Does religion threaten human rights?

It worries me that as we approach the 60th anniversary of the the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the world seems to be facing a new threat to freedom of expression. This freedom is basic in democratic societies. It’s also vital to exposing, and overcoming, violations of human rights throughout the world.

I have commented before about attempts by some international Islamic organisations to restrict freedom of expression when it comes to issues involving violation of human rights in Islamic countries. This has extended to preventing criticism of religion in UN organisations. Other religions have extended a degree of support for this position internationally, and within some European countries.

Recently Elizabeth Samson described (Criminalising Criticism of Islam) a worrying new attempt to restrict freedom of expression by using the penal code of one country (in this case Jordan) to prosecute individuals of other countries:

There are strange happenings in the world of international jurisprudence that do not bode well for the future of free speech. In an unprecedented case, a Jordanian court is prosecuting 12 Europeans in an extraterritorial attempt to silence the debate on radical Islam.

The prosecutor general in Amman charged the 12 with blasphemy, demeaning Islam and Muslim feelings, and slandering and insulting the prophet Muhammad in violation of the Jordanian Penal Code. The charges are especially unusual because the alleged violations were not committed on Jordanian soil.

Among the defendants is the Danish cartoonist whose alleged crime was to draw in 2005 one of the Muhammad illustrations that instigators then used to spark Muslim riots around the world. His co-defendants include 10 editors of Danish newspapers that published the images. The 12th accused man is Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, who supposedly broke Jordanian law by releasing on the Web his recent film, “Fitna,” which tries to examine how the Quran inspires Islamic terrorism.

Jordan’s attempt at criminalizing free speech beyond its own borders wouldn’t be so serious if it were an isolated case. Unfortunately, it is part of a larger campaign to use the law and international forums to intimidate critics of militant Islam. For instance, in December the United Nations General Assembly passed the Resolution on Combating Defamation of Religions; the only religion mentioned by name was Islam. While such resolutions aren’t legally binding, national governments sometimes cite them as justification for legislation or other actions.

More worrying, the U.N. Human Rights Council in June said it would refrain from condemning human-rights abuses related to “a particular religion.” The ban applies to all religions, but it was prompted by Muslim countries that complained about linking Islamic law, Shariah, to such outrages as female genital mutilation and death by stoning for adulterers. This kind of self-censorship could prove dangerous for people suffering abuse, and it follows the council’s March decision to have its expert on free speech investigate individuals and the media for negative comments about Islam.

Given this trend, it’s worth taking a closer look at the Jordanian case.

The prosecutor is relying on a 2006 amendment to the Jordanian Justice Act that casts a worryingly wide net for such prosecution. Passed in response to the Danish cartoons incident, the law allows the prosecution of individuals whose actions affect the Jordanian people by “electronic means,” such as the Internet. The 2006 amendment, in theory, means anyone who publishes on the Internet could be subject to prosecution in Jordan. If the case against the 12 defendants is allowed to go forward, they will be the first but probably not the last Westerners to be hit by Jordan’s law.

Amman has already requested that Interpol apprehend Mr. Wilders and the Danes and bring them to stand before its court for an act that is not a crime in their home countries. To the contrary. Dutch prosecutors said in July that although some of Mr. Wilders’s statements may be offensive, they are protected under Dutch free-speech legislation. Likewise, Danish law protects the rights of the Danish cartoonists and newspapers to express their views.

Neither Denmark nor the Netherlands will turn over its citizens to Interpol, as the premise of Jordan’s extradition request is an affront to the very principles that define democracies. It is thus unlikely that any Western country would do so, either. But there is no guarantee for the defendants’ protection if they travel to countries that are more sympathetic to the Jordanian court.

Unless democratic countries stand up to this challenge to free speech, other nations may be emboldened to follow the Jordanian example. Kangaroo courts across the globe will be ready to charge free people with obscure violations of other societies’ norms and customs, and send Interpol to bring them to stand trial in frivolous litigation.

A new form of forum shopping would soon take root. Activists would be able to choose countries whose laws and policies are informed by their religious values to prosecute critical voices in other countries. The case before the Jordanian court is not just about Mr. Wilders and the Danes. It is about the subjugation of Western standards of free speech to fear and coercion by foreign courts.

