Last Updated 30 November 2020

The Netherlands is a democratic, constitutional monarchy in Western Europe, generally recognised as a liberal country that formally has an even-handed policy towards religious and non-religious views. As of 2017, the largest belief group in the Netherlands were the non-religious, accounting for 50.7% of the population; a further 24% identified as Roman Catholic, 14.9% as Protestant, 5.1% as Muslim.1

Constitution and government

The Constitution of the Kingdom of the Netherlands2 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.

Article 6 of the Constitution states that “[e]veryone shall have the right to profess freely his religion or belief, either individually or in community with others, without prejudice to his responsibility under the law” providing for limitations of the right “by Act of Parliament for the protection of health, in the interest of traffic and to combat or prevent disorders.”

Article 1 includes explicit mention of ‘belief’ in its clause protecting citizens from discrimination stating: “All persons in the Netherlands shall be treated equally in equal circumstances. Discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, political opinion, race or sex or on any other grounds whatsoever shall not be permitted.”

Education and children’s rights

Article 23(3) of the Constitution states: “Education provided by public authorities shall be regulated by Act of Parliament, paying due respect to everyone’s religion or belief.”

The formal educational system is divided between public and so called ‘special’ (“bijzondere”) schools. Both are funded by the state (Article 23(7) of the Constitution). Special schools may be based on a religious worldview or a secular pedagogical system. Under Article 23(5) state-funded private schools are closely supervised and regulated by the government, stating that “[t]he standards required of schools financed either in part or in full from public funds shall be regulated by Act of Parliament, with due regard, in the case of private schools, to the freedom to provide education according to religious or other belief.”

Approximately two-thirds of all primary schools are ‘special’ schools, most of which are inclusive schools, where the ‘religious’ identity is more or less an historic relic. A minority are orthodox Christian, conservative-Islamic, strict-Hindu 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. Since 1 July 2015 the law no longer permits schools to discriminate in the employment of teachers. However the reality is that teachers may still be put under pressure to leave.

Following reforms to the education system, humanism is now recognised as a lifestance upon which a ‘special school’ can be based, such schools may receive structural finance from the state.3 Humanist primary and secondary schools now operate in Amsterdam.;

In February 2020 the Inspectorate of Education published a report on education relating to citizenship. It is mandatory for all schools in the Netherlands to teach pupils on the basic values of a democracy based on rule of law: equality and tolerance and rejecting discrimination. The report found that although the majority of schools pass the test for advocating these values, there is concern about a minority (schools based on a religious worldview and very homogenic white schools) that do not sufficiently promote them.5

In the countryside, due to shrinking population, many 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.

In September 2019, a joint investigation conducted by the Dutch TV programme Niewsuur and the newspaper NRC, found that around thirty informal Islamic (weekend) schools in the Netherlands were promoting intolerance among their pupils, teaching them to hate non-Muslims, non-strict Muslims and non-believers, as well as encouraging children to distance themselves from Dutch society, and to refuse and reject homosexuality. Earlier investigations also showed that these schools were either being financed by or had required funding from the Gulf;

Moreover, in 2019 an Orthodox-Jewish and a Hindu school were also criticised due to their teaching falling below national standards, particularly on subjects such as sexuality and other related;

These events have caused much debate in the Netherlands about the role of the state in ‘special schools’, leading to a renewed discussion of the law providing equal funding of special (religious) and public schools.

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).

In 2020, the Dutch Humanist Association carried out a comprehensive survey of non-believer’s set of values. According to the study, the dominant values shared by respondents are freedom, equality and family.8

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’. In 2019, the Dutch Humanist Association, Humanistisch Verbond, successfully sought an update of these research categories, in which the lifestance and worldviews of the non-religious are taken more seriously.

In recent years, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has prioritized the freedom of religion or belief in its human rights policy, while omitting non-religious views. At the time of writing (October 2019), the coalition party D66 is initiating an operating policy to explicitly protect the rights of the oppressed non-religious people. The SOP furthermore provides that a Dutch representative should be present in legal proceedings against the Dutch non-believers abroad.


Social pressure inside conservative religious groups — against for instance the rights of women, sexual minorities and more liberal religious views — is of ongoing and growing 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.9

In 2019, anti-abortions activists consistently organized demonstrations in front of abortion clinics, showing aggressive behaviour towards women. Due to the intensity of the protests, the Dutch Health Minister Hugo de Jonge decided to support municipalities in creating buffer zones for protesters around the; The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a further obstacle to women’s access to abortion, as few were able to physically get to an abortion clinic.11

Moreover, in 2019 the political leader of the Reformed Political Party in the Netherlands also signed the so-called ‘Nashville Statement’ This document provides a Christian orthodox-conservative stance on marriage and sexuality, women rights, the position of a man in society, speaking out against LGBT+ issues and ‘sexual impurity’. The Statement was supported by a group of 250 Christian leaders, pastors and scholars, as well as members of the Dutch public. In reaction to the Nashville Statement, the Dutch Humanist Association initiated the ‘Love Statement’ which was signed by 54,000 people and presented to the chair of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science at the Dutch

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.

Ex-Muslims from home and abroad

In 2016, the Dutch Humanist Association created the New Freethinkers platform, which aims to provide assistance to individuals who have left religion. It is mainly oriented towards ex-Muslims. The platform reports hesitance amongst Ex-Muslims to express their sceptical views of their former religion publicly or to publicly announce their atheism. This is especially true among Ex-Muslims who were born and raised in the Netherlands, while ex-Muslims with a refugee background are more likely to live openly as humanist or atheists, having already chosen to move abroad precisely because of their humanist or atheist lifestance, whereas in their home country they risked discrimination, physical threats of violence, prosecution or persecution. People who apply for asylum are all housed in asylum seeker centres in the Netherlands. This includes asylum seekers who applied for asylum in relation to their atheism, agnosticism, secular activism or criticism of religion. Such asylum seekers often don’t feel safe in these asylum seekers centres where the majority of the population is Muslim. When lodging a complaint, some have been advised by official police personnel to remain silent about their beliefs for safety

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 the life of nonbelievers on the run in asylum centres. 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

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.

In 2018, the Dutch Ministry of Safety and Justice researched, in the Netherlands and other European countries, the assessments methods used to authenticate the narratives used by asylum seekers who claimed to be persecuted or who feared persecution for changing or abandoning their religion. ​On the basis of this research, and also thanks to the inputs of the Dutch Humanist Association, the Immigration and Naturalisation Service adjusted its refugee status determination method: in fact, while in the past the latter mainly considered cases of conversion to another religion, it now also includes more substantive and procedural perspectives for apostasy or conversion to atheism.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

In the Netherlands, freedom of expression covers both thought and religion, and is guaranteed by constitutional law.


The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching consequences for Dutch society in general. There has been a growing tension between the Government imposing strict COVID-19 measures to battle the pandemic on the one hand and protection of human rights on the other. Emergency measures16 implemented by the government in March sparked concern regarding the protection of privacy in homes; limitations to religious freedom; impacts on the right to education via the closure of schools; as well as general restrictions on freedom of movement.17 The outbreak of COVID-19 has also affected the judicial system since courts closed down and hence court proceedings postponed.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19, Humanistisch Verbond challenged the governments discriminatory decision to grant certain religious groups exemption from limits on gatherings.18

Further, the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security took the decision to suspend the entire asylum procedure and thereby failed the protection of asylum seekers and refugees.19



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