Ishash Member Interview: Niels de Nutte

In the eighth installment in our series of interviews, Anton Jansson interviews Niels de Nutte, who is the editor of an international research volume concerning organised humanism in the post-war era.

Hello Niels, and congratulations on the book! First of all, could you introduce yourself shortly?

Hi Anton, thank you and thank you for this interview as well. I am a historian with a particular interest in 19th and 20th-century seculars and secular and/or humanist organisations. In the coming years, I hope to bring the insights of the work we put into Looking Back to both our new postgraduate program on humanism here in Brussels and my doctoral work at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. More specifically, I’ll be looking at the history of Belgian debates related to euthanasia, as the project is tentatively titled: The Right-to-Die in Belgium. A History of Societal Attitudes, Conceptual Confusion and Advocacy Concerning Euthanasia Between the 1880s and 1993. Debates on this subject date back to at least the 1920s and will no doubt have durable links to organised secularism and humanism, as has been the case in the United States and Great Britain.

Thanks. The book Looking Back To Look Forward: Organised Humanism in the World: Belgium, Great Britain, the Netherlands and the United States of America, 1945-2005 is an edited volume on VUB Press, which came out last year. You have edited this together with Bert Gasenbeek. Could you say something about the background of this book, how it came about?

The book is the main result of my employment with the Centre for Academic and Secular Humanist Archives (CAVA), which is the archival institution in charge of all collections related to post-war seculars, secularism and humanism in Belgium. When I started in 2017, this was my first position in historical research. I was asked to set up the publication of a book covering the history of post-war humanism in the Western world. As this seemed a daunting, albeit interesting, task, I suggested we involve other academics with specific national expertise. Bert Gasenbeek, a friend of our coordinator and at the time the director of the Humanist Historical Center, our Dutch pendant and in charge the archives of Humanist International (formerly International Humanist and Ethical Union), was brought in as second editor and the choice was made to use the establishment of IHEU as the starting point of our book, focusing primarily on the charter members. Austria and India were excluded to delimit the focus of the book and for practical reasons. In looking for other contributors, we found David Nash (Oxford Brookes University), Caroline Sägesser (Université Libre de Bruxelles), and Stephen Weldon (University of Oklahoma) able and willing. Lastly, Jeffrey Tyssens (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) was added to the fold, and he and I co-wrote the concluding comparative chapter.

Interesting! I have myself sometimes had a difficulty finding good historical research on organized secularism/humanism during the post-war era, and therefore found this book very valuable. What is your impression of the state of the field of historical research on this topic?

Ah, with this question you touch upon an issue many of us struggle with. It is quite difficult to find articles written in English or French of sufficient quality. Due to the ‘closeness’ of the post-war period to our own, not all work is done by professional historians and many contributions, as far as I am concerned, suffer from biases, they might be partisan or insufficiently framed. Besides that, the small number of publications are usually centred around factual histories of organisations, the nature of a specific national humanism or secularism and certain points of contention. This is not to say that no comprehensive publications exist. To name a few, and I might now be forgetting people, Joseph Blankholm, Callum Brown, David Nash, Stefan Schröder and Stephen Weldon have made some excellent contributions. Besides production from within the historical field, I do feel we should utilise the work already done within the fields of, for example, philosophy, anthropology, sociology and law. For example, in the field of law, I found the volume State and Church in the European Union, edited by Gerhard Robbers, very educational.

Apart from (co-)authoring both the introduction and a conclusive theoretical and comparative chapter, you have also written an empirical chapter on post-war humanism in Flanders. Would it be possible to give a brief presentation of the main tenets of that text?

Sure. What makes the Belgian case unique is the presence of two trends. Belgium had a strong secularist current in its secular and freethought organisations of the pre-war period. Battling the power in society of the Catholic church, this secularist nature has strongly persisted in the French-speaking part of our country, whereas on the Dutch-speaking side, humanism has become more pluralist and oriented towards community building. Interestingly, this discrepancy highlights the influence of the Netherlands (and the Anglo-Saxon sphere) on the north and the influence of France on the south. Apart from this, Belgian humanism occupies a unique position because of its recognition by the state as a non-confessional life stance. This recognition provides substantial annual funding and has spurred the growth of a humanist infrastructure in the form of meeting places such as HuizenvandeMens and Vrijzinnige Centra coupled with a few hundred humanist counsellors in a variety of sectors (general, army and hospitals to name a few) alongside those of other recognised religions. In conclusion, the most interesting point, and I think this counts for all national contributions in the book, is to see the evolution of these groups in society over the span of just over 50 years.

