Blog, Media

The Right to Religion in the Public Place


On 19th April Dr Gaven Kerr of Iona Institute NI attended an event at which he was a member of the panel to discuss a new animation put forward by the NI Human Rights Commission and the Evangelical Alliance. The animation can be viewed here: The event was titled: Let’s Talk About Rights and Religion, and it aimed to focus discussion on the rights based background to religion and its public expression. By and large the event was a success and all of the panellists agreed that greater awareness of the right to religion and its public expression is a good thing. Dr Kerr’s approach to the issue was as follows.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states the following in article 18: 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.

The European Convention on Human Rights similarly states in article 9: 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 worship, teaching, practice and observance.

It has been elsewhere remarked on this blog the Christian theological vision involved in our contemporary notion of human rights: This is to the effect that human dignity is what generates human rights; and human dignity is derived from the rational nature of human beings. Effectively, insofar as every human being is a rational substance, regardless of its stage of development or occurrent abilities at the time of consideration, every human being must be treated as an end in itself and never as a means to an end. To treat a human being as a means to a further end is to gloss over the person’s rational nature and to treat the human as something that is not human. This conception of human dignity grounds the right to life which is primary in both the Universal Declaration and in the European Convention, but not only that, this conception of dignity as we have said generates all other human rights; and that is no less true of the right to religion and its public expression.

As both human rights documents state, all humans have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This stems from a consideration of dignity insofar as we have dignity because we are rational substances. As rational substances we are free to form our beliefs in accord with what our reason tells us is the case. Thus, it is our rationality that grounds that right. Not only that, included in this right is the manifestation of religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance. The latter bears some reflection particularly in the context of human dignity.

As rational beings, we form our thoughts and beliefs on the basis of our reason. Thus, we believe something, be it a religious belief or otherwise, because we have reason to believe it. Given that we have reason for such beliefs, we have a right to the public manifestation of such beliefs. But that rational grounding of such public manifestation carries with it an obligation on the part of the believer and an obligation on the part of the state.

On the part of the believer, he or she must accompany the public manifestation of beliefs with the reasons for such belief. That is to say, the believer must at least be able to say why he or she believes as he or she does. This has the twofold aspect of justifying the believer and allowing the non-believer to engage with the believer on a shared rational basis; such advice is indeed that given by St Peter in 1 Peter 3:15 wherein he advises that we be always prepared to give an answer for the hope that we have.

On the part of the state, insofar as the public manifestation of belief is accompanied on the part of the believer by the reasons by which he or she believes, the state has a duty to protect the right of the believer to manifest his or her belief in public in the ways alluded to in the human rights documents above. Thus, simply because a belief is a religious one does not automatically entail that it has no position and ought to have no position in public life. Accordingly, the state cannot justifiably relegate religious belief to the private realm simply because it is religious. Given that the public manifestation of that belief is accompanied by the reasons for such belief, religious belief has just as much a place in the public square as non-religious belief.

It is worthwhile to focus on this right to religion and its public manifestation, not to mention the rational backbone to all of this, precisely because one commonly hears the refrain that religion belongs in the private realm and not in the public. Yet the human rights documents referenced above did not see it this way, and if one looks at the role of human rationality and in turn dignity in the derivation of human rights, it simply cannot be the case that religious belief is essentially a private affair with no place in the public realm. The joint venture then of the NIHRC and the EA is to be welcomed.

Dr Gaven Kerr



Humanism, Religion, and Critical Reason

There are a number of tenets central to contemporary secular humanism (for a taste of what such humanists in NI believe see their website: What appear to generate a lot of their beliefs are: (i) the focus on the human being and (ii) secularism. It is important to bear these in mind, especially (ii), since humanism itself is not an essentially secular philosophy insofar many religious thinkers of the Western tradition have given very focused attention to the human being even going so far, as Aquinas does, in holding that the human being is the most significant of all creatures since it involves all aspects of both the material and the spiritual thereby uniting the two. Not only that, renaissance humanism was peppered by many religious thinkers, most notably St Thomas More. Hence what typically characterises contemporary humanism is its rejection of religion.

Setting aside the rejection of religion for a moment, there are many beliefs of secular humanism that are shared with religious thinkers of the past. So for instance the focus on a common humanity that unites all human beings; the emphasis on critical reason for our knowledge of the world, and the defeasibility of the deliverances of such reason; the ability to know what the good life is and the virtues independent of revelation; the worth and dignity of every individual and the need to live a full and happy life.

