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Anthropology and religion at the Vrije Universiteit – a short history

By Matthias Teeuwen

The Vrije Universiteit originally had a strong confessional commitment to the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and I have always wondered how anthropology meshed with this confessional background. I wondered particularly at the tensions inherent to  missionary work and anthropology. It turns out this confessional background has given anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit a history that is quite distinct from other anthropology departments in the Netherlands.

This building on De Lairessestraat housed the department till 1970.

Anthropology in the Netherlands, or at least its constitutive parts, can be traced back to the 1770s according to historian Han Vermeulen. In the nineteenth century there was an academic discipline called ‘comparative ethnology’ and there were applied regional studies which were part of the training for the colonial civil service. The first permanent chair in ethnography of Indonesia was established at Leiden University in 1877 but it would take another couple of decades before more general anthropology chairs and departments would appear in Amsterdam, Utrecht and Leiden.

After the Second World War and the independence of Indonesia, comparative ethnology became known as cultural anthropology and the various regional studies (such as Indology and Indies Law) collectively became known as sociology of non-Western societies (which later evolved further into what is now called ‘development sociology’). Both disciplines were combined into single departments in the newly emerging faculties of social sciences in the early 1960s. 

Louis Onvlee (1893 – 1986), first professor of cultural anthropology at the VU and previously a missionary and Bible translator.

Largely following the naming conventions and organisation practices of the time, the first chair in ‘comparative ethnology’ at the VU was established in 1956 and the first chair in ‘non-Western sociology’ was established in 1962.

Louis Onvlee, the first professor of cultural anthropology at the VU had a background in theology, worked for the Dutch Bible society and the mission society of the Reformed Churches, and had worked on a translation of the Bible into two Indonesian languages. His work on translating the Bible led him to write a series of reflections on cultural and moral relativism. In a memoir written upon his death in 1986 the author writes that because of his theological background he was able to ‘avoid an absolute cultural relativism which was influential in cultural anthropology in the 1950s’.[1]

Onvlee was also in charge of establishing a chair for ‘Non-Western Sociology’ and a chair for anthropology of religion. These were occupied by Pim Schoorl and Han Blauw respectively in the early ‘60s. Schoorl defined the task of Non-Western Sociology as addressing global inequality and underdevelopment. He saw the world as a global community (based on the theological concept ‘ecumene’) and he justified studying inequality and underdevelopment with the Gospel message to love thy (distant) neighbour (‘de “verre naaste” ondersteunen’). Blauw as well, saw increasing globalisation as an academic and religious challenge and organised his research accordingly. For years, the research at the department was organised along these topics – religion and development – with research on ritual and religious change in South Africa and Zimbabwe and on slums in Pakistan.

Pim Schoorl, first professor of ‘non-western sociology’ at the VU and previously Indologist at Leiden.

Later, during the student protests of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, anthropology students hardly played a part and anthropology professors in these years stood out for being some of the most vocal proponents of keeping things the way they were. Herman Schulte Nordholt, who had succeeded Onvlee as professor of cultural anthropology, argued for having fewer students in the faculty council because this led to stalemates between staff and students with regard to the appointment of new professors. And Blauw, the anthropologist of religion, was actively opposed to the appointment of professors that held membership to the Communist Party of the Netherlands, arguing that this ran counter to the values of the VU.

During the ‘80s, the confessional background of the university still played a role in the direction the research at the department took. The ministry of education had decided to concentrate anthropological research in Leiden with smaller, specialised nodes at the VU and the Catholic University of Nijmegen (now Radboud Universiteit), calling it ‘cooperation and task division’. The VU took on symbolic anthropology and development sociology and adopted a thematic focus on political, religious, and urban anthropology. This thematic focus fit in with the department’s longstanding principle of conducting value-driven research, as opposed to the more descriptive studies carried out in Leiden.

Photo of Han Blauw, professor of anthropology of religion and previously ordained minister at a reformed church and lecturer at a mission school.

However, in sharp contrast to a decade earlier when some anthropology professors took great issue with communism, this time value-driven research not only gave room to the gospel-inspired research projects mentioned above, but also to research inspired by socialist or Marxist theories. Case in point: Peter Geschiere, a major figure in political anthropology at the VU at the time, was one of the founding members of the Working group for Marxist Anthropology Amsterdam.

Through the ‘80s and ‘90s there was also a notable shift in students’ expectations. Whereas in the late ’60s and early ‘70s students still demanded value-driven studies that enabled a broad personal development, from the early ‘80s onward they were more concerned about getting a degree that afforded good opportunities on the job market.

With these changes in student expectations the confessional character of the VU had started to erode. Anthropology professor Hans Tennekes was, by his own reckoning, one of the few voices reflecting on what it meant to be both an anthropologist and a Christian and published two books about this in 1999 and 2001. André Droogers, who took up the chair in anthropology of religion after Matthieu Schoffeleers retired in 1988 (another ex-missionary turned anthropologist), had also taken up the question of faith and science but on a more methodological level, developing an alternative to methodological agnosticism.

An old photo of the sign at the entrance of the department showing who is in. You can make out the names of Peter Geschiere, Hans Tennekes, Herman Schulte Nordholt and Han Blauw.

Nowadays, the confessional identity of the VU seems to have eroded away completely. But I do wonder whether this heritage might ever be revisited to forge a distinct position with a specific research focus for anthropology at the VU. Perhaps, and some researchers have already started exploring this angle,[2] the historically rocky relationship between anthropology and theology may prove to be fertile ground for new ideas and methods.

Matthias Teeuwen is editor at Standplaats Wereld. He is interested in religion, science fiction and the history and theory of anthropology.


All pictures are courtesy of: Bibliotheek Vrije Universiteit, collectie HDC | protestants Erfgoed

Vermeulen, H. & J. Kommers (2002). Histories of Anthropology in The Netherlands. In Vermeulen & Kommers (eds), Tales from Academia: History of Anthropology in The Netherlands. Saarbrücken: Verlag für Entwicklungspolitik Saarbrücken GmbH.

Bak, P. (2013). Gedonder in de sociale: Vijftig jaar sociaal-culturele wetenschappen aan de Vrije Universiteit 1963-2013. Zoetermeer: Uitgeverij Meinema.

[1], accessed on 5 March 2020.

[2] See Joel Robbins’(2020) Theology and the Anthropology of Christian Life: Oxford University Press.

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