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Vrijzinnigheid: Post-War Humanism in Flanders

Niels De Nutte


This article offers an overview of organised humanism in Flanders and follows its development in the period after the Second World War. However, before delving further into this subject, we should clarify certain characteristics of the region. Flanders is the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium; a country with three official languages: Dutch, French and German. The Flemish are the Dutch-speaking inhabitants of Belgium, who live in the regions of Flanders and Brussels and, as such, constitute a separate entity: the Flemish Community. Since Belgium was founded in 1830, the Dutch-speaking community has fought for its language to be treated equally to French. This has been an arduous process: for instance, universities only ‘evolved’ to speaking Dutch between 1930 and 1970. In the patchwork that is the Belgian political system, the Flemish Community has only become a legal entity since the state reforms in 1970. These state reforms put an end to Belgium as a unitary state by offering greater autonomy to regions and communities. The national administrative structures would remain in place, but slowly lose authority. Since then, the Belgian state has gone through several state reforms which have been characterised by ever progressive federalisation.1

Flanders, and Belgium by extension, is also a region where the concept of pillarisation plays a key role in its history. This pillarisation involves various clusters of organisations (such as political parties, trade unions, health services and educational institutions) which belong to the same family when it comes to politics and life stance. Within these clusters (the pillars), people are affiliated with different organisations or make use of their services. People can thus be guided, as it were, from the cradle to the grave. The largest, and only really fully fledged pillar in Flanders, is the Catholic one. The two other pillarised groups, namely socialists and liberals, do not carry the same weight. Firstly, they do not have a super structure based on ideology or life stance.

Secondly, they are hampered by socio-economic limitations. And thirdly, both pillars miss the geographical spread we see with their catholic counterpart. Whereas the socialist pillar is able to rely on strong concentrations in older cities, the liberal pillar is spread across several smaller core areas.

Even though there is considerable Belgian literature on freethinking and humanism, only a few studies have been published that focus purely on Flanders.2 The studies that do exist are often institutional in nature or are unpublished master’s theses. Since 1996, people have been able to refer to the standard work by Els Witte and Jeffrey Tyssens, De vrijzinnige traditie in België: van getolereerde tegencultuur tot erkende levensbeschouwing [The Freethinking Tradition in Belgium: From Tolerated Anti- Culture To Recognised Life Stance], for the history of humanism in Belgium. For Flanders, a recent work entitled Op zoek ... De evolutie van het vrijzinnig humanisme in Vlaanderen sinds de Tweede Wereldoorlog [The search ... The evolution of secular humanism in Flanders since the Second World War], edited by Gily Coene, Jimmy Koppen and Frank Scheelings, can help to further clarify the history of organised Flemish post-war humanism.

Use of the term humanism is not self-evident in Flanders. Although the Humanist Association of Flanders was already represented in the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) (which was renamed Humanists International in 2019) since its beginning in 1952, members and sympathisers of the association and its subsidiaries and affiliates do not simply call themselves humanists. Historically speaking, Flanders refers to these people as “vrijzinnigen”.3 “Vrijzinnig” is synonymous with the French word “laïque”, in the sense that “someone or something is not a member of an instituted religion”.4 The term “vrijzinnig” also pre-dates the foundation of the Flemish Humanist Association and appeared in the Belgian written press as early as the nineteenth century.5 It is a term however, that we are unable to fully translate. Semantically it seems to originate from the German word “freisinnig”. As in its Dutch and German meaning, “vrijzinnig” denotes anyone who is liberal and progressive. Belgians however, add a layer of anti-clericalism, rejection of revealed religion, and adogmatism to this meaning, which is not necessarily part of our Dutch neighbours’ connotation. Any association of the term with a religious dimension, which is common in the Netherlands, is considered by Flemish “vrijzinnigen” as a contradictio in terminis.6

Today, followers and representatives of organised humanism in Flanders describe themselves as “vrijzinnig humanist”. This does not alter the fact that Flanders is certainly influenced by the emergence of modern humanism in Anglo-American countries and the Netherlands. That affinity was, certainly in the beginning, not shared in Wallonia, which is the southern region of Belgium. As a result, Flanders and Wallonia followed very different paths as far as organised freethinking and humanism are concerned in the second half of the twentieth century. These major differences also explain why this book addresses each region separately. Keeping in mind the above nuances, going forward we use secular when referring to “vrijzinnig” and secular humanism when referring to “vrijzinnig humanisme”.


Freethinkers and Seculars

Belgium was characterised by two major political movements in the first few decades following its foundation in 1830. The Catholics were counterbalanced by the liberals, who propagated freedom of conscience and promoted a total state-church separation, meaning a life stance-neutral state and the secularisation of public life.7 This constellation took shape from the late 1830s, when Belgian bishops officially proclaimed the incompatibility of Catholicism and freemasonry.8 Until then, the majority of freemasons, most of whom were deists, had abided by ecclesiastical customs.9 This contrast between Catholic and non-confessional would later become an important point of conflict in Belgian political history. That is why secularism in Belgium, as part of Belgian freethinking, is about as old as the state itself.10 This is the context in which several of the first freethinking movements came to life in Belgium. In 1854, l’Affranchissement was founded, followed by Les Solidaires in 1857, Les Libres Penseurs in 1862, La Libre Pensée in 1863 and, a year later, La Ligue des Enseignements. These movements were part of the first generation of organised freethinking, as outlined in this books’ introduction.

These collectives, which maintained relations with Belgian freemasonry, would have a strong influence on the political agenda of the liberal and socialist political parties until the interwar period.11 They committed themselves to a number of topics that were later seen as secular accomplishments or, more than a hundred years later, are still issues on the secular humanist agenda.12 This involved offering moral support without clerical interference, advocacy of civil funerals and cremations, celebration of ceremonies without a priest being present and promotion of the official education system.13 This polarisation between Catholics and liberals resulted in Belgian freethinkers adopting an anti-clerical character.

The rejection of priests had become a duty in all circumstances, and this was not open to discussion. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, freethinkers organised ceremonies as an alternative to the ceremonies performed by clerics. The freethought movement gained a community-building character by organising these ceremonies. Nevertheless, the first freethinkers’ ceremonies were still somewhat linked, in opposition, to the Catholic tradition. The Feest van de Vrijzinnige Jeugd (Celebration of the Secular Youth) – the rite of passage welcoming 12-year-olds as members of the community – was still called the “social communion”, “communion laïc” or “civil baptism”.14


The Interbellum: the transition?15

The interbellum period is particularly interesting when trying to better understand the evolution to organised secular humanism in Flanders. The evolution in this period is not given the attention it deserves, which means the founding of the Humanist Association after the Second World War is given insufficient context. Few words were often used to explain that the Humanistisch Verbond (Humanist Association – HV) – the first and also one of the biggest secular humanist organisations in Flanders – was established in 1951 under the influence of the Netherlands, where a humanist association had already existed since 1946. Although there is a definite link between the two, this narrative fails to take sufficient account of developments in the interbellum, which point more towards a continuous evolution. And although the institutional frameworks changed, it would be an exaggeration to speak of a shift between old, anti-clerical freethinking and the new post-war humanism, which focuses on assimilation and a desire to live side by side with other life stances.

After the introduction of universal single suffrage, one man one vote, in 1919, men and women were allowed to vote at municipal level for the first time in 1921. This restructuring of the voting system had huge consequences for the Belgian political climate. The two parties that traditionally defended their secular and anti- clerical party lines, namely the liberals and socialists, would do much less of this from now on. The Belgische Werkliedenpartij (Belgian Workers’ Party – BWP) sought ways to reach the religious Flemish workers, while the liberals tried to expand their electorate towards more affluent social-cultural Catholics, i.e. those who still believe in God but take part in church traditions more out of habit and for good measure.

In the meantime, anti-clericalism was being cast in the public opinion as ‘outdated and sterile’, and political parties were less inclined to include secular connotations in their programmes and policies as a result. It cannot be denied that (Flemish) secularism went through a crisis during the interbellum. The activities and political actions of seculars mainly took place in the background. However, freethought organisations did not lose their spirit during this crisis period. With renewed enthusiasm, albeit not as politically anchored or efficient as before, the traditionally secular strongholds in major cities managed to weather these unfavourable conditions. But this was not always the case for smaller cities and municipalities. The Humanist Association was by no means founded in a vacuum in 1951.

Continuity can be witnessed by comparing the activities of freethinkers’ associations with those of later secular humanist organisations. Antwerp-based freethinkers’ association De Solidairen, for example, had been organising secular coming-of-age ceremonies called “Feest van de Vrijzinnige Jeugd” since the 1880s, an initiative that was also picked up in Ghent in 1887. The ceremony in Ghent was an annual tradition until the First World War; in Antwerp until the Second World War.16 In addition, the associations dedicated a lot of effort to what we know today as moral counselling, for instance in hospitals.17 This service was a priority issue of the post-war secular humanist movement. The freethought organisations are not a fully French-speaking initiative during the interbellum. They are supported by an active group of Dutch-speaking people from the lower middle-class and upper working class.18 This group pursued the ideals of both social and life stance emancipation. For many years after the war, the freethought movements ran parallel to the secular humanist organisations. Whereas the ‘younger brother’ would grow to become the humanist sphere as we know it today, the ‘older brother’ would quietly recede into the background until finally fading away in around 1970. It is no coincidence that the new humanist movement had its roots in Antwerp. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the centre of gravity for freethinkers shifted from Ghent to Antwerp.


The Humanist Association in 1951: anchor of a new movement

The founding of the Humanist Association in Flanders is often linked to the triumvirate of Robert Dille (1914-1995), Karel Cuypers (1902-1986) and Lucien De Coninck (1909-1988).19 Indeed, they each played an important role in the growth and consolidation of the HV and Flemish post-war secular humanism. When the HV was established on the 1st of December 1951, Dille had already known Garmt Stuiveling (1907-1985), the vice-chairman of the Dutch Humanist Association, for many years through his brother.20 In fact, Stuiveling was a good friend of the Dille family.21 According to stories, Dille wrote to several people in the Antwerp- Brussels-Ghent axis, with the Dutch Humanist Association’s knowledge, asking to set up a Flemish branch. It was later decided that a separate organisation would be preferable.22 Although not incorrect, this story is incomplete. Jan Fransen’s work on this subject helps clarify this for us.23 Besides Dille, several other Flemings were also members of the Dutch Humanist Association. One of them was writer Gerard Walschap (1898-1989), who made a – failed – attempt in 1948 to set up a Flemish branch.24 The foundation of the HV in Belgium was not at the behest of its Dutch counterpart. Indeed, the Dutch were astonished to discover that a Humanist Association had been set up in Flanders. ‘While we are trying to establish contacts with American and British organisations, what happens right next door should not escape our attention’. 25

Three masonic lodges (Marnix van Sint Aldegonde, De Zwijger and Balder) became meeting places where Flemish secular humanists would convene to establish the HV.26 De Zwijger played a pioneering role and created ‘the social basis for the foundation of the Humanist Association’.27 The HV was founded on the idea of being a practical, profane and apolitical branch of the Flemish freemasonry.28 Lucien De Coninck had already spent years promoting the ‘need for the expansion of freethinking in Flanders and the inclusion of Flemish people for whom French is an obstacle’.29 In the late 1950s, Dille sought contact with members of the three lodges, with whom he had an initial meeting on 12th of April 1951. The profile of the twelve people who attended is remarkable and typical of the character and course of organised Flemish secular humanism. All twelve attendees had a higher education diploma and ten of them worked in the field of education.30 Teachers would continue to be well represented in Flemish secular circles.

