The Freedom of Religion and Belief covers a wide variety of Human Rights. Several of these rights are of particular value to Humanists and the Humanist community.
This includes the right:
1) To change or renounce your religion.
2) Of expression and to blaspheme against a religion.
3) To provide moral education for your children.
4) To print and disseminate relevant publications.
5) From coercion of religion or belief.
6) To life, liberty and security from discrimination.
This section will explain in more detail the above rights as well as go over a contentious subject for much of the international community – whether or not ‘Defamation of Religion’ is merely a thinly veiled Blasphemy Law.
For More Information
Please refer to the Further Resources section
There are three levels at which the State must protect these Rights:
1) RESPECT human rights within the States own policies and institutions;
2) PROTECT those rights from possible violations by others;
3) PROMOTE the enjoyment of those rights in the lives of society at large by contributing when possible to a sustainable culture
1) Freedom to Change or Renounce Your Religion
Apostasy has historically been one of the most heinous crimes you can commit within a religion. However, we now enjoy the freedom to change and renounce any past religions or beliefs we may have held.
Religions and worldviews do not have a right to keep any individual or group imprisoned within their communities. They cannot punish individuals for changing their beliefs and leaving those communities and worldviews. We are therefore free to do this when and as we choose.
2) Freedom of Expression and to Blaspheme Against Religion
As we are allowed to leave a religion or worldview when we see fit, we can also express our beliefs and perspectives about those other religions or beliefs. While Blasphemy laws are often condemned, many countries still attempt to introduce protection under ‘Defamation of Religion’ clauses, discussed in more below.
However, virtually every religion and worldview conflicts with every other, and often over sensitive issues. Because of this symmetrical and unavoidable conflict and to protect the expression of our beliefs, we maintain the right and freedom to state that another religion or worldview is wrong or immoral, what they consider holy we do not and that we do not worship or otherwise honor what they may think we should.
3) Freedom to Provide Moral Education AND
4) Freedom to Print and Disseminate Relevant Publications
One of the key issues in the Special Rapporteur’s 2011 report on Paraguay (see: Further Resources) was the dominance of the Catholicism in public education and subsidies for their universities.
Hegemonic domination of an education system violates our basic freedoms to access of education. States must not endorse one religion to the exclusion of others, but instead maintain, when possible, an “education system [that] promotes principles of tolerance and respect for others and cultural diversity and the freedom of religion and belief.”
Outside of the classroom this also means that individuals or organizations are allowed to disseminate educational materials for their own communities and publicly for others. So long as it does not violate other freedoms and rights, they cannot be barred from publishing and disseminating whatever they wish. Though this includes ‘missionary activities’, it does not, as discussed below, allow individuals or groups to step over the line into coercion.
5) Freedom from Coercion to a Religion or Belief AND
6) Freedom to Life, Liberty and Security from Discrimination
Many religions express a disdain for coercion. Unfortunately, many also do not or at least do not in practice. The UN guarantees everyone the right to be protected from coercive efforts to believe one religion or worldview. Just as we are guaranteed the opportunity to leave a religion, we cannot be forced to join any religion. This includes psychological and emotional coercion and threats of punishment in this or ‘the next’ life.
We are also protected from other indirect forms of coercion like discrimination from adequate housing, employment, protection from the law and other basic needs. And protected especially from torture, arbitrary arrest and from being barred from our rights to seek asylum.
‘Defamation of Religion’ and Blasphemy Laws
The Further Resources section contains a number of articles on recent cases of Blasphemy laws and their abuses in countries in Africa, Pakistan and the UK, among others.
Since 1999 several UN resolutions titled “Combating Defamation of Religions” have been adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, the General Assembly and other UN bodies. However, many critics, including the IHEU, continue to condemn the resolutions as subtle ‘Blasphemy Laws’ that criminalize criticism of religion and therefore violate our freedoms of religion and belief.
Blasphemy Laws are laws that prohibit statements that a given religion deems as sacrilegious, irreverent or profane. This has included clauses as weak as ‘derogatory remarks’ and in some countries has led to convictions as severe as the death penalty.
Defamation of Religion, however, is discussed in terms of competing rights, namely freedom of expression and freedom of religion. It is argued the former must be limited to protect the latter.
This includes ‘negative projections’ of a religion, stereotyping or ‘frequent’ and ‘incorrect’ associations of the religion with negative characteristics like terrorism. The main thrust of this movement has come mostly from the Islamic world pointing to a rise in Islamophobia.
The IHEU takes the stance and argues that:
1) Defamation of Religion Laws impair our Freedoms of Religion and Belief in addition to our Freedoms of Expression.
2) Defamation of Religion Laws contain the same potential for manipulation and human rights abuses and are therefore analogous to Blasphemy Laws.
3) Defamation of Religion Laws seek to address wrongs that would be better protected under already existing UN laws, specifically those concerning intolerance, incitement to violence and discrimination.
For further information, please see IHEU’s detailed policy paper Speaking Freely About Religion: Religious Freedom, Defamation and Blasphemy.