By Andrew Bradstock, Visiting Professor and Convener of the Centre for Theology and Religion in Public Life (TRiPL);
The right to practise religion is enshrined in a number of important documents, including the Universal of Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, and the European Convention on Human Rights, drafted two years later by the newly-formed Council of Europe (and known more formally as the ‘Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms’).
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) arose directly from the experience of the Second World War. With the end of that conflict, and the creation of the United Nations, the world vowed never to allow the kind of atrocities it had generated to be repeated.
As its name suggests, the UDHR represents the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled, and the section dealing specifically with the right to practise religion is Article 18. This affirms that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) arose directly from the experience of the Second World War. With the end of that conflict, and the creation of the United Nations, the world vowed never to allow the kind of atrocities it had generated to be repeated.
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.
The relevant section in the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 9, is an almost exact replication of this, though it includes a rider permitting limitations on the manifestation of religion or beliefs when deemed ‘necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others’ and when enshrined in legislation.
This UDHR wording is clear and unequivocal, but we should note the context within which this and the other rights in the document are set.
Firstly, the fundamental premise underpinning the UDHR is the ‘the inherent dignity’ and ‘equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’. This affirmation appears in its Preamble and is underlined in its First Article:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
But as just noted, the UDHR was drawn up in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust and other barbaric acts that had been a feature of the 1939-45 conflict; and its framers, observing that these acts resulted from a ‘disregard and contempt for human rights’, now spoke of the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want which, they said, has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.
So the right that each of us should have to practise our chosen religion is grounded in our common humanity and common aspiration to see a more just and peaceful world. At root we share a common humanity, and this should give rise to a set of common values. Thus, ‘freedom of religion’ is not something merely to be enforced by legislation, nor a concession to be allowed grudgingly or in the negative sense that we must not prevent someone from worshipping in the way they choose; rather we are positively to celebrate each other’s freedom to embrace a religious faith because we are all members of the same human family – or as religious people might want to put it, we are all equally valued as children of God.
On the basis of our fundamental equality as human beings we each have a right to believe (or not to believe) as we choose, with none having the ‘right’ to limit that freedom or impose their own beliefs on another.
Further, the provisions enshrined in the UDHR’s thirty articles are part of a broader and deeper vision of a ‘better world’. For the post-war world leaders who framed this document, rights were not to be defined simply in order to defend liberty in some ‘neutral’, abstract or disconnected sense, but were linked to a broad and inclusive social and economic good, specifically a world free from ‘fear and want’.
So liberty depends upon more than the observation and enforcement of a list of basic individual ‘rights’ – rights which are in any case meaningless unless they can be enforced: rather it depends upon our creating a world in which the basic equality and dignity of all people is respected by their all having access to the basic necessities of life. The creation of this world, according to the framers of the UDHR, is the ‘highest aspiration’ of all people, because it actualises in a tangible and meaningful way our shared humanity and provides a context in which our shared rights are more likely to be honoured.
The Bible shares this vision of a world free from fear and want. The Jubilee or Sabbatical laws in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) were designed to ensure societies did not allow any of their members to become dependent for their survival upon the goodwill of others; and prophetic books like Isaiah and Micah contain powerful images of the ‘new order’ God desires to create in which all enjoy a measure of prosperity – as Isaiah puts it, building houses and inhabiting them, planting vineyards and eating their fruit (Isaiah 65.21).
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Micah 4.3)
The implication in these texts is that, when societies actively address issues of poverty and dependency, the fear and distrust which can threaten people’s rights is less likely to be present. Micah, for example, depicts a community where all ‘sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees’ and where fear no longer exists – because as people acquire a stake in their society, so they feel confident enough to ‘beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks’ and their governments refrain from threatening each other and learning the craft of war (Micah 4.3-4).
So as Christians we have a firm basis for respecting people’s right to hold religious beliefs and practise them according to the tradition to which they belong – and for encouraging political authorities to do the same. A world free from want and fear is one to which God also encourages us to aspire.