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Matt Cherry, secretary of the United Nations Non-Government Organizations (NGO) Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Executive Director of IHEU member organization Institute for Humanist Studies, has made a presentation at a conference co-sponsored by the NGO Committee. Th conference was titled “The 1981 U.N. Declaration on Religious Tolerance and Non-Discrimination: Implementing Its Principles After Twenty-five Years” and the presentation was made for the panel on “Perspectives on Implementing the 1981 Declaration: History, Philosophy and Suggestions for Enhanced Implementation”. The full text of the presentation is available here.


The 1981 U.N. Declaration on
Religious Tolerance and Non-Discrimination:
Implementing Its Principles After Twenty-five Years

A Conference Convened by
The United Nations NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief
The Columbia Center for the Study of Human Rights
The International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU

Thursday, October 5, 2006
Church Center for the United Nations, 777 UN Plaza, Second Floor, New York, NY

Presentation by Matt Cherry for the panel “Perspectives on Implementing the 1981 Declaration: History, Philosophy and Suggestions for Enhanced Implementation.”

I spoke earlier this morning in my capacity as President of the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Now I am going to switch hats and speak in my capacity as a representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. I want to focus on some of the areas of freedom of religion or belief that are of particular concern to the global humanist community.

In order to do this, I think I first need to introduce you to the global humanist community. We are different from other belief groups and many of our issues relate to our distinctive character.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the global umbrella group for humanist, atheist, rationalist, secularist, laïque, ethical culture, freethought and similar organizations world-wide.

Founded in 1952, the first president of the IHEU was Sir Julian Huxley, the founding secretary general of UNESCO. IHEU has been closely involved in the UN since then.

The IHEU represents more than 100 organizations from 40 countries. Many of these groups consider themselves explicitly nonreligious and some consider themselves religious, but none of these groups are theistic. They all share a humanist ethical system that promotes human welfare without appeal to supernatural revelation or divine sanction. Humanists share a commitment to democracy, human rights and the open society.
Humanism is a fairly new name for a very old philosophy. The basic principles of humanism have been embraced by a wide variety of thinkers in different cultures for thousands of years. We find skepticism about gods and the supernatural in many of the ancient Greek philosophers, and even further back, in China and India, we find agnosticism about the gods leading to secular moral systems based on human welfare.
Humanists have no prophets and don’t really acknowledge any founders. Our commitment to free inquiry — rational and rigorous free inquiry — means that we tend to reach our conclusions by following our own reasoning rather than by following the teachings of others. We are, first and foremost, freethinkers.

There’s an old liberal joke in America that goes something like, “I don’t belong to an organized political movement: I’m a member of the Democratic Party.” Something similar could be said about the humanist movement. “I don’t belong to an organized religious movement: I’m a humanist.”

The vast majority of humanists – people with a positive value system that makes no appeal to a supernatural realm – do not belong to humanist groups and, indeed, would probably not describe themselves as humanists.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union therefore sees itself as representing not just its members but also the broader community of non-religious, non-theistic, or secular people. While this may be a majority in some parts of Europe and a fast growing minority in the rest of the free world, it is also a persecuted minority in many countries.

Forsaking temples, congregations and clergy, forgoing distinctive dress or rituals, and failing to build strong organizations, humanists are far less visible than most belief groups. This may make it easier for us to avoid persecution because of our beliefs, but I think the lack of self-identification by the non-religious also makes us more powerless in the face of discrimination.

These are two sides of the same coin. Our invisibility makes it harder to pick on us as individuals, but easier to pick on us a group or class of individuals.

Many people think of atheists as an alien threat because they don’t know how many of their neighbors, and their heroes, are actually skeptical about their god. When courageous humanists do openly stand up for their convictions, they often lack the legal, political and social support mechanisms that most religious communities have developed for persecuted members.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union unreservedly supports the whole panoply of human rights. Historically, humanists have been at the forefront of the development of science, free inquiry, secular society and human rights.

We don’t believe that freedom of religion or belief is more important than other rights, but we do realize that it is the only right that explicitly protects humanists as humanists. It is the only right that protects us from discrimination because of our beliefs, and disbeliefs.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, General Comment 22 on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that the right to freedom of religion or belief – “protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.”

That is why we talk about not just “freedom of religion” but “freedom of religion or belief.” Non-religious, agnostic and atheistic beliefs are protected equally with religious beliefs.

