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Prof. dr. Frank Scheelings, Coordinator of the Center for Academic and Secular Humanist Archives (CAVA)

Secular thinking has developed at a tremendous pace since the Second World War. At the heart of this ideology are largely those countries that experienced the eighteenth century enlightenment: the democracies of Northwestern Europe and the United States of America. The founding of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (recently renamed Humanists International) in 1952 was the symptom of a domination by Northwestern humanism that would last several decades. In Southern Europe, where not all countries had a democratic rule after the Second World War, religion was better preserved. There was no favourable climate in the communist countries for freethought as such, so we leave aside Soviet atheism.

Some believed that secular humanism would one day permanently replace religion. After a great deal of scientific debate and following the interesting study of R. Inglehart and P. Norris, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, 2004, this has turned out to be an illusion. For people living in unstable or poorer countries, or for those who are part of underprivileged groups, religion offers a handhold or a certain degree of spirituality that is very appealing. Indeed, some religions continue to see a decline in the numbers of believers, while others show strong successes. For example, in Northwestern Europe, although religious practice is declining, the number of practising Muslims has increased in recent decades, not only for demographic reasons, but also because migrants and their families want to retain their own culture and identity in an environment that too often still sees them as second-class citizens. In this context, one might wonder whether Western humanism is attractive. Many secular people only pass on norms and value frameworks unconsciously through social contacts. This situation can lead to a gap, possibly to a blurring of moral standards, which is not automatically compensated by (secular) humanist values or humanist ideas. Humanism, especially organised humanism, depends on an increased ethical and social awareness in order to grow.

This does not alter the fact that humanism is on the rise as a global phenomenon. In Asia (and in India in particular), humanism has grown significantly and has a philosophical as well as a political component. In Africa it is sometimes seen as the successor to Pan-Africanism and the African Renaissance, and other possibilities remain open as well. The number of groups in South America has also increased in recent years.

At the moment, however, we seem to be at a crossroads in Northwestern Europe and the U.S. A study on the history of organised humanism as it developed in these regions is therefore more than necessary, because the subject has not been sufficiently studied. Comparative research should also be able to lead us beyond the mere facts; the underlying structures and phenomena must be revealed.

With the book Looking Back to Look Forward, the Center for Academic and Secular Humanist Archives (CAVA) of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) aims to provide an insight into this issue. We are grateful to the authors and peer reviewers for their commitment and substantive contributions. Finally, we would like to express our sincere gratitude to (Union of Dutch speaking freethinking associations in Belgium) and the Flemish Ministry of Culture for making this study and publication possible through their subsidies.

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This text was first published in 2019 as: Scheelings, Frank. “Foreword.” In Looking Back to Look Forward, edited by Niels De Nutte and Bert Gasenbeek, 9-10. Brussels: VUBPress, 2019.

This page was last updated on 22 December 2020.