The United Nations Organisation can do it. The Norwegians can do it. But the USA can’t. Neither can we in New Zealand. I refer to the ability to recognise the common values of humanity, irrespective of religious belief, and therefore the possibilities of common action to overcome social and political problems.
We can see this in the way that the NZ Human Rights Commission refused to recognise the rights of the non-religious (about 32% of the population) in formulating the National Statement on Religious Diversity. The US journal The Nation provides a similar example of non-recognition of the non-religious in a recent article The New Atheists. It describes how President Bush gave “the most dramatic presidential address in generations in the National Cathedral three days after September 11, 2001, so filled with religious language that it sounded like a sermon. It was delivered by a President flanked by Jewish, Muslim and Christian representatives, a model of religious inclusiveness, without anyone standing alongside them representing the tens of millions of nonreligious Americans. At this most important collective moment in our recent history, it was as if they did not exist”. And, of course, even in the USA the non-religious comprise a larger proportion of the population than Jewish or Muslim people.
The article suggests that “this helps explain the popularity of the New Atheists–Americans as a whole may not be getting too much religion, but a significant constituency must be getting fed up with being routinely marginalized, ignored and insulted”. Perhaps those New Zealand Christians who promote a “diversity” exclusive of the non-religious and who discuss Parliamentary prayers and the teaching of religion in our schools, but at the same time ignoring or excluding the non-religious, should ponder on the possible consequences.
A more inclusive approach to diversity is possible and this approach is taken by some overseas organisations. For example the UK National Secular Society reports that Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief recently met with them, British Humanists and other non-theists. Mrs Jahangir was investigating the situation for Human Rights in the UK and will produce a report for the UN. “Mrs Jahangir agreed that consulting minority communities through unelected “faith leaders” often led to others in that community not being heard”. Of course, the later is exactly what is happening in New Zealand.
In Norway the Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities, equivalent to our “Interfaith” groups, includes Humanists in its organisation. The Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief is an international network of representatives from religious and other life-stance communities, NGOs, international organizations and the academia, with the aim of promoting freedom of religion or belief and strengthening interfaith co-operation worldwide. It includes representatives of non-religious organisations.
The United Nations Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief overseas international treaties on freedom of religion and belief. The committee membership includes people of different beliefs, including the President Matt Cherry who is a Humanist.
Our own Human Rights legislation recognises international treaties and is therefore careful not to raise religious belief over non-religious belief. In this sense the National Statement on Religious Diversity is not as inclusive as the existing New Zealand legislation.
Perhaps when we talk about religious diversity in New Zealand we should be referring to our legislation rather than the National Statement? And perhaps we should base our common action on this legislation?