Vrijzinnigheid: Secular Humanism in Belgium

Niels De Nutte

Many life stances are present in the European Union (EU); adherents of Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Orthodox Christianity, and Protestantism are widespread. There are also smaller groups of Buddhist or Hindu denominations. These stances, together with secular humanism, form a patchwork of beliefs. Religious and life-stance pluralism is therefore accepted as a major principle of the EU. Belgium is internationally regarded today as a liberal and ethically progressive country because of its laws allowing abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. Belgium is also a highly secularized country, meaning that for the most part religion exerts little influence over the daily lives and choices of Belgian subjects and institutions. Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center reported Belgium to be the Western European country with the highest number of atheists (19 percent) and one in which adherence to Christianity is falling rapidly. While 83 percent of the population was raised Christian, only 55 percent remains so today.

As in many other countries on the European continent—France and Spain, to name two—the Catholic Church in Belgium (formerly “the Southern Netherlands”) held absolute sway in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This means that there was little to no room for dissenting voices or opinions in the public sphere. This stands in contrast to countries such as the Republic of the Netherlands, which was predominantly Protestant and, unlike other states, didn’t have a legally established state church (although Protestantism was nonetheless favored by the government).

The Catholic Church remained dominant in Belgium until the second half of the twentieth century, and the power exerted by the Catholic Church in every aspect of Belgian society defined nonbelievers. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, Belgian nonbelievers have advocated total state-church separation, favoring laïcité, the French model of secularism that promotes a total separation of church and state in which religion is a strictly private matter. In the view of those nineteenth-century Belgian nonbelievers, churches and religions should have no say in state policies or government affairs, nor should the state be involved in religious affairs. This is quite different from the ideal of freedom of religion as expressed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, because laïcité originated in a state struggling to free itself from a ubiquitous religion. Laïcité does not mean freedom of religion as much as it means freedom from religion. As a result of this model, Belgian nonbelievers are traditionally strongly opposed to any state or societal support for religion or churches.

In the first decades after its conception in 1830, Belgium was characterized by two large political currents, usually described as liberals and Catholics. The liberals propagated freedom of conscience and a complete state-church separation. In the 1850s, Belgium established some of the first freethinker societies anywhere in the world, such as l’Affranchissement (1854), Les Solidaires (1857), Les Libres Penseurs (“The Freethinkers,” 1862) and La Libre Pensée (“Freethought,” 1863). These freethinking organizations flourished in the second half of the century as two of the largest political families—first the liberals and subsequently the socialists—joined them in advocating church-state separation. Each had a strong connection to Belgian freemasonry, which was deist or nonreligious (in contrast to freemasonry in many other countries), and advocated for matters that would remain secular-humanist issues until the second half of the twentieth century. Their actions included protesting against interference by the Catholic Church in political and societal matters; promoting civil funerals, marriages, and cremation; developing non-confessional rituals; and championing the state education system (because most of the education system was organized by the Catholic Church). This last issue would lead to two more-or-less nonviolent “school wars” between 1878–1884 and 1950–1958. These so-called wars were the result of tensions between Catholic and anticlerical (liberal and socialist) political factions. Secretaries of education belonging to different political parties passed laws favoring either the Catholic or state schools at different times, which led to political friction and societal outrage, particularly in the case of the second school war. These tensions eventually led to the School Pact of 1958. This law establishes features of both the state school system and the denominational schools (apart from Catholic schools, Belgium also has some state-funded Orthodox Jewish schools). Schools of Catholic denomination still account for approximately 64 percent of Belgian primary, middle, and high schools today.

This high percentage of Catholic schools is a remnant of what is called the “Catholic pillar.” Twentieth-century Belgium was a highly pillarized society. This meant that members of society chose to identify as Catholic, liberal, or socialist (or, in some cases, as Flemish nationalists). As such, one was expected to take part only in organizations (such as schools, mutual aid societies, and political parties) belonging to one’s own group. It followed that each group strove to provide a parallel array of educational and social organizations. In a way, a person belonged to a “pillar” from cradle to grave. Of these pillars, the Catholic one was by far the strongest and the only one considered complete. Even today, a high proportion of schools and medical institutions identify as Catholic, notwithstanding that Belgium is no longer officially a pillarized country.

