Organised Humanism Across the World: Belgium, Great Britain, the Netherlands and the United States of America, 1945-2005

In this post, Niels De Nutte provides a preview of the soon-to-be-published volume on the history of post-war organised humanism, Looking Back to Look Forward, which he co-edited with Bert Gasenbeek. NielsDeNutte.jpg

In the research area of secularity and nonreligion, humanism holds a special place. Its definition is often as diverse as the disciplines tackling it and the periods involved. It is richly added upon with prefixes delineating it either temporally (ancient, renaissance, modern) or in relation its subject matter (Van den Berg’s ecohumanism being an interesting recent contribution).[1] In our book, Looking Back to Look Forward. Organised Humanism in Belgium, Great Britain, the Netherlands and the United States 1945-2005, the subject matter is organised humanism in the post-war period. Like many of its predecessors, this strand of organised freethought holds members which identify not only as humanist but also other labels, like religious, agnostic, atheist, rationalist, and secularist.

Humanist organisations of the four countries we discuss in our book – Belgium, Great Britain, the Netherlands and the United States – were all charter members of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the international organisation holding over 170 humanist and ethical groups in over 60 countries, recently renamed Humanists International (HI). They have developed rather different ‘humanisms’, notwithstanding some marked similarities such as a keen interest in welfare and counselling.

We say humanism, and though this may be true, vocabulary is a serious issue in this regard. Different countries necessarily mean a variety of secularisms and ditto national sensitivities. The usage of the adjective secular in ‘secular humanism’ is particular to the American case, and stands in contrast to the presence of American ‘religious humanism’. While the Dutch secular people self-identified as humanists quite early on in the post-war period – see for instance Jaap Van Praag’s seminal work[2] – Belgian humanists were initially not keen on the term and even today identify as ‘vrijzinnig-humanist’ or ‘laïc’. ‘Vrijzinnig’ is used in both the Belgian and Dutch contexts. In the former case, it carries a distinctly anticlerical connotation and is synonymous to the French ‘laïque’ in meaning “someone or something not a member of an instituted religion”, something entirely lacking in the latter, where it is only used in Protestant circles. Semantically, it seems to originate from the German word  ‘freisinnig’.[3] Contextual, terminological, organisational and other differences make for a challenging comparison.

Notwithstanding these differences, the organisations that are part of IHEU/HI do find common ground as humanist organisations and in (eventual) advocacy for issues such as equal treatment for seculars, atheists, and the non-affiliated, and freedom of choice concerning bioethical issues. As such, the six contributors to our volume use their expertise to present worthwhile summaries of their national cases.[1] We conclude our volume by comparing Secularity and Life Stances in the Post-War Public Sphere in the American, Belgian, British and Dutch spheres as they have developed over the past seven decades.

The first part of the book is dedicated to Belgium, a country with an historically strong presence of the Catholic Church. De Nutte and Sägesser each deal separately with the evolutions of the two different strands of Belgian secular action, the Dutch-speaking ”vrijzinnigheid” and the French-speaking “laïcité”. In tackling these strands separately, they clarify the different evolutions. Where humanism in French-speaking Belgium is rooted in the French tradition advocating a pure church-state separation, supported by strong anticlerical sentiments, the Flemish variant, embodied in the Humanistisch Verbond founded in 1951, has been part of the post-war humanist story since its early days. Its transition to a sphere that strives for equal rights and official recognition as a non-denominational life stance in a pillarised context[5] is an interesting one.

