Human rights for the non-religious

Matt Cherry, at the Institute for Humanist studies, has been commenting on the 2007 annual report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief. For the first time this report includes a section devoted to the situation of atheists and other non-theists. Many of the concerns found by the report’s writer (Asma Jahangir who was placed under house arrest by the government of Pakistan earlier this week) are relevant to the non-religious in New Zealand.

The report mentions concerns by the non-religious about:

  • financing of religious activities of the state using taxes paid by the non-religious;
  • laws on blasphemy and the “defamation of religion;”
  • imposition of religious ceremonies on pupils at school;
  • neglect of atheists and non-theists in religious education syllabuses;
  • discrimination when public services are contracted out to faith-based organisations;
  • religious exemptions in human rights legislation;
  • government consultations which include religious bodies but exclude the non-religious.

The report reiterates that “the right to freedom of religion and belief applies equally to theistic, non-theistic and atheist beliefs. The right not to profess any religion or beliefs is also protected.”

The question of “defamation of religions” receives some attention. Such accusations “might stifle legitimate criticism or even research on practices and laws appearing to be in violation of human rights but that are, or are at least perceived to be, sanctioned by religion.” While rights to freedom of religion and belief protect the individual they do not protect religions per se. Any agreements in this area dealing “only with sacred beliefs would run counter to the fundamental principles of human rights and non-discrimination agreement.” Such agreements must allow the same rights to atheists, agnostics and secular humanists.

Relevance for New Zealand

New Zealand generally has good human rights legislation but the principles are often ignored the the practical activity of public bodies. Religious ceremonies in public organisations and schools are an example. The current attention to religious education syllabuses ignores the non-religious traditions. And non-religious are often ignored in consultation by government as, for example, in the formulation of, and discussion around, the National Statment on Religious Diversity.

The report has very relevant advice for our government: “Representatives of non-religious groups should not be deliberately excluded from official consultations where theistic views are prominently taken into account. The state should analyse the possibility of systemic religious bias in such official consultations due to a numerical strength of religious representatives in comparison to non-hierarchical and non-institutional perspectives from atheist or non-theists.”

Related Articles:
Teaching religion
Special rights for religion?
Religious Diversity Statement
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Trends in religious belief in New Zealand
Destiny of Christian privilege?
Helen Clark’s diplomacy
Christian prayer problems
Common values, common action?
A national anthem recognising diversity?
Overcoming religious problems
“Let us pray . . . “
Religion and children
Religion and Schools
Atheism and religious diversity

5 responses to “Human rights for the non-religious

  1. fuckin a right


  2. Well… semantics again… this time it’s the word ‘religion’…

    Atheists often describe themselves as ‘non-religious’ (i.e. the title of this post), and I continue to say that this is misleading. ‘Religion’ does not mean belief in a ‘god’ etc, as there are plenty of ‘religions’ that don’t have a ‘god’… Essentially, religions are interpretive frameworks for understanding and living in reality… and we ALL have a one of these, no matter how un-developed, un-theistic, un-exclusive or un-specific it is – it’s still a view of the world…

    Hence, ‘worldview’ seems to me a much better term.

    So your title might better read ‘human values for all worldviews’…



  3. The dictionary definition of religion does include theism. However, in practice non-theist religions are included. And now we have a common use of the term ‘faith’ to cover a range of groups. The fact is that these terms are being used, despite their lack of coherent definition. Out Human Rights legislation, in common with international law, includes reference to freedom of religion and belief – to cover all options.
    Sure, ‘worldview’ has its advantages – but it’s not what is being used in legislation, social activity or things like the National Statement on Religious Diversity. And in common usage it is an exclusive term, hence the human rights problems. So in discussing these issues we have to use the commonly accepted terms, otherwise we have real problems with communication.
    However, to me, ‘worldview’ does imply some sort of philosophical outlook. I don’t thing atheism or non-theism really can be described this way. These terms, as also theism I suppose, refer to only a tiny aspect of anyone’s beliefs – on can’t characterise the beleifs using those terms except in a very minor way.


  4. Yes, ‘worldview’ is not nearly as common as ‘faith’ or ‘religion’ in public discourse. And yes, ‘faith’ and ‘relgion’ are typically used in ways that exclude atheists & non-theists. I think this provides good reason to use the term ‘worldview’ or a similar term… In this vein, I’m not opposed to ‘belief’ being used, though I can imagine many not being happy with it (perhaps – because it makes a positive statement, when they may prefer a more ‘neutral’ connotation?)…

    Also, I don’t see ‘worldview’ being any more implicative of a ‘philosophical outlook’ than any other term. I think its strength is its non-specificity. We all ‘view’ the ‘world’ in a certain way. I’m talking about a worldview as the collection(s) of perspectives and observations which we all gather and live our lives out of. We do not approach life detached from how we’ve come to understand it so far, we react to and experience life based on our foundational understanding of it all – our worldview… We do this no matter what beliefs we have (or don’t have).



  5. This is a debate you should have with the Human Rights Commission and the government who sponsored the National Statement, and with the “interfaith” groups who act as if they have all the bases covered.


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