After World War I, the political constellation in Belgium changed drastically. Starting with the local election of 1919, the country achieved universal single suffrage (one man, one vote). This change substantially increased the number of voters. The liberals and socialists, political groupings that had traditionally advocated issues championed by freethinkers, opened up their programs to include Catholic voters. For those parties, the strong separation of church and state and other freethinker subjects subsequently became less important politically; gradually they even came to be seen as old and sterile. Organized unbelief in Belgium continued but with diminished political support. Where entire political parties had previously advocated freethinker sentiments, only individual politicians actively promoted these issues from 1919 onward, a fact that still hinders secular-humanist activism today.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Belgium evolved from a traditionally Christian country to a society that harbored mainly cultural Christians. Such Christians partake in rituals such as baptism and matrimony primarily out of habit or perceived heritage. They no longer attend church on a weekly or even monthly basis, nor do they necessarily believe in God. The number of people believing in God or in the truth of the Bible decreased quickly, and most Belgians came to agree that the Church should no longer have a say in worldly matters. This period is referred to as the time of socio-cultural Christianity.

In Europe in general and in Belgium in particular, new media, consumerism, and the enormous economic growth after World War II gave rise to a generation that would secularize—meaning that it cut itself loose from church interference in worldly and personal affairs—at a high rate. By the 1980s, issues including sex education, abortion, equal rights for both sexes, and gay rights would come up for discussion, and some of these were even perceived as relatively normal.

Organized Secularism since 1951

A multitude of secular-humanist organizations has arisen since 1951. Belgian secular humanism’s agenda differed from that of older freethinker groups in the way it viewed state-church relations. While the older groups advocated a pure separation, secular humanist organizations aimed to be more pluralist and strove to live alongside other worldviews. In essence, these organizations were less radical and more accommodationist. They did, however, remain anticlerical and attacked the Catholic Church whenever the opportunity to do so presented itself.

The first secular-humanist organization was the Humanist League (Humanistisch Verbond, HV), established in Flanders in 1951. In 1952, HV was a founding member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)—now Humanists International, the largest international organization championing freedom of thought. The HV was not a massive enterprise but rather an intellectual initiative. For their part, the old freethinker organizations had dwindled and would continue to do so until their de facto demise in the 1970s. In Wallonia (the French-speaking part of Belgium), no equivalent for the HV existed until the early 1970s. Freethinker organizations were traditionally stronger in that region, and the French laïcité model was preferred to the more accommodationist concept of postwar secular humanism. In the span of a decade, some Flemish organizations arose to support and advocate such traditional secular-humanist agendas as moral counseling and nonconfessional education. Examples include the Working Community for Ethics Teachers (Werkgemeenschap Leraars Ethiek, WLE) in 1952 and Humanitas in 1958. Furthermore, a youth section of the HV was established in 1953 and lives on today in the organization Humanist Youth (Humanistische Jongeren, HUJO).


Language and Identity in Belgium

Belgium is composed of two principal regions, each associated with a dominant ethnicity and language. The northern part of the country is known as Flanders; its people are mostly Flemish and speak the Flemish language, closely akin to Dutch though not identical. The larger southern part is known as Wallonia; its people are called Walloons and speak French. Brussels, the capital, is located inside Flanders but is bilingual with both Flemish and French as official languages. On the eastern edge of Wallonia, bordering Germany, is a small zone where German is spoken. –eds.


