English review - Celebrate Togetherness
For the occasion of the debate on national religious holidays, one of the LUX theatres was turned into a courtroom. The audience stood as Judge Liesbeth Jansen strode in. This evening she was presiding over the case of Hanneke versus the Government. Hanneke no longer wanted to be forced to have two days off at work on Christmas. The majority of Dutch people no longer practises the Christian faith. Why not get rid of these religious holidays and have a national holiday at Midsummer and Labour day?
To decide this complex case, the court called on two expert witnesses, both researchers at Radboud University. Paul Vermeer is Associate Professor in Empirical and Practical Religious Studies. He does empirical and theoretical research into religious and social studies in Dutch education. Peter Nissen is Professor of Spirituality Studies in the department of comparative religion at Radboud University. He studies current and historical diversity in Christianity. He is also a minister in the liberal Protestant church of the Remonstrants.
The Prosecution: Let’s Celebrate Together
Paul Vermeer agreed with Hanneke that the government should not decide which religious holidays are national holidays. Whether an employee has time off at Christmas is a matter of collective agreements. There is no need for the government to acknowledge religious holidays. In fact, it would be better if the government did not. It is the people themselves who should decide whether and how to celebrate a religious holiday. Also, just having Christian holidays is not fair on the growing number of people who are of adifferent faith. This unfairness stands in the way of improving a general sense of community spirit and belonging together, according to Vermeer. Christianity no longer determines our society. Let’s make room for other religious holidays like the Sugar Feast. Allow people to arrange this themselves, in collective agreements and without interference of the government. Instead, let’s have national celebrations like King’s day and Independence day. Or perhaps organise something around soccer. It is all about unity. We should have national holidays for joint celebrations, to feel we belong together.
The Defence: Let’s Share Our Stories
Peter Nissen took the opposite view. He argued that you cannot build community spirit on the heterogenous beliefs of people. Particularly since the majority of Dutch citizens does no longer regard itself as Christian. Under such circumstances, no religious holiday is going to build community spirit. If we want to increase unity, we should invest in what binds us. Our culture. Our history. Our stories. These are the foundations, the “underwear”, as the interviewer said, of our society in the preceding radio interview on NPO1. People need to know where our traditions come from. With Christianity that means 15 centuries of national history, with most of the internal differences now forgotten. We should tell these stories and add one, like the Islam, and tell them to each other. Join each other’s celebrations. That will bind us. Not just in the Netherlands but globally. Christmas is celebrated across the world.
At this point, Judge Liesbeth Jansen graciously allowed the jury, the audience, to ask the two experts a few questions. One question was whether Ascension Day could not be traded for the Sugar Feast. Paul Vermeer disagreed because the government should not appoint any religious holiday and that includes the Sugar Feast. Also, once you acknowledge an Islamic religious holiday, why not have a Buddhist one? Or a Hindu one? There is no end to such a discussion. People should decide for themselves whether to celebrate any religious holiday. Peter Nissen replied that he would prefer to trade Whit Monday as this was more of an administrative holiday, whereas Ascension Day is alive with religious meaning. In fact, he had suggested this himself some years ago in a national newspaper, but unfortunately the ensuing debate became very unpleasant. There was general agreement from the audience that a new ‘Blackface’ discussion should be avoided at all costs.
Does the separation of Church and State not entail that the government should never have proclaimed religious holidays as national holidays? Paul Vermeer agreed wholeheartedly. It is not the government’s business. Peter Nissen took a different view. He agreed with Paul Vermeer that whether a religious holiday is a day off work, should be left to collective agreements. But when the government publishes the list of national holidays, it merely confirms what is already agreed upon in society at large. Currently, these are the religious holidays as we know them today. In the next decennium, as Islam is replacing Christianity as the minority religion, the Sugar Feast will probably be proclaimed a national holiday, and that is also fine.
The Summing Up
Both experts had two minutes to summarize their position. Paul Vermeer argued that the government should stop playing favourites with Christian religious holidays and should institute national holidays that we can all celebrate together. Peter Nissen broke a lance for experiencing togetherness by telling each other stories, so we may understand where our culture came from and so that we can weave in new stories.
The jury was asked to come to a verdict and express this by hand raising. Judge Liesbeth Jansen pronounced the verdict. Religious holidays stay. This year at least.
This report was written by Inge Wertwijn, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.