World Humanist Day is celebrated on 21 June, the longest day of the year. How brightly does the light of secular humanism shine in these dark times? Are the values and ideals of this philosophy, which form the foundation of our university, up to the challenge of new issues? And do they still resonate with our students and other young people? We discussed these questions with researcher and secular humanist Niels De Nutte.

You are writing a PhD on the history of euthanasia in Belgium. That issue, along with abortion, is the first thing many people think of when it comes to secular humanism, isn’t it?

Niels De Nutte: “When society considers changes to euthanasia or abortion laws, secular humanist organisations are often among the first to act. So that association is not surprising. A subject like euthanasia is as old as humanity, albeit under different interpretations, of course. In Belgium, the first newspaper articles on the subject appeared as early as the 1920s. From the 1950s, there was a social base among secularists to support ‘mercy killing’, as it was then called.”

Is euthanasia the core theme of secular humanism?

“Not really. Historically, a founding and formative issue is the fight for the right to a civil burial. Those who were not buried with a church service – cremation was still a long way from being an option – were stigmatised. This was done, among other things, by burying the deceased in a separate part of the cemetery, something that was then called the ‘dog corner’. Secularists tried to break the Catholic monopoly on dignified burials. The priests and a large section of the community resisted this fiercely. To guarantee a dignified civil burial, secularists had to organise solidarity funeral processions and ensure that people outside the church were buried like everyone else.

Niels De Nutte

The civil burial in 1862 of Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen, St V, the founder of our university, caused quite a scandal among Catholics. How did that come about?

“His friends, mainly secularists and freemasons, watched over his deathbed at his request to prevent a priest from being brought in to administer the last sacraments. The civil burial was for a long time the motivating theme for secularism. In the early 20th century, for example, there was the right to cremation.”

Today, being buried or cremated without a church service is perfectly normal, and abortion and euthanasia are widely accepted. Have we have forgotten that these rights were once fought for?

“The abortion law was passed with a shifting majority in my birth year, 1990, and I was 12 when the laws on palliative care and euthanasia were enacted. So I have never known it any other way. Generations who grow up with certain rights may feel much less urgency to refine or expand these laws. Yet that was the original intent of the progressive actors. Abortion and euthanasia, though not literally in the latter case, are still in the criminal code. Many people do not realise this. The legal case following the death by euthanasia of Tine Nys has shown again that the charge of murder still hangs over doctors.”"

“Talking about liberal values and rights in the classroom is more sensitive than before”


Do you agree that the general feeling is that these rights have been definitively acquired?

“In the Western world, we like to believe that the world is progressing and only becoming more liberal. That is not true. Liberal rights such as abortion, euthanasia, surrogacy and same-sex marriage can be questioned and, in the worst case, reversed. Take a political party that says during the election campaign that LGBTI rights have been acquired, but then opposes sex education in schools.

Many teenagers have surprisingly conservative views, as we saw in the TV show Eerste Keuze, in the run-up to the elections. What do you make of this?

“My secondary school class was diverse, but I don’t remember conflicts over ideological issues. That has changed. When I visit secondary schools for interfaith class visits, it can be challenging to talk about liberal ideas. It’s possible, but it is more sensitive than before. This is related to the rise of more identity-based thinking.”

 “Many young people support secular humanist ideas without realising it”


Is that a problem?

“It becomes a problem when people retreat into themselves, and say ‘I am this and only this, and what you say cannot be true’. Well, then the conversation is over. That ideological thinking is found at both ends of the spectrum. One young person says: ‘I am vegan and therefore you can no longer eat meat’. And the other says: ‘I am Muslim, and therefore you cannot talk about LGBTI people in my class’. The first statement is considered progressive by some, the second conservative. But if you let go of the left-right framework, the reasoning is actually the same. In both cases, it’s about people who attach great importance to a particular interpretation of their identity.”


Where does secular humanism fit into that discussion?

“Identity-based thinking is diametrically opposed to secular thinking. Being secular means thinking critically and being pluralistic and non-dogmatic. An identity-based thought is by definition a dogmatic thought.”

Can secular humanism still appeal to this generation?

“Many young people – and older people too – support secular humanism without realising it. When I speak at a Catholic school to a class that has never heard of the philosophy, no one raises their hand. But when I finish my explanation, there are often students who ask where they can join. Then I have to explain to them that we are not a church and don’t have membership. If you explain it, many young people will identify with the ideas, something that historian Callum Brown calls the ‘humanist condition’.”

“Secular humanism was built by people with a great thirst for knowledge”


Can we apply those ideas practically in these polarised times?