Organized Belgian postwar humanism consisted of secular organizations that aimed at the social and cultural emancipation of secular citizens. It was individualistic and intellectualistic; program activities consisted mainly of lectures and debates in which open discussion without synthesis was encouraged. This approach was very different from those of its Dutch and Anglo-Saxon peers, being akin to practices found in freemasonry. Many Dutch, English, and American humanist and ethical organizations opted to organize activities sometimes similar to those held in churches. Their purpose was to create a common identity and a sense of belonging. By the late 1960s, organized Belgian secular humanism, particularly that in Flanders, changed and became more like its foreign peers, attracting more members as a result. Like their Dutch neighbors, Flemish humanists sought to offer moral aid to the secular population and to form a community for seculars. They called this practical humanism. The humanists’ ultimate goals became to establish themselves as representatives of the secular Belgian population and to organize a nonconfessional community. In 1969, French-speaking Belgium (including humanists in Wallonia) followed the Flemish example, and secular humanism emerged with the Center for Secular Action (Centre d’Action Laïque, CAL), which was for the most part in line with the Flemish humanist league, albeit with a historical preference for the French laïcité.

By the 1970s, the historical goal of a French-style separation of church and state had undeniably been de facto abandoned by secular-humanist organizations in Belgium for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the emergence of political realism, because no political party fully identified with their life stance. Today, French-style laïcité is still preferred by a large number of secular Belgians. The turn to practical humanism was pragmatic, recognizing that it is worthwhile to create an infrastructure that resembles those of recognized religions. Furthermore, secular humanist organizations believed that they would be able to build an infrastructure that promoted secular humanism to a large proportion of Belgian society, so that many people could be convinced to join the movement.

Life Stance Recognition

In some European countries, it is possible for life stance organizations to receive state funding for their counselors and chaplains or for their specific goal-oriented organizations, such as schools or societies providing social aid. This situation is rare, however, as generally only one religion receives such benefits. This religion would be the (former) state religion, meaning that before a specific country was secular, this religion would already have been recognized and funded and would be seen as the partner of the state, with virtually no separation between the two. Many existing systems tend to function in a way that favors the (formerly) dominant religion. In Belgium, for instance, the subsidy for the Catholic Church is based on the total number of Belgians, whereas other denominations are granted a sum based on the number of Belgians actually belonging to each creed. Some examples of other countries that subsidize their secular-humanist organizations in similar ways include Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway.

When secular Belgians first sought for secular humanism to be recognized as an official life stance, the government countered by saying that secular humanists did not represent a significant proportion of Belgian society and as such could not hope to be considered for recognition. It is true that although Belgium is arguably one of the most secularized countries in Western Europe, formal membership in secular-humanist organizations has not grown accordingly. This difference may be explained by the fact that although many people are nonbelievers or have agnostic convictions, they do not want to be part of an official group of nonbelievers or are skeptical of organized secular-humanist or anticlerical institutions.

By the end of the 1960s, several current organizations were established to represent the secular-humanist community at various levels of Belgian government (local, regional, and federal). The CAL and the Union of Freethinking Associations (Unie Vrijzinnige Verenigingen, UVV) are the umbrella organizations of Wallonia and Flanders, established in 1969 and 1971 respectively. Both organizations send representatives to the Central Secular Council (Centrale Vrijzinnige Raad, CVR), which is the highest-level secular-humanist body in Belgium and partners with the federal government, alongside organizations representing the six recognized religions.

Aspiring to be recognized as an official life stance was a pragmatic choice supported by the majority of secular humanists in Flanders but with less support in Wallonia. Recognition meant that CAL and UVV could receive funding to hire professional moral counselors and build their own network of institutions, parallel to those operated by organizations of other life stances. This effort to be recognized proved quite successful. The UVV was awarded its first substantial grant in 1980. This grant allowed the initial implementation of secular-humanist services, such as counseling, and led to the organization subsequently receiving annual government support.

