Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 1998

Tony Akkermans describes the post-war enlightenment in his native country.

The Netherlands’ Road to Humanism

by Tony Akkermans

Holland, it must be said, was a late developer in the field of freethought. But as is often the case with late developers they make up for lost ground.

Until the 1950s there was a strong resemblance to the current state in Northern Ireland. When I grew up in post-war Holland the enlightenment that had swept the outer reaches of intelligent life had passed us by. Mediaeval forces still held our village in an iron grip. The population was divided into two religious camps, dictated to by ministers and priests who moved amongst us like Gods and who controlled all facets of their half of village life from the comfort of their sumptuous vicarages and fiery pulpits.

Protestant churches, Catholic churches, Protestant schools, Catholic schools, Protestant clubs, Catholic clubs, Protestant political parties, Catholic political parties. Get the picture? An all-pervading iron curtain of religious segregation. The only time we schoolboys spoke to members of the other camp was when insults were exchanged. The only physical contact was punches thrown in sectarian battles.

Then something marvellous happened. Politicians with more imagination than Thatcher, Major or Blair said enough is enough. In my village, denominational schools were closed and replaced with a single, modern, ‘neutral’ school where all the children went and where parents congregated too. Soon it was recognised that the perceived differences were really no differences at all but the imagined differences resulting from centuries of clerical manipulation.

This process was repeated all over the country. The pooling of resources and the replacement of dogma by open enquiry and free discussion have had a dramatic effect on the Netherlands’ well-being. Standards of education have risen sharply and are now amongst the highest in the world. Religious strife is a thing of the past.

Both churches in our village have closed down. They are doing sterling work as lookout posts for crows and as lightning deflectors for the surrounding houses. A new tennis club has opened up. In days gone by it would have had a religious label. Now people just want to play tennis.

The Dutch Humanist Association has considerable status. The prime minister and half the cabinet attended its 40th anniversary celebrations. There are Humanist counsellors in prisons, hospitals and the armed forces. Voluntary euthanasia is widely available. There is no unnecessary censorship. Schoolgirl pregnancies are the lowest in Europe. Sixty percent of the population now say that they have no religion. All this momentous change in just four decades.

I think sometimes that Britain’s problem has been that in the last century or so there has been insufficient oppression. Nothing much to protest against. Plus a reluctance to discuss religion and expose its weaknesses. The Dutch are famous for their outspokenness. No taboo topics there of sex, politics and religion. I have a private theory that religion was brought low by birthday parties and anniversaries. The Dutch are great family gatherers and they love to have a good debate. Add the magic ingredient of a good education and religion does not stand a chance.

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Created : Sunday, 1998-05-10 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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