Tourists beware

This also raises another possibility. Will people who take advantage of the freedom of expression accepted and respected in their own democratic countries have to be careful in future when they travel? Will the have to consider the prospect that they could be apprehended in another country and face prosecution for an act which is not a crime, but is in fact something to be respected, in their own country?

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33 responses to “Does religion threaten human rights?

  1. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I’m curious, Ken: why do you find this so worrying?

    Like

  2. More worrying, the U.N. Human Rights Council in June said it would refrain from condemning human-rights abuses related to “a particular religion.”

    Human rights should be universal, and rule over and above religion.

    It strikes me that these law suits are little more than extending a fatwa into a Western legal approach. Religious opinions should remain opinions, surely, and in any event they surely can only logically be applied to followers of (that particular brand of) the Muslim faith? (By the way, fatwah more correctly has a broader meaning than the issuing of a death sentence as it is often given to mean in Western media.)

    Like

  3. @ Dominic Bnonn Tennant:

    I think my post made this clear.
    Do you find this situation acceptable?

    Like

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    If human rights really exist then, by definition, they would apply to all humans. And violations of them should concern us. But what makes you (plural) believe that they do exist? What are human rights, in your view? What underwrites them?

    Like

  5. @ Dominic Bnonn Tennant:

    Seems to me you want to justify actions which would violate either the Universal declaration or be illegal under our own country’s human rights legislation.

    Is that the case?

    Like

  6. That’s a very strange red herring Ken. No, that is not my intention. But if it were, presumably you would condemn that intention. On what basis would you do that?

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  7. This is strange coming from an atheist. Are Human rights universal/objective or conventional/subjective? Where do rights come from? Do human beings have inherent worth? Based on what?

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  8. “This is strange coming from an atheist.”

    Why is this strange?
    What do you suppose an atheist should come up with?

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  9. @ James:

    “This is strange coming from an atheist.” – I guess you are referring to my support for human rights.

    Well, off course, it’s not strange to me and, I imagine, to most atheists. I think most New Zealanders, theists and non-theists alike, support human rights.

    However, if you find this strange you should draw the obvious lesson. You need to adjust your ideas to accommodate this obvious fact. You only find it strange because your idea/theory/world-view is faulty and needs changing.

    That’s what I would do.

    Like

  10. @ Dominic Bnonn Tennant:

    Perhaps you should clarify yourself then, Bnonn.

    Do you disagree with my post? Do you support King Abdullah and what is happening in Jordan? Do you want to prevent any criticism of religion? Do you want to use a special immunity for religion to prevent the obvious violation of human rights occurring in some of the Islamic countries?

    These are issues raised by my post. If you want to divert discussion away from such important issues perhaps you are resorting to a red herring yourself.

    Is it appropriate (or even ethical) to attempt to divert discussion away from such issues?

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  11. I guess you are referring to my support for human rights.

    Well, off course, it’s not strange to me and, I imagine, to most atheists. I think most New Zealanders, theists and non-theists alike, support human rights.

    However, if you find this strange you should draw the obvious lesson. You need to adjust your ideas to accommodate this obvious fact. You only find it strange because your idea/theory/world-view is faulty and needs changing.

    Sure you may have moral preferences – but so what? What makes your preferences more correct or right than their opposites?

    And you did not answer my questions: Are Human rights universal/objective or conventional/subjective? Where do rights come from? Do human beings have inherent worth? Based on what?

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  12. James said…”Sure you may have moral preferences – but so what?”

    What’s ‘strange’ about an an atheist having moral preferences?
    That’s the word you used, yes?
    Strange?
    So what’s ‘strange’ about it?

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  13. What’s ’strange’ about an an atheist having moral preferences?
    That’s the word you used, yes?
    Strange?
    So what’s ’strange’ about it?

    Strange in light of the questions I raised. Which I might add no one has answered. Strange in the sense that since there are no objective or universal moral laws it’s simply a matter of personal preference. One man prefers vanilla ice cream and one man prefers strawberry. Is one any more right than the other? Do we get upset because of the other man’s opposite preference?

    I just find it laughable when atheists feign moral outrage – based on what?

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  14. James said…”Strange in light of the questions I raised.”

    Huh?