The masonic roots of the HV can, for example, be witnessed in its statutes. The Flemish HV did not take a firm stance on the existence of a personal God.31 This stance appears strange, considering Belgian freethinkers are highly anti-clerical. At the start of the 1950s, however, the existence of a supreme being was discussed at great length in masonic circles, resulting in the HV not taking a position in this regard.32 Besides creating a profane section of the masonic world, the HV was founded on the basis of a future-driven zest for action after the end of the Second World War. Positive belief in the capabilities of mankind, which was so inherent to the modern humanist movement of that era, was linked to the fear that hard-earned freedoms could be reversed after the war in the traditionally Catholic Flanders region.33 This sentiment had a profound effect on the foundation when the Christelijke Volkspartij (Catholic party – CVP/PSC) achieved an absolute majority after the Royal Question of 1950.

Rather than becoming anti-clerical, the HV turned into an irreligious organisation where the social dimension and cultural emancipation – away from Christian customs – became secondary to individual growth. Greater emphasis would now be placed on individualism and intellectualism. Karel Cuypers explained this in 1961 by saying that Flemish people do not discuss matters of religion. From this viewpoint, someone is either a Catholic or on all levels a humanist. A so-called liberated person has no need for a surrogate religion or surrogate politics.34 This explains the apolitical stance of the Humanist Association. The founders regarded humanists in Flanders as individual thinkers; an approach with a striking resemblance to that of freemasonry. That is why the HV was founded to also allow the non-religious to expand their convictions. The founders had no intention of acting as a pressure group or being a membership movement, which it would later become and help realise the legalisation of many social issues. The statutes of 1951 also say that the HV aims for equal treatment for all people, irrespective of their life stance or worldview. In essence, this means the Humanist Association fights for the rights of non-believers and the non- religious in every sense.


The 1950s: the first decade of a new experiment

In the first decade of its existence, organised secular humanism in Flanders had to compete with social structures that, in post-war Belgium, strongly identified with Christian morality. Flemish freethinking thus continued to identify itself with non-religious people and against the Catholic church. Many traditional local branches were formed as a result and the board sought the spotlight in subjects that were crucial to the development of organised humanism in Flanders, such as the acquisition of dedicated media channels, moral guidance, education and the creation of a youth section.

In 1950, Belgium experienced one of its most turbulent years because of the Royal Question. The question involved the Belgian King, Leopold III, who, unlike his government, elected to remain in Belgium during the Second World War. He expected Germany to win the war, or at least expected a compromise to be reached with the Allied Nations. He believed Belgium should remain neutral. After the war, his function as king became untenable for the government and the left- wing (resistance) portion of the Belgian population. In 1950, CVP-PSC forced a referendum to decide whether Leopold could return as Belgian head of state. More than 57 % of the Belgian population voted in favour of his return. In Flanders 72 % was in favour, while Wallonia opposed his return. There was a clear regional split.35

After the Royal Question, the CVP-PSC achieved an absolute majority in parliament and the party would consistently gain between 52 and 60 percent of seats in the years that followed. Flanders of the fifties thus had a distinctive Catholic character, where the pre-war situation regarding life stances simply continued.36 The Churchs’ regulations determined the daily life of large sections of society. This was the peak of pillarisation. The statutes of the Algemeen Christelijk Werknemersverbond (Flemish Christian Trade Union – ACW) stated that

‘the Catholic religious truth gives meaning to life. It applies always and everywhere’ ... ‘A modern world that ignores this purpose through materialism, hedonism, massification, industrialisation and mechanisation, must be re-Christianised’.37

Christian youth movements were based on similar lines and served as an ethical model for life. In this society, 60 % of the population was practising Catholic, 90 % took part in the rituals and 10 % was of another faith. Modernisation of values was haltered by the homogeneous catholic climate and the mobilisation during the School War and the Royal Question.

The establishment of the HV in 1951 was the first sign of a renaissance for non- religious organisations in post-war Belgium. The modern secular humanism that emerged in Flanders was adogmatic and did not strive for synthesis or consensus, but its lectures and activities emphasised individual free discussion and development of personal thought.38 The subordinate position in which the humanist movement found itself in Flanders meant that secular humanists, much more so than their French-speaking counterparts, were forced to organise themselves. The perception of a homogeneous Catholic Flanders was only being countered by the long non- confessional tradition of cities such as Antwerp and Ghent.


The first local branches

After its conception in 1951, the HV aimed to grow by creating local branches.39 The three founders travelled across the region in search of para-humanist organisations that could join the HV. This attempt to persuade existing organisations to join came to nothing, although some (like the Willemsfonds and Vermeylenfonds) would later become affiliated to the humanist movement. The HV had greater success setting up local branches. In the period between 1952 and 1960, ten branches are set up successively in Ghent, Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, Leuven, Blankenberge, Mechelen, Ostend, Boom and Hasselt.40 By 1958, membership grew close to 1.500.41 Maintaining that level would soon become a problem, as demonstrated by the letters of Lucien De Coninck. The relatively low number of members gave opponents an argument that still resonates today. The HV and organised secular humanism were regarded as not being representative of the entire non-religious community; a criticism that was and is regularly heard.

The activities of local branches were in keeping with the individualistic-intellectual approach included in the statutes. Lectures and explanations mainly focused on encouraging open dialogue without synthesis. That is how Flemish humanists differed significantly from most Anglo-American and Dutch organisations. They tended to place much greater emphasis on creating a sense of belonging in a group by imitating church activities in other formats: Sunday morning assemblies and choirs, certainly in an Anglo-American context, were more common. These practices still exist today in Ethical Societies.42 The contrasting individualism of the Flemish humanists could also be derived from the local title. They call them branches, whereas Dutch and Anglo-American humanists use the terms communities and societies.43


Secular humanists and media

Radio and magazines were the mainstream media channels in Flanders during the 1950s. Television was slow – by international standards – to establish a foothold. In 1953, 0.07 % of the Belgian population owned a television set; this was 2.1 % in 1957 and 6.7 % in 1960.44 Opinion-formers regarded television and radio, but also magazines, as major weapons and believed it was very important for ideologically oriented movements to have their own media channels.45 This meant the written media was deeply pillarised.46 Catholics, liberals, socialists and a few smaller groups each had their own media channels to ensure the loyalty of their readers and shield them from other opinions. From 1953 until 1959, the HV published a magazine entitled Diogenes.47 The aim of this periodical was to project the voice of international humanists in Flanders. Another magazine, Pro en Contra, was issued by youth branches that would be formed as of 1953. Besides listening to the views of international humanists, the Belgische Vereniging voor Seksuele Voorlichting (Belgian Association for Sexual Education) was given a voice and the magazine took a stance against colonialism.48 The third magazine to appear in 1955 was called de Moralist, which was a professional magazine for ethics teachers.49

After the Second World war, the Nationaal Instituut voor de Radio-omroep (National Institute for Radio Broadcasting – NIR) decided to allocate broadcasting time to freethinkers four times a year. The first (radio) broadcast about humanism, entitled ‘modern humanism’, was written by Robert Dille and was aired on 28 March 1951. The text was only broadcast after heavy editing by the then deputy director- general for Dutch-language programming, Raymond Brulez (1895-1972).50 The ministry wanted the NIR to ‘ensure that broadcasts in no way hurt people of other faiths in their views or religious beliefs’. This was not always self-evident, as became apparent when a listener was offended because ‘humanists do not seem to believe in the personal existence of the devil’.51 Censorship lurked around every corner. The NIR and its successor, the Belgische Radio- en Televisieomroep (Belgian Radio and Television – BRT), were often criticised by secular humanists for being biased towards Catholicism. Although this criticism was not entirely unjustified, it did not apply to the censorship of broadcasts per se. Secular humanists often become worse through self-censorship. It is sometimes alleged that, in a period where Catholic censors only deleted what offended them personally, secular humanists deleted everything any other person might take offence to.52

The relationship between the humanist movement and Flemish (Belgian) institutions for radio and television has not always been plain sailing, to put it mildly. After the HV was set up, the NIR established a Commissie voor Lekenmoraal en Filosofie (Commission for Laic Morality and Philosophy).53 Karel Cuypers was appointed secretary of this commission.54 Fortnightly broadcasting started in October 1955 and, from 1958, changed to 30 minutes a week. However, this increase in airtime did not improve the relationship with the NIR. In 1956, a live radio programme of the humanist youth movement called ‘Flanders, CVP state’ was interrupted and replaced by Ave Maria. But the humanists did get their own programme in 1958. The broadcast was not yet very professional, considering the NIR itself was still in its infancy. Broadcasting time and studios were made available. The organisations were responsible for their own programming details and staff, which was no easy feat for unsubsidised secular humanist organisations. They often had to rely on casual staff.

The broadcasts resulted in quite a lot of correspondence, ranging from profanity about viewpoints to general questions. Karel Cuypers put a great deal of effort in providing answers and actually converted some of the contributions into radio texts. The correspondence revealed broad support for humanist topics and discussions. This led to a magazine entitled Het Vrije Woord being established in 1956, which still exists today. The original magazine included radio programmes, text and commentaries.


Counselling and welfare

Besides media, the HV also wanted to play a role in guiding the non-religious. The concept of moral counselling (then known as laic counselling) was devised by Jaap van Praag, chairman of the Humanist Association in the Netherlands. He described it as follows: ‘Mental care is the sanctioned systematic intervention with man during his mental difficulties, the goal of which is to activate the strengths that enable him to independently uphold a life stance, thus allowing him to be engaged with his full self in the totality of his balance of existence’.55 Since the very outset, the HV in Flanders has tried to have counsellors appointed in the armed forced. Similar attempts have been made successfully for prisons and the healthcare sector. The latter was even included in the statutes of 1951. As of 1959 the HV organised an annual course for counsellors called Leergang voor geestelijke consulenten.56 A work group named Praktisch Humanisme was set up in Antwerp and another, Humanitas, in Brussels, where volunteers welcomed and supported people in their moral and other needs.57 As said, this work was voluntary, without any financial backing. On 16 December 1958, Humanitas became a non-profit association and took up a nationwide commitment.58 The evolution from a working group to a non-profit association was fairly common in organised Belgian secular humanism. Working groups with a specific focus often emerged from within the HV, and later from other organisations. Due to the specificity of Belgian law, such working groups had to operate as independent non-profit associations at some point in order to be eligible for subsidy. This system was very similar to the pillar-based system and often presented organisational challenges for the emerging secular humanist organisations. It quickly resulted in a whole heap of small organisations.


