27 Mar, 2018
Religious freedom faces many challenges today, not only in countries riven by religious conflict or persecution, but in countries like Australia too where the challenges take a very different form. For the sake of brevity, I will mention just two of them.
The first challenge is incomprehension. What does religious freedom mean? Why is it important? Why is it a human right? Many people in Australia would probably puzzle a bit in trying to answer these questions, and not just the 30 per cent or so in the 2016 census who indicated that they have no religion.
If religion is not your thing, it can take quite a leap of imagination and empathy to understand why it is so important to others. For people who profess or practise a religion it is often very personal and local, and the larger public dimensions of religious belief can be a little remote from their everyday focus.
What is religious freedom? At its simplest, it is a form of basic fairness with four parts. It allows people to determine their own beliefs about the purpose and meaning of life, to organise their lives around these beliefs, and to put them into practice with other people who share them. It also protects people from being forced to act against their beliefs.
Why is religious freedom important? Because, as this short summary shows, it is part of a much larger whole with significant implications for many things beyond the life of faith. Religious freedom encompasses the dignity of the person; other rights such as freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of conscience; forms of social co-operation and service to the community; and habits and commitments which help to foster trust, resilience and openness in a good society.
Why is religious freedom a human right? Because rights protect the things that make it possible for us to flourish both as individuals and as members of communities, and this includes the powerful need we have to make sense of our existence. There are different ways, small and large, of doing this—and different ways of dodging the problem too, of course. But a significant and continuing part of the human story involves seeking out answers not of our own making, which are part of something greater than ourselves and greater than the world immediately around us. This requires freedom: to consider, reflect, debate, change our minds and to form beliefs and convictions. We are creedal creatures. Religious freedom arises from and protects this aspect of our nature.
The second challenge facing religious freedom in Australia is suspicion. It is not difficult to come across different expressions of this idea. It is said that religion produces conflict, that it is a way of imposing beliefs on other people, that it is at odds with the values of secular democratic society and probably a threat to them. This suspicion places religious freedom in a category all of its own: as a dangerous human right that needs to be kept closely in check.
There is no doubt that religion has been and continues to be a source of conflict. Violence and corruption make a mockery of the high vision of human purpose and destiny which different religions place before us, and unsurprisingly this has a powerful effect in discrediting their claims. Conflict is one of the plagues of the human condition. We have proven ourselves capable of fighting over just about anything—land, resources, wealth, power, and perhaps most destructively of all, ideas. While it is quite rightly a source of particular dismay, it should really come as no surprise that we are willing to fight each other over religious questions too—and to use religion to justify other conflicts.
Religious freedom is intended to be a means of preventing conflict between people with different convictions, whether those convictions are religious or non-religious. It helps to create a society where, despite profound and even irreconcilable differences, people can learn how to live together as a community—not just apart from each other in their own bubbles. This requires a willingness to respect differences in a spirit of friendship rather than hostility. Strangely, we seem to be forgetting how to do this at the moment. Perhaps a deeper reflection about religious freedom will help us rediscover it.
There is no doubt too that history offers many examples of religion being used to impose values on people and punish or persecute those who do not conform. Religion does not have a monopoly on this tendency however, nor is a strict secularist mindset any guarantee against it. In Victoria, the law requires doctors and other health professionals to facilitate access to abortion, even if they have conscientious objections to it, and in other countries there is strong pressure to prevent people from working in healthcare, or to exclude them from doing so, if they are not willing to help provide “the full range of services”.
We need to be clear about whether we object to imposing values on other people as a matter of principle, or only if we do not approve of the particular values being imposed. Catholic teaching on religious freedom can help us here. One of its first principles is respect for freedom, and specifically the freedom of each individual to seek the truth and to shape their life in accordance with it. If it is to be genuine, faith, or for that matter any other form of conviction, must be freely chosen. Each of us wants this for ourselves, and we should be willing to allow it for others. In the sophisticated, prosperous and diverse society in which we live, this really should not be as difficult to navigate as we seem to find it.
Religious freedom also helps us to clarify the appropriate role of faith convictions in a secular democracy. The separation of church and state is a critical safeguard for both. Government should be secular and for the good of all, but this does not mean that religious people lose their rights as citizens to contribute to debate and public policy and to bring religious perspectives to their own participation in politics. Religious communities are subject to the law and have to work within the same procedures and regulations that apply to everyone else, but this does not mean that government can determine a faith community’s beliefs and doctrines or how they are to be interpreted or practised.
It is also important to be clear that religious freedom is not an absolute. Like other rights, it is limited by the duty to respect the common good and the rights and freedoms of others. When different claims are in tension with each other, we need to find a compromise and a way forward which respects the rights of all involved. The approach we take to this task matters enormously. Generosity and mutual respect are more productive than mistrust and enmity, especially when there is good faith on both sides. Remembering that human rights are meant to go together rather than pull apart is also essential if resolving differences is not to be reduced to a zero-sum game which calls the whole idea of human rights into question.
So much of our modern understanding of human rights is shaped by the great international agreements of the post-war era, especially the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is interesting to wonder whether religious freedom would be included in these documents or given the same importance if they were to be written today.
Among other factors, its inclusion in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, reflected not only the way religious freedom was targeted for destruction by dictatorships, but also the role it played in empowering people to resist and to call evil by its name. Religion can foster conformity, but it can also enable resistance to conformity. Systems of power hate it because it helps to keep courage and resilience alive in individuals, and a sense of solidarity and hope alive in communities.
As a source of resistance, it helped to bring about the end of the slave trade in nineteenth century Britain, the end of segregation in the United States in the 1960s, and the end of communism in Europe in 1989. In Australia today it helps to ensure that we continue to have many voices refusing to be silent about the homeless and marginalised, about refugees, about the unborn and the disabled, about the sick and dying. Do we really have so many of these voices that we can do without those who speak from their religious convictions?
So, religious freedom raises many important questions, not just for those who are religious but for everyone in a democratic society. This short book is a small contribution to fostering a more fruitful discussion about it, and on behalf of my co-authors, Fr Frank Brennan and Professor Greg Craven, I am delighted that Edward Santow, the Human Rights Commissioner, is with us today to launch it.
Ed was appointed Human Rights Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission in August 2016. In this role he leads the Commission’s work on detention and implementing the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. He also leads its work on refugees and migration; human rights issues affecting LGBTI people; counter-terrorism and national security; modern slavery; freedom of expression; and freedom of religion.
Ed has had a distinguished career in human rights, public law and discrimination law, and among his previous roles he was Senior Lecturer in law at UNSW, research director at the Gilbert and Tobin Centre of Public Law, and chief executive of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. He is currently a Senior Visiting Fellow at the University of New South Wales.
Ed’s presence with us today reflects not only his own personal commitment to religious freedom as a fundamental human right, but also the commitment of the Human Rights Commission to the difficult task of reconciling competing human rights and striking accomodations between them. Please make him very welcome.
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