A major concern of the humanist community is that freedom of religion is commonly thought not to include the non-religious. We find this attitude, this exclusion of the nonreligious, even among many well-meaning people. Yesterday I was a guest on a Voice of America show about freedom of religion or belief. One caller from Ghana condemned religious intolerance saying that it is wrong to discriminate on the grounds of religion because, after all, we all worship the same God.

But there is also a deliberate exclusion of the nonreligious that I think is connected to the widespread distrust and, even, hatred of atheists. Several recent surveys have shown that atheists are the most despised minority in America. Some people limit freedom of conscience to “freedom of religion” because they want to exclude the nonreligious from the protective shield provided by the fundamental right to freedom of belief.

We often hear that “freedom of religion does not include freedom from religion.” Well, if freedom of religion doesn’t include the right to reject any or all religious beliefs, then it cannot be freedom. It is, at best, a very limited form of tolerance, but it cannot be true freedom if it is conditional upon the details of one’s beliefs.

Whenever freedom of belief is restricted to certain kinds of beliefs or believers, we find oppressors justifying their abuses by defining some believers as outside the protected group: “They are the wrong kind of religion”; “They are heretics;” “They are little better than atheists”.

It is therefore important that we emphasize that freedom of religion or belief protects people because of their humanity, not because of their beliefs. We all share our humanity but we don’t all share the same beliefs. Indeed, I would say that we are united by our humanity and divided by our beliefs.

The humanist community has some specific concerns about national legislation. One of the most contested areas of freedom of conscience is the right to change one’s religion. And, at least in my experience, one of the most common ways people change their religion is by losing it. It doesn’t even take a humanist evangelist knocking on their door for many people to decide to reject religion! (Although the right to criticize religion – which it might be argued is the atheist version of evangelism – is often even more controversial, and persecuted, than other forms of persuasion and “witnessing” about religion.)

In many faith traditions, leaving one’s religion is one of the very worst crimes. In parts of the Muslim world, apostasy remains a capital offense.

Blasphemy laws are a related problem. I have had friends and colleagues persecuted by these laws in Bangladesh, Pakistan and even England. Fortunately, in England they no longer have a death penalty, but my humanist colleague in Pakistan, Dr. Younus Shaikh spent more than two years on death row before the charge of blasphemy was overturned.

I am an atheist and, surely, a blasphemer. I am an infidel who encourages apostasy. And I’m proud of it. So, in a sense, I have been talking from my own self interest so far, or at least in defense of humanist colleagues who live in less tolerant places.

But there is another area of concern that the International Humanist and Ethical Union has been focusing on. And that is the increasingly common practice of invoking “freedom of religion” to defend human rights abuses. When the ambassador from Sudan is criticized for his country’s practice of stoning rape victims to death for adultery, he says “you are attacking my right to freedom of religion.”

Not so. No human right gives anyone the right to violate the human rights of another person. This is the most fundamental principle affirmed in all human rights legislation.

Just as importantly, freedom of religion does not apply to religions per se, it applies to individuals, to the believers. So just because a religion believes in mistreating women, it cannot claim that its rights as a religion trump the rights of the women born into that religion. Nor can a religion claim that criticism of its beliefs is an infringement of the right to freedom of religion and belief.

Unfortunately, we are now seeing an attempt at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to use freedom of religion as a pretext to restrict freedom of expression. The Organization of the Islamic Conference has been successful in getting the Human Rights Council and its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, to condemn the “Defamation of religion” as a human rights violation. They have singled out “Islamophobia” as an area of particular concern.

We are indeed seeing terrible violations of the human rights of Muslims, both by Islamist governments and, increasingly, by Western governments in the name of security against terrorism.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union deplores all these violations. Yet we also believe that the current effort to outlaw the “defamation of religion” is unnecessary and harmful. It is unnecessary because it is already unlawful to incite hatred, discrimination and violence on the grounds of religion. It would be harmful because it could be used to restrict legitimate inquiry and to stifle free speech.

We further fear that certain Muslim states will invoke “defamation of religion” to insulate themselves from international scrutiny and criticism of their human rights record. Indeed, many of the states sponsoring this move have used national laws against defamation of religion to defend and even perpetrate human rights violations in the name of religion.

On this 25th Anniversary of the United Nations 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, we need to focus on implementing the human rights agreements we already have. We must not weaken them in the name of national security, nor water them down in the name of rights for religions. Instead, we must focus on defending freedom of conscience for every member of the human family. As the UN recognized 25 years ago, this is the best way to eliminate all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief.

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