Young secular humanists

Good training and education had been core values ever since the HV was founded. This idea stemmed from both the modern humanist viewpoint and from the context of masonic creation. Nevertheless, it was not easy to set up secular youth organisations because the ‘market’ was already saturated.59 In a pillarised context, Catholic organisations had the lion’s share, besides smaller movements of liberal and socialist persuasion. The Catholic pillar is particularly well represented in groups like the Scout Movement.

The first step towards an independent youth association was made in Ghent in 1953.60 The Ghent chapter of the HV set up a new branch called the Humanistisch Jeugdverbond (Humanist Youth Association – HJV). At the time, the HJV was not yet a youth movement. It focused on both youths and students, which is not surprising in a university city like Ghent. However, it was quickly transformed into the Humanist Student Association. The organisation then set up local branches in Antwerp, Mechelen and Brussels. Together, the branches formed the Humanistische Jeugdbeweging (Humanist Youth Movement – HJB) in 1956. This is when a real youth movement emerged. The organisation was aimed at secondary school students, especially students of ethics. In 1958, the HJB became the only mixed national youth movement that (in its own words) ‘is not led by adults’ and is politically independent. The first humanist youth organisation was a precursor of what would become known as the Provo movement in the 1960s. It was a progressive group with the characteristics of critical youth, whose aim was to be free of old norms and deep-rooted values. Koppen and Scheelings say these types of youth groups gained in importance during the course of the Fifties and Sixties. Their socio-critical discourse made them modern and non-conforming, and they differed radically from regular youth movements of the time.61


Non-confessional education

Education has always been one of the pillars on which Flemish secularism has focused. Traditionally speaking, Flanders, and by extension Belgium, is a region with a deeply embedded Catholic education system. The first state schools were founded in 1777 by Maria Theresia of Austria.62 Since then, the ideological control of education in Belgium has been a recurring point of debate. In the nineteenth century and during the interbellum, tensions between Catholics, on one side, and liberals and socialists, on the other, lead to heated clashes. After the Second World War, there were renewed confrontations after a period of relative calm. In Belgian historiography, these confrontations are referred to as the Second School War (the first dating back to 1878-1884). The full discussion about this conflict is beyond the scope of this chapter. However, to summarise, the Catholic government of 1950-1954 unilaterally pushed through its programme, while the socialist-liberal government of 1954-1958 – with the in Belgium fiercely contested minister of education Leo Collard – taking measures that provoked the Catholic pillar to campaign against the official education system, ‘for a clean soul for children’.63

In today’s official education system in Flanders – Gemeenschapsonderwijs (community education – GO!) and in urban, municipal and provincial schools, the subject of non-confessional ethics is offered next to other subjects involving recognised life stances.64 Ethics as a subject has been around since the late nineteenth century; other subjects on morality have been around longer. However, the ethics course of the late 1870s period was not the same as today: the confessional aspect was still deeply embedded in its program. The ten commandments were seen to reflect universally applicable morality.65 The subject of civil ethics, which was introduced in 1924 via the Destrée Act, came much closer to the later non-confessional approach.

The official education system in Belgium experienced incredible growth between 1945 and 1950. Official schools had higher student density than Catholic schools. In response to this evolution, the subject non-confessional ethics was introduced into federal education in 1948 via the Buset-De Schrijver Act, as an equal alternative to religion. The subject was also offered in primary schools after the school war was settled by the School Pact in 1958.66 Initially, the ministry of public education appointed one inspector per language region. They had the difficult task of finding and motivating ethics teachers, as well as setting up the relevant training programmes.67 To offer an insight into the task at hand: in 1951-1952 the subject was taken by 13,775 Flemish students; in 1957-1958, this number had risen to 20,950.68 On Saturday afternoons, the Flemish inspector would organise exchange sessions for teachers, which in 1952 resulted in the foundation of the Werkgemeenschap voor Leraars Ethiek (Working Community for Ethics Teachers – WLE) as a work group within the HV. As of 1955, it was linked to the publication of a magazine called De Moralist. There was a clear connection between non-confessional ethics teachers and the HV. Manuals were written based on what was written in De Moralist and Het Vrije Woord.69


1960-1980: the years without subsidies

In the two decades that followed, the membership increased slowly, but a number of important evolutions also took place.70 For instance, following the example of Dutch humanism, the decision was made to adopt so-called practical humanism. In addition, an umbrella association was set up to unite the rapidly growing number of associations – each with their own purpose – and serve as the voice for all Flemish humanists. Finally, Flemish humanism manifested itself as an advocate for rights concerning progressive themes like sexual education and abortion.

During the 1960s, and certainly the early 1970s, the climate for the various life stances changed rapidly in Belgium. Autonomy, individual development and personal freedom continued to develop at an ever-increasing tempo. The Catholic pillar became increasingly populated by people who had lost their direct affiliation with the Catholic church. There was a decrease in the number of people called to their vocations and, although members still took part in the main rites, like marriages and communions, there was a general trend towards socio-cultural Christianity. This can be described as Christianity by habit, where content has become less important and only the custom still counts.71 The population was no longer addressed via a ‘vertical message’. During this period, there was a transition from ethical sobriety towards ethical consumption. This created a conflict between what Flemish people possessed (for example, a television or car) and the Christian doctrine, which preached sobriety and did not allow people to enjoy their possessions.72

The importance of the custom was still reflected by strong participation in the Catholic pillar. Due to the political constellation, organised Flemish and Belgian secular humanism remained outside party structures and organised its own humanist associations. Nonetheless, it continued to recruit from the traditionally limited circles of intellectual groups. Most irreligious people appeared to have little need for separate structures and organisation, meaning that membership of secular movements consistently remained relatively low. In 1998, a questionnaire showed that only 1.1 % of Belgians were members of a secular association; this was estimated to be around 2 % in 2006. However, in the same period, 14 % of the population was regarded as secular humanist.73


Practical humanism

In 1961, several attempts are made in Antwerp to thoroughly re-profile the HV. Het Humanistisch Manifest (Humanist Manifest) was then published, where the authors called for positive and widely supported secular humanism, with particular attention to societal concerns.74 Although this new approach would be fruitful, it was initially blocked by the national board.75 The situation had changed in the run-up to 1970, and the board shifted focus to what is referred to as practical humanism. Lessons in non-confessional ethics, national broadcasting time and the organisation of alternative activities for non-religious and fringe-religious people sparked an increase in the membership of secular humanist associations. Practical secular humanism, which emerged at that time, would gain the same footing as the expansion of moral services for non-religious groups. Moral service was used as a collective term for all moral support activities and all meaningful activities that benefited and supported the secular community from a humanist emancipatory perspective.76 These initiatives included setting up organisations like the Oudervereniging voor de Moraal (Parents' Association for Morality – OVM) in 1961, the Stichting voor Morele Bijstand aan Gevangenen (Foundation for Moral Support to Prisoners – SMBG) in 1964 and the Stichting voor Morele Lekenbijstand (Foundation for Moral Laic Support) in 1970.77

Besides establishing specific organisations, practical secular humanism also involved ceremonial events: the naming ceremony, the coming-of-age ceremony for 7-year-olds, the Celebration of the Secular Youth, the secular wedding ceremonies and secular humanist funeral rites. Coming-of-age ceremonies and Celebrations of the Secular Youth, in particular, were commonplace in many local branches during the 1960s.78 But the concept had been around for much longer. In addition to providing moral assistance to non-religious people, organised secular humanism now tentatively committed itself to gaining recognition as a life stance, a goal that would only be officially achieved in 2002. Until that time, this pursuit and moral counselling would characterise the relationship between Flemish organised secularism and the Dutch approach of humanist community formation.


An umbrella organisation and its member associations

After a previously failed launch in 1966, secular humanism in Flanders would fall under the umbrella of the Unie Vrijzinnige Verenigingen (Union of Secular Associations – UVV) as of 1971.79 This non-profit association was established in response to the prevailing need to centralise existing secular humanist organisations and sympathisers of that time.80 The UVV allowed organised secular humanism to finally claim and promote legitimate representativeness, something that would certainly be useful in its relations with, for example, BRT. In 1975, the guest programmes about secular humanism were being given airtime by this broadcaster, on average, once every fortnight, or once a week in the best-case scenario.81 The assimilation method and orientation based on the Dutch model was thus taken a step further. With the foundation of the Centrale Vrijzinnige Raad (Central Secular Council – CVR) in 1972, the Flemish and French-speaking humanist organisations created a common body that could enter into dialogue with the political establishment.82

After it was founded, the UVV became responsible for everything pertaining to the support of secular humanism and the organisations, and for the expansion of the moral services for the non-confessional life stance.83 The HV, by contrast, said its objective was to use science to be a guiding factor in ethical views, the main aim of which was to unite Flemish seculars in their diversity.84

The 1970s saw secular humanist organisations in Flanders undergo massive change due to socio-cultural upheaval. This could primarily be attributed to the so-called Culture Pact. This agreement was established to involve the various ideological and philosophical views in Flemish cultural policy. The government’s aim was to have an overview of the organisations in Flanders, which often had their own affiliation or life stance identity. The Culture Pact would be supplemented with decrees concerning associations, institutions, amateur arts and political training institutes (1972-1985).85 Under the influence of these measures, secular humanists on the Flemish side were divided according their basic activities. The HV and the OVM had no other choice but to hand over their training work to the Humanistisch Vrijzinnig Vormingswerk (Humanist Secular Training Work – HVV) organisation, with radio and television activities being moved to the Humanistisch Instituut voor Massamedia (Humanist Institute for Mass Media – HIMM).86 In the early 1980s, the Union of Secular Associations already had 24 member associations.87


Humanist advocacy

As touched upon earlier, secular humanist organisations were often busy advocating progressive themes (of that time). During the 1960s and 1970s, for example, secular humanist associations played a role in topical themes like the emancipation of women, the sexual revolution and the decriminalisation of abortion.88 In 1962, a new book by sexologist Van Ussel (1918-1976), Jeugd voor de muur, was presented on Good Friday.89 A scandal immediately ensued: both the Belgian public broadcasting service and the written press condemned the action.90 The influence of secular humanist organisations on these three topics – and also on other liberal themes – cannot be underestimated but should certainly not be over-hyped either. Topics like transsexualism, alternative living arrangements, unmarried motherhood, procreation and sexuality were prominent talking points from the early 1960s onwards. Many leading figures within the secular humanist movement not only used words to plead their case, but also joined other liberal, and more militant, factions. These prominent people within the movement thus created a network of organisations that challenged Catholic morality. They also, for instance, played a key role in setting up secular humanist family planning centres.91 The contribution of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and the University of Ghent (UGent) should also not be underestimated in this network. The VUB was founded in 1969 and opened the Centrum voor de studie van de Verlichting (Centre for Enlightenment Studies) three years later in 1972. At the UGent, the course in ethical sciences started in 1963.92 Within these contexts, several young humanist academics, such as Leo Apostel, Jaap Kruithof, Jos Van Ussel, Etienne Vermeersch, Els Witte and Else Walravens, would stand up and play crucial roles in substantively expanding secular humanism in Belgium and beyond.

