our last debate he hissed in spite of himself: ‘You arrogant brat!’ which gave me the giggles and made me decide it was in both parties’ best interest to leave it at that. As a consequence, the same evening I announced at home that I did not believe and didn’t plan to attend any more church happenings. ‘Well,’ my father declared and my mother said: ‘That’s ok, honey.’
Nevertheless, my father valued his family traditions. Having gotten somewhat milder at eighteen, I went along to a christmas service to humour my old man. Again reverend K., who seized the opportunity to confront us with our profound wickedness. Half way the sermon my father stood up and marched out of the building, promptly followed by his relieved family. The church disappeared forever from our lives, and has never been discussed since.