Friday, March 27, 2009

Human rights and "religious defamation"

It has been reported that this week the UN Human Rights Council voted for a resolution declaring "religious defamation" to be a human rights violation.

I have been unable to find the text of the actual resolution, but it has been quoted in several reports as saying:
"Defamation of religion is a serious affront to human dignity leading to a restriction on the freedom of their adherents and incitement to religious violence [...] Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism."

There are several interesting issues here, matters of principle that seem to have become confused and complicated by people's perceptions of rights.

First, what is a human right? In a philosophy class I learned that we have the "right" to do whatever we want, provided it does not infringe upon anyone else's "right". For example, we were told, we can walk anywhere we want, until we enter someone's private property. In that case, the owner's right to privacy outweighs our right to freedom of movement. This means that a right is what we have permission from society to do. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins."

Human rights are defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document well worth reading and thinking about. Readers may find that several of the articles are routinely violated by various countries, including signatories. The Declaration proclaims the freedom and equality of all human beings.

Now, let us turn to religious belief. Members of any one of the major faiths believe that their religion is absolutely and exclusively true. Most faiths aim, to a greater or lesser degree, to convert all human beings to their belief. It is implicit in this belief structure that human beings are not, in fact, equal. The faithful often consider members of their faith to be superior to non-believers or members of other faiths. In some cases they consider only members of their own group to be living a correct and moral life, and that only they will be rewarded in the afterlife. They also do not support complete freedom, since they tend to consider people questioning or leaving the faith to be a sin, and have little tolerance for the lifestyles of other religions and non-believers.

In fact, there seems to be a stark contradiction between holding a religious faith and fully supporting the principles of freedom and equality promoted by the Universal Declaration.

Religious freedom, the right to believe and worship, is guaranteed by the Universal Declaration (article 18), seemingly without any awareness of this contradiction, though it does mention the right to change one's religion.

The latest resolution seems to have gone much further. It refers to "defamation of religion", which can be defined as "saying something offensive to members of one religion". The implication is that all individuals must be respectful of all religions, even or especially those they do not believe in.

This is in clear violation of one of the other rights guaranteed, the right to freedom of expression (article 19). Of course, there has to be some limit even to freedom of expression. People are not usually considered to have the "right" to freedom of expression if it incites violence or discrimination. However, the sort of statements some religious people would consider as "defaming" their religion, or "insulting", "offensive" or "blasphemous", do not necessarily incite violence or discrimination. They may merely express the speaker's disapproval of a particular religious belief or practice.

As I have said in a previous post, when people choose to be "offended", they decide that someone is "provoking" them. If religious believers had greater confidence in their religion, they might find it in themselves to ignore the attitudes of non-believers, magnanimously accepting that not everyone has to accept the same set of beliefs and behaviours.

I do not wish to single out any particular religion, since the principle is the same for all of them. However, I believe that the Human Rights Council would do better to work for the creation a universal set of values that would really guarantee the human rights of freedom and equality instead of adopting "politically correct" resolutions that prevent freedom of expression and support proponents of beliefs in clear opposition to the Universal Declaration.

No comments: