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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NsjhqqCubfw. 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: https://ionainstituteni.org/2018/03/29/christianity-and-the-universal-declaration-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