    James said…”I just find it laughable when atheists feign moral outrage…”

    There you go again.
    Why do you think that atheists “feign” moral outrage?
    What’s so laughable about an atheist in a moral outrage?

    Do you have something to say?
    Spit it out. Don’t be coy.
    So far you’re not making any sense.

    Like

  15. There you go again.
    Why do you think that atheists “feign” moral outrage?
    What’s so laughable about an atheist in a moral outrage?

    Do you have something to say?
    Spit it out. Don’t be coy.
    So far you’re not making any sense.

    I just did, are you a bit slow? Strange in the sense that since there are no objective or universal moral laws it’s simply a matter of personal preference. One man prefers vanilla ice cream and one man prefers strawberry. Is one any more right than the other? Do we get upset because of the other man’s opposite preference?

    Do you get upset if your neighbor prefers a different flavor of ice cream than you? If morality is subjective then your moral opinion is no more correct or higher than the opinion of the freedom denying Muslim. What’s the big deal?

    Like

  16. “I just did, are you a bit slow?”

    No, I’m not.
    It’s just that you don’t seem to be able to explain yourself.
    I’m curious to know why you make the statements that you do.
    Don’t be shy now.

    All you seem to have are assertions.
    Why don’t you explain it to me?
    Carefully.

    Assertion One:
    What’s ’strange’ about an an atheist having moral preferences?

    You said…”there are no objective or universal moral laws it’s simply a matter of personal preference.”

    “…it’s simply a matter of personal preference.”
    Well, who says so?
    Even if this is true, what’s your point?

    How does that make it ‘strange’ that an atheist has moral preferences?

    You see the problem, yes?

    ………………………………………….

    Assertion Two:
    Why do you think that atheists “feign” moral outrage?

    Even if we assume that an atheist’s morality is based on personal preference (a BIG assumption) then why would the moral outrage be “feigned”?

    James said…”If morality is subjective then your moral opinion is no more correct or higher than the opinion of the freedom denying Muslim.”

    Even if this is all absolutely true, how is it strange that an atheist has moral preferences?

    Even if this is all absolutely true, how do you know that the atheist is “feigning”?

    Explain. Please.
    🙂

    Like

  17. @ James:

    I do have ideas about origins of our morality and hence concepts of human rights. If you want to discuss that then contribute to one of the posts on this site or elsewhere where these issues are raised (or place a post on your site and ask me to contribute to the discussion). I am quite happy to respond to your specific questions in the appropriate place.

    However, I have mentioned important issues in the current post. I invite you to stand alongside me in condemning what is happening in the UN Human Rights Council, and in Jordan. To condemn the “interfaith dialogue” aimed specifically at eliminating secular ideas and the rights of women.

    I feel that these are issues which theists and non-theists can work together on.
    You are trying to divert discussion away from these very real issues (they after all do relate to the issues of people being murdered for their beliefs, stoned for wishing to escape from marriages they didn’t want, genital mutilation of women, etc., etc., as well as the very important human right of freedom of expression).

    It’s a bit like the Nazi concentration camp official wishing to divert discussion to “Are Human rights universal/objective or conventional/subjective? Where do rights come from? Do human beings have inherent worth? Based on what?” when the inmates complain about starvation and arbitrary murder.

    My personal position is that it would be obscene to divert this discussion away from the real issues which involve human suffering just because your pull out a red herring.

    If you honestly want to discuss your questions go to one of the relevant posts and raise them there. I will not discuss those questions in this post but, of course, am happy to discuss the real issues raised in my post.

    Like

  18. Again Cedric, Do you get upset if your neighbor prefers a different flavor of ice cream than you?

    Yes or no?

    Like

  19. My personal position is that it would be obscene to divert this discussion away from the real issues which involve human suffering just because your pull out a red herring.

    Why? Since it goes to the core of this debate. And even here Ken, why would your above stated opinion be more correct than it’s opposite? You can’t have it both ways. If there is no God then there is not objective grounding for morality or human diginty. One set of moral goals is no higher or better than their opposite. Perhaps the evolutionary process is selecting for religious totalitarianism…

    The fact is Ken, you really do believe that certain things are wrong. Objectively wrong. I laud you for that. It is the image of God, within, informing your conscience. If that is not the case, then it really doesn’t matter, the evolutionary process will roll on, slecting for the most advantageous beliefs/behaviors – even if we find those beliefs/behaviors morally repugnant.