In 1993, secular-humanist counselors were officially recognized as secular chaplains and put on the government payroll, following a change to Article 117 (now Article 181) of the Belgian Constitution. This article now includes nonconfessional life stances—the subsequent legal term for secular humanism in Belgium—alongside religions. That same year, the Council for Inspection and Guidance of Non-Confessional Ethics (Raad voor Inspectie en Begeleiding niet-confessionele Zedenleer, RIBZ) partnered with the Flemish regional government in offering a nonconfessional ethics course, which is taught as an elective in all state-run schools.

Actual recognition as a life stance was finally achieved in 2002. Under the socialist-liberal-green government led by Guy Verhofstadt, a nonconfessional association was recognized in each of the ten provinces of Belgium. Two extra associations were recognized in Brussels, a bilingual (Flemish- and French-speaking) community. This recognition allowed the institutionalization of the humanist movement within the existing pillarized system.

The budget for organized secular humanism has increased considerably in the past four decades. According to the 2018 ORELA report (Observatory of Religions and Secularism, based in Brussels), organized Belgian secular humanism received funding for the equivalent of 334 full-time personnel in 2017, for a total of 19.1 million euros (approximately 22 million U.S. dollars). However, this is still in stark contrast to the Catholic life stance, which received enough funding to keep more than 2,800 chaplains on the government payroll.

Main Issues for Action

What are the main issues which Belgian secular humanists have advocated for over the past seven decades? One prominent issue is secular education. An ethics course has been offered in state schools since the nineteenth century, but when first established it merely repeated religious morals. The nonconfessional morals and ethics class, offered as an alternative to religion in nondenominational schools, was only introduced on the implementation of the School Pact in the late 1950s. The nonconfessional ethics curriculum, as well as the appointment of its teachers, became the full responsibility of the secular-humanist community in 1993.

A second important concern is advocacy for issues that are deemed taboo for their time. Organized Belgian humanism, as well as its representatives, its affiliates in political circles, and diverse pressure groups, has always advocated for a variety of subjects. These groups often did so before these issues were deemed socially acceptable. Examples include the need for sex education in schools, equal rights for women, and bioethical subjects such as abortion, euthanasia, and patient rights. Although the influence of organized secular humanism on the societal and political acceptance of these subjects has not been researched consistently, it is clear that it should not be overestimated in these cases—but cannot be underestimated. In general, prominent secular humanists supported a multitude of advocacy initiatives and humanist organizations that were themselves responsible for sensitizing the public regarding specific issues. They researched those issues as needed and created a decent amount of content on these subjects, as in the run-up to the abortion law of 1990 and the euthanasia law of 2002.

The secular humanists’ third main focus has been on moral counseling (similar to chaplaincy, though nonreligious). Today, organized Belgian secular humanism boasts a few hundred moral counselors, both professional and volunteer. Two categories exist. The oldest form of counseling is linked to specific sectors, such as prisons, the army, and health care institutions. In their first few decades, secular-humanist organizations fought for humanist counselors to be appointed in these sectors. Supporting organizations were created for this purpose and yielded results: by the early 1980s, a dozen professionals and many other volunteers were active in these sectors, despite strong resistance from pressure groups within the Catholic pillar. Three more professional counselors were assigned to the maritime fishing sector, the national airport, and the University of Antwerp.

The newer form of moral counseling is a product of organized Belgian secular humanism’s pragmatic view. As part of the practical ideology adopted in the 1970s, secular-humanist organizations wanted to offer general counseling to the population as a whole. The Flemish UVV started out with a handful of professionals in 1982 and today boasts a professional workforce of over 160. That number is doubled when the numbers from Wallonia and Brussels are added.

Humanism and Secularism

As stated at the beginning of this article, one could say that Belgium is one of the most prominent humanist countries in Europe. A differentiation must be made, however, between the secular-humanist movement and the secularization of Belgian society as a whole. Although a certain form of separation of church and state is widely accepted and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is seen as the basis for virtually any civilized discussion, not all secularized Belgians have become secular humanists. The majority have become politically liberal or religiously or philosophically indifferent.

