The Netherlands is a democratic, constitutional monarchy in Western Europe, generally recognised as a liberal country that formally has an evenhanded policy towards religious and non-religious views.

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.

In the constitution of 1982 the equal treatment of religion and non-religious beliefs (life-stance or “philosophy of life”) is made explicit. In public debate, however, reference to ‘freedom of religion’ is more common than reference to the equal freedom of non-religious beliefs.

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. A minority are orthodox Christian, or more conservative Islamic or Jewish schools. In the past these schools were allowed by law to refuse pupils and teachers on the basis of their lifestyle and beliefs and to be secretive about their financial situation and funding. However, this applies equally to religious and to secular-pedagogical special schools, and in practice only a small number of very orthodox religious schools used this measures. Since 1st of July 2015 the law no longer permits schools to discriminate in the employment of teachers.

In 2015, the Secretary of Education further reformed the educational system, with the 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. In 2014 humanism was recognised by the state as a lifestance upon which a special school can be based. In 2016 the first Humanist secondary school was opened in Amsterdam.

Humanists are permitted to, and do, provide humanist education in public primary schools. In 2016 Dutch parliament voted for structural finance of both humanist and religious education. In 2017 the Dutch Senate voted for structural finance as well.

Humanist or religious education are not automatically provided for; Parents have to ask the school to provide for it.

In the countryside, due to shrinking population, lots of schools – both public and religious schools – have to close their doors or merge. Due to the mergers of public and religious schools, the availability of pure public, non-religious education is at risk in these areas.

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 example, 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 lifestance and worldviews of the nonreligious are being taken more seriously. These suggested changes have not been implemented.

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. Humanists are now lobbying for equal treatment for alternative parenting, and equal inheritance tax for alternative family forms and for single persons.

Social pressure inside conservative religious groups — against for instance the rights of women, sexual minorities and more liberal religious views — is of ongoing concern. The new coalition government of the Netherlands, in which an orthodox-protestant party is represented, has frozen new policies considering reproductive rights for women.

In 2018, the Dutch Humanist Association successfully lobbied against granting government subsidies to Siriz, an anti-abortion organization that supports women who face unwanted pregnancies.

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 the small orthodox Christian minorities and within Muslim communities. The social and cultural pressure for those raised in a conservative religious family not to change or ‘lose’ religion 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, friends and the wider community.

The Platform of New Freethinkers– an initiative of the Dutch Humanist Association – is mainly oriented towards ex-Muslims and 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 they were discriminated against or confronted with threats, violence or persecution because  of their humanist or atheist life-stance.

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. The Dutch Humanist Association and the Humanist Broadcasting Corporation HUMAN made a documentary about life of nonbelievers on the run in asylum centers. They report receiving insufficient support from the Dutch authorities in free exercise of their non-religious worldview. Some of them have been advised to remain silent about what they do or don’t believe for safety reasons after they made complaints to personnel or the police. The Dutch government does not have a clear policy for the protection of atheist and other secular asylum seekers in the centers.

In 2015, the government urged asylum centers to familiarize all new asylum seekers with human rights, among which is the right to freedom of religion or belief. The Dutch Humanist Association has lobbied to make sure the information provided expressly includes the right to hold a humanist, atheist or secular life-stance, and produced a digital brochure ‘Free not to believe’ in eleven languages, which explains the rights of the non-religious. The information campaign was due to begin at the end of 2016. In 2018, information about the campaign was uploaded on a website for both personnel and asylum-seekers to see and although only partially, some asylum centers discussed it. The Dutch Humanist Association continues to advocate for the topic of freedom of religion and belief, including the right not to believe, to be discussed with everyone entering the Netherlands.

The association has also offered to train personnel working for asylum centers and to organize information meetings for refugees to discuss religion and belief. Although the government has formally accepted the Dutch Humanist Association’s proposal to provide training and information, due to organizational issues, implementation has currently been postponed.

The Dutch Ministry of Safety and Justice conducted an investigation on the methods used in the Netherlands and other European countries to assess the authenticity of claims made by asylum-seekers regarding being prosecuted or fearing prosecution for changing or abandoning their religion. IND, the Immigratie-en Naturalisatiedienst, has published its investigation method, which thanks to the input of the Dutch Humanist Association, now includes claims of apostasy. According to the association, this method focuses too much on conversion to another religion rather than conversion to atheism. More emphasis should be put on investigating the reason behind someone’s decision to abandon religion altogether.

In recent years, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has prioritized the freedom of religion or belief in its human rights policy. Unfortunately, many of the concrete provisions of this policy pay close attention to freedom of religion but omit non-religious views.

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.