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Why 'religion'?

By Meg Wallace - posted Thursday, 22 October 2015

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promises the right to freedom of 'thought, religion and conscience', and the right to 'manifest' one's of 'religion or belief' through 'worship observance, practice and teaching'. Similar rights also appear as Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Australia has also signed, undertaking to enforce the nominated human rights.

Every nation in the world has signed up to the Universal Declaration. Globally, however, the right to freedom of belief is compromised. One reason is the insistence of governments and religious groups on using Article 18 to promote preferential treatment of their particular religious interests. Examples include demands for exemption from discrimination law by individuals and church groups. Australian governments grant unconditional tax exemptions and financial assistance to religious bodies (e.g. the NSW $100M donation to the Catholic Church for World Youth Day, 2008). Prayers are part of Parliament and Council proceedings, and 'offending' religious sensitivities is condemned. Elsewhere, governments punish imprisonment or execution for blasphemy or apostasy.

Emphatically, my aim here is not to denigrate or suppress religion. I argue that Article 18 applies to the adoption and manifestation of any life-stance philosophy, religious or otherwise. Preference of a particular religious belief or beliefs over others cannot be justified, especially given the increase in social mobility, global governance and the ideology of human rights.


This proposal is supported by other considerations. Firstly, those drafting Article 18, and international interpretations stress the intention to include ethics-based worldviews of all kinds. The United Nations has reiterated this in, e.g., an explanatory declaration. The European Court of Human Rights says Article 18 rights apply not only to the religious, but also to 'atheists, agnostics and the unconcerned'.

Secondly, personal worldview liberties overlap and interrelate with other liberties, such as liberty of speech and association, personal autonomy, and liberties expressing the rule of law. These reinforce the human rights objective of individual personal self-realisation.

Thirdly, if one accepts that 'belief' freedoms include both religious and non-religious worldviews, and complement other freedoms, the question arises - why should there be any special reference to, or treatment of, religious belief? If we believe in equal liberties of belief for all, we need to consider all beliefs equally, whatever their basis. We should focus on the common requirements of liberty and equality in relation to whatever worldview is being considered, by grounding religious freedom in the generic liberties of thought, speech, association and expression rather than maintaining a special right of its own for followers of particular worldviews.

By adopting this approach, we promote the equal opportunity of all individuals follow their ethical worldview, part of their right to dignity and self-realisation. The liberty to hold and express such worldviews would become one element, albeit essential, of our liberal democratic society, with its focus on autonomy and equality.

Beliefs that happen to be labelled 'religious' are no more, or less, important for protection than other personal ethical worldviews. I call Article 18 provisions the 'belief provisions'.

But wait. Religionis given special reference in Article 18 despite its broad application. It is thus used (mistakenly or deliberately) to give credence to the global phenomenon of privilege for religions and religious groups. Demands for special treatment follow. This is reinforced by academic discussion of belief rights that overwhelmingly focus on religion, with little consideration of other, non-religious belief systems.


This distracts from the real meaning of Article 18. Debate needlessly arises as to just what 'religion' is, – is it a belief in the supernatural; a faith-based, rather than rational worldview, or the imperative nature of its dictates, with fear of eternal damnation? There are also differences within religious bodies as to the content of their beliefs. Article 18 makes no distinctions.

The principles underlying the belief provisions indicate that the appropriate concern of government in a liberal democracy is appropriately not the personal ethical outlook underlying action, but rather the effect of that action on others, and its compatibility with the public interest. This is made clear by the proviso that manifestation of one's belief can (only) be limited to respect 'the rights and freedoms of others' and meet 'the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society'. It makes more sense, then, if Article 18 is seen to refer to all personal ethical worldviews that comply with this proviso.

Advocates of religious privilege point to the many charitable works attributable to religious followers and argue this merits special treatment for their institutions. It is conceded that religion inspires individuals and institutions to do good for others, and charitable works in themselves, no matter by whom they are carried out, merit government assistance and financial benefits. However, assistance should not be provided solely for having or practising a particular belief.

The privileging or imposition of religion per se, – the favouring of persons and bodies simply for what they believe – leads to inconsistency, incoherence and inequity in governance through religious bias. It leads to social divisiveness, and hinders the equal opportunity for all individuals to live by their personal convictions.Individuals rank themselves according to their conception of true or untrue beliefs, and good or bad behaviour. Nonconformists are considered unworthy or deserving of punishment and rejected, not because of harmful action, but because of what they believe.


We all need freedom of religion whether we have a religion or not. But we need freedom of all thought, opinions and convictions and the freedom to articulate these in our personal activities through expression, association and assembly, without unreasonable interference by the state. The content may differ, but the freedoms themselves have the same force for everyone. The view that religious freedom is pre-eminent over freedom of other beliefs cannot be sustained if we are to promote freedom of, and consequently freedom from, belief.

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About the Author

Meg Wallace is the President of the Rationalist Society of NSW. She is a lawyer and former academic.

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