    Ok, I’m out of here…It’s been a pleasure as usual…

    Like

  20. Jame said…”Do you get upset if your neighbor prefers a different flavor of ice cream than you?”

    Um ,no. It doesn’t upset me.
    Is this actually leading anywhere?

    ………………………………………………

    “If there is no God then there is not objective grounding for morality or human diginty.”

    OH! I get it now.

    (…slaps self on the forehead…)

    You’re not interested in discussing human rights.
    You’re here to preach!
    Thought so.

    No. 62: ARGUMENT FROM ABSOLUTE MORAL STANDARDS
    (1) If there are absolute moral standards, then God exists.
    (2) Atheists say that there are no absolute moral standards.
    (3) But that’s because they don’t want to admit to being sinners.
    (4) Therefore, there are absolute moral standards.
    (5) Therefore, God exists.

    “Objectively wrong. I laud you for that. It is the image of God, within, informing your conscience. If that is not the case, then it really doesn’t matter, the evolutionary process will roll on…”

    No. 475: ARGUMENT FROM HUMAN BEHAVIOR
    (1) If we evolved from monkeys, we should behave like monkeys.
    (2) We don’t behave like monkeys.
    (3) Therefore, God exists.

    http://www.godlessgeeks.com/LINKS/GodProof.htm

    Get new material.
    (yawn)

    Like

  21. Um ,no. It doesn’t upset me.
    Is this actually leading anywhere?

    Then why get upset with the Muslims’ moral preferences?

    Get new material

    Why would I need to? You can’t answer this simple question: How is your moral opinion on these matters anymore correct or right than the Muslims’?

    Like

  22. “Ok, I’m out of here…”

    Nope, you’re sticking around.

    ………………………………………..

    “Why would I need to?”

    Because you argument is unsupportable.
    Moral opinions are not based upon invisible sky daddies.

    “How is your moral opinion on these matters anymore correct or right than the Muslims’?”

    Freedom of speech is a good thing. It helps built a better and fairer society.

    Our morals are from our society, our parents and our philosophy.
    People make morals. Not pink unicorns or pixies.
    People.

    The morality of free speech works. We know it works.
    We people living in a free society, with the benefit of a long and rich philosophical history have demonstrated that it works.
    It promotes justice and equality and a more humane society.

    No rubber stamping by Zeus or Vishnu or the Sky Mother is needed or required.

    “If God Did Not Exist Then I Would Kill My Neighbor!”
    http://kr.youtube.com/watch?v=JTIH79bPAbY

    Richard Dawkins – The Shifting Moral Zeitgeist
    http://kr.youtube.com/watch?v=uwz6B8BFkb4

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  23. “How is your moral opinion on these matters anymore correct or right than the Muslims’?”

    Freedom of speech is a good thing. It helps built a better and fairer society.

    It promotes justice and equality and a more humane society.

    Better according to whom? What objective rule do you have for “better?” Why is your opinion on these moral goals (justice and equality) more correct or right than the Muslims’ moral goals?

    You can’t escape it Cedric, if it’s all relative then it’s all relative. If it’s all subjective then it’s all subjective. The means as well as the ends or goals.

    Again, you have offered no rational objective standard for prefering your moral opinion (including ends or goals) over that of the Muslims’.

    Like

  24. “Better according to whom?”

    People in our society. Not pink unicorns. People.

    “Why is your opinion on these moral goals (justice and equality) more correct or right than the Muslims’ moral goals?”

    Because they work.
    Would you want to live in a Muslim fundamentalist society?

    “You can’t escape it Cedric, if it’s all relative then it’s all relative.”

    Nobody’s escaping from anything.
    Our society does the best that it can, imperfect though it may be.
    We’re certainly better now that we were ,say, a hundred years or even fifty years ago.

    Invoking invisible people doesn’t provide anything “objective”.

    Despite not relying on gods, non-believers don’t go around believing that “anything goes” any more than believers do.

    “Again, you have offered no rational objective standard for prefering your moral opinion (including ends or goals) over that of the Muslims’.”

    Rational?
    Well, at least I don’t pretend that my morals came from some “special supernatural place as yet unproven or defined”.
    That’s fairly rational. Mundane even.