The process that resulted in abortion legislation was an excellent example of networking. In Flanders, this took place from 1970 until the law came into force in 1990. The subject of abortion could be cautiously discussed from the early 1970s, something that cannot be said for euthanasia considering the connotation with Nazism, which was still very relevant at the time.93 Secular humanist politicians like Willy Calewaert (1916-1993) and Karel Poma (1920-2014) placed the topic at the top of the political agenda and Dr Willy Peers (1924-1984) became one of the most recognised practical advocates of the issue.94 Irrespective of these personalities, the humanist movement mainly helped via ideological and practical contributions. Freedom of personal choice was demanded based on the right to self-determination and quality of life. Women, and by extension humankind, have the right to self- determination and individual freedom of choice, secular humanists argued.


After 1980: the road to recognition and bearing fruit

Starting in the 1970s, organised secular humanism made serious efforts to become a recognised life stance, a goal that was gradually realised between 1980 and 2002. World views are formally recognised by the state in Belgium, and their ministers – priests, imams, secular counsellors – receive payment from the government. Today, there are seven recognised life stances. The Roman-Catholic (1831), the Anglican (1835), the Protestant-Evangelical (1876), the Israelite (1908), the Islamic (1974), the orthodox (1985) and the non-confessional life stance (2002). A procedure for the recognition of Buddhism has been going on for 10 years with still no end in sight.95

The secular humanists’ desire for recognition would follow an elaborate path. Even though Flemish municipalities were allowed to award voluntary subsidies to secular humanist organisations before the 1980s, the first Flanders-wide subsidy was only awarded in 1980. The Union of Secular Associations received 10 million Belgian Francs and was subsequently given a modest annual subsidy to expand its services. In 1981, the Union of Secular Associations recruited its first administrative clerk and a prospector, whose task was to pave the way for counsellors.96 The first professional moral counsellors – voluntary counsellors had already been active for quite a few years, which later resulted in inevitable tensions – were recruited in 1983.97 A major step forward was taken in 1993, when an addition to Article 117 of the Constitution stipulated that “religious ministers” in the non-confessional life stances – as secular humanism is legally referred to in Belgium – would be paid by the state.98 The term used by the legislator, namely ‘non-confessional’, basically covered a very wide scope. The French version of secular, “laic”, was not used for fear of ambiguity in interpretation, which could possibly lead to extra subsidies for Catholics.99

Still in 1993, the Raad voor Inspectie & Begeleiding niet-confessionele Zedenleer (the Council for Inspection & Guidance of non-confessional Ethics – RIBZ) became a recognised interlocutor of the Flemish government and decrees were voted regarding counsellors in the armed forces.100 Organised secular humanism in Flanders also made great progress in expanding its moral services during this period. Besides specific services in healthcare, the army and, to a lesser extent, in other sectors, local Centra voor Morele Dienstverlening (Centres for Moral Service, today called HuisvandeMens) were also set up. They have a professional team that supports local secular centres and participates in the social field in a supervisory capacity. Since the mid-1980s, these Centres, together with a number of other secular humanist organisations, have also been added to the social map of Flanders, which offers an overview of all Flemish welfare organisations.101 It took until 2002 for secular humanism to be officially recognised as a life stance in Belgium.

Staffing levels have been steadily increasing from 1980 until today. In 2017, 334 counsellors – with a total budget of 19.103.000 euros – were being paid for by the Federal Government for the whole of Belgium. The Catholic church, which has experienced a sharp decline in support in the meantime, still has 2.801 paid officiants.102 Its subsidy is calculated based on the total population, while that of the secular humanist and other life stances is determined based on the number of supporters of the concerned life stance.103


Mental pillarisation and political change

The evolution towards recognising secular humanism as a life stance in Belgium took place at a time when values were changing considerably, in a period that is often referred to as one of mental depillarisation. From the early 1980s, socio- cultural Christianity that once characterised a large portion of the population in Flanders made way for consumerism, where many people no longer took part in pillar-based organisations based on beliefs but based on a utilitarian mindset. At that time, the youngest members (aged 18-45) of the Christian trade union, for example, consist for a large part of fringe and non-religious people. They also show pluralist voting behaviour. Society as a whole had fundamentally changed, which is aptly summarised by sociologist Billiet in his 1991 work in the following way: between 1955 and 1988, women’s participation in the labour market increased from 24 % to 52 %, and school attendance under the age of 18 increased from 27.9 % to 69.8 % among men and from 19.6 % to 71.4 % among women. By the mid-1980s, over half of the population consisted of two-income households and, within a period of 18 years (between 1970 and 1988), the rate of divorce had increased from 8 % to 27.6 %.104 Although social changes pointed to a clearly different value pattern, attempts at modernisation had been hampered for many years by Catholic hegemony (in the politics, in schools and other pillar institutions) and mobilisations for the school wars and royal questions (the last one in 1990, with the decriminalisation of abortion). However, if such processes are delayed, change actually occurs faster once the dam has been breached. Successive liberal laws that were voted after this year are a good example of such change.

It was easier to push through such changes between 1999 and 2007. The ruling governments at the time were characterised by an exceptional absence of Christian- democratic parties and were dominated by liberals and socialists. In 1990, abortion was partially decriminalised.105 When voting on this particular law, members of parliament were free to vote in accordance with their own reasoning and conscience. Although members of parliament in Belgium are expected to tow the party line when voting on laws, this rule has been broken in relation to laws concerning ethical matters. Every member of parliament is thus basically free to vote reasonably and honestly. Party discipline and party position no longer apply, although in reality they can still play a role for several reasons.106 In 1993, the legal age of adulthood was lowered from 21 to 18 and, in the same year, the War Crimes Law was approved, allowing foreign heads of state to be tried before a Belgian court for alleged violations of human rights. The law was expanded considerably in 1999. A law on the freedom of information was introduced in 1994, which was aimed at improving transparency towards citizens. In 1997 – in the wake of the infamous Dutroux affair – the commissariat for children’s rights was established, which officially acknowledged the voice of children and minors in social debate. A number of other laws followed in 2002 and 2003, for which Belgium would gain worldwide fame; the laws on euthanasia, palliative care, patient rights and same-sex marriage. Although some of the clearly secular humanist topics had now been socially and politically anchored in society, the memberships of organised associations did not increase in this period. By 1998, only 12 % of the Belgian population called themselves religious, compared to just under 37 % non-religious, but barely 1.1 % indicated being members of a secular humanist organisation.107


Flemish secular humanism and Humanists International (formerly International Humanist and Ethical Union)108

Belgium, which was represented by the Flemish Humanist Association, was one of the original countries to attend the inauguration of the IHEU.109 In general, the Flemish delegation in the IHEU is an important player that possibly punches above its own weight in this international project.

Between 1952 and 2002, Belgium’s average contribution amounted to 4 % of the total IHEU budget, making it the sixth largest contributor behind Germany (5 %) and Great Britain (9 %). Between 1952 and 2015, the IHEU consistently had a (co-)president from either the Netherlands, Norway or Flanders.110

The Flemish HV, which was a charter member, invariably had two representatives on the Board of Directors of the IHEU.111 Many other Flemish members would also participate in the operation of the IHEU. Examples include professor Hugo Van de n Enden (1938-2007) (chairman of the working group on moral education in 1962), Lily Boeykens (1930-2005) (chairwoman of the working group humanist women in 1990), Lydia Blontrock (chairwoman of the Humanist Association in the late 1980s) and Sonja Eggerickx (1947-) (chairwoman of the IHEU between 2006-2015).112 At least five conferences were held in Flanders up to the mid-1990s, namely in Antwerp and in Brussels. At the time, Flemish humanists were considered by many within the IHEU as experts in the field of moral education, and later also in moral counselling. Flanders is particularly renowned in relation to the former. Humanists abroad are impressed by the accomplishment of introducing the secular humanist life stance as a subject in the nation’s official education system. Other countries sometimes offer similar subjects, such as Lebenskunde in Germany, but not on such a broad scale.

In 1978, the IHEU asked the HV to provide an expert for an NGO panel on the issue of moral education, which was set up under the auspices of UNESCO. In 1980, a conference focusing on moral education was organised at the VUB. However, this conference could not take place because the VUB was unable to complete its classrooms in time.

In addition, Lily Boeykens and Lydia Blontrock were part of the eight-man IHEU delegation that met with high-level representatives of the Vatican in 1988, including cardinal Paul Poupard, the president of the Secretariat for Nonbelievers. These eight people were described by influential American humanist Paul Kurtz as ‘humanist leaders’.113 In his book, he has dedicated a lot of space to the contributions of Belgians.

Flanders has also been solicited for organisational purposes. The international branch of humanist youths was set up in Brussels, which is also where its registered office was based. In the late Eighties, when the IHEU explored possibilities for establishing a number of regional offices to counter the dominant influence of the Netherlands (where the IHEU headquarters was based until then), Brussels was proposed as the international headquarters for the youth. In the end, the proposal however proved unsuccessful. Brussels did become the headquarters for the European Humanist Federation (EHF) when it was established in 1990. That honour must be attributed to the Walloon humanists, considering the close link between the EHF and the Centre d’Action Laïque (CAL).

When we examine the interaction between the IHEU and Flemish organised secular humanism, we see that Flanders’ interest in the international perspective fluctuates considerably. It is clear that Jaap van Praag – the then chairman of the IHEU – and Karel Cuypers were good friends. Correspondence between the two was very amicable in the early years. Others from that generation, such as Michel Oukhow, were also very interested in international cooperation. But the following generation did not have the same international aspirations. It is only when Lydia Blontrock becomes chairperson in the late 1980s that the IHEU returns to the national agenda.114 The Humanist Association regularly invited an IHEU representative to its major events (for example, to congresses on moral education and to the Prijs Vrijzinnig Humanisme (Secular Humanism Award) presentations during the 1990s). Magazines are also exchanged. The HV, and later Humanistisch Vrijzinnig Vormingswerk (Humanist Secular Education – HVV), had an exchange contract with the IHEU from 1982 until well into the 1990s.

The IHEU gave 20 members of the Humanist Association a free subscription to its magazine and many members had a paid subscription to the International Humanist. In 1975, 200 Flemish members had subscribed, out of a total of 2568 subscribers. The IHEU also had similar exchange contracts with many countries and individual members, but the system did not generate new interest. All it did was consolidate existing subscriptions, and the system was eventually discontinued.

The HV and the IHEU regularly call upon each other’s services. The HV questioned IHEU about international humanist experts and sought information on organised humanism in other countries, often with the aim of presenting this information to its members through magazines or radio or television programmes.

