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.”
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Religious Diversity Statement
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
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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