A poll among more than 600 people at TU/e revealed that 14 percent are religious, 23 percent agnostic and 63 percent atheist. We do have to point out that we took this poll on Instagram, where we are mostly followed by students. At the national level, the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) also has recent data: “Atheists and agnostics are the majority in the Netherlands” (SCP, 2022). SCP did use an unusual definition of agnostics, ‘non-believers’, defining atheists as ‘firm non-believers’. Statistics Netherlands (CBS) uses other definitions, resulting in 33 percent atheists, 25 percent firm believers and 42 percent people that call themselves agnostic based on one of the four definitions offered (CBS, 2020). In other words, the ratios differ quite a bit depending on which definitions you use.
For the stories behind the data, Cursor spoke to Christians Meint Smit and Roeland Wildemans, Muslims Bashar Khosro and Faries Azmani, and atheist Lucas van Bentum.
Lucas van Bentum is an Electrical Engineering bachelor’s student and also studies Mathematics and Physics at ESoE. He is a firm atheist, despite having come from a religious family. “The father of my mother was a pastor. His wife was also religious, as was my father’s mother. My parents were not.” Even though Van Bentum is an atheist, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe in anything: “I think everyone believes in something as a matter of principle, but to me believing in God seems a bit strange.” Referring to the book Sapiens, he says: “All of the well-known religions were intended as a temporary way of uniting people to a cause. Now that we know better and can explain things we were unable to before, God doesn’t solve anything anymore.” Van Bentum would like to improve the world in his own way and thinks he can do so through politics. His first step in this direction was to join Groep-één. “I really believe democracy is a good idea.”
Bashar Khosro, student of Industrial Engineering (IE) and event manager at Islamic student association SA Salaam, and his fellow IE student and President of SA Salaam Faries Azmani, are Muslims. Azmani: “For me, my faith is a beacon and the ultimate goal in life. Without my faith, I wouldn’t know why to get out of bed in the morning. And in times of despair, it gives me something to hold onto, a beacon in the storm. It’s very important to me.”
Khosro feels the same way. “As you grow older and have more life experience, you start realizing how important your faith is. Even though I was brought up with the Islam, I am growing more and more confident that I would’ve chosen the same path if I’d had a different upbringing. It’s hard to imagine the whole thing isn’t true, the satisfaction and joy I get from practicing my faith tell me it is.”
Meint Smit, professor emeritus at Electrical Engineering, is a Christian and active member of a Reformed church. He’s done a lot of reading on the relationship between religion, science and society. When asked if a religious scientist practices science differently from a non-religious one, he gives a very nuanced answer: “It depends on the field, I think. My personal approach to society stems from my faith, and science is part of society. In society I see tension between ruling or controlling on the one hand, and serving on the other. In the Christian faith, the focus is on serving. But if you look at history, you’ll see that it is dominated by people that want to rule rather than serve, people who want to increase their power. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that throughout history, the desire for power has been the main driving force. You see this in ancient civilizations, but the desire for power still plays a big part in today’s society as well. Look at Putin and Xi Jinping. But we also observe this phenomenon closer to home. Managers of large companies or institutions may be a bit more subtle about it than their political counterparts, but with them the desire for wealth and power, the desire to be the greatest and make the greatest profits, plays an important part too.”
“Christianity brought about a revolution when it comes to our thoughts on power. It replaced power by love as the driving force behind human actions, and ruling by serving. Unfortunately, this revolution often didn’t make it past the theoretical stage and the desire for power kept playing an important role in practice. Apparently this is in our DNA and therefore hard to get rid of. Nonetheless, Christianity has had a major impact on Western thinking. This is the reason the world ‘power’ has gotten a negative connotation in our culture, for instance in the debate on undesirable behavior. In the Christian faith, leaders also have to serve and use their power in a different way.”
