Boris Van Der Ham is a Board Member of Humanists International. Here we talk about his story, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?
Boris Van Der Ham: I was born in Amsterdam and raised in the countryside. My mother was a nurse. My father was a teacher at the Free University of Amsterdam. My parents were raised very religiously, but they left religion. My sister and I were raised in a humanistic way. It was strict. In that, you should keep your promises and act responsible, but without dogmas that excludes people.
Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?
Van Der Ham: I studied history at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences before being admitted to Maastricht Academy of Dramatic Arts. After graduation, I worked as an actor for various theatre groups. At the same time, I was a member of the Young Democrats from age 15; and from 1998 to 2000, I was its national chairman. In 2002, I was elected to the National Parliament of the Netherlands. All of those experiences had an impact on me. By reading old and new thinkers, watching theatre, and meeting a lot of people, I have learned a lot about ‘being human’. I am still learning. To me: art is the mirror of humanity. By watching it, you know: we are not alone in our struggles.
Jacobsen: When look at the ways in which European humanism differs from North American, African, and other forms of humanism, what seems the same, and what seems different?
Van Der Ham: Humanism in Northwestern Europe is different from other parts of the world. A majority of the people are non-religious, so there is less to fight for here. Laws are, in general, not excluding the non-religious. In some countries, like the Netherlands, Belgium, and Norway, humanists are even part of the official acknowledged ‘beliefs. In the Netherlands, there are humanist counsellors in hospitals, jails, and the army. In the annual Freedom of Thought report, Belgium, and the Netherlands are the top 2 of most ‘free’ countries for the non-religious. That’s the biggest difference between other parts of Europe and the rest of the world. Maybe, there is also a bit of a culture of evenhandedness in Western European and Scandinavian countries. Instead of polarizing, there is a culture of negotiation and institutional inclusiveness.
But there are problems too. Yes, the government and the law system are good, but the informal freedom is sometimes quite different. If you are raised in an Orthodox Christian or Muslim family, you want to make another choice than your family. To be a humanist, for example, some of them face huge social pressure. Last year, I co-wrote a book on ex-Muslims in the Netherlands. We got a lot of response to it. Another thing that worries me. Because there are no official threats to humanism in West-European countries; this comfortable position is taken for granted by many. But freedom never comes and stays by itself. I think we have the obligation to use our good position to spread our views and give humanism more depth.
Jacobsen: You are on the Board of Humanists International. What is the organization? What tasks and responsibilities come with the role?
Van Der Ham: Humanists International is the worldwide umbrella organization of all Humanists, and other freethinking people around the globe. It’s important to meet each other. Learn from other regions in the world and help each other. The annual Freedom of Thought report is made by Humanists International and is acknowledged by the United Nations as one of the core sources on the position of the non-religious in the world. In 12 countries, it’s still a capital crime to leave your religion, and in many more its criminal to criticize religion. Humanists International is the only global organization to address this. We do this at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, but also at the United Nationals in New York in the United States. It’s tough work, because the very conservative Christian and Islamic governments, international organizations of evangelicals, are very vocal. Our voice is essential to counter that.
Jacobsen: You have an extensive history with humanist organizations. Why this professional trajectory for you? Does a public profile come with this? If so, what is the sensibility of dealing with the media and the internal community in a respectful and diplomatic manner?
Van Der Ham: Freedom requires association. Without small and large clubs, individuals are lost against the counterparts that will organize against those freedoms. That is why I have been a ‘member’ of many organizations from an early age. Only with united forces can you fight for ideals that ultimately strengthen individual freedom. I am a public figure in The Netherlands. It’s important to be visible in the public debate. Show not only the things that you are against, but also what you favour, I also think that it’s important for humanists to be ‘happy’ Humanists. What does inspire us? What can inspire other people? On www.freethoughvlog.com, I have tried to do my part in this. It’s also important to pick your battles to be effective., and show that humanism is not the underdog, but can actually lead us into a nicer world.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?
Van Der Ham: All Humanists organizations around the globe need people to do things. So, search for your local humanist organization or create one yourself. And yes, Humanists International is an organization that needs donors. You can be an individual member or donor and contribute to our international work. Just go to our website: https://humanists.international/get-involved/?lang=nl.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Boris.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.
Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.
Image Credit: Marc Deurlo.