Gerko Tempelman attended the Vrije Universiteit to get a degree in theology, but lost his faith along the way. “In a very short amount of time, I went from being absolutely certain to being in absolute doubt. After a year I was completely lost.”
You went to study theology, but lost your faith while doing so. How did that happen?
“I was raised in a christian reformed family. When I was younger, practicing my faith only felt natural. I’d go to church twice on Sundays; on weekdays I’d attend catechism classes and I was a member of a christian reformed youth organisation. I was thinking of eventually becoming a minister and decided to get a degree in theology.”
“While I was in university, I heard things that didn’t correspond with what I believed in. Certain elements in the Bible turned out to have different meanings than I had initially thought. That really shocked me. I felt so stupid. I kept asking myself why I had interpreted those texts in a certain way. The more I studied, the more I thought to myself: I really don’t have a clue. And that’s when I realized I had a problem,” he says with a smile on his face.
How did your christian reformed surroundings react to your religious doubts?
“The responses were varied. My parents were very supportive of me and my journey, but at the same time they suggested that I should maybe join a reformed fraternity. It was far from easy. My marriage nearly ended over it. My wife and I realised that, if we wanted to continue being together, we needed to at least look at our own beliefs critically. Eventually, our love for each other turned out to be greater than the differences within our faith.”
“I think that philosophers in one way or another fill up the void that was left behind by religions.”
You wrote a book about your religious journey, ‘Incurably religious’. In it, you explain how people with questions about their religion approach you to see if you could be of any help. Doesn’t that make you a modern-day minister, in some way?
“You might be right about that. I’m focusing on many different religion-related topics and I have discussions with people that you would usually associate with a minister. I’m just not getting paid as well.” He laughs and then continues: “A lot of people are into meaningfulness and spirituality. ‘Do I have a purpose in life?’ ‘Does my life entail more than just my own existence?’ Those are the type of questions that people ask me.”
To what extent do you think philosophy can replace religion?
“When I’m teaching philosophy classes, I ask people what philosophy means to them in one word. Every time, about half of the group will say ‘meaningfulness’. I think that philosophers in one way or another fill up the void that was left behind by religions.”
You’ve pointed out that you suffer from restlessness when it comes to religion. Do you think it will stay that way?
“Yes. Restlessness sounds as if it’s some sort of fate I want to get rid of, but that isn’t the case at all. It still fascinates me to this day and I haven’t become any less interested. My christian reformed background essentially gave me two options: either I would bravely continue believing or I would make a clean break with christianity. Many people who choose that last option somehow become resentful towards their former religion. I didn’t want that for myself. I wanted to find a place for myself between those two options.”
Do you not want to make a ‘decision’ at some point?
“I don’t feel the need to choose either one direction. The christian faith fascinates me so much that I can’t pull myself away from it. I don’t call myself an atheist, either. That would somehow suggest that I’ve made my decision. If someone would ask me whether I consider myself religious these days, I’d say ‘most of the time’.”
“I think that, if this scenario ever presents itself, I’d be able to justify why I haven’t been able to figure things out fully.”
“However, my religious journey has become more pressing since I’ve become a father. I sometimes ask myself how I’ll be reading stories from the Bible some time from now. Do I believe in the historical factuality of Jonah and the whale or do I just think of it as a beautiful tale? Will we raise him with the conviction that God exists or not? I haven’t fully made my mind up yet.”
Still, you never flat-out say: ‘I don’t believe in God.’ Is that rooted in fear somehow?
“No. I don’t think that not believing is somehow punishable. I think that, if this scenario ever presents itself, I’d be able to justify why I haven’t been able to figure things out fully. I do know a lot of other people struggle with this, though. They seem pretty sure of the fact that they’re no longer religious, but don’t dare to say it out loud because they’re still afraid of ending up in hell. For those people, I wish they’d lose their religion. Just loses it entirely. I know from experience that this subsequently leaves a lot of room for religion.”
So you’ll continue to be incurably religious?
Gerko bursts out laughing: “I think that’s my fate.”