Roeland Wildemans is a PhD student at the DynamicsandControl groupof the department of Mechanical Engineering. Wildemans is religious, but prefers to explain his faith by way of his development. “I have an aversion to saying ‘I am a Christian’. Then you label yourself and you give people certain expectations, which generally means you don’t get very far in a conversation. That changes if I tell them about my background.” Wildemans was raised a Christian. “I do believe in God, even though I’m not entirely sure of who or what that is, nor of the consequences this ought to have for my life. I have plenty of outstanding questions on the subject and that’s okay. But I was raised in a Christian bubble and joined a Christian student association as a student. There we often studied the Bible, read books and had discussions to find knowledge. This confronts you with Christianity being broader than the bubble you grew up in. You discover there are disagreements, themes people have different opinions on.” This triggered Wildemans to read more, talk to friends and ask questions.
“One thing people said is that your personal relationship with God is very important in Christianity, that you discuss your personal problems with Him. But that’s really quite strange, because a personal relationship requires interaction. How do you interact with a deity? People answer this question by saying that you hear God’s voice when you pray and read the Bible. Is that interacting with God? Or are those your own thoughts and only what you think God is telling you? This kind of knocked my image of God out of whack,” Wildemans says. “As a result, I became less attached to going to church and reading the bible. But I never left the Christian faith. When I read about Jesus and how he stood up for the weak, that really inspires me. So I still carry with me all of the values in those Bible stories.”
We try to keep our science value free, but that’s very difficult and can even be harmful if you take it too far
Being religious and practicing science
Wildemans doesn’t see a problem in religion and science going hand in hand. “They both relate to a different domain. In science you draft a hypothesis, carry out empirical or other research and verify or falsify this, either supporting or rejecting your hypothesis. Science is very methodical. Faith is how you approach life. Evidence has got nothing to do with the latter. Take the question: ‘How do I see my fellow human?’ No matter who they are, everyone’s human and that means they have the same value as you or me. Even if someone has messed up their life, at the end of the day you’re both human beings and you’re both worth the same. And if you look at nature, we shouldn’t try to dominate or bring it under our control too much, but live with it and respect it. We shouldn’t be the ruler of our surroundings.” On these matters he clearly sees eye to eye with Smit.
When asked if science and religion go together, Smit doesn’t only say yes, but adds they are inseparable. He even wrote a book about this: Geloof in de toekomst (‘Faith in the future’). Smit: “We try to keep our science value free, but that’s very difficult and can even be harmful if you take it too far. If you look at economics, it’s very clear it’s not value free at all, for example if you consider that the main goal of an enterprise is to make a profit. Does a bakery aim to make a profit or aim to make bread? From a Christian point of view, the goal of an enterprise is to supply goods or services to society. Profit is only a means to an end. Most companies nowadays are all about increasing their value or efficiency, which causes a lot of misery. Take the information systems in healthcare or in many other large organizations. Everything there has to be painstakingly recorded and checked to increase efficiency. Such environments are ruled by the system, to the detriment of people’s freedom. This illustrates how business operations can veer off course when serving our fellow humans is subordinated to managing those operations.”
Science is very methodical. Faith is how you approach life. Evidence has got nothing to do with the latter
If faith has any bearing on the day-to-day work of a scientist is debatable, Azmani thinks. “I don’t think it matters much for your working methods. But when there’s an interesting scientific finding I will check the Koran if something is written about it there.”
“You could ask this same question to an atheist,” Khosro adds. “Everyone comes at things from their own angle, religious and non-religious people alike. But that doesn’t necessarily influence your research.”
Atheist Van Bentum is certain of one thing: “You can’t be a scientist without asking critical questions. Having said that, people are emotional beings so if religion makes you feel good, go for it. This doesn’t have to be a problem in science, as long as you keep asking those critical questions and stay away from things like creation, biomedical technology (BMT) or psychotherapy (PT). BMT is about biology, PT about consciousness, which are two things that religious people tend to have strong opinions about. It’s fine if you just concern yourself with hard science, like engineering or math. Religious people are subconsciously influenced by their beliefs, but so is everyone else. Being religious isn’t the biggest threat to scientific integrity.” So what is? According to Van Bentum, it’s “the lobbyists and the danger of money. If someone else pays your way through university, you will have to take them into account in some way or other, which means they have influence. If a poultry company funds a study into emissions, this is much more likely to cause a conflict of interest than religion.”
