[Previously published in Humanist Voices]
Anton Van Dyck is the Secretary General and Interim Treasure of the IHEYO, the youth wing of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and a non-profit umbrella with dozens of member organisations and serves as the connecting link between Humanist organisations with young members around the world. They help young humanists (age 18-35) become and stay connected through our programs and annual events. The interview was conducted by Scott Jacobsen.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Tell us about your background in humanism or ethical societies.
Dyck: I think it all went quite naturally since both of my parents are non-religious and verbal in their political views. In Belgian education, we have a special subject. If you want to take religious studies like Catholicism and Protestantism, you can. But we also have a course specifically for freethinkers. As soon as you’re in elementary, you can take it. My dad was an educator who took such classes and so I was vaguely aware of the movement.
When I was abroad on an exchange programme in South Africa, I became aware that being an atheist — which not all humanists are, but most of them are — was not a common thing in many places. It was at that time that I started wondering about ethics, society and life stances. Once back in Belgium I decided, that I wanted to start studying and becoming politically active without picking a colour.” A buddy of mine who was the leader of the Green party for the youth section told me to check out a group called Free Inquiry. “They’re a bit of a special organization”, he said. One Monday night, I stopped by, went into a meeting, and never left. Now, five years down the line, I’m very active.
Jacobsen: In terms of defining humanism, bigger organisations such as the American Humanist Association come out with their own definitions, and documents such as the Humanist Manifesto. Within that paradigm, humanists will obviously define it a little differently. How do you define humanism or freethought yourself?
Dyck: I had a pretty interesting conversation about that with the founder of the Church of Bacon. You might have heard of him, John Whiteside. We agreed the declarations for humanism weren’t very accessible because they are very precise and can be overly complex. After a brief discussion we decided to describe it in the following way – generally, as not being too much of a selfish individual, but reserving the right to be somewhat self-interested when it’s necessary.
At the same time we must be aware of what we’re doing and saying, which refers to the first part of that definition. We’re currently facing a huge problem on both sides of that spectrum. On the one hand we have those that are mocked as social justice warriors that fight for “intellectual safe spaces” and on the other hand we have a bunch of trolls who push buttons to push buttons. Since ideas that aren’t allowed to be challenged downright scare me, I’d consider myself more on the side of the provocateurs. Unfortunately, the interaction between both sides today is often without any positive result and could even be considered intellectually impoverishing. Tolerance is both an active and a passive process. So in order for that debate to be fruitful, we need to find the balance between not being offended by everything and treating each other with a modicum of respect. And by “a modicum of respect” I mean phrasing, not censoring ourselves.
Jacobsen: That’s a very valuable point you make – about respect. I’m thinking of comedy, for instance. Good comedy wouldn’t work without it. A good comedian knows exactly where the line is, crosses it deliberately, makes the audience laugh, and has them happy they crossed the line with them. But regulating comedy is not a solution either.
Dyck: A State without comedians or where comedians have to be regulated is not a democratic state in any way. According to Montesquieu you have the three state powers. Do you know this? The power to create law, the power to execute law and the power to enforce law. So you have judges, government, and parliament. But then, especially in modern western society, you have other very important powers such as the media, which plays an important role in a participating democracy. You also have the critics and the cynics. They all play the role of independent opposition, which you need, to transcend partisan politics. Those last two however, are wild card. The independent checks and balances that keep the other three in check are absent when it comes to critics and cynics, who have an amplified voice now. They act more like independent judges today – however their function is more akin to administrative law, in that they are supposed to be checking on good governance by holding politicians accountable to the principles of a transparent democracy.
Jacobsen: With respect to IHEYO, what is your position? What are your tasks and responsibilities?
Dyck: Right now, I am the Secretary-General. I do a bit of the administration and the executing work. When our president Marieke who has also been interviewed on this forum, says, “I think it would be good to go in this direction,” I have to think of how it would be best to go about it. I think that’s the best way of putting it. I also do some of the secretarial work like write up the minutes, do some follow-up, and general tasks of running the organisation.
Jacobsen: And your educational and professional aspirations lie in the direction of..?
Dyck: I am finishing law school. In Belgium we have a general forming bachelor, which is 3 years, then you have 2 years for specialisation. I chose economic law, which is something very, very different from what might have been expected given my involvement in humanism. But for me, I have a strong fascination for how people unify themselves within organisations. You see the same thing in corporate law.
Big companies have legal entities. They structure themselves so they become effective organisations and that’s something I want to apply in my pro bono work and hopefully, professional career. I’ll see what comes my way. But it is definitely my intention to continue what I am currently doing on a voluntary basis but more professionally.
Jacobsen: What are ways for people to become involved in or with IHEYO?
Dyck: Well, we have our own publication on Medium, where we offer people a forum to put their ideas out there and to motivate them. That does come under the condition that they will get responses of people who have different opinions. By contributing to that, they are contributing to an international community of humanism, which we aspire to be. IHEYO has decided to focus more on providing the platforms for multi- and bi-lateral cooperation between all of the member organisations of IHEYO and IHEU.
We only have a few mandates, but there’s plenty of ways people can join and contribute. First, by looking up your local organisation, and seeing what they’re all about. Maybe, if they don’t have any activities in international humanism, they can start them up, contact us about it, and we’ll help them partner up with other organisations and do projects to size. There are lots of possibilities. They can also join our working groups. We have one per region in the world (Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe) plus a communications group.
Jacobsen: Recommended books? Or, if not books, authors?
Dyck: I have a nice collection of books but my favourites are:
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. The movie is very good as well.
In addition to those two, there are other notable ones. Then there’s Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. This one formed my views while in South Africa because the perspectives of Mandela are simply invaluable. Another one is by Jonny Steinberg called The Number: One Man’s Search for Identity in the Cape Underworld and Prison Gangs – which talks about a very strange tradition in crime culture, and how gangs have their own strange form of religion, culture, and language. It has elements of the mafia, tribalism, the military and is a really fascinating insight into how group identities work in our society as well.
Jacobsen: What is the strongest argument you have ever come across for atheism or humanism?
Dyck: The strongest argument for humanism would be that the existence of god is irrelevant for the question on what we should do when we’re alive. We should care for each other and try to be good people because it’s the right and rational thing to do, not because we need to save up “goodness-points” so we can go to heaven.
If you want to be truly humanist, it doesn’t matter what comes after life. It matters what you do here and do now.
Thank you for your time, Anton.