All of these positions and others have been adopted by significant religious thinkers in the past. It is worth considering the outlook of the representative religious thinkers I have in mind, thinkers like Avicenna (a Muslim), Moses Maimonides (a Jew), and Aquinas (a Catholic), not to mention the pagan thinkers Plato and Aristotle. The outlook that unites all of these people is that rationality is the specific difference of what it is to be human, so that in order to live a fully human life one must live a rational life. In order to live a rational life, one must do what one can to perfect one’s rational abilities, and this pertains to (i) knowing the truth and (ii) acting with respect to the truth. In order to know the truth, one must engage one’s critical reason and in order to act in respect of the truth one must know what the good of human life is and act accordingly. Hence these thinkers can affirm our common humanity, the emphasis on critical reason for knowledge of the world, the process of reasoning, knowledge of the good life independent of revelation, and the dignity of all human beings (though the latter is a position more closely focussed on by Catholic thinkers given their views of the person stemming from the theology of the Trinity).

Clearly then these thinkers did not see any inconsistency between their religious beliefs and the views they hold in common with what are now secular humanists. Part of the reason why they did not see any inconsistency is because their outlook entailed that the existence of God, knowledge of His nature, and the reasonableness of claims made in revelation about God can all be known by means of natural reason (Plato and Aristotle of course did not deal with the latter claim). Thus, these religious thinkers saw the engagement of their critical reason as something that was capable of being integrated with their religious outlook and not inimical thereto.

Now secular humanists may wish to dispute the details of the arguments for God’s existence, the philosophical reasoning by which God’s nature can be known, or the reasonableness of claims made in revelation. If our humanist brethren are correct in this regard (though I don’t think they are, see my book Aquinas’s Way to God: The Proof in De Ente et Essentia, Oxford University Press, 2015), then all that establishes is that in their view such claims are false, not that they are irrational. This is because the religious claims put forth by the aforementioned thinkers are defended by means of the same philosophical framework and commitment to the same philosophical ideals with which secular humanists would wish to reject them. Accordingly, there is no division between critical reason and religious belief, and when it comes down to the claims of religious believers such as the existence of God, His nature, and the reasonableness of the claims of revelation, one simply has to read the argumentation of the religious thinker in question in order to ascertain whether or not the position being put forth is true or false. Thus, one needs to read the works of Plato, the Metaphysics of Aristotle (especially his demonstration of God in Book 12), the Metaphysics of Avicenna, the Guide for the Perplexed of Maimonides, the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas and many others in order to ascertain the truth value of the religious claims made therein.

But this sort of high level and detailed engagement is not something that one sees with regard to secular humanists, since to do so they would have to accept the legitimacy of philosophical reasoning in order to refute such thinkers; yet it is the same framework by which these thinkers establish their religious claims, in which case the claims themselves are not opposed to the rationalist frame of mind of secular humanists. Indeed, I have worked with many atheist colleagues and read their very fine contributions to high level international philosophical journals, and such colleagues accept that religious believers do take the task of critical reason very seriously, and indeed they engage with them in the same journals and publications – they simply disagree that the argumentation is conclusive (as do the religious with respect to the atheist argumentation). But at no point are the rational credentials or the commitment to critical reason in doubt – we are all agreed in our commitment to critical reason, we disagree in what can be established from it.

With that in mind then, the religious claims of the thinkers mentioned above are made in light of critical reason and not independently of it. Given the latter, there are publicly accessible reasons for coming to believe a religious claim (or not). And if there are publicly accessible reasons for accepting a religious claim (or not) that claim has a place in public discourse.

Dr Gaven Kerr

Blog, News

Sex Education and Children

A major review of sex education is under way in schools in the South, and amongst the proposals it is suggested teaching primary school children on sexual consent, as well as topics on safe use of the internet, the effects of social media on relationships, LGBT issues etc. One of the reasons for this shake up is that the current curriculum is 20 years old now and is believed to be out-dated.

As such the suggestions for review seem quite innocuous, but nothing can be judged until concrete proposals and applications are made. We are unaffected in the North by this review, however calls are being made for mandatory teaching on sexual consent for children by operations manager for Nexus NI Helena Bracken, and a greater focus on the issue of sexual consent has been welcomed by the NSPCC NI. It would indeed be foolish to think that the shake-up in the South will not have repercussions on how we think about sex education in our schools here in the North. On that basis it is appropriate to comment on this issue, and to take into consideration the principles that must inform any sex education in schools.