Chapters by Weldon and Nash present the Anglo-American perspective. Although contacts exist between post-war humanism and its forerunners in Great Britain and the United States – for example between the Ethical Culture Societies and the founding of the American Humanist Association (AHA) in 1941 – the difference between these two traditions is remarkable. In the United States, modern humanism has its origins in freethought movements and liberal Protestant circles. The road taken by Unitarian Churches and Ethical Culture Societies results in a humanism that is initially strongly inspired by religion. After the Second World War, American humanism increasingly shifted towards a scientific humanism. In response to Christian fundamentalism, and aided by Paul Kurtz, this scientific view embraced its nickname ‘secular humanism’. In the AHA, religious humanists today represent only a marginal part.[6]

For British humanism, on the other hand, the goal was to reach an ‘enabling society’.  Its roots lay in liberalism and British liberal heritage, as opposed to the socialism of the European continent. The British Humanist Association (today Humanists UK) focused on community building initiatives. By not directing efforts opposing organised religion in itself, the movement proved more successful than its predecessors, such as Stanton Coit’s Ethical Societies. This was linked rather to its positioning as a philosophical viewpoint than its campaigning. As was the case in other countries, communications media had something to do with that. The British case specifically also found a connection to public figures, a well-known example being Stephen Fry, further mainstreaming humanism. Although it had succeeded in generating debate and informing the opinions of both its own likeminded and that of opponents, humanism has never succeeded in acquiring official recognition as a ‘pillar’ of British society.

As a final case, Gasenbeek demonstrates how in the historically Protestant Netherlands, Dutch humanism has grown over the past 75 years from a small minority to the dominant movement within the life stance arena. He attributes this success to three developments. The first is the strong secularisation of the Dutch population. Secondly, a small group of resolute humanists managed to give their non-religious life stance a permanent place in society. Finally, and similar to the Belgian case, the humanist movement was able to secure equal rights by making use of the pillarisation logic, providing state-funded facilities for both denominational and non-denominational life stances.

The overall goal of our book is to compare these different humanist traditions. The final chapter is dedicated to a comparative endeavour by Tyssens and De Nutte. Theydiscuss the backgrounds and facets of the different ‘humanisms’ that are treated in this volume. The question of which choices are made under different circumstances and to what extent these evolutions have shaped the path taken, is at the heart of this article. Their attempt is further framed by evaluating humanisms’ relation to the political world, to welfare and counselling, and to the media landscape. They do so within the conceptual framework of sociologist Manuel Castells’ legitimisation, resistance and project identities.[7] These identities are developed, for instance, by religions who do not fit into the hegemonical frame or are its targets. Freethought – and for a part humanism as well – developed in similar ways. From contesting church monopolies on graveyards to establishing secular schools, these movements spent quite some time ‘in the trenches’. Going beyond mere opposition, secular people formed ‘project identities’ and became, at least partly, social actors aiming to redefine their position in society and by doing so, transforming the overall social structure.


[1] Floris Van den Berg, Beter weten. filosofie van het ecohumanisme [Better judgement. Philosophy of ecohumanism] (Antwerp: Houtekiet, 2015).

[2] Jaap van Praag, Modern humanisme. Een Renaissance? [Modern humanism. A renaissance?] (Amsterdam: Contact, 1947).

[3] For a history of the German post-war secular ‘sphere’, see the excellent work of Religionswissenschaftler Stefan Schröder: Freigeistige Organisationen in Deutschland: Weltanschauliche Entwicklungen und Strategische Spannungen nach der Humanistischen Wende (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018).

[4] These contributors are, besides the editors, David Nash (Oxford Brookes University), Caroline Sägesser (Centre de recherches et d’information socio-politique), Jeffrey Tyssens (Vrije Universiteit Brussels) and Stephen Weldon (University of Oklahoma).

[5] Pillarisation refers to the division of society into ideologically oriented networks of a variety of voluntary organisations with a durable political connection. They organise civilian social life from cradle to grave and absorb functions normally performed by public authorities, but now handed to these actors, although still largely funded by those same authorities. Pillars thus became major sources of social and political power.

[6] See Joseph Blankholm, “Secularism and Secular People,” Public Culture 30, no. 2 (2018): 249-263.

[7] Castells, The Power of Identity (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).


Niels de Nutte is a scientific collaborator at the Centre for Academic and Secular Humanist Archives (CAVA) and affiliated to the history department of the Vrije Universiteit Brussels. His research interests include post-war organised humanism, with specific expertise in relation to the history of bioethics and euthanasia advocacy in Belgium.

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