Thought, Conscience, Religion, or Belief

By Roan, Michael | Free Inquiry, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Thought, Conscience, Religion, or Belief


Roan, Michael, Free Inquiry


A major conference entitled "Freedom of Religion or Belief and the U.N. Year for Tolerance" was held September 18-20, 1995, in London, England. The conference was sponsored by the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex, United Kingdom, and the Tandem Project in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The conference was held as part of the process of preparing a world report on freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief that is being funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. It will be published by Routledge in late 1996.

The "World Report" looks in particular at how international standards on freedom of religion or belief are interpreted and implemented in representative countries from all regions of the world. Drawing on sixty country studies undertaken for the "World Report," the conference looked both backward to the work that has been done to combat intolerance based on religion or belief and forward to the work that remains to be done as the millennium approaches. Accordingly, the conference constituted one of the most recent and also one of the most significant meetings of experts on issues of freedom of religion or belief.

Secular Humanist Involvement

The conference in London was attended by approximately 150 experts on freedom of religion or belief from around the world. To underscore the universality of tolerance for all beliefs the conference invited a number of representatives of secular humanist organizations to dialogue with representatives of religious organizations. Among the humanists attending the conference were: Professor Rob Tielman, co-president, International Humanist and Ethical Union, Utrecht, The Netherlands; Lars Gunnar Lingas, general secretary, Human-Etisk Forbund, Oslo, Norway; Matt Cherry, executive director, Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, Amherst, New York; Harry Stopes-Roe, vice president, British Humanist Association, Birmingham, United Kingdom; Professor Fred Whitehead, editor, Free-thought History, University of Kansas, Kansas City; and Margaret Downey, president, Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Religion or Belief - A United Nations Phrase

International human rights standards, such as the United Nations "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," seek to protect the human being's unique capacity to believe. Article 18 reads "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching practice, worship and observance." In 1994 a General Comment on Article 18 passed by the General Assembly states the phrase "religion or belief" in Article 18 includes all "theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs."

Deepening Problems of Intolerance

Plenary speakers included Abdelfattah Amor, the U.N. special rapporteur on the 1981 U.N. "Declaration on Freedom of Religion or Belief"; Dr. David Little, senior fellow, United States Institute of Peace; Ulrich Bunjes, director, Council of Europe Youth Campaign Against Racism, Xenophobia, Anti-Semitism and Intolerance Based on Religion or Belief; Mari Fitzduff, director, Northern Ireland Community Relations Council; Bertram Ramcharan, special advisor, U.N. Secretary-General's Office in Geneva; Sir Sigmund Sternberg, chair, International Council for Christians and Jews; Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun and author of A History of God. Professor Rob Tielman spoke on secular humanism and the system of education in The Netherlands that provides students with options to receive religious or humanist instruction of their own choice.

One of the sad refrains of the London conference was that in many parts of the world patterns of intolerance and persecution based on religion or belief seem increasingly evident. These are often linked to resurgent nationalism and ethnic conflict. …

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