Why Religion Still Needs to be a Right

Dr Andrew Davies, University of Birmingham

There are those, undoubtedly, who think the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is in need of something of a reboot as it approaches its 70th birthday in a couple of years. They might well be right. And there’s nothing inherently unreasonable about asking former British Premier Gordon Brown to chair an eminent international gathering of key thinkers and religious, diplomatic and political leaders to conduct such a reassessment of the Declaration; Brown’s commitment to the Millennium Development Goals was as unswerving as his impact upon their shaping was significant, even if their ultimate failure on so many measures was disappointing.

No surprise at all, then, that the Global Citizenship Commission which met under his leadership delivered a report on April 18 to the United Nations which by any measure is impressive in its depth of analysis, critical reflection and foresight, and succeeds remarkably in addressing many of the emerging concerns of a twenty-first century world. The Commission’s proposal for an International Children’s Court to uphold young people’s rights is among its headlines, but there are significant advances here in understanding, quantifying and interpreting the rights of women, refugees, the disabled and indigenous peoples too, and a thoughtful evaluation of the Declaration’s implications for LGBT communities.

The excellence of the report generally makes all the more pointed and puzzling its major omission: a substantive lack of recognition of the significance of religion at the heart of many of the debates around human rights, and a signal failure to engage with the Declaration’s Article 18, which enshrines the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Apart from a passing (and in my assessment fundamentally flawed) assertion in one place (p. 78) that Article 18 was ‘intended … to protect those who … believe in an unpopular creed’, the report bears no reference to the freedom of religion or belief, even after acknowledging in the very first sentence of its Preamble that the ‘moral ties and responsibilities’ the Declaration espouses are common to a variety of ‘religions, civilizations, and political orders’ (p. 25). Whereas the word ‘torture’, for example, appears some 45 times in the report, and the freedom of expression is raised some 30 times, the word ‘religion’ can be found just 8 times in the body of the report, and that generally as a counterpart and counterweight to culture, or as a presumed obstacle to effective implementation of other rights.

Though this neglect is puzzling, I don’t see it as an ‘attack’ on religion so much as a missed opportunity. Freedom of religion or belief, the right to assert or desert one’s faith in public as well as in private, embodies a commitment to freedom from religion as well as freedom for religion. It offers no kind of threat to any liberal consensus on the role of religion in society, to the extent that such exists. Rather, it is itself more at risk than any other Declaration freedom.

We live in a world where in various nation states you can be barred from being an MP if you are not from the majority faith, assassinated for questioning the blasphemy laws, beheaded for representing a different tradition within the same religion let alone another established faith, disowned by your family for converting, arrested and imprisoned for owning a copy of your sacred text, beaten to death for disavowing the national religion and shot dead on your doorstep for wishing your friends a happy Easter.

According to the US-based Pew Research Centre, over three quarters of the world’s population (and rising) live in countries where significant restrictions on their religious beliefs and practices are imposed by governments or substantial threats to their safety and wellbeing arise from hostile sociocultural environments. And it is precisely because religion is increasingly used as a tool of fear and political manipulation that its capacity to unite and inspire needs to be publicly affirmed.

Just as the 1948 Declaration (and, indeed, the United Nations itself) arose amid the horrors of the biggest religious persecution of all time, our own world daily confronts great evil masquerading quite literally under a religious banner. To fail to reassert the right – and the need – for freedom of thought, conscience and religion during what is perhaps one of the more challenging periods of world history is a disappointing omission in such an excellent and forward-thinking report.

The way forward in reshaping our appreciation and interpretation of human rights for generations to come cannot be to underestimate and side line religion, or for that matter its absence; belief is a life-governing priority for people of faith and a crucial concern for those who reject enforced religious commitment, and the global community needs to stand alongside both groups and assert that their needs and concerns matter as well. It won’t do this by underestimating the significance of Article 18.

Author: Dr Andrew Davies is Reader in the Public Understanding of Religion and Director of the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Birmingham, where he also co-directs the Commonwealth Initiative for the Freedom of Religion or Belief (CIFORB).

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