Humanism in Flanders

by Sue Falder

A happy human in an Antwerp park

A happy human in an Antwerp park

Nine BHA members, five of us celebrants, went on a study trip recently hosted by the UVV (Unie Vrijzinnige Verenigingen) in Antwerp. This is an umbrella body which has 36 member organisations, all vrigzinnige – freethinkers. It is not itself a ‘humanist’ organisation, but the Flemish Humanist Association is one of the members. In addition there are separate organisations which regulate humanist counsellors in hospitals, in prisons, in old people’s homes and so on.

The principles of free-thinking with which all these organisations must agree are adherence to the principle of free enquiry, rejection of dogma and arguments based on authority, and creativity and the bearing of ones own moral values and the ability to give meaning to ones own life.

The existence of the umbrella body (formed in the 70s) seems to be the factor which enabled the many different and organisations, often with differing approaches – full of well-meaning volunteers – to have a powerful voice in negotiations with the Belgian government. Because of the historical context, whilst the origins of modern humanism in the 50s in Belgium seem similar to those in Britain, things took a very different path.

Affected by the French Revolution, church was separated from state in Belgium, but then from the time of Napoleon the pay and pensions of clergy were paid from public funds, with the upkeep of church buildings the responsibilty of local authorities. The UVV was able, over many years and with political support, to negotiate equal status with the seven `registered’ religions in the country (Catholic/Protestant/Jewish/Greek Orthodox/Anglican/Islamic/Buddhist). This situation was ratified by a change to the constitution in the nineties, and the UVV now has a financed HQ in a gracious 1920s building near the centre of Antwerp, where we were entertained.

At first free-thinkers in public life were marginal – given money enough for just one administrator and one counsellor, but over time they proved their worth and negotiated more. Now, when a new UVV centre is agreed, it will consist of five paid people – an administrator and four counsellors/community workers. There are currently 27/28 centres in Flanders, where people can get moral counselling, can go to arrange a ceremony, find out about euthanasia or making a living will, or where workshops or talks may be arranged.

An important feature of humanism in Belgium is the presence of Secular Ethics as a non-religious choice in schools. Students have two hours a week where they opt for a religious course of study or the alternative – which has become increasingly popular, especially in secondary school – where 80% of students do the ‘non-confessional ethics’ course. There are ‘transition’ ceremonies at 6, for the start of schooling, and at 12.

We were given an insight into the Counsellor’s role, in general and more specifically in the different institutions where humanists have been accepted on an equal basis with religious representatives.

General Counselling

Paid counsellors generally have a higher-education background in psychology, philosophy, social work, ethics or the humanities and there is a budget for their continuing development when they are working. If they work at a centre, their main task may be to organise events in the community, or to be available for consultation. This would include bereavement counselling, arranging funerals (also weddings and birth ceremonies) and advising people about the legislation and practicalities of advance directives and the law on euthanasia.

The values upon which the counselling is based are:

  • respect for people and things

They are completely open to all sorts of people (about 50% of clients are religious) and all sorts of subject.

  • freedom of thought/research

into life, into oneself. ‘Active listening’ helps people build up self-knowledge and find their ‘direction’ in life.

  • existential issues…..We as human beings give meaning to our existence.

However minor they may seem, anything concerning our basic sense of well-being is important.

All counselling and the work of celebrants is free to the user.

Counsellors in prisons, hospitals, old-people’s homes, the army, for fishermen, at the airport…

The above values underlie the work of the humanist representatives in these different institutions. In comparison with religious reps they are few in number (there are nine humanist counsellors for 55 prisons for example) and, though those we spoke to have good relationships with their religious counterparts there are certainly tensions, and they often have to move carefully.

It was interesting to discover that they are paid by the state, but there is no monitoring of the amount or nature of the work they do. They ‘answer’ to the UVV and work within their guidelines, but no-one seems to demand a detailed report of their everyday activities.

Some of the visiting group pictured outside Antwerp prison

Some of the visiting group pictured outside Antwerp prison

We visitors were very appreciative of the time these hard-working counsellors spent taking us round their institutions and introducing us to others, and if anyone is interested in more detail of what we were told and shown, we can certainly provide it. As a celebrant myself, I was particularly interested in our visit to Antwerp Crematorium and the talks given by different counsellors, which I summarise below:

Funerals

FDs call a UVV centre and ask for a counsellor to arrange a funeral. The family may go to the centre or the counsellor may visit the family and the ceremony is arranged in most ways as we would do it. Things differ in different parts of Belgium, but there were some particularly interesting factors associated with the Antwerp Crematorium, which we visited.

Inside one of the auditoria

Inside one of the auditoria

It is a large modern, neutral building with two auditoria and two waiting rooms, adorned by modern art. For a humanist ceremony their symbol – a torch – is put at the front. The mourners we saw there were generally not dressed in black, though the director who took us round found that rather disrespectful.

There are rooms for refreshment, and it is usual for families to stay for ‘coffee and cake’ after they have scattered the ashes outside – in a rather nondescript area, there are no memorials visible or rose bushes as we expect to see.

The system which has developed there, to cope with the time delay there used to be when they worked as we do is this:

Bodies are delivered by FDs to the crematorium and cremated in one of the five cremators. Within a day or so, if families want a ceremony at the crematorium, they will have one with the ashes – led by a crematorium worker MC plus a celebrant, religious or otherwise or just family members.

Outside the crematorium

Outside the crematorium

Of the cremations they do, something over 15% are done by humanist celebrants, the same number by priests, but 60% don’t have a cremation ceremony or else they have a family one or one just led by a crematorium member of staff.

Also in Antwerp, because of the demand and the short turnaround time for ceremonies, the professional counsellors are helped out by volunteers. (Last year there were 320 funerals in Antwerp and there are 5 professionals and 12 volunteers.) The counsellor visits the family and takes notes etc. then phones the volunteer and conveys the information. It is then the volunteer who delivers the tribute, meeting the family just beforehand.

Weddings

In Antwerp there are 25 – 30 a year, with demand growing. They come usually through wedding fairs and via the internet and three volunteers do these as well. They take place anywhere but the UVV have just acquired a large building to serve as a ceremonies centre.

Weddings are often booked a year to 18 months ahead and there will be three or more meetings with the counsellor over that time. S/he generally gives a list of questions to each participant to fill in separately and this is the basis for the following discussions.

Birth ceremonies

Usually for new-borns or one-year-olds, these are fewer and often done by families themselves. They also involve several meetings and a list of questions and are similar to our ceremonies, with ‘guide parents’.

Celebration of Free-thinking Youth
This is the ceremony to mark the move from childhood to adulthood as children move to secondary school (at the same time as first communion is taking place.) This is prepared with teachers and a local committee and last year 3200 children participated.

Freddy Boeykens, Head of UVV in Flanders and Sonja Eggerickx, school inspector for the subject 'Non-confessional Ethics'; president IHEU; president UVV

Freddy Boeykens, Head of UVV in Flanders and Sonja Eggerickx, school inspector for the subject 'Non-confessional Ethics'; president IHEU; president UVV

Conclusion

It was certainly inspiring to be in a country where humanism/free-thinking is such a recognised and respected aspect of society, and to see the confidence this brings with it. And I found it particularly striking that (though I’m sure translation may be affecting my understanding) in Belgium there is a direct connection between humanism and ethical and moral approaches. This is so much at variance with opposition in the UK which assumes humanists to be without morality.

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