By Vexen Crabtree 2018
Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Belief are upheld in Article 18 the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights1. It affirms that it is a basic human right that all people are free to change their beliefs and religion as they wish2. No countries voted against this (although eight abstained). This right was first recognized clearly in the policies of religious toleration of the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe in the post-enlightenment era3 of the 19th century which has now led to a developed where freedom of religion is taken for granted4. In 2016 a study found that over 180 countries in the world had come to guarantee freedom of religion and belief5 and long-term studies have shown that religious violence and persecution both decrease in cultures where religious freedom is guaranteed6. Despite this, there still are many who are strongly against freedom of belief2, including entire cultures and many individual communities of religious believers. Their alternative is that you are not free to believe what you want and they often state that you cannot change religion without being punished (often including the death penalty): this is bemoaned as one of the most dangerous elements of religion7 and "the denial of religious freedoms is inevitably intertwined with the denial of other freedoms"8 and the solution is, everywhere, to allow religious freedom and the freedom of belief.
“Human Rights have had a very powerful positive effect on the world, ratcheting humanity away from barbarism, political oppression, gender inequality and religious prejudice. Humanity has felt the need for Human Rights for a long time. The derivation of ethics from religious codes has been inadequate as either a source of governance or as a guide to personal conduct: too many old and archaic rules lead to needless segregation, sectarianism, suffering and pain, especially of minorities. Even the well-loved Golden Rule (treat others as you wish to be treated) fails as thugs indulge in their dog-eat-dog barbarism. Many have built secular (non-religious) frameworks. Immanuel Kant theorized on the categorical imperative9; but this required everyone spend an inordinate amount of time indulging in long-term strategic thinking when making any moral choices. John Stuart Mill in the 18th century constructed his under-appreciated utilitarian ethic10. But the most successful secular work in this area is by far the push for human rights.
Human rights solves some of the "deliberation overhead" issues by stipulating some things you cannot deprive people of. One of the earliest Western legal systems that declares the existence of Human rights was created by Hugo Grotius in his book Der Jure Belli ac Pacis in the 17th century CE, famous for being based on reason and humanitarianism without without any need for divinity at its source11. The wheels had been set in motion in the Enlightenment, as Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau deliberated upon secular sources of morals in France in order to prevent the Christian abuses of the Dark Ages from occurring again12 and it was this that brought HR to the fore in the West13.
It is now widely acknowledged that "the source of human rights is man's moral nature"14 and the international Vienna Declaration states that "all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person"15. Governments, institutions and individuals are now held to account across the world for failing to respect basic human rights.”
"Freethought" is the freedom to think and believe as you wish. No-one has a right to create any punishments, formal or informal, social or legal, against any person on account of what they believe. Actions can be met with punishments - but not beliefs (or lack of).
“Since the advent of formal universal human rights in the 1940s, it is now recognized as freedom of 'religion or belief', where the word 'belief' includes non-religious world views, and as being itself part of a wider freedom of thought and conscience. [...]
According to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 1993, the right to this freedom is far-reaching and profound; it encompasses freedom of thought on all matters, personal conviction and the commitment to religion or belief, whether manifested individually or in community with others [and it] protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. [...]
It's in Europe that the principle of equal treatment has been most extensively implemented in law and policy.”
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief.”
In order to overcome sectarianism, social conflict, segregation and tribal violence, in the West we have accepted freedom of belief as a basic human right that you cannot deprive someone of. Because religious beliefs are important, it simply cannot be right to deprive someone of the right to choose which religion to declare as their own. Religious violence and religious persecution both decrease in societies where religious freedom is guaranteed6. To deprive people of this right is the most horrendous type of immoral oppression.
“The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, considers the recanting of a person's religion a human right legally protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: "The Committee observes that the freedom to 'have or to adopt' a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including the right to replace one's current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views [...] Article 18.2. bars coercion that would impair the right to have or adopt a religion or belief, including the use of threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adhere to their religious beliefs and congregations, to recant their religion or belief or to convert."”
“In the West it is generally taken for granted that people have a perfect, indeed sacred, right to follow their own religious path, and indeed to invite - though never compel - other people to join them. The liberal understanding of religion lays great emphasis on the right to change belief. Earlier this year, a poll found that one in four Americans moves on from the faith of their upbringing.”
Academic researchers Grim and Finke have studied the ways in which religious freedom results in less religious persecution and religious violence, and summarize the evidence from around 200 countries into three main streams of change:
“First, the vigilante "policing actions" of religious and social movements are less well tolerated when religious freedoms are protected. Just as state officials often turned a blind eye to the vigilante groups persecuting African Americans in early-twentieth-century America, groups persecuting religious minorities often face little intervention from the state when religious freedoms go unprotected. [...]
A second reason that religious freedoms help to neutralize the social pressures leading to religious persecution is that protecting religious freedoms helps tame what de Tocqueville called the "tyranny of the majority". [...]
Finally... when the social and government restrictions on the practice, profession, and selection of religion are removed, minority religions hold fewer grievances and are less likely to protest the actions of the state. Given that protests by the minority religion often result in a response from the state and the larger society [the result is greater peace and growing tolerance].”
Their conclusions have also been reached by others, and has incidental support from international statistics such as those gathered by the United Nations on international development.
“A recent study of 101 countries conducted by the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom - using entirely independent data from our own - also found that religious freedom in a country is strongly associated with other freedoms (including civil and political liberty, press freedom, and economic freedom) and with multiple measures of well-being. [...]
They found that wherever the level of religious freedom is high, there tends to be fewer incidents of armed conflict, better health outcomes, higher levels of earned income, prolonged democracy, and better educational opportunities for women. Moreover, religious freedom is associated with higher overall human development, as measured by the human development index published by the United Nations Development Program.”
