On 11th January 2022, I attended the European Humanist Professionals (EHP) webinar on « Humanist Confirmation in Flanders, Belgium ».

David Nauwelaers and Len Van Looy first told us a bit about the origins of these celebrations in Belgium, which, back in the days, were clearly anti-Catholic/anti-religious and supposed to represent a counteroffer for those families who wished to make a political statement in favour of liberal and socialist values. They then described the current content of the ceremonies which they organise in Flanders for children (around age 6-7) and youngsters (around age 12-13). The ceremonies are supposed to represent rites of passage that show for the individuals, for their families and for their local communities that the youngsters are now transitioning into a new role, that they get new liberties, and that they have new responsibilities to carry. They mark the passage from early-childhood into childhood (for children leaving kindergarten and entering primary school) as well as the passage from childhood to adolescence (for children leaving primary school and entering secondary school). The aim of these ceremonies is clearly also to help the children grow into responsible members of society. Overall, many families in Flanders choose to participate in these two types of ceremonies and are generally very happy with it.

What I’ve learned from this webinar

I wanted to know more about the why and how of these celebrations that our friends in Belgium have been organising for decades. My goal was clearly to collect knowledge about humanist ceremonies in other countries to help us develop an attractive offer for non-religious people in our country, who wish to celebrate important transitions in life, like the birth of a child, entering childhood, entering adolescence, entering adulthood, becoming a parent, entering a partnership (marriage), becoming a grandparent, retiring from work and death.

Of course, not all these transitions have necessarily been celebrated in all cultures around the world and not everyone necessarily wishes to do so. But we see that humans seem to have a universal need to come together and reflect upon the changes that life brings to the individual with growing age but also to the group, since individual people progressively take on different roles as they grow older.

Yes, religions have very well understood that they could offer something here (a formal ceremony) and they did so.

Yes, they also did so not necessarily only to serve the individuals involved (fulfilling a universal human need), but also to consolidate their own power and influence over their followers. 

Yes, for some of us humanists (especially those who had to liberate themselves from the shackles of religion), these rites of passages, these “coming of age” ceremonies, are psychologically linked to negative emotions, because they remind us of our past experiences and the ties with a religious community that we wish to cut off. Some may even reject them entirely, because participating in a collective ceremony feels like submitting to group-thought and group-behaviour. 

However, more and more people understand that this need to celebrate important transitions in life is not a religious thing, per se, but that it’s part of our human nature and we, as humanists, do not need to reject it just because religions have served and exploited it over the centuries. We can liberate us from religion even better if we stand by our human needs and develop our own secular, humanist ceremonies to fulfil them. And we see, all over the world, that humanist ceremonies are flourishing and that they are much more tailored to the needs and wishes of the individual human beings participating in them and thus more personal and satisfying than any standardised religious ceremony (centred on some distant and imagined deity) could ever be.

I see, indeed, that more and more people in Luxembourg would like to have a non-religious ceremony for these important moments in life but struggle to find an attractive offer and then sometimes nevertheless resort to the “default position” which is the religious ceremony. Not that I want to forbid anyone to participate in a religious ceremony, everyone is free to choose what they wish. But I see that, for many people, this is not what best fits their own needs and wishes and it’s a pity that they cannot find an offer that suits them as human beings.

Moreover, such ceremonies and the associated preparation workshops ahead of “the big day” would be a great contribution that we humanists and secularists could make to the development of our society, since they are always about civic, democratic, social and ethical education of future generations.

To conclude, I think it’s worth starting such a tradition in Luxembourg. We could start small and then scale up. We could organise a first humanist confirmation ceremony for a few kids, assure that it’s a great experience for them and their families, document the event and show this to others to inspire them to organise (or to participate in) a next event and so on.

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Bob Reuter