When there’s an interesting scientific finding I will check the Koran if something is written about it there
Religion and science definitely go together, the Muslims think. “Islam teaches us that acquiring knowledge and doing research is very important,” Azmani says. Khosro adds: “The Koran describes how Adam – meaning all people – was put on Earth to do right, to help the Earth become a better place. Not to destroy it. If science can make a contribution to a better world, that’s great. A lot of big names in Islam have contributed a lot to science. Examples include Muhammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (mathematician, father of algebra and the algorithm), Ibn Sina (medicine) and Ibn al-Haytham (camera obscura), but not a lot of attention is paid to them in the Netherlands.”
Nonetheless, Wildemans sometimes experiences friction between faith and science. “There’s this myth of manipulability, which says we humans can control anything. I’m a bit more skeptical about what human beings can do and think we tend to overestimate the potence of scientific results. Take climate change, which is a huge problem, where you often hear that ‘new technologies will help us make things more sustainable and then we’ll be out of the woods’. This is putting all your eggs in the basket of science. Of course we’re coming up with new things, but the past has made it clear these can also cause new problems. Shouldn’t we look into changing our behavior? We expect to be saved by technology, almost like a technological religion or technocracy. My religious background makes me a bit more skeptical about these expectations. But of course I’m not a better or worse scientist than a non-religious person.”
In his field of electrical engineering, Smit doesn’t think religious dilemmas are that likely. “I work on technology enabling broadband internet, on increasing the capacity of data connections. This technology is very relevant to society. If you look at the pandemic, without broadband internet all those people could not have continued to work from home (referring to online meetings, Ed.). But there are negative consequences as well, of course, such as abuse, internet fraud and pornography that get spread much easier and quicker. Children accessing inappropriate materials, conspiracy theories going around at lighting speed. But the alternative, no internet, isn’t an option either. Like a lot of other technologies, the internet can be used for both good and evil.”
Van Bentum is happy he is an atheist student. “It seems to me that studying is tougher when you’re a Christian. As an atheist, you learn that things are the way they are and not necessarily why they are like that. Christians learn the story of creation and have to unlearn certain things in school. That makes it more difficult to pursue knowledge, I would think. I am a blank slate and I assume anything can be explained, which of course is also a kind of faith.”
A lot of big names in Islam have contributed a lot to science, but not a lot of attention is paid to them in the Netherlands
Faith often goes hand in hand with certain routines or habits, such as praying. Smit doesn’t pray at set times. “I do think it’s important to pray before a meal because this acknowledges that our prosperity is not a given, but a token of God’s care for you. So as a rule I pray before a meal. But if I feel it’s uncalled for in a certain situation, for instance if it would require interrupting a group conversation, I sometimes skip it. This is different for Islam, which is more rigorous when it comes to praying at set times.” No fewer than five times a day, to be precise. The exact hours somewhat depend on the season. In winter it is often the case that three prayers have to be said during office hours. Azmani: “It’s important to pray on time if at all possible. I generally manage thanks to the fifteen-minute breaks between lectures.”
No shaking hands
When it comes to expressions of faith, the Muslims in the group turn out to be the ones whose days are most filled with religious discussions and activities. Whereas Christians are less bound to specific praying times, Muslims do have to observe these. But there are a number of other customs that stand out. Azmani: “When I entered here (the editing room, Ed.), I asked you not to shake my hand. That was a big step for me. It’s not meant to offend you, on the contrary: it’s meant to not discredit you, so it’s a sign of respect.” Khosro adds: “It’s a basic principle for us not to shake hands, a small step on a long path that should ultimately lead to a healthy relationship between man and wife. This takes a lot of work and that’s why you shouldn’t mingle too much. This may lead to casual relationships and breakups. That separation between men and women can also be seen at the mosque. A man must marry a woman and they have to stay strong in their relationship. If things get too liberal, temptations and bad influences are right around the corner. It would annoy me if I saw my wife having anything beyond a business-like conversation with another man. And I don’t think I’m the only one. Of course a woman is welcome to have an informal chat with people like her father, brother or uncle, but not with strangers.” I (the editor) say I can imagine this may cause problems in a country where shaking hands is the norm (or was the norm before the pandemic). Azmani: “I’ve never had any problems. At the same time I always try to explain to make my intentions clear and I put my hand on my heart as a sign of respect.”