Good intentions aside, both the IHEU and the HV encountered a lack of professionalism during the first few decades, most likely due to the limited scale and limited financial capacity of both organisations. In that period, when Flanders asked questions about international humanists, the IHEU responded by saying that there were no experts, or that is was not aware of any. The IHEU also seemed to have great difficulty answering the HV’s questions when information was sought about like-minded organisations in other countries. And when information was actually provided, the HV was generally disappointed because the supplied texts had to be heavily edited. Conversely, the HV was often late in paying its contributions to the IHEU and Flemish humanists were sometimes angry when the IHEU decided to organise a congress on another continent. Members from Flanders were then unable to attend, considering travel and accommodation expenses had to be paid out of their own pockets.115 Two other examples illustrate the poor communication. In 1958, the HV told the IHEU that authorised minister (comparable with a state secretary) Julien Kuypers (1892-1967) had taken steps to ensure the status of the IHEU as consultative member of UNESCO. The IHEU responded by saying it was unaware that Belgium could do lobby work in this respect, otherwise it would have handed the dossier to Mr Kuypers earlier.116 In the second example, from 1972, miscommunication actually leads to a minor feud between the Flemish Humanistische Jongeren (Humanist Youth movement – HJ) and the IHEU. It all started when the IHEU managed to elect Michel De Sutter as representative of the Flemish humanist youth section, while he wasn’t even a member of the organisation.

It would be fascinating to see how logistical cooperation took place after both organisations obtained more financial clout from the mid-1990s. Although research on this matter still needs to be conducted, looking at the current situation, it is fair to assume that ties are becoming stronger rather than becoming weaker. There has never been a lack of interest from a Belgian perspective, with Sonja Eggerickx as former chairperson (2006-2015) and current vice-chairperson Anne-France Ketelaer. Besides the contributions of Flemish secular humanists to the IHEU, we would also like to point out parallel initiatives: namely, contributions by Flemish secular humanists to international issues via European structures.


Flemish secular humanism and the European Union117

From the very outset, the European Union has primarily focused on economic interests. References to religion or life stances are rare. The first dossier concerning a life stance matter to be addressed by the European Union was encountered when Greece was admitted to the EU in 1981 and involved acknowledging the unique religious status of Mount Athos. The second dossier was of a completely different calibre. Between 1983 and 1985, a wholly Belgian delegation of MEPs put forward three motions for resolution concerning equal rights for confessional and non- confessional life stances. This included young members who were just embarking on a great political career.118 Although the resolutions never achieved the required number of votes and thus failed, the tone had been set. From that moment on, the issue of equal rights for all life stances would be given greater attention within the Union. When the Treaty of Amsterdam was signed in 1997 – which came into effect in 1999 – religion and life stance were given an equal footing within the European Union. The Flemish organised secular humanist movement also played a part in drafting the treaty.

The Treaty of Amsterdam was drawn up to combat discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, life stance convictions, disability, age and orientation. In the treaty, the European Union respects the status of churches as well as religious and non-confessional organisations. On 9 December 1996, the Belgian CVR wrote a letter to the prime minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, and the minister for foreign affairs, Erik Derycke, a socialist. The letter stated that representatives of the secular humanist life stance in Belgium agreed with the Amsterdam Treaty, provided that equal treatment is given to non-confessional life stances. That is why they asked for the words “religious beliefs” to be amended to “religious or philosophical beliefs”.

A second case where the Central Secular Council played a role involved recognising the national status of religious institutions. French-speaking humanists in Belgium challenged the proposal of Germany, Italy, Portugal and Austria, while the Flemish – represented by the UVV – were more pragmatic and accepted the article as long as religious and non-confessional organisations were treated equally. The Belgian government acknowledged the Flemish proposal and also defended it successfully. Particularly striking is the fact that the Belgian government, including the Catholic Party, offered strong arguments for both proposals on the international stage, resulting in the text being amended.

Religious and humanist traditions were also given equal footing when formulating European traditions in the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon. Once again, it was Belgian politicians who helped to achieve this, although the role played by organised secular humanism is less clear. It is worth noting that certain Belgian parties seem to have used the European stage to actively promote equal rights for non-confessional life stances. In any case, this differs from the evolutions in national politics. If a network analysis was to be performed on several key players in this regard, it may be possible to determine whether this difference can be attributed to a lack of interest or opportunity because of – as Billiet argued in 1991 – the political dominance of the CVP.


Conclusion: Flanders embraces humanism, but humanists themselves remain the underdog

Flanders, as part of Belgium, is a region where secularism long implied a conflict with the Catholic church and its derived traditions. This is a characteristic it shares with other countries where one religion holds all the power. Such conflicts, which aim to functionally separate religion from secular systems such as politics, education, care and family, also come to the fore in Belgium in ethical and feminist issues like abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. In the 1990s and 2000s, society as a whole had undergone enormous secularisation, which had started as early as the 1960s and accelerated during the 1980s.119 The question remains: what real impact has organised secular humanism had on this evolution?

When founded in 1951, the Humanist Association was the first post-war humanist movement in Flanders and had grand plans to become a federation of different Flemish secular organisations. This plan did not work initially, and only materialised much later with the foundation and evolution of the Union of Secular Associations – which today has 36 member associations. During the 1950s and 1960s, the humanist movement focused on education, rites and obtaining airtime in the media. Several local hubs were also set up, predominantly along the Brussels-Antwerp axis. The eastern part of Flanders remained under-represented. It is striking to note that the new humanist movement advocated very similar viewpoints to the secular freethinkers’ organisations from before the Second World War. An exception was the strict separation of church and state – although the church as an institution was still strongly challenged. Local hubs often also appeared in large and small cities that already had a long-established freethought and secular tradition. One must thus conclude that the post-war humanist movement was not completely new, but was, to an extent, a new variation of a pre-war movement.

By the end of the 1960s, it was clear that the Catholic pillar was too strong and that politicians that actually supported humanism – namely liberals and socialists – were not inclined to push through major reforms regarding the privileged position of Catholicism. The separation of church and state also required state reforms, which required a parliamentary majority that the blue and red political families in Belgium simply did not have. But this did not apply at European level. Here we saw Flemish – and more broadly Belgian – political representatives, mainly of liberal and socialist persuasion, take the stage to demand equal treatment for religions and life stances. Was this their attempt to circumvent the Catholic hegemony in Flanders via European structures? This question certainly deserves further study.

Organised humanists were also prominent at the international level. They were active to varying degrees within the IHEU, but their contribution is clear. Belgium has organised many events over the years. At times – and still today – there was a good rapport with the board, and the Flemish were generally appreciated for their knowledge of moral education. Names like Karel Cuypers, Lily Boeykens and Sonja Eggerickx give Flemish humanism an international appeal.

Returning to the Flemish context, memberships of secular humanist organisations have only increased slowly. Under the guise of “if you can’t beat them, join them”, as it were, the secular humanist movement shifted its focus to practical humanism and, from 1970, worked towards equal rights in the form of recognition as a life stance. If the humanist movement could expand its organisations and thus participate in pillarised social life, it could recruit new members and there would be an increase in the number of secular humanists. After all, would it not be worthwhile to opt for a form of pluralism where non-confessionals can stand on an equal footing as recognised religions?

This reorientation proved to be successful. When the Central Secular Council was established, a discussion partner for the government was also created, and secular humanism was recognised by the government as a life stance. The RIBZ (Council for Inspection & Guidance of non-confessional Ethics) became responsible for non- confessional ethics as a school subject, secular humanism received annual subsidies, and, at European level, non-confessional and religious organisations were essentially theoretically treated equally. In recent decades, we have increasingly seen Belgium acting as an international standard-bearer with ground-breaking laws on abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. Flanders is also home to a university that e xplicitly bases its curriculum on humanist ideas (VUB) and another that has been very important to the expression of life stances (UGent).

Finally, organised secular humanism in Flanders has built a network of organisations and centres over the past 25 years that, to some extent, has given this life stance group unprecedented social embedding, which can surely be regarded as impressive from an international point of view.

The question whether the decision to assimilate into the existing system of philosophical recognition was actually that positive, was already asked by Els Witte in 1986 and remains relevant to this day. Belgian secular humanism still has no political formation of its own – although it must be said that many socialists and liberals have helped move humanist themes forwards and have defended them militantly – and has never become a major pillar. At a time when expansion is needed, civilians have started using pillar organisations for utilitarian reasons, weakening their ideological profile as a result.

Not many souls can be won in this manner. The humanist movement has made a significant moral contribution to voting on ethical laws – a lot of work was done to make tangible contributions and also raise awareness – but there is no demonstrable causal link.

Flanders today, despite the recent religious revival in the social debate, is very much a secular region.120 Abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and children’s rights are now firmly embedded in society. The generation currently in their twenties grew up in a region and country where such practices have largely become normalised and are now part of the politically correct sphere. Nonetheless, the humanist movement in Flanders remains small and many supporters of conservative groups have different opinions. If you ask a Flemish person what humanism is, it will be difficult to get an answer. If you ask a Flemish person what secular humanism is, there is a good chance of encountering a stigma involving anti-clerical militants who fight against a church that no longer has any power in today’s diverse society.

In practice, there are many civilians in Belgium today who are irreligious – it even has the highest percentage in Western Europe according to the study entitled “Being Christian in Europe” by the Pew Research Centre in 2018 – and many people (religious or not) have an (unconsciously) humanist view of the world.121 The geographic region of Flanders has built extensive infrastructure over the years for people who regard themselves as part of the secular humanist community. This infrastructure, and its recognition as a life stance, has given Belgian secular humanists a unique position on the international stage. Nonetheless, major increases in membership have not (yet) been encountered.