All the reports of the review in the South express the need for a sex education based on facts, i.e. one which presents students with the facts of sex and sexuality. However, notoriously absent from the proposed review is parental co-operation with regard to sex education and adopting a more pro-active approach to relationship formation in young people. By contrast in NI, Ulster Unionist education spokeswoman Rosemary Barton commented on the need for parental co-operation in sex education, and NSPCC NI commented on the need for education on relationship formation.

With regard to parental co-operation, it is parents who are best placed to make choices on how they want their children educated beyond the statutory minimum level. Given the role they play in the lives of their children, parents have to make all sorts of important choices on behalf of their children, since children at various stages have not reached the level of maturity at which such choices can be made for themselves. Sex and sexuality is a reality of life with which all human beings must come to terms and be educated about, and so it is natural to consider parental judgement on when is the right time and the appropriate manner in educating their children on these issues. This is not to say that there should be no sex education, but that such education must have the input of parents. Otherwise it is left to the judgement of people who do not know the children best and do not have the primary responsibility for the children.

The reports of the review in the South give no indication that relationship formation will be dealt with in sex education classes. Indeed, David Quinn of our sister organisation, the Iona Institute, was attacked on RTE’s prime time for advocating relationship formation before sexual encounters as maintaining a value judgement. Indeed, the suggestions for review in sex education takes for granted rampant sexual activity and simply reacts to that. But if we are to educate our children on sex and sexuality, we need to show them that this is a very real physical relationship that one shares with another, one that touches the individual very deeply and puts one into the most intimate contact with another. Accordingly, the need for caution in engaging in such activity has to be emphasised, and indeed the reservation for such activity with an individual with whom one feels that the appropriate relationship is in place. Within a Christian context the ideal situation within which sexual relations do occur is one in which two people have devoted themselves to each other in both a public and an exclusive manner, and this is marriage.

The desire to educate children on the nature of consent on these issues is itself a recognition of the importance of forming an appropriate relationship before sexual activity. Thus, if the review of sex education needs to do anything, it needs to teach children how to form stable and lasting relationships with others within which both partners feel at ease to have sexual contact with each other. Otherwise sex education is simply reactive to a reality, but does not seek to inform reality.

On the issue of sexual consent, it is suggested that all children need to be educated on this issue so as to ensure the safety of people engaging in sexual activity. Stated as such this view is fairly innocuous; who could disagree that we need to teach children about consent? Consent is a very basic principle involved in moral reasoning, and if we want our children to be morally mature we need them to be aware of consent. But when it comes to teaching sexual consent to our children, we need to note a few things.

First, in a very general way we can explain what consent is and teach children about this. But this must be appropriate to the age of the child involved. If the child is of a very young age, it may be quite inappropriate to teach him or her about sexual consent, since at such a young age it would be inappropriate to teach them about sex beyond a factual consideration of the science of the matter; though of course issues pertaining to consent independent of the sexual context could be taught here.

Second, specifically sexual consent ought only be introduced when the child is at an appropriate age to learn about sex in a more human as opposed to purely biological way. This is something that is only appropriate for a child when they have reached a level of sexual understanding whereby sex is more than just a biological fact but something that pertains to interpersonal relations. The exact age at which the latter occurs varies for individuals and usually occurs during adolescence, hence the need for co-operation with parents. Thus, a blanket application of issues pertaining to sexual consent as part of a mandatory sex education undertaken without co-operation from parents is problematic.

Third, and somewhat as an aside, one of course wants to encourage virtuous behaviour in our children by which behaviour they can relate appropriately to each other, and especially in sexual matters. Thus, we do not want children growing into men and women who believe that they can force themselves on another. However, it is unclear how teaching children the facts of sexual consent will achieve this. If one individual rapes another, it appears to be the case that he or she is aware that consent is not forthcoming but, deplorably, he or she doesn’t care. What needs to be formed in our young children is good moral character according to which it would be unthinkable to force oneself on another. This will of course involve learning about sexual consent at the appropriate age, but it will also involve something deeper – an awareness of the human good and how that can be achieved in one’s life. And the latter can only be achieved when a society forms virtuous people at home, in school, and in public life.