It is not a Human-Rights requirement that governments are secular. It is best-practice democratically, in order to prevent bias, but, it is feasible that a well-natured government could be both openly religious, and, could treat all of its citizens equally and without forcing upon them religious rules - that is - rules and laws derived from the government's own religious beliefs. But never in history has this occurred. Even today, there is not a single example of a country whose government is openly Jewish, Christian or Muslim, and which governs in an unbiased manner towards members of the 'wrong' religion. Thankfully, most democracies have moved steadily towards the secularist position that the public sphere should be neutral in terms of religion.
“The Comparative Constitutions Project at the University of Texas at Austin in the US has documented and assembled the constitutions of nearly every independent state in the world. ... in 2016... over 70 of the 195 constitutions declare a separation of religion from the state... over 180 of them guarantee freedom of religion or belief.”
The separation of church and state inherently leads to greater tolerance between religions, as it is no longer possible for sects to battle against each other for power and authority, as it is not possible to formally achieve either, and, society is led into a situation where power-battles and prejudice are not tolerated.22
Having established religions as part of formal government results educational and cultural skew, which will prevent many people from ever being able to judge the world's religious in a sensible manner. Thomas Paine puts it thusly:
“The adulterous connection of church and state, wherever it had taken place, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, had so effectually prohibited by pains and penalties, every discussion upon established creeds, and upon first principles of religion, that until the system of government should be changed, those subjects could not be brought fairly and openly before the world.”
These feelings are borne out by the facts. After analysing international statistics on this topic Grim & Finke concluded as follows:
“[There is a] strong relationship between violent religious persecution and government's selective favoritism of some religions above others. The more severe level of persecution ... is present at two-and-one-half times the rate in countries where governments show obvious favoritism to some or one religion.”
The main basis on which traditional religions come to lose tolerance for one another is through the concepts of heresy and apostasy (the first means 'believing the wrong things' and the latter means 'leaving/changing your religion'. Because religious doctrine raises "beliefs" to the status of life-or-death eternal decisions, even minor disagreements can turn into bloody confrontations and schisms. It all begins with a deep concern for what other people believe.
“Apostasy is the act of leaving a religion. It is deconversion. Normally it involves taking up another religion and sometimes it involves the taking up of a stance skeptical of all religions. If deconversion is the result of no longer believing that gods exist, then, the result is atheism. "Heresy" is the holding of beliefs that central religious authorities (or mobs) deem to be unacceptable. Religions often engage in a lot of internal suppression in these matters, subjecting their own followers to careful scrutiny to make sure that they are not merely believers, but, that they believe precisely the correct things. Dominant monotheistic religions often consider heresy to be the same as apostasy because they reject the concept of diversity or freedom of thought - conversely, the tolerant and moral approach is to accept that Freedom of Belief and Freedom of Religion are fundamental human rights, as per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights1. Neil Kressel in his book on religious extremism lists "the willingness to implement violent sanctions against those who leave the fold"" as one of religion's most dangerous attributes (out of three)7. They have often made deconversion and heresy punishable by death, especially in historical Judaism and Christianity, and it still continues in present-day Islam.
It is essential that in order to govern well, you cannot discriminate against non-sanctioned religions, even if the majority of the population don't like the beliefs of the minority religions. Anything else is undemocratic. It is only religion and totalitarian states that even have the concept of heresy; in all other disciplines, a variance of belief is seen as good and healthy because it fosters debate, truth-seeking and diversity. The concept of thought crime can have no basis in moral law, so, traditional religions are often in conflict with modernity, human rights, moral goodness, democracy and liberty.”
Until the religious impulse to control belief is curbed, it is never wise (and can never be democratic) to allow any religion to have heightened official status over another, and democratically it is essential that the people can act and move in a neutral environment. Tolerance, peace and compassion can only be maintained by recognizing the basic human right to believe as we do, without punishment, and to pick religions as we choose (or to pick none), without punishment.
Current edition: 2018 Jul 26
Last Modified: 2018 Sep 03
Parent page: Religion and Morals
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The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source. A newspaper.
Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Originally published 2009. Current version published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. A paperback book.
Grim & Finke. Dr Grim is senior researcher in religion and world affairs at the Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C, USA. Finke is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the Pennsylvania State University.
(2011) The Price of Freedom Denied. Subtitled: "Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century". Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by Cambridge University Press, UK. An e-book.
(2001) Religion and Social Transformations. Published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, UK, in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. This was a course book for the OU module "Religion Today: Traditional, Modernity and Change" which ran until 2011. A paperback book.
(2011) Religion and Nationalism. This is chapter 22 (pages 406-417) of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011)1 (pages 406-417). Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Originally published 2009. Current version published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. A paperback book.
Kant, Immanuel. (1724-1804) German philosopher.
(1785) Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. Amazon Kindle digital edition prepared by David J. Cole prepared by Matthew Stapleton. Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (1829-1913). An e-book.
(2000) Sword and Scales: An Examination of the Relationship Between Law and Politics. Published by Hart Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK. Prof. Loughlin is Professor of Law at the University of Manchester, UK, and Professor of Public Law-elect at the London School of Economics & Political Science, UK. A paperback book.
Mill, John Stuart. (1806-1873)
(1879) Utilitarianism. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Produced by Julie Barkley, Garrett Alley and the Online DistributedProofreading Team. Reprinted from 'Fraser's Magazine' 7th edition, London Longmans, Green, and Co. An e-book.
(1807) The Age of Reason. Published by Musiaicum Books. Part 1 published 1794, part 2 in 1795 and part 3 in 1807. An e-book.