Footnotes


  1. Flanders today should not be confused with the historical County of Flanders. The county existed from the 9th until the eighteenth century in the area surrounding Ghent, Bruges, Ypres and Rijsel/Lille. Defenders of the so called Flemish cause, view this county as the origin of the Flemish Community, but this relationship is – to put it mildly – contested.
  2. Gily Coene and Frank Scheelings, “Inleiding,” in Op zoek. De evolutie van het vrijzinnig humanisme in Vlaanderen sinds de Tweede Wereldoorlog, ed. Gily Coene, Jimmy Koppen and Frank Scheelings (Brussels: Humanistisch Verbond – Centrum voor Academische en Vrijzinnige Archieven, 2017), 13.
  3. Since 2002, this community has been recognised as a life stance under the name “non-confessional life stance”. Supporters today call themselves “vrijzinnig humanisten” (secular humanists). See: “Erkende erediensten,” Federale Overheidsdienst Justitie, accessed 1 July 2018, https://justitie.belgium.be/nl/themas_en_dossiers/erediensten_en_ vrijzinnigheid/erkende_erediensten.
  4. Sylvie Le Grand, “The Origin of the Concept of Laïcité in Nineteenth Century France,” in Religion and Secularity. Transformations and Transfers of Religious Discourses in Europe and Asia, ed. Marion Eggert and Lucian Hölscher (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2013), 62-63.
  5. Examples include: s.n., “Petites nouvelles,” Le Peuple, 11 November 1894, 2 and s.n., “Raadgevingen,” Het Laatste Nieuws, 27 August 1893, 5.
  6. See: Roland Willemyns, De term vrijzinnigheid. Een eerste poging tot semantisch-vergelijkend onderzoek van het woordveld (Antwerp: Humanistisch Verbond, 1980); Robert Dille, “Vrijzinnigheid in België” in Het vrije denken in de Nederlanden, ed. W.R. Logman (Delft: De Watergeuzen/De Vrije Gedachte, 1981), 30-40.
  7. Gita Deneckere, Tom De Paepe, Bruno De Wever and Guy Vanthemsche, Een geschiedenis van België (Ghent: Academia Press, 2017), 98-99.
  8. Belgian lodges quickly developed an anti-clerical character, just like in other countries with a powerful and central Catholic church. This militant anti-clericalism made them radically different to lodges in other countries with a predominantly Protestant character. See: J. Bartier, “La condamnation de la franc-maçonnerie par les évêques belges en 1837,” La revue nouvelle, no. 48 (1968): 272-278.
  9. Jeffrey Tyssens, “The Road from Enlightenment to Indifference. Unbelief in Flanders,” Stichting ons Erfdeel, the Low Countries: Arts and Society in Flanders and the Netherlands, no. 10 (2002): 43.
  10. Else Walravens, “Het Humanistisch Verbond en zijn Belgische zusterorganisatie,” in Humanisme: theorie en praktijk, ed. Paul Cliteur and Douwe Van Houten (Utrecht: De Tijdstroom uitgeverij, 1993), 251.
  11. Jeffrey Tyssens and Els Witte, De vrijzinnige traditie in België: van getolereerde tegencultuur tot erkende levensbeschouwing (Brussels: VUBPRESS, 1998), 73-74.
  12. Although a relationship definitely exists between Belgian freemasonry and freethought/secular action, the earliest associations are not masonic initiatives. L’affranchissement and Les Solidaires were founded by workers with a socialist background. Libre Pensée, which was established after the civil funeral of freemason Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen – the founder of the Université Libre de Bruxelles – was set up by the liberal bourgeoisie. See: Tyssens, “The Road from Enlightenment to Indifference,” 44.
  13. Jimmy Koppen, “Historisch overzicht van het vrijzinnig humanisme in Vlaanderen en Brussel van de Tweede Wereldoorlog tot in de jaren 1980,” in Op zoek. De evolutie van het vrijzinnig humanisme in Vlaanderen sinds de Tweede Wereldoorlog, 26. A recent contribution on funerary practices is: Christoph De Spiegeleer, “New Perspectives on the Secularisation of Attitudes towards Death and Funerary Practices in 19th- and 20th-Century Europe,” Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire/ Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Filologie en Geschiedenis 95 (2017): 833-988.
  14. Tyssens and Witte, De vrijzinnige traditie in België, 62-63.
  15. Jeffrey Tyssens has provided an in detail description of how Flemish freethought movements evolved during the interwar period in his article: Jeffrey Tyssens, “Tegen de stroom: vrijzinnig militantisme in Antwerpen 1919-1939,” in Een leven van inzet: Liber Amicorum Michel Magits, ed. Dave De Ruysscher, Paul De Hert and Machteld De Metsenaere (Mechelen: Kluwer, 2012), 171-195.
  16. The Celebration of the Secular Youth had been organised since 1920 by freethinkers’ movements in Antwerp under the initiative of the Engels family. Previously, since the 1890s, the ceremony had been known by names such as the anti-communion celebration. See: Georges Baert, Gedenkboek 1964-1988: 25 jaar Feest van de Vrijzinnige Jeugd te Gent (Ghent: Board of Directors Feest Vrijzinnige Jeugd, 1988), 6-8; BE CAVA, Vrijzinnig Studie- en Documentatiecentrum Karel Cuypers, Infobrochure naar aanleiding van de info- en contactdag Feest Vrijzinnige Jeugd/Lentefeest op 26/11/1994. Willy Govers, 100 jaar “Feest van de Vrijzinnige Jeugd” te Antwerpen, VSAD28, 20-21.
  17. Jeffrey Tyssens, “Tegen de stroom: vrijzinnig militantisme in Antwerpen 1919-1939,” 194-195.
  18. Idem.
  19. Karel Cuypers started his career as a teacher and later became an astronomy professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). He was one of the founding members of the IHEU, where he sat on the executive committee, and the Flemish Humanist Association, of which he was chairman between 1955 and 1965. In 1966, he held the presidential speech at the IHEU congress in Paris. Robert Dille was teacher and principal. His family was close friends with Garmt Stuiveling of the Humanist Association in the Netherlands. He was the founder of the Unie Vrijzinnige Verenigingen (Union of Secular Associations) and the Centrale Vrijzinnige Raad (Central Secular Council), as well as the founding chairman and initiator of the Flemish Humanist Association. Lucien De Coninck was a professor at Ghent University, director and departmental head at the Laboratory for Morphology and Systematics of Animals and of the Museum for Zoology and is regarded as the father of Belgian nematology. He was the founding chairman of the Centrum voor Geboorteregeling en Seksuele Opvoeding (Centre for Birth Control and Sexual Education) and played a major role in the foundation of the Flemish Humanist Association, where he was also chairman from 1965. The founding act of the HV can be found in the archive of CAVA: BE CAVA Humanistisch Verbond, Stichtingsakte Humanistisch Verbond 1951, HV27.
  20. Luc Desmedt and Alain Lafullarde, Wegwijs in de humanistische beweging (Antwerp: Humanistisch Instituut voor Massamedia, 1989), 3-4.
  21. Raymond Maeckelbaere, “Pratend met een heer om u tegen te zeggen, Robert Dille,” in Liber Amicorum Robert Dille, ed. Walter Matthijs, Fernand Moerkerke and Ivo van hoof (Antwerp: Humanistisch Verbond, 1992), 19.
  22. Emiel Willekens, Karel Cuypers 1902-1986: profiel van een humanist (Antwerp, Vrijzinnig Studie- en Documentatiecentrum Karel Cuypers, 1987), 27-28.
  23. Jan Fransen, “Het Humanistisch Verbond. Ontstaan, uitbreiding en crisis (1951-1961),” Belgisch Tijdschrift Voor Nieuwste Geschiedenis 28, no. 3-4 (1998): 499-525.
  24. Gerard Walschap was a well-known Flemish author with an extensive oeuvre of novels, plays and poetry. He evolved from being a candidate priest to being secular, for which he was heavily criticised. After the publication of Adelaide, his first novel, the clergy branded him as an apostate, a blasphemer and even a pornographer. His work landed on the list of prohibited books. His most famous work is Houtekiet (1939). “Walschap, Gerard,” Literair Gent, accessed 2 July 2018, http://literairgent.be/lexicon/auteurs/walschap-gerard/.
  25. Archive of HV Nederland, Letter by “Harry” to Van Praag, 12 December 1951, 289.
  26. They supported their beliefs through financing. When the HV was founded, Robert Dille estimated a starting capital of 60.000 Belgian Francs (BEF). The Grand Orient of Belgium donated 20.000 BEF, and the three lodges 10.000 BEF each. The remaining 10.000 BEF came from private donations. By current standards, these amounts have multiplied by between 15 (indexed) and 22 (based on the daily wage of an unskilled labourer). See: Fransen, “Het Humanistisch Verbond. Ontstaan, Uitbreiding en Crisis (1951-1961),” 503;506.
  27. Jeffrey Tyssens, “Vrijmetselarij te Gent 1763-1940,” in Huldeboek Prof. Dr. M. Bots. Een bundel historische en wijsgerige opstellen, ed. Adriaan Verhulst and Luc Pareyn (Ghent: Liberaal Archief, 1995), 258.
  28. Jan Fransen, “Het Humanistisch Verbond. Ontstaan, uitbreiding en crisis (1951-1961),” 505.
  29. s.n., Prof. Dr. Lucien De Coninck 1909-1988. Bioloog, Humanist, ’t Zaller (Board of the Union of Former Members of ’t zal Wel Gaan relating to an exhibition about Prof. De Coninck, 1988), 35.
  30. Jan Fransen, “Het Humanistisch Verbond. Ontstaan, uitbreiding en crisis (1951-1961),” 505; 509.
  31. Jan Fransen, “Het Humanistisch Verbond: ontstaan, uitbreiding en crisis (1951-1961)” (diss. Vrije Universiteit Brussel, 1997), 32.
  32. Idem, 45.
  33. Else Walravens, “Het Humanistisch Verbond en zijn Belgische zusterorganisatie,” 251-252.
  34. Jimmy Koppen, “Historisch overzicht van het vrijzinnig humanisme in Vlaanderen en Brussel van de Tweede Wereldoorlog tot in de jaren 1980,” 32.
  35. The results of the national referendum cannot be explained by seeing Flanders as a region with strong religious practice and Wallonia as a region with weaker religious practice. The explanatory factor behind religious identification was not the language border, but urbanisation. The relationship between religion and voting behaviour was far stronger at that time in Flanders than in Wallonia. See: Deneckere, De Paepe, De Wever and Vanthemsche, Een geschiedenis van België, 265; Henk De Smaele, Rechts Vlaanderen, religie en stemgedrag in negentiende-eeuws België (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2009), 96-106.
  36. Jaak Billiet, Ondanks beperkt zicht: Studies over waarden, ontzuiling en politieke veranderingen in Vlaanderen (Brussels: VUBPRESS, 1993), 127-132.
  37. Idem.
  38. Else Walravens, “Het Humanistisch Verbond en zijn Belgische zusterorganisatie,” 254; Fransen, “Het Humanistisch Verbond. Ontstaan, uitbreiding en crisis (1951-1961),” 513.
  39. BE CAVA Humanistisch Verbond, Persmap Humanistisch Verbond 35 jaar, viering 14/11/1987 in het provinciehuis te Antwerpen, HV340, 1-2.
  40. Jan Fransen, “Het Humanistisch Verbond. Ontstaan, uitbreiding en crisis (1951-1961),” 507.
  41. BE CAVA Collectie Tijdschriften, Diogenes 5, no. 4, 63.
  42. A recent contribution about non-religious Sunday gatherings is provided in: Jacqui Frost, “Rejecting Rejection Identities: Negotiating Positive Non-religiosity at the Sunday Assembly,” in Organized Secularism in the United States. New Directions in Research, ed. Ryan Cragun, Christel Manning and Lori Fazzino (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017), 171-190.
  43. Jan Fransen, “Het Humanistisch Verbond: ontstaan, uitbreiding en crisis (1951-1961)”, 49-51.
  44. Jean-Claude Burgelman, Omroep en politiek in België: het Belgisch audio-visuele bestel als inzet en resultante van de naoorlogse partijpolitieke machtsstrategieën (1940-1960) (Brussels: Belgische Radio- en Televisieomroep, 1990), 46-47.
  45. Ibidem.
  46. Idem, 51; Well-written personal accounts of this pillarisation are included in: Marcel Kerf, Mario Smeets and Fred Herckens, De jaren ’60: (on)bekend en (on)bemind (Antwerp: Garant, 2004).
  47. “Meer weten over organisaties en personen”, Centrum voor Academische en Vrijzinnige Archieven, accessed 18 July 2018, https://www.cavavub.be/meer-weten-over-organisaties-en-personen/hv/.
  48. Jimmy Koppen and Frank Scheelings, “Vrijzinnig jeugdwerk,” in Op zoek. De evolutie van het vrijzinnig humanisme in Vlaanderen sinds de Tweede Wereldoorlog, 174.
  49. Luc Desmedt and Alain Lafullarde, Wegwijs in de humanistische beweging, 9.
  50. Raymond Brulez, who graduated as Germanist from the Université Libre de Bruxelles, was a secular author. He published novels and plays. He was involved with the workings of the NIR for many years, before Second World War as literary advisor and between 1955 and 1960 as director of Flemish broadcasts. See: “Brulez, Raymond,” Schrijvergewijs: Vlaamse schrijvers van 1830-heden, accessed 19 July 2018, http://schrijversgewijs.be/schrijvers/brulez-raymond/.
  51. Karel Cuypers, “Het NIR ontving klachten,” Het Vrije Woord 2, no. 3 (1958): 24.
  52. Walter Matthijs, ed., Vanzelfsprekend. 35 jaar Humanistisch Verbond (Antwerp: Humanistisch Instituut voor Massamedia, 1988), 47-48.
  53. Laic is lent from Greek and is a rare term for layman. The term “laic counsellor” was also used to describe care for non-religious people. This term later changed to ‘moral counsellor’ to match the emerging Anglo-American term.
  54. Another representative of the Vrijdenkersunie (Freethinker’s Union) was part of the commission until his death in 1963. At the time, humanist media had already transcended that of the freethinkers. Freethinkers were left with just one periodical. See: Tyssens and Witte. De vrijzinnige traditie in België, 121. In 1958, humanists and freethinkers joined forces to organise a National Congress for Secular Associations at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), with the aim of bringing the organisations closer together. But the gap that separated them proved ‘insurmountable’. This frustrated people like Karel Cuypers, while others, like Michel Oukhow, were relieved. They had a growing sense of unease that Belgian humanism might start leaning more towards “cold” rationalism. See: Jan Fransen, “Het Humanistisch Verbond: ontstaan, uitbreiding en crisis,” 75.
  55. Jaap van Praag, Geestelijke verzorging op humanistische grondslag (Utrecht: Humanistisch Verbond, 1953), 7.
  56. s.n., “Een belangrijk initiatief! Leergang voor geestelijke consulenten,” Het Vrije Woord 2, no. 8 (1958): 64.
  57. The Humanist Association believed it had insufficient knowledge for the functional training of counsellors. From the very first conference of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, Lucien De Coninck asked for concrete support from the American humanist organisations. It is unclear whether this support was ever effectively granted. See: Freddy Boeykens, “Morele dienstverlening,” in Op zoek. De evolutie van het vrijzinnig humanisme in Vlaanderen sinds de Tweede Wereldoorlog, 188; BE CAVA Lucien De Coninck, Proceedings of the IHEU Conference Antwerp, 27-31 August 1955, LDC4, 7-10.
  58. A non-profit association (known in Flanders as a “vzw”) consists of a group of people or legal entities who strive for a cause without any lucrative purpose. Belgian non-profit associations have a legal personality that differs from their members. This means the associations themselves have rights and responsibilities. Members have limited liability and are expected to keep their own equity separate from the non-profit association.
  59. The history of youth work by Flemish humanists has been discussed expansively in: Jimmy Koppen and Frank Scheelings, “Vrijzinnig jeugdwerk,” in Op zoek. De evolutie van het vrijzinnig humanisme in Vlaanderen sinds de Tweede Wereldoorlog, 165-184.
  60. Luc Desmedt and Alain Lafullarde, Wegwijs in de humanistische beweging, 10.
  61. Humanist youth organisations initially adopted the same structure as “adult” branches. They organised lectures and young people were expected to develop their life stance through discussion. The youth quickly adopted a new approach and placed emphasis on taking social responsibility. See: Jan Fransen, “Het Humanistisch Verbond: ontstaan, uitbreiding en crisis (1951-1961),” 53-54.

