Netherlands is a democratic, constitutional monarchy in Western Europe, generally recognised as a liberal and progressive country.

Constitution and government

The constitution and other laws and policies protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of opinion and expression. These rights are generally upheld.

Education and children’s rights

The formal educational system is divided between public and so called  ‘special’ (“bijzondere”) schools. Both are funded by the state. Special schools may be based on a religious or a secular pedagogical system. Approximately two-thirds of all primary schools are special schools, most of which are mildly, inclusive religious schools. Special schools are allowed by law to refuse pupils and teachers on the basis of their lifestyle or belief-system and have the rights to be secretive about their financial situation and funding, however this applies both to religious and to secular-pedagogical special schools, and in practice only a small number of very orthodox religious schools use this measure. Schools may not discriminate in the employment of teachers.

In 2015, the Secretary of Education, Culture and Welfare further reformed the educational system, with the express intention of better adapting education to the contemporary, secular society of the Netherlands. As part of this process, various proposals have been made to make more room to incorporate the present and actual wishes of parents, as opposed to assuming classical religious divisions. In this light, a number of public initiatives have been taken to achieve acceptance of Humanism as a visible and important lifestance, and permitting state-funded “humanist schools” with public funding on a par with religious and other secular schools. In 2016 the first Humanist secondary school (MAVO) was opened in Amsterdam.

Humanists are permitted to, and do, provide humanist education in public primary schools. At present, the Dutch government is making policies for future funding, the result of which is still unknown.

Family, community and society

The government provides no direct financial support for religious or secular/philosophical (including Humanist organizations). But counsellors (both religious and humanists) in the army, the penal and health-system are equally financed by the government (in the army and penal system this funding is made on the basis of requests and needs).

There is a growing proportion of individuals that identify as non-religious, at present more than half of the Dutch population. However, government research initiatives are still failing to update social measures and classifications; for examples Christians are sometimes subdivided into Protestant and Catholic denominations, while the majority of non-religious citizens in the Netherlands are usually identified as ‘other’. The Dutch Humanist Association (Humanistisch Verbond) has requested an update of these research categories, in which the life’-stance and worldviews of the nonreligious are being taken more seriously.

Same-sex marriages have been legal in the Netherlands since 2001. It is guaranteed that in every town a same-sex marriage can be registered and civil servants may not refuse same-sex marriages.

Social pressure inside conservative religious groups — against for instance the rights of women, sexual minorities and more liberal religious views — is of ongoing concern.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Although the freedom of expression, thought and religion is guaranteed by law in the Netherlands, there is doubt concerning the reality of this individual freedom within mainly Muslim communities. The social and cultural pressure for those raised in a conservative religious family not to change religion or become non-religious can be high. This lack of ‘horizontal’ freedom (the freedom in relation to family, friends and neighborhood) remains a concern. Ex-Muslims often keep their views hidden from family and friends.

The Platform of New Freethinkers – an initiative of the Dutch Humanist Association, Humanistisch Verbond, mainly oriented towards ex-Muslims – reports a strong hesitance of new freethinkers to express their skeptical views publicly. A second group of New Freethinkers, also initiated by the Dutch Humanist Association, consists of refugees who fled their country because of their humanist or atheist life-stance. Some of them do speak out in the media and in documentaries.

People who ask for asylum because they have been threatened in relation to their atheism, agnosticism or secular activists critical of religion, often don’t feel safe in asylum centers where the majority of the population is Muslim. They are not always protected to show their life-stance: after complaints to personnel or police some of them have been advised to remain silent about what they do believe and don’t for safety reasons. The Dutch government does not have a clear policy for the protection of atheist asylum seekers and refugees in the centers.

The government has said it will promoe information about the rights of the non-religious, starting in December 2016.

Blasphemy abolished

As of 2014, the Dutch Penal Code no longer criminalizes “blasphemy”. Humanist and freedom of expression campaigners in the Netherlands do not, for the moment, foresee any further attempts to reintroduce anti-blasphemy laws.

It is a crime to engage in public speech that incites hatred against persons on the ground of their race, religion or non-religious belief, gender, sexual orientation and (dis)abilities. The Dutch Penal Code also penalizes defamation of groups because of their race, religion or conviction, sexual orientation and (dis)abilities. Neither of these laws prohibits criticism per se of persons, ideas or institutions and they do not constitute ‘blasphemy’-type restrictions.