I find it especially interesting how the so-called “pillarisation” played a part in the shaping of secularism and humanism in the Netherlands and Belgium. Could you say something more about this?

Thanks for this question. Not taking the knowledge of the concept of pillarisation for granted is something I have had to get used to when dealing with an international audience, but you are correct. It has been a major influence on the specifics of both Belgian and Dutch organised humanism. To be brief, a pillar in both societies need to be understood as a kind of monolith of organisations belonging to the same ideological group. These varied in our two countries, but essentially can be a philosophical, political or religious persuasion, like, for instance Catholic or social democratic. These monoliths consisted, and in some manner still consist, of a multitude of like-minded organisations (such as schools, mutual aid societies, and political parties). They were government-funded and a person was expected to utilise only the organisations belonging to one’s group. For organised humanism, this had some consequences specific to Belgium and the Netherlands, an issue which Jeffrey and I have elaborated on in the comparative chapter. I would ask people with an interest in this concept to read the corresponding chapters since the resulting complexity is hard to describe in detail here.

The book focuses on post-war humanism, but occasionally also draws parallels to or look for roots in the older freethought movement. Is it possible to say something general about this? What is, in your view, typical of post-war humanism if one compares to older freethought, secularist or atheist movements?

Well, trying to examine any existing links between post-war and pre-war secular, ethical and humanist organisations was an issue Bert and I found very important. We specifically asked contributors to take the perspective of possible 19th-century predecessors to post-war humanism into account. This proved interesting since this longer perspective brought some similarities to light when looking within a national context, but most importantly, provided us – and I think the value of our work has to be found here – with markedly different forms of post-war organised humanism. We have a diagram (on page 165) which I think shows this. In response to your question on something typically post-war, I think the existence in every country of humanist counsellors or chaplains is the best example. Some pre-war initiatives notwithstanding, these counsellors seem to be a novelty. But generally speaking, what I find most striking is how organised humanism, or freethought for that matter, adapts to societal tendencies. Whereas American humanism was originally a religious unitarian project, it has become wholly secular post-1970. On the other hand, Belgian secularism was initially purely anticlerical, whereas current humanism presents in self in a much more pluralist fashion. I hope this answers your question…

Yes, it does! This book covers Belgium (Flanders & Wallonia), the Netherlands, USA and the UK, and I personally found that you used these countries to make good comparative points. But it is, of course, a limited selection (as it always is). Why these countries – and if you could have added one or two more national cases – what would they have been, and why?

Keen observation, once again Anton. These countries, as I mentioned before, were chosen because organisations of those nations were charter members of IHEU in 1952. For Belgium, this was the Humanistisch Verbond, as the eponymous, but different, organisation was for the Netherlands. For Great Britain, the British Ethical Union joined, and for the United States, the American Ethical Union and the American Humanist Association. Two other countries had charter members as well, in casu the Austrian Gesellschaft für Ethische Kultur and the Indian Radical Humanist Association. As is always the case with publications such as these, choices had to be made when finalising our concepts. We excluded the final two because of many reasons. The comparative effort would be particularly more complex when including India and hardly any literature existed on the Indian member organisation. The Austrian organisation almost immediately dropped to the background due to insufficient funds. The final product provided us with a very interesting comparative output, but if ever there should be a second edition, I would very happily double the countries treated, to include India and Austria, but also Germany and Norway. Germany as a result of the work done by Stefan Schröder and Norway because of its pivotal role in Humanists International and the massive membership of its humanist organisation. Tackling France would be enlightening as was, pun intended.

Interesting! I hope for a second edition, or a follow-up project then, because as you say, even though one can speak of this as an international phenomenon, my impression is that there are a broad variety of national trajectories of atheist, secularist, and humanist movements in the second half of the twentieth century. Until then, we will have to do with this volume, which you can read more about and order here. Thanks for this interview, and I am looking forward to hearing more about your work in the future!

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