  62. Jeffrey Tyssens, Strijdpunt of pasmunt: Levensbeschouwelijk links en de schoolkwestie 1918-1940 (Brussels: VUBPRESS , 1993), 16. This work discusses the school war until 1940 at length.
  63. In 1954, at the height of the school war, the Council of Europe collaborated with the Belgian Ministry of Public Education to organise its first exhibition in Belgium. Minister Collard wrote an introductory piece in the catalogue, which emphasised the shared history of humanism in Europe. Many works for the exhibition came from the private collection of the British Royal Family. See: Jan De Groof, Els Witte and Jeffrey Tyssens, Het Schoolpact van 1958: Ontstaan, grondlijnen en toepassing van een Belgisch compromis (Brussels: Academic & Scientific Publishers, 1999).
  64. Although the subject fell under the umbrella of organised humanism, the class was not only taken by secular humanist youths. A survey conducted in 1996 showed that up to 20 % of students were sometimes Muslim. These children take the subject because, for example, the Islam teacher only speaks Arabic or professes a different interpretation of Islam. See: Herman De Ley, “Humanists and Muslims in Belgian Secular Society,” in Intercultural Relations and Religious Authorities: Muslims in the European Union, ed. Shadid Wasif and Pieter Sjoerd Van Koningsveld (Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 2002), 115.
  65. This was a character trait that made freethinkers’ organisations, who wanted a non-confessional subject, very unhappy.
  66. Eddy Borms, “Officieel onderwijs en niet-confessionele zedenleer,” in Op zoek. De evolutie van het vrijzinnig humanisme in Vlaanderen sinds de Tweede Wereldoorlog, 92-95.
  67. Luc Devuyst, “Oorsprong & evolutie van de levensbeschouwelijke vakken in het Belgisch onderwijs,” in De toekomst van de levensbeschouwelijke vakken: de eerste stappen naar de gelijkberechtiging. 50 jaar schoolpact, ed. Luc Devuyst and Christophe Van Waerebeke (Brussels: Academic and Scientific Publishers, 2010), 42.
  68. s.n., “Stijging leerlingen zedenleer,” Het Vrije Woord 4, no. 2 (1960): 289.
  69. Eddy Borms, “Officieel onderwijs en niet-confessionele zedenleer,” 94.
  70. The annual reports submitted by the Humanist Association to the IHEU, which are available in the city archive of Utrecht, paint a clear picture of this. However, a comparison has still not been made between the increase in membership and the general increase in population.
  71. Els Witte and Alain Meynen, De geschiedenis van België na 1945 (Antwerpen: Standaard Uitgeverij, 2006), 92-94.
  72. Jaak Billiet, Ondanks beperkt zicht, 139.
  73. These figures are indicative, considering there is no census in Belgium on life stance affiliation. See: Witte and Meynen, De geschiedenis van België na 1945, 95; Karel Dobbelaere and Lilane Voyé, Verloren zekerheid: de Belgen en hun waarden, overtuigingen en houdingen (Tielt-Brussels: Lannoo-Koning Boudewijn Stichting, 2000), 117-152; s.n. The federal financing for religious ministers and representatives of the Central Secular Council. Report by the Magits-Christians commission (Brussels, 2006), 108-114.
  74. BE CAVA, Collectie Tijdschriften, Het Vrije Woord, 1961, 6, 11, p. 161-163.
  75. Jan Fransen, “Het Humanistisch Verbond. Ontstaan, uitbreiding en crisis (1951-1961),” 519.
  76. These were the words used by Leo Ponteur, chairman of UVV, in 1986.
  77. Walter Matthijs, ed., Vanzelfsprekend. 35 jaar Humanistisch Verbond (Antwerp: Humanistisch Instituut voor Massamedia, 1988), 6; Tony Van Loon, “De morele dienstverlening: van een praktisch humanisme naar de centra voor morele dienstverlening in een netwerk van welzijnsvoorzieningen,” in Over vrijzinnigheid gesproken, ed. Frank Demeyere and Chris Pijpen (Brussels: VUBPRESS, 1998), 121.
  78. The origins of the local Celebration of the Secular Youth and other rituals have been discussed in: Ann Carton, “Het feest van de Vrijzinnige Jeugd: een humanistisch overgangsritueel” (diss. Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 1988), 18-22.
  79. Jeffrey Tyssens and Els Witte, De vrijzinnige traditie in België, 123-124.
  80. From the very outset, institutionalisation would clash with internal pluralism. The internal struggle for power and subsequent far-reaching organisation was and remained a major challenge for the distinctiveness of the secular humanist life stance, a problem that Jaak van Landschoot acknowledged back in 1993. See: Leo Apostel, “Vrijzinnigheid en maatschappij,” in: Actuele facetten van de vrijzinnigheid in Vlaanderen, ed. Ronald Willemyns (Brussels: Humanistisch Verbond, 1983), 43-54.
  81. Luc Devuyst in Liber Amicorum Robert Dille, ed. Walter Matthijs, Fernand Moerkerke and Ivo van Hoof (Antwerp: Humanistisch Verbond, 1992), 51-53.
  82. Michel Magits, “De gelijkberechtiging van de vrijzinnig-humanistische levensbeschouwing,” in Op zoek. De evolutie van het vrijzinnig humanisme in Vlaanderen sinds de Tweede Wereldoorlog, 87.
  83. When the UVV is founded, both organisations largely overlap one another. In addition, the Union was not born out of love for an ideal, but out of necessity. This was accompanied by tensions and growing pain that would last several years.
  84. Luc Devuyst was chairman of the UVV for two consecutive terms and board member of both the IHEU and the European Humanist Federation (EHF). In addition, he was and still is board member of the Executive Committee of the Vrijzinnig Studie-, Archief- en Documentatiecentrum ‘Karel Cuypers’ (the now Centre for Academic and Secular Humanist Archives). See: Luc Devuyst, “Wegwijs in vrijzinnige verenigingen,” 177-178.
  85. The Culture Pact law is an excellent example of Belgian pacification democracy, which protects life stance views in government measures relating to cultural affairs. Because a relatively large number of cultural competences were transferred from federal to regional level in this period, the aim was to prevent minorities being threatened after the elimination to national balances. See: Jaak Billiet, “Verzuiling, conflictregeling en politieke besluitvorming in België,” Sociologische Gids 30, no. 6 (1983): 437.
  86. After the training decree of 4 July 1975 imposed a minimum number of branches in order to receive subsidies, a partial merger of the Parents’ Association for Morality (OVM) and the Humanist Association was worked out. The socio-cultural training work for adults of both associations was continued by the Humanist Secular Training Work (HVV). See: Lisa Dejonghe, “Archieven van socioculturele verenigingen in context: het archief van het Humanistisch Verbond (1951-...) bewaard door CAVA,” Contemporanea 37, no. 2 (2018), http://www.contemporanea.be/nl/article/20182- archieven-kort-dejonghe.
  87. Luc Devuyst, “Wegwijs in vrijzinnige verenigingen,” 190-191.
  88. Jeffrey Tyssens and Els Witte, De vrijzinnige traditie in België, 141.
  89. Jos van Ussel and Jaap Kruithof published this book as a ‘Flemish variant’ of the Kinsey reports that appeared in de United States in 1948 and 1953. Although the book was revolutionary, its authors admitted that the used method was significantly weaker than that of their American pendant.
  90. Anke Stefens, “Op de barricade voor de seksuele emancipatie. Het engagement van professoren en studenten aan de Gentse universiteit vanaf 1969” (diss. University of Ghent, 2015), 23.
  91. Jeffrey Tyssens and Els Witte, De vrijzinnige traditie in België, 141-142.
  92. Gily Coene, “De opleiding moraalwetenschap(pen): ontstaan en evolutie,” in Op zoek. De evolutie van het vrijzinnig humanisme in Vlaanderen sinds de Tweede Wereldoorlog, ed. Gily Coene, Jimmy Koppen and Frank Scheelings (Brussels: Humanistisch Verbond – Centrum voor Academische en Vrijzinnige Archieven, 2017), 141; Nicole de Cock, “De moraal aan het verhaal: een reportage over de beginjaren van 40 jaar Gentse moraalwetenschappen,” Ethiek & Maatschappij 6, no. 3-4, (2003): 189-209; Dina van Berlaer-Hellemans, “Centrum voor de Studie van de Verlichting,” De Moderne Tijd, no. 4, (1978): 228-229.
  93. A prominent exception to this was the television appearance of Etienne Vermeersch (1934-2019), one of Flanders’ most influential contemporary intellectuals, in 1971. He became one of the biggest advocates of the right to euthanasia. The first broadcast of the subject on a national platform, however was made by the Flemish humanist broadcasts. On the 18th of February 1959 they made a television broadcast titled ‘Euthanasie: mogen wij bewust het leven verkorten van een ongeneeslijke lijdende mens?’ (Euthanasia: are we allowed to shorten the life of a terminally ill human being?) See: Karel Cuypers e.a., “Euthanasie: mogen wij bewust het leven verkorten van een ongeneeslijke lijdende mens,” Het Vrije Woord 3, no. 4 (1959): 54-58.
