Monday, January 9, 2012

The nature of religious freedom as seen from an international perspective

Recently the Canadian government proposed to establish an Office of Religious Freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs. This is to fulfill a campaign promise made in the 2011 federal election. The proposal prompted me to reflect on the nature of religious freedom in our world today. This topic is so complex, however, that I thought I would start this time with the international context, and then in the next posting look at the Canadian proposal more closely.

Religious freedom is a fundamental human right, but it is at the same time highly disputed. Religious freedom can be defined as the right to practise the religion of one's choice, or to be a non-believer, and by extension, to change one's religion. That this freedom is not universally acknowledged is demonstrated by the long history of religious persecution that persists even today.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations (1948) states:

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.

This right is closely linked to the right to free expression and the right to free association:

Eighteen years later the Declaration became a convention, which became binding and had an enforcement mechanism. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) was adopted by the United Nations in 1976 and extends the specific protection to religion in Article 18:
  1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
  2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
  3. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
  4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
In 1981 this Covenant was further amplified in The UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief. This Declaration sets out in considerable detail what the international community regards as basic standards for the protection of religious freedom. This Covenant did not become a convention, however, because the international community was unable to agree on issues such as the freedom to change religion. For example, Islamic nations do not consider this to be a part of religious freedom. That is why "apostasy," or conversion from Islam, can result in the death penalty in some countries.

The reason for this impasse is not due to the desire of these nations to be ornery, but lies in a fundamentally different approach to human rights, one that the individualistic West finds difficult to understand and accept. The following Venn diagram may help to illustrate the difference.
This split into individual versus community rights is often interpreted in terms of liberalism and conservatism, but that is a mistake, in my opinion. The spit actually occurs between Western individualism and the rest of the world. Even this statement needs a further qualification, since not everyone in the West is individualistic when it comes to human rights.

Unfortunately, human rights have been interpreted in an individualistic way for a long time, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world. Even the United Nation's documents governing human rights have sometimes been interpreted in this way. Thus one can understand the frustration of Muslims when it comes to a fundamental aspect of their beliefs and for their unwillingness to budge when it comes to further interpretations of these rights, especially when it comes to religious freedom.

Muslims are not alone in this frustration. In Canada, the conflict between English Canadians and French Canadians about language rights in Quebec is another example of this split. The question that both Muslims and French Canadians ask, together with many other groups, is this: Do individual rights always have to trump community rights, or are there times when the rights of the latter should be emphasized so that the community does not suffer?

The United States has a great problem with community rights. The American emphasis on individual rights is expressed already in the Declaration of Independence. In contrast, the UN Declaration of Human Rights has a more community orientation, although I would contend that this is still not strong enough. Some of the differences are described in the following table:

American readers will no doubt object by asserting that an emphasis on community rights eliminates the rights of the individual, but that is precisely the issue. Should individual and community rights be played off against each other, or should they both be allowed to play a role? Community rights have been neglected too much and too long, and only now are they coming to the fore again, where they belong. It is not a matter of either/or, but of recognizing both where appropriate and helpful.

By asserting this, I do not want to excuse the killing of people who leave a certain religion in order to adopt another. Yet Muslims, among others, should be allowed to maintain their beliefs, except for the killing, even if they seem grossly unfair to others. In Quebec, similar objections about unfairness can be made, but French Canadians should be allowed to take the necessary measures to ensure the survival of their language.

In both cases, I personally disagree with their positions, but I must respect the rights of these communities to take measures that will help preserve them. If that seems unfair to the rest of us, then so be it. We are just revealing our own bias. While they too recognize the importance of human rights, especially as they have been encapsulated in the UN documents I mentioned, the rights of communities to express a contrary opinion should not be diminished, otherwise there will not be any community rights left at the end of the day.

The ICCPR recognizes this limitation when it states, as we already noted: "Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others."

Freedom of religion must not proscribe any beliefs as long as these beliefs do not limit the rights of others, in this case the right to life. Thus Islamic countries should not be allowed to pass laws that prescribe the death penalty for apostasy. But Muslims should have the right to condemn apostasy, even if we might disagree.

