Magazine article Free Inquiry

Freedom of and from Religion

Magazine article Free Inquiry

Freedom of and from Religion

Article excerpt

Freedom of religion and belief" requires states to show equal respect for all beliefs - whether religious or nonreligious, theistic or non-theistic. It is therefore the only human right that protects humanists as humanists: it guarantees the freedom to follow and advocate humanist beliefs and prohibits states from discriminating against humanists and the nonreligious.

Michael Roan, the organizer of the conference on "Freedom of Religion or Belief and the U.N. Year for Tolerance" (see p. 19), described freedom of religion or belief as the most controversial of all the human rights recognized by the United Nations. Its contentious nature has been reflected in the history of the international instruments protecting it. There has been progress - although it has been slower and more difficult than for almost any other right - but there has also been neglect and some weakening of the right.

The right to freedom of religion or belief was first stated by the U.N. in the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" in 1948. Nineteen years later it was made legally binding (for signatories) by its inclusion in the 1967 "Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," and, after nearly twenty years of drafting, the U.N. finally gave it detailed expression in the 1981 "Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion or Belief." In 1986 the U.N. Commission on Human Rights appointed a special rapporteur to investigate actions inconsistent with the 1981 Declaration and to recommend remedial measures.

Along with these positive developments there have been some steps backward. A report on the 1994 U.N. Human Rights Commission by the "International Service for Human Rights" highlighted freedom of religion and belief as perhaps the most seriously weakened area of U.N. human rights:

The subject of freedom of religion offers another example of erosion of international standards: Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration recognized the right to change one's religion. The 1967 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights clarified this right in a restrictive sense, since it recognized the right to have or adopt a religion or belief. The International Declaration adopted in 1981 introduced additional restrictions, since it merely affirmed the right to have a religion. Finally the [U.N. World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993] made the exercise of religious freedom subject to compliance with national legislation. Obviously, the States condemned in the [U.N. Rapporteur's] 1994 report on religious intolerance made every effort throughout the [1994] session of the Commission to ensure that the latter confirmed the iniquitous consensus reached in Vienna. As a result, the mandate of the Rapporteur is extremely restricted.

Moreover, governments and even some human rights organizations misinterpret "freedom of religion and belief" so as to deny the rights of the nonreligious. It is often falsely argued that "freedom of religion" does not include the right to "freedom from religion," or the meaning of "belief" is misunderstood or even mistranslated. For example, the new Slovakian constitution was widely admired because it incorporated the main international human rights documents, but in translating "freedom of religion or belief" into Slovak the word for belief was changed to refer solely to "religious creed." As a result, humanists are denied the rights and protection given to religious believers in Slovakia. In other instances, instead of dropping the reference to "belief," it is argued that freedom of belief does not cover "nonbelievers" (one good reason to avoid this negative designation).

The conference on "Freedom of Religion or Belief and the U.N. Year of Tolerance" was the first such conference to include significant representation of secular humanists. I gained the impression that without our involvement the meeting would have focused on freedom of religion alone (unfortunately, this truncated description is the most common reference to the right). …

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