  94. Jeffrey Tyssens and Els Witte, De vrijzinnige traditie in België, 142-143.
  95. Rik Torfs, “State and Church in Belgium,” in State and Church in the European Union, ed. Gerhard Robbers, (Baden-aden: Nomos, 2005), 9-34; Leni Franken and Patrick Loobuyck, “Hoe neutraal is kerkfinanciering? Kritische analyse van het Belgisch erkennings- en ondersteuningsbeleid,” Netherlands Journal for Legal Philosophy 41, no. 1 (2012): 12-27.
  96. BE CAVA Unie Vrijzinnige Verenigingen, Verslagen Raad van Bestuur en Dagelijks Bestuur, 1979-1985, RvB September 1981, UVV105, 1-2.
  97. Tony Van Loon and Jaak Vanlandschoot, “Morele dienstverlening van en door vrijzinnigen,” in Actuele facetten van de vrijzinnigheid in Vlaanderen, ed. Ronald Willemyns (Brussels: Humanistisch Verbond, 1983), 128.
  98. “5 mei 1993 – Wijziging aan grondwet (artikel 117),” Reflex Databanken, accessed 28 September 2018, http://reflex. raadvst-consetat.be/reflex/?page=chrono&c=detail_get&d=detail&docid=72895&tab=chrono.
  99. Niels De Nutte, “Denken over de dood: de keuze aan het einde”, 54.
  100. Since 1993, one organisation for each life stance has been recognised to provide life stance subjects in community education – the current name used for state education in Flanders. See: Eddy Borms, “Officieel onderwijs en niet- confessionele zedenleer,” 99.
  101. Tony Van Loon, “De morele dienstverlening: van een praktisch humanisme naar de centra voor morele dienstverlening in een netwerk van welzijnsvoorzieningen,” 129-133.
  102. Caroline Sägesser, Jean-Philippe Schreiber and Cécile Vanderpelen-Diagré, Les religions et la laïcité en Belgique, rapport 2017 (Brussels, Université Libre de Bruxelles, 2017), 30; The exact details of government financing have been discussed, amongst other examples, in: Michel Magits, “De niet-confessionele levensbeschouwelijke gemeenschappen in België. Een unieke situatie,” in Levensbeschouwingen en de overheid in België, ed. Patrick De Pooter and Ina Lodewyck (Berchem: EPO, 2011), 148-156. The budget of the Federal Ministry of Justice is expressed in Full-Time Equivalents (FTE).
  103. This decision is based on an estimate, seeing as Belgium does not have an annual register that surveys the personal life stance of its citizens.
  104. Jaak Billiet, Ondanks beperkt zicht, 125-126; 134.
  105. At the time, the UVV was the first organisation to publish a list of addresses for abortion support institutions in its new book Abortus ... wordt vervolgd.
  106. Jacinta De Roeck, e-mail message to author, 27 September 2018. Jacinta de Roeck was senator for the Flemish green party and socialist party (Agalev and SPA) from 1999 to 2007. She played a major role in preparing the euthanasia law of 2002.
  107. Jeffrey Tyssens, “The Road from Enlightenment to Indifference. Unbelief in Flanders,” 45.
  108. For this section, I will largely fall back on information from the book by Gasenbeek and Gogineni commemorating the 50th anniversary of the IHEU, as well as letters that are part of the IHEU archives, which are stored in the city archive in Utrecht (the Netherlands), and an interview with Sonja Eggerickx, former president of the IHEU. The picture we are painting here, however, can only be fully verified up to approximately 1993 because correspondence in the archives is only available until that year.
  109. At the end of the 1990s, the Union of Secular Associations joined the IHEU instead of the Humanist Association; something the Centre d’Action Laïque had strongly opposed initially.
  110. Rob Tielman, Humanisme als zelfbeschikking: levensherinneringen van een homohumanist (Breda: Papieren Tijger – Humanistisch Historisch Centrum, 2016), 112.
  111. The first two were Karel Cuypers and Lucien De Coninck. They were later succeeded by, among others, Luc Devuyst and Raymond Maeckelberghe.
  112. BE CAVA Collectie Tijdschriften, Het Vrije Woord 36, no. 5.
  113. Paul Kurtz, Toward a New Enlightenment: The Philosophy of Paul Kurtz (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1994), 200-212. On more than one occasion, the book sheds light on the unique character of the humanist and educational situation in Belgium.
  114. Rob Tielman, co-chairman of the IHEU in the period 1986-1998, confirms this. In his memoires, he describes the close relationship that he has always had with managers and staff of the Humanist Association and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. See: Rob Tielman, Humanisme als zelfbeschikking, 108-109.
  115. It is a problem that persists today. In the meantime, the IHEU issues a number of grants for humanists who wish to take part in their activities but do not have the finances to do so. The fact remains, as Sonja Eggerickx points out, that you need to be well off yourself or have the financial support of an organisation to be able to fully participate in activities. After all, the IHEU is not a wealthy organisation and lives mainly from donations and the occasional bequest.
  116. Julien Kuypers was the first chairman of Belgian Radio and Television (BRT). As a socialist, he was also ‘Special Envoy and authorised minister for foreign cultural relations’ in the government of Achiel Van Acker between 1956 and 1962. See: Julien Kuypers, “Schrijversgewijs”, accessed 1 October 2018, http://schrijversgewijs.be/schrijvers/kuypers-julien/.
  117. This section is based on: Youri Devuyst, “De Europese Unie, godsdienst en de niet-confessionele gemeenschap,” in Liber Amicorum Michel Magits, ed. Dave De Ruysscher, Paul De Hert and Machteld De Metsenaere (Mechelen: Kluwer, 2012), 354-374.
  118. Of the eleven initiators, five Flemings. Seven of the eleven were members of socialist parties, two were members of the Flemish liberal party and two were from parties that argued for Flemish or Walloon interests. The submitters were Karel De Gucht, Raymonde Dury, Ernest Glinne, Marijke Van Hemeldonck, Anne-Marie Lizin, Jeanne Pauwelyn, Lucien Radoux, Antoinette Spaak, Jaak Vandemeulebroucke, Karel Van Miert and Willy Vernimme. Not a single motion for resolution received enough votes to be adopted. See: Historical Archives of the European Parliament, Working Documents, Motion for Resolution PE1 AP PR BR1-0443/83 0010, PE2 AP PR B2-0331/85 renvoyée en commission and E2 AP PR B2-1074/84 caduque.
  119. Belgian sociologists Jaak Billiet and Karel Dobbelaere have published extensively on secularisation and religiousness in Belgium. A good English summary of these processes has been provided in: Karel Dobbelaere and Jaak Billiet, “Late 20th Century Trends in Catholic Religiousness: Belgium compared with Western and Central European Nations,” in The Transformation of the Christian Churches in Western Europe 1945-2000, ed. Leo Kennis, Jaak Billiet and Patrick Pasture (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2010), 113-145.
  120. The current written press pays a great deal of attention to the relationship between religion and society. A few examples: Wim Van De Velden, “De comeback van religie”, De Tijd, 12 May 2018, ; Veli Yüksel, “Welke maatschappelijke ruimte maken we vrij voor religie?”, Knack, 15 June 2018, https://www.knack.be/nieuws/belgie/welke-maatschappelijke-ruimte-maken-we-vrij-voor-religie/article-opinion-1161675.html; Jens Vancaeneghem, “Laat je niet leiden door angst voor islamisering,” Knack, 27 August 2018, http://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20180826_03684034; Rik Torfs of the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL), describes the Belgian situation very well in 2005: ‘In practice, Belgium is characterised by a wide degree of secularisation, which is, according to various experts, more widespread than in countries such as the Netherlands and Germany. But in spite of all this, religion remains an extremely important social phenomenon. As a result of the prominent presence of Islam and the integration process of ‘new Belgians’ in the current society, religion is more than ever before an issue on the political agenda.’ See: Rik Torfs, “State and Church in Belgium,” in State and Church in the European Union, ed. Gerhard Robbers (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2005), 9-10.
  121. 38 % have no religious affiliation, 19 % identify themselves effectively as atheist. See: Pew Research Centre, “Being Christian in Western Europe,” May 29, 39.


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De Nutte, Niels. “Vrijzinnigheid: Post-War Humanism in Flanders .” In Looking Back to Look Forward, edited by Niels De Nutte and Bert Gasenbeek, 43-74. Brussels: VUBPress, 2019.

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