On lunch breaks, Wildemans talks about various subjects, including religion. “Just the other day I talked about it over lunch with a non-religious but very interested colleague. We discussed what God is exactly and what the deal is with heaven. But I don’t do that with just anyone. You notice very early on if you connect with someone and share interests other than your field of research.” Smit doesn’t often talk to colleagues about religion. “We work in a fascinating field and we generally talk about that over lunch. And I used to be a supervisor, which makes me a bit more hesitant to professing my faith. I don’t want my arguments to be loaded.”
At uni the gentlemen of SA Salaam also regularly talk about religion. “To quite some Muslims of course, but also to non-Muslims,” Khosro says. Azmani: “They sometimes approach us with questions about our faith, so we try to answer those. But we also discuss amongst each other and we really don’t see eye to eye about everything. And Islam leaves room for this, as not all scholars agree on everything.” Khosro: “Using gelatin is a good example. To me that’s off limits. It’s an animal product and we can only eat products slaughtered according to the principles of halal. But gelatin is very altered, changed significantly after the animal was slaughtered. A large group of scholars say that when a product has been altered completely, it's not the same anymore and the rules may not apply. Other scholars don’t agree and look at the origin of the product. I prefer to play it safe and don’t buy anything containing gelatin. Faries does buy snacks with gelatin and he’s not the only one. One opinion isn’t better than the other, as long as you use religious sources supporting it.”
I think everyone believes in something as a matter of principle, but to me believing in God seems a bit strange
When it comes to education, Azmani thinks it’s important children and young people are offered a bit of everything: “Introduce them to both science and religion. I took biology and learned about evolutionary theory. I didn’t reject this as something to learn as part of biological theory. Although I don’t believe in it, it didn’t hold me back. I just learned it because I knew I needed it to get my diploma. But I don’t believe in it.”
Van Bentum doesn’t really talk about this subject with fellow students at his department. “EE is a fairly non-religious branch of science. But when I’m teaching it sometimes comes up. The other day I devoted a class to water. What’s special about it, that it enables us to live, that life originated on the bottom of the ocean, that the first live things were bacteria that used sulfur compounds for an energy source. But then a student said ‘that’s not right, we were created’. You can’t ignore a student like that, so I said: ‘No, in this physics class we believe in physics. Here we practice science and we can use that to prove that the Earth wasn’t created, but came into being because of physical processes.’ ”
Khosro: “Many concepts in science are theories. Science can’t prove there’s no God, which is interesting in itself. Also, for me science is lacking an emotional aspect. This is part of being human. What you feel in your heart you can’t ignore or explain with a simple one plus one. Khosro asserts there are still many uncertainties anyway: “The things we don’t know greatly outnumber the things we do know. And a lot of things are uncertain, as hypotheses can always be disproven.”
Van Bentum: “I won’t start believing in God unless his existence is proven, but would that really be ‘believing’? What’s most important to me, is that you’re allowed to believe whatever you want. Faith is something personal, but I don’t think it’s wise to use it to rule a society. And as a scientist you can believe too, as long as you remain critical and keep asking questions. God is difficult to quote and therefore difficult to incorporate into science.”
In the interest of readability, we’ve divided this item into a general story and two more specific foldout pieces. The latter contain a broader treatise on the history of religion and science and some opinions on evolutionary theory. If you find this interesting you can first read these or continue straight away under the blocks.
An open or a closed world view
“The problematic developments in the economy can be traced back to a derailment in science that took place in the Age of Enlightenment,” Smit says. “At that time you had different currents within science. Medieval science goes back to the ancient Greeks and was of a rationalistic nature. Reasonable thinking was the main source of knowledge and sensory perception was given little value. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, a shift occurred and scientists began to attach greater importance to observation, to empiricism. Well-known empiricist scientists are Newton, Boyle, Hooke and Pascal. Rationalist scientists such as Descartes and Leibniz held on to the primacy of reason.”
