HELL in Amsterdam

HELL are Humanists Enjoying Living Life; we are an art appreciation group and we recently visited Amsterdam. It seems we were expected for outside Amsterdam central Station standing aloof from the crowds was a man in black bearing a placard which warned: HELL is coming!

Unfortunately there was no camera to record the moment.

For Humanist art lovers Amsterdam has to be a form of heaven. Usually when we visit galleries displaying historic art we will be surrounded by religious imagery produced when wealthy churches were the piper calling the tune. In the Netherlands religion is refreshingly almost completely absent from art galleries, leaving the human to be celebrated.

The formation of a Dutch Republic following defeat of the Spanish, together with their growing domination of world trade ensured artists were commissioned by wealthy entrepreneurs and civic groups such as the Military Company of District II so famously painted by Rembrandt. Known as the Night Watch this painting now hangs in pride of place in the recently refurbished Rijksmuseum and is constantly surrounded by crowds of admiring viewers. The seventeenth century is rightly celebrated as the Golden Age of Dutch art when the focus was on the human and particularly the everyday domestic life of Dutch people as depicted by Hals, Rembrandt, Stein, Ruisdale, Vermeer and many others.


Our happy problem was the embarrassment of riches all within a few minutes walk of the comfortable Hotel Aalders, as was the Concertgebrouw and some members of the group were able to get tickets to hear their highly regarded orchestra perform. Others opted for a late night at a jazz club to hear the Rugile Band. Bike and canal tours and a visit to Delft by various members ensured we avoided overdosing on art and enjoyed a wide range of local attractions, some outdoors in sunshine amidst spring flowers.
Second to art must be our love of food and we found some excellent restaurants nearby each evening, culminating in an Indonesian Rijsttafel consisting of 14 delicious dishes served with rice, unsurprisingly we declined a desert.

When we travel afield we like to meet with local Humanists and so we had arranged to meet with members of Humanistisch Verbond. We were invited to the three storey national headquarters they are currently renting which proudly bears their logo human.nl. We met with their General Manager, Christa Compas and Wilma Reindeer who co-ordinated our visit. We were joined by a few local members, one of their Humanist Counsellors and a student from the north on his way to a Daniel Dennett lecture in The Haig. The Dutch Humanists were as keen to learn about us as we were curious to know what this leading Humanist organisation is doing. I briefly described the development and current work of HSS while Jackie Grant spoke about the role of Celebrants and Les Reid covered the many activities of the Edinburgh Group.

It is impossible not to be impressed with the breadth of activity undertaken by this founding Humanist organisation which was involved in calling that first international Humanist conference in 1952 along with the British and American Ethical Unions, where Humanism with a capital H was born. The largest groups participating were Dutch and Indian. The resulting Amsterdam Declaration laid the foundations for an international Humanist organisation as well as encouraging the development of many national Humanist organisations such as the British Humanist Association in 1967 and the Humanist Society of Scotland in 1989.

Now there is a Humanist Alliance in the Netherlands covering 48 separate Humanist organisations with a total membership over 13,000 and including the University of Humanistic Studies in Utretch, the Humanist Broadcasting Foundation and Humanist Education Foundation as well as 35 local groups which also run Humanist Cafes; they present a humanitarian award and biannual Socrates Lectures. Youth work and their input to schools is very important and they have recently commissioned the development of Humanopoly, a gigantic floor version of the famous game tailored to pose ethical dilemmas for the players. Dutch Humanists seek to lead thinking on ethical issues and promote the Humanist vision for a just society. World Humanism Day on 21st June is a widely celebrated festival.

Humanistisch Verbond support 200 counsellors who are graduates of their Humanist University and provide ‘spiritual’ support to people in hospitals, residential homes, prisons and the armed services. This came about because of a legal requirement for the state to provide such services that was usually undertaken by religious bodies. The Humanist Counsellors, who are employed by the institutions they serve, also provide support to staff in those institutions and can contribute to ethical debates. Humanist Officiants assist with funerals and weddings and they also provide ceremonies for the adoption of children and to mark the ‘conclusion of a contract of cohabitation’ (as do some churches here).

All in all it was an inspiring and very enjoyable few days and the question now is where do we go next year? How about joining us – we have a lot of fun in HELL – all year round.

Joan Gibson March 2016


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