Although secular humanism’s addition to a pillarized society was not a bad idea, it was ill-suited to secular-humanist organizations in Belgium. The secular-humanist pillar is the smallest of all and might even not be considered a pillar as such, because the movement lacks the historical and political means to become a player in that political power game. Furthermore, the three decades of struggle for recognition (1970s–1990s) were exactly those in which several broad de-pillarization phenomena took place; people started seeing pillar organizations (such as mutual aid societies and trade unions) as services instead of organizations to which one owed personal allegiance from birth until death. These increasingly consumerist attitudes did not help the secular-humanist cause, and as society grew increasingly more secular, organized secular humanism did not see its numbers grow accordingly.

As a final remark, one needs to admit that although organized secular humanism in Belgium has not become a mass movement, Belgian humanism’s accomplishments are considerable. Not least of these is the infrastructure that now supports secular-humanist community building in the form of centers for secular humanists, such as HuizenvandeMens, Vrijzinnige Ontmoetingscentra, and Maisons de la Laïcité.


Further Reading

  • Cliteur, Paul, and van Houten, Douwe (eds.). Humanisme: Theorie en praktijk. Utrecht: De Tijdstroom Uitgeverij, 1993.
  • Coene, Gily, Scheelings, Frank, and Koppen, Jimmy (eds.). Op zoek. De evolutie van het vrijzinnig humanisme in Vlaanderen sinds de Tweede Wereldoorlog. Brussel: Humanistisch Verbond—Centrum voor Academische en Vrijzinnige Archieven, 2017.
  • De Nutte, Niels, and Gasenbeek, Bert (eds.). Looking Back to Look Forward. Organised Humanism in the World. Belgium, Great Britain, the Netherlands and the United States of America, 1945–2005. Brussel: VUBPress, expected 2019.
  • De Ruysscher, Dave, de Herdt, Paul, and de Metsenaere, Machteld (eds.). Een leven van Inzet: Liber Amicorum Michel Magits. Mechelen: Kluwer, 2012.
  • Delfosse, Pol (ed.). Dictionnaire historique de la laïcité en Belgique. Brussel: Fondation rationaliste/Luc Pire, 2005.
  • Departement Onderwijs en Vorming. Vlaams onderwijs in cijfers 2016–2017. Brussels: Vlaams Ministerie van Onderwijs en Vorming, 2017.
  • Robbers, Gerhard (ed.). State and Church in the European Union. Auflage: Nomos, 2005.
  • Sägesser, Caroline, Schreiber, Jean-Philippe, and Vanderpelen-Diagré, Cécile. Les religions et la laïcité en Belgique, rapport 2017. Brussels: Université Libre de Bruxelles, 2017.
  • Sägesser, Caroline. Cultes et laïcité en Belgique. Brussels: Dossier de Crisp, 2011.
  • Schröder, Stefan. “Humanist Organizations and Secularization in Germany,” Religion and Society in Central and Eastern Europe, no. 1 (2017).
  • Tyssens, Jeffrey. “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).
  • Tyssens, Jeffrey and Witte, Els. De Vrijzinnige Traditie in België: Van Getolereerde Tegencultuur tot Erkende Levensbeschouwing. Brussels: VUBPress, 1998.
  • Witte, Els, Craeybeckx, Jan, and Meynen, Alain. Political History of Belgium from 1830 Onwards. Brussels: Academic and Scientific Publishers, 2009.
  • Zuckerman, Phil, Galen, Luke W., and Pasquale, Frank L. The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People & Societies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Niels De Nutte

Niels De Nutte is a researcher at CAVA (the knowledge center and central archive of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the secular humanist movement in Flanders). He is a historian whose research focuses on postwar humanism with a special interest in subjects related to the history of bioethics and more specifically that of euthanasia advocacy. He is coeditor of Looking Back to Look Forward: Organised Humanism in the World. Belgium, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States of America, 1945–2005, expected to be published in October. In that book, a team of international historians discusses the background and evolution of organized postwar humanism in their respective countries from a comparative perspective.