“Newton and Leibniz had an interesting discussion about gravity. Leibniz believed that forces could only be transmitted through physical impact or pressure. He regarded mutual attraction at a distance as occultism: for this it is necessary that bodies are aware of each other's proximity and that presupposes consciousness in dead matter, something he found unthinkable. Newton thought it was more important that an explanation fit the observation than that it fit the rational worldview, he had an open worldview that was not confined to the boundaries of what we consider reasonably explicable. The rationalists had a closed world view: they only accepted explanations that fit our brain. This attitude works well in mathematics: Descartes and Leibniz made important contributions to the development of mathematics. But it doesn't work well for the development of natural science because nature is often more complicated than we can imagine. Most early Enlightenment physicists were therefore empiricists, and many of them were convinced Christians. They made a connection between the appreciation of the facts in science and in faith, which is also not based on theological explanations but on the Biblical facts about the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The idea that faith has stood in the way of modern science is therefore incorrect: for the great scientists of the early Enlightenment, their faith had a stimulating effect on the development of modern natural science,” Smit explains.
“In the second half of the 18th century, when modern natural science became commonplace among scientists and wonder gradually disappeared, the open world view had to make way for a closed world view, in which there was only room for science as a source of knowledge. It led to problems in terms of values and standards, because science can tell us how things happen, but not how they are supposed to happen.”
Van Bentum is very down to earth regarding the stories in the religious books: “They are nice stories, but not true. Look at Noah's Ark, it never really existed. But it can still be nice to believe it has. My maternal grandmother passed away recently. I found that very hard. My grandmother as a person - her consciousness - was a combination of electrical signals in her brain. Her consciousness is now gone. But her influence on those around her and her story are still alive. And yes, it is also a nice thought for me that she is still watching over me. That is why I believe in it, even though as a scientist I know it is nonsense.”
When asked about the theory of evolution, Smit smiles. The classic question for this subject, of course. “I believe that the theory of evolution makes important contributions to understanding the history of the origin of the universe, of the earth and of life. But if you want to explain everything that exists on the basis of a model of evolution, you overestimate the possibilities of human thinking and you make the same mistake that led to the derailment of the Enlightenment. Based on the idea of the 'survival of the fittest', for example, the strongest people are most important for the development of humanity, support for the weak is counterproductive. In the 19th century there were therefore various theories that further elaborated this view, for example Social Darwinism. After the Holocaust, the supporters of such theories kept quiet for understandable reasons, but it was not because there is anything scientifically wrong with their theories. Attention to the weak in society is not something that science prescribes, on the contrary. It does play an important role in the Christian faith, but that is sidelined in a closed scientific world view.”
For Khosro and Azmani, the theory of evolution is unlikely to be true. Khosro: “The creation of man is fixed for us. God has done that with His Hands. There wasn't an ape who became human first, but certain pieces of the theory of evolution are in a gray area. That is, the Qur'an says nothing about it directly. However, Muslims believe that God allows creation with His Will. An example of something in that gray area: if you live in a certain area for a long time, small things about a person can change, such as skin color. For example, a white man who will live around the equator for a long time. After all, that is also a change, since the theory of evolution also speaks of gradual changes. But many things the theory of evolution cannot explain: why do we die? Because our body is 'exhausted'? Even if the heart suddenly stops in someone aged 35? Is the heart exhausted then already, without any disease history before? And what makes a cell alive? And how does consciousness enter the body? I miss those answers in science.”
Wildemans often hears the argument from non-Christians that Christians use their faith as a kind of 'God-of-the-holes theory', “to explain things they cannot explain. But that is not too sustainable, because what if those gaps are soon filled by science? Then that god gets smaller and smaller. I want to stay away from that perspective. My religious background helps me in how I approach life. And I think that every believer - but perhaps especially religious scientists - should watch out that faith is not given any certainty and that they remain open to new scientific findings that they first thought to be impossible. And with that I’d would say: also dare to adjust your image of God. I read a book with a group of friends about 'what if the theory of evolution is true' and whether we can still uphold our religious beliefs. That is an example in which we do not shy away from the debate in order to possibly adjust our own basic attitude if there is (scientific) reason to do so.”