The situation in Quebec is different, since freedom of religion is not an issue, but a similar argument can be made to justify laws that protect the French language, again as long as the lives of others are not endangered.  The preservation of French is necessary for people who are drowning in an English ocean. 

There are many more issues involving freedom of religion that could be discussed, but this will have to suffice this time. The topic is large enough to justify writing a book or indeed many books. I am not alone in raising the issue of individual versus community rights; in fact, many articles have already been written on it.

My contention is that community rights need to be protected, not just the rights of individuals. I am more sensitive to this than many people, perhaps, because I have lived in Asia and Africa for many years. In Africa, for example, one's identity is determined by the community. Whereas in the West we say, "I am, therefore we are." In other words, the individual precedes the community. In Africa, the reverse is true; Africans say, "We are, therefore I am." The word ubuntu is often used to describe this. This expresses the essence of being human; it declares that my humanity is caught up and inextricably bound up in yours.

The Bible cannot be understood apart from community. God created us to live in community. Even salvation must be understood communally, and not just individualistically, as we are often inclined to do. The dignity of human beings, the chief reason for human rights, arises from the idea of persons being created in the image of God; the dignity of communities proceeds from the notion of human beings being created in relation to God the Creator. Thus, community first and foremost means being in community with the Creator. By extension, therefore, we exist in community with each other.

If we lose sight of the community, we fall into the trap of individualism, as so many Christians have done, especially in the West. Then our individualistic understanding of human rights becomes an idol that blinds us to the communities that we see all around us. A false ideology has blinded us to reality. Let us, therefore, break away from the individualism that permeates Western thinking, and look instead at the picture that the Bible presents and that is expressed in many non-Western modes of thinking.

There are many different kinds of communities. The following wheel illustrates only some of them:

This international perspective that I have have sketched briefly provides a background to an examination of the proposal by the Canadian government to establish an Office of Religious Freedom. That is where I intend to go in my next posting.

Please feel free to respond to my observations about the nature of religious freedom. My emphasis on the rights of the community may not please everyone, but I do hope that I will cause people to think about this important topic. I am searching for the truth, as we all are. Let us therefore respect each other when we debate this controversial issue.


  1. I'm not sure that there are fundamental reasons to accept any particular privilege of individual vs. community rights. If one person believes the individual rights are supreme, another believes the community rights are more important, and a third seeks some kind of balance, how is one to judge between the views? Different forms of society could come to different conclusions. Likewise, why privilege the value of a human life as non-negotiable, if one is allowing communities to make their own rules?

    The book "Why the Rest Hates the West" argues that the very concept of rights is one of the roots of this conflict, saying that "human rights" are a western, post-enlightenment concept rather than something found throughout history and throughout the world. In this view, duties rather than rights have been the traditional way of framing relationships and social structures, and most of the world continues within this framework. The concept of rights does have some problems, according to the book, notably that rights imply that *someone* has a duty to provide something (freedom, food, justice ...) without necessarily identifying who has that duty.

  2. This division between (western) culture on the one hand, with the focus on individual rights, and other cultures on the other hand, with the focus on community values and individual duties, also seems to imply that it will be very difficult to form an integrated society, given that the very bases of the social contract are so different, even contradictory.

  3. In a brief post I cannot deal with all aspects of human rights. In the non-Western world there is rightfully an emphasis on duties rather than rights. In my teaching I have always stressed that all rights have corresponding duties. Unfortunately, I could not discuss duties in this post.

    However, I agree with you that when individual and communal rights are combined there will be conflict, as my diagram illustrates. But this does not mean that society is impossible, only that there will be stresses as the language problem in Quebec shows. Discussing these two different viewpoints on rights is helpful, especially for those who are familiar only with individual rights. Understanding community rights will help these people deal better with many other conflicts. East is east and west is west, but they are meeting everyday in the world in which we live.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. This topic is difficult, and I don't claim to have the answers. I am searching, as we all are. Thanks again.

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