“I am convinced that you can only counter polarisation by looking at the world critically. Secular humanism offers a serious added value as a guiding framework, and that includes within our university. We must also dare to address difficult topics. The Israel-Palestine conflict is very painful. It is important to teach children and young people how to form a viewpoint based on a thorough understanding of the background of that conflict. That sort of approach puts a brake on polarisation. The same goes for, say, Trump. In secondary schools, I try to explain how the electoral system in the US works and how someone with his problematic values can still become president. You need to understand that to prevent it from happening again.”

Studenten bij De Denker

Knowledge is no longer attractive. Everything revolves around opinions. Do you agree?

“As Caroline Pauwels said: ‘Everyone has the right to their own opinion and can learn from it, but it becomes problematic when you have the right to your own facts.’ That perfectly sums up the core values of secular humanism. Pluralism can only exist through critical thinking, and critical thinking is based on generally accepted facts. In today’s world, non-factuality is rampant. That makes it so difficult. What used to be shouted at the bar, so to speak, didn’t reach outside the walls of the bar. Everyone else drank their beer and thought: leave me alone. Now, that shouting finds its way into the world, via Twitter and Facebook.”

Many young people get almost all their information from social media. Is that a problem?

“As a historian, I find that a sad and depressing development. Only by reading and learning a lot do you realise that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. Those who read little today often think they know everything. It is a dichotomy that secular organisations also struggle with. The Humanist Association raises new topics almost daily on its platform, in the form of short texts. The reading time is seven or eight minutes. The content remains critical, but you are not spending an hour on it. And is on TikTok. Apparently, that resonates. They want to translate to a broad audience and the formats that young people use. For a philosophy like secular humanism, that is incredibly difficult. Secularism was built by highly educated people and less educated people who had a great thirst for knowledge, which they could quench in the high schools and libraries of, for example, the Vermeylen or Willems foundations. As a researcher, I sometimes wonder if we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

“Humanists look at the world with wonder”

Secular humanism puts the human being at the centre and believes in the malleability of society and the world. The environmental and climate crisis seems to test this optimism. The Belgian philosopher Jaap Kruithof once advocated for an eco-centric humanism, with the human as part of the whole. What do you think of that philosophy?

“That is a vision that has been gaining ground within organised secularism in recent years. The Dutch environmental philosopher Floris Van den Berg, who teaches a course in our postgraduate programme, talks about eco-humanism. The human being remains central, but is embedded in all life on the planet.”

Can you be spiritual as a secular humanist?

“Leo Apostel wrote a book about it: Atheistic Spirituality. For me, spirituality is about being present, being amazed. Ode to Wonder, if I may quote Caroline Pauwels again. That’s it. Humanists look at the world with wonder.”

Secular humanist through and through

Niels De Nutte studied history at the VUB. From 2017 to 2019, he was a researcher at CAVA, the Centre for Academic and Secular Archives, and from 2019 to 2023, he was a secular humanist consultant for huisvandeMens Brussel. He is deputy director at the International Society for Historians of Atheism, Secularism and Humanism and is completing a PhD on the history of euthanasia in Belgium until 1993. Niels was an editor involved in the publication of Looking Back to Look Forward: Organised Humanism in the World (2019) and the forthcoming The Non-Religious and the State: Seculars crafting their lives in different frameworks from the Age of Revolution to the Current Day.

“As opinions become fixed, we must more than ever seek what connects us”

What secular humanism means to VUB student Diewert Seynaeve

Diewert Seynaeve is finishing his second master’s in medicine and has been chair of the student council since this academic year. He became acquainted with secular humanism through the medical student association. The values of this philosophy have since been a common thread in his life.

Did you grow up with secular humanism?

“Not really, but critical thinking was instilled in me from a young age. We had various newspapers and watched news broadcasts on Flemish, French-speaking, French and English channels. Afterwards, we discussed the differences. My parents always emphasised: be critical of yourself and look critically at the world, because it is not always what it seems.”

Diewert Seynaeve

Did you find that critical attitude in secular humanism?

“Certainly. It doesn’t mean that you have to break everything down. Rather, it means seeing pain points and looking for solutions to address them. Hence my commitment to organisations such as the Medical Circle, the VUB Student Council and IMD Brussels.”

Does the humanistic side of the philosophy appeal to you as much?

“I find it a beautiful idea that people can be good in themselves, without a higher power imposing anything on us. Personally, I try to approach people without prejudice and be open to other opinions and life views. I feel that I have become a kinder person. If someone in poverty approaches me on the street, I try not to ignore them but at least exchange a few sentences. Approaching people with an open mind is the least you can do.”

What role can secular humanism play today?

“Opinions are becoming fixed, national politics is polarising, international conflicts are flaring up: the trends are unpleasant. We are not open enough to dialogue. There is a need for rapprochement, to look at what connects us. These are all values from secular humanism.”