The Vrije Universiteit Brussel has a strong and longstanding expertise on secular thought, in historical as well as contemporary perspectives. This is rooted in the basic principle of the university, the principle of free inquiry (vrij onderzoek), which unites scientists from the exact and human sciences alike. The Secular Studies Association Brussel unites the academics as the Center for the Study of the Enlightenment and Free Thought once did. The present core of the new research group is still to be found in the humanities, with researchers from the departments of history, philosophy, the law faculty and the faculty of psychology and education. We warmly welcome contributions made by other disciplines. As such our approach to secular studies is purposely broad.
We are convinced that research into the growing group of seculars in society should become a spearhead of our university, able to collaborate on an equal footing with analogous foreign researchers and institutes. These collaborations or partnerships can provide a platform able to connect with a society that is increasing in diversity, but where the, broadly defined, secular profile is still little known.
Over the past fifteen years, the field of 'secular studies' has grown from a split from religious studies into a fully-fledged interdisciplinary field, with specialized journals such as Secularism and Nonreligion (NSRN) and Secular Studies (Brill), separate monographic series such as Religion and Its Others and Studies in Religion, Nonreligion and Secularity (De Gruyter), Secular Studies (New York University Press) and New Perspectives on the History of Liberalism and Freethought (De Gruyter) and international and interdisciplinary groups such as the Nonreligion and Secularity Network and the International Society for Historians on Atheism, Secularism and Nonreligion. As described by Dr John Shook, Editor-in-Chief of Secular Studies, the field arose from interfaces between psychological and sociological research, coupled with historical and cultural reflections on 'secular trends', global studies of religion and nonreligion within the social and political world and dialogues between faith and reason. Contributions within this research field study what it means to be secular, how the 'nonreligious' give shape and meaning to their lives and how the secular relates to the broader functioning of society. Conceptual and practice-oriented research into secularization and alternatives to religion also have their place here. In addition, the ideology and philosophy of secularists and 'secularisms' naturally belong here as a research object. Secular studies are “an attractive and challenging arena for the humanities and humanities, for intellectual history, philosophy, religious studies, anthropology, social and political theory, and behavioural and cognitive sciences.”
The lines of research at the start of SSAB can be identified as follows:
1. “Multiple Secularisms”
Research within this line explores the fields of activity in which the broad non-believing and unchurched population – organizations, networks or committed individuals – are active. In doing so, the focus is international, searching for ways to evaluate the impact, the goals and the ambitions these groups and people have, and evaluating the existing relationships between the state and non-confessional groups or life stance organizations. This line of research is a logical consequence of the 2019 book project 'Looking Back to Look Forward: Organized Humanism in the World. Belgium, Great Britain, the Netherlands and the United States of America: 1945 – 2005', where various contacts were made with foreign colleagues, and the course 'History and structure of vrijzinnigheid and vrijzinnig humanisme' within the postgraduate program ‘Praktisch Humanisme’. At the end of 2022, this research will be launched internationally with the conference 'The Non-Religious and the State: Choices and Frames for Seculars from the Age of Revolution until Today'.
2. Death and secularism
The central axis in this line of research is formed by historical research into political-religious conflicts around death and burial culture and how this is dealt with in society. This line has a strong tradition within our history department. At the end of 2020, a cross-departmental study day was held with speakers who research this matter within HARP. The researchers involved generate national and international output, with examples being a publication in Trajecta and Secular Studies. The existing historical dimension will be expanded upon in the future with a contemporary perspective based on the expertise available on vrijzinnig humanisme and humanist rituals among the visiting professors of the new postgraduate program.
In countries such as Belgium, France, etc., Freemasonry has long been an important actor within the secular sphere. The VUB has a longstanding and internationally recognized research tradition in this field, formerly held by the research group FREE, which has been merged into SSAB. Several dissertations have been devoted to this subject in the past and our researchers were firmly represented on international forums with their research. The ongoing research focuses on the involvement of Belgian Freemasonry in the laicization of the public sphere and the secularization of social behaviour, e.g. in the fields of education, health care and funerary culture.
In line with the ideological, philosophical and moral tradition of our university, this line of research is rooted in the premise that bioethics offers a secular framework through which believers and unbelievers can discuss and collaborate to arrive at peaceful solutions to controversial ethical problems. Philosophical traditions and social scientific research methods offer many original frameworks to tackle these issues. Classical themes such as termination of pregnancy and euthanasia, as well as highly topical questions about genetic intervention and IVF, can further demonstrate the fundamental significance of the secular framework for bioethical reflection and make it the subject of research.
We pay special attention to secularism as the movement that explicitly strives for neutrality concerning religion in its approach to bioethical issues. Based on the experiences of biologists and physicians, we can investigate how secular bioethics occupies an eminent place in health care practice. Research from a philosophical perspective is complemented within SSAB by historical work on eugenics, social Darwinism, contraceptives, birth control and end-of-life issues.
5. Enlightenment and Freethinking
Within this line of research, the focus is on the study of critical freethinking that plays a role in political-ethical emancipatory changes. The research topics can be divided into three broad areas: the beginnings of secular philosophy in the 13th to 16th centuries and the Arab influence, early modern critical philosophy (Machiavelli, Spinoza and his circle, freethinking, libertine clandestine philosophy, [radical] Enlightenment, criticism of religion, democracy thinking) and current critical philosophy (critical theory, criticism of modernity related to diversity, multiplicity, differences). This line of research follows and shapes the collaboration with foreign colleagues who focus on the study of the Enlightenment, clandestine thinking, formation of modern ideas and critical theory (Marburger Archiv – Kant und die Aufklärung (D); IHRIM-ENS Lyon (F), La Lettre clandestine (F), Napoli Federico II (I), Laval (Ca). This line of research is related to the courses 'Freethinking' (BA2 Philosophy) and 'Philosophy of Enlightenment' (Ma Philosophy), as well as with 2 seminars in the interuniversity Research Master in Philosophy.
The internal expertise is strengthened and supported by employees of CAVA (the archive of the VUB and vrijzinnig humanisme in Flanders), which has a rich collection for researchers to draw on. Employees of Liberas, which houses older archives about freethinking and liberalism, are equally involved. Long-term collaboration is pursued with both institutions, which will be valorized as early as 2022 with the organization of a conference and a subsequent peer-reviewed publication.