    You, however, invoke supernatural beings.
    How rational is that?
    (shrug)

    Seriously, even if you woke up tomorrow believing that there was no god, would you suddenly start flinging poo at people from trees?
    Probably not, right?

    Like

  25. “Better according to whom?”

    People in our society. Not pink unicorns. People.

    “Why is your opinion on these moral goals (justice and equality) more correct or right than the Muslims’ moral goals?”

    Because they work.
    Would you want to live in a Muslim fundamentalist society?

    1. So if the people in our society decided that enslaving the minority was “better” – then it would be better – correct?

    2. What “works” Cedric is subjective – it depends on the goals you have in mind. Which are also subjective.

    Nobody’s escaping from anything.
    Our society does the best that it can, imperfect though it may be.
    We’re certainly better now that we were ,say, a hundred years or even fifty years ago.

    Imperfect? How can you know what imperfect is unless you have some idea what perfect is? Where did you get this idea of perfect?

    Seriously, even if you woke up tomorrow believing that there was no god, would you suddenly start flinging poo at people from trees?

    Probably not. The point is and was – you have no objective rule or standard for morals or ethics. This means logically, no one set of moral beliefs are any higher or more correct than their opposite.

    Like

  26. @ James:

    Yes James, I do believe certain things are wrong. And I can argue for objective moral values (and have done so elsewhere – debate with me there).

    And the fact is what is described in this post is wrong. And there are objective moral values about the way we treat fellow humans.

    Now, get over it and declare yourself on the points in the post.

    Will you stand alongside me and condemn these practices?
    Or do you, in fact support them and just dishonestly (and immorally) attempting to divert the discussion away from these important issues?

    Like

  27. James said: If there is no God then there is not objective grounding for morality or human diginty. One set of moral goals is no higher or better than their opposite.

    Ummm, sorry but I can’t quite see this. If people follow a particular pathway because of what a god said, then they’re not really behaving out of some moral sense, they’re behaving out of fear of what that god will do if its followers ‘misbehave’. Doesn’t sound like a good way to act at all.

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  28. “So if the people in our society decided that enslaving the minority was “better” – then it would be better – correct?’

    I’m against slavery.
    You are too, right?

    Or is it that you secretly want to own slaves but some supernatural being whispers in your head that it will roast you for all eternity if you dare try and…that’s the only thing that stops you?

    Are there religous societies that saw no moral probem with slave ownership? Sure. History is littered with them.
    Christian societies? Yep. Plenty.

    If you lived in those societies at those times, would you own slaves? If not, why not?

    (Remember, you are a product of that era. You don’t get to bring your 21st century morality and hindsight with you.)

    “Imperfect? How can you know what imperfect is unless you have some idea what perfect is? Where did you get this idea of perfect?”

    People have always striven for ideals and utopian societies.
    It’s part of who we are.
    There are always going to be flaws in any society.
    That’s why freedom of speech is an important value.

    I’m glad that you believe that, even if you lost your faith, you probably would not start flinging poo from trees.
    I’d even go out on a limb and say that it’s dumb to even suggest that you, James, would do such a thing.

    You, James, are not a weirdo.

    Flinging poo, bashing old people over the head with a rock and scooping out the goo inside, burning down your neighbour’s house revolts you, yeah?
    Even if you had no interest in any god to speak of, it would still revolt you, yeah?

    Well, the same goes for the rest of us.
    There’s nothing “strange” about making that kind of moral choice to do the right thing in that regard.

    Making those right choices is not “laughable”, it’s fair and sensible.
    It’s not “strange”, it’s reasonable and humane for any civilized person.
    There’s no “feigning” about it.
    Understand?

    …………………………………………………

    Ken said…”Will you stand alongside me and condemn these practices?”

    I condemn them.
    I condemn them because I choose to. I condemn them because that’s just the kind of decent person I am.
    No “feigning” here.
    I don’t worry about what the pixies will do to me if I don’t condemn these practices. That’s got nothing to do with it.

    How about you, James?

    Like

  29. I have posted a separate article Where do our morals come from? for the discussion people seem to want.

    So please, transfer that discussion to the new post. However, I would dearly love contributions on the issues raised in the current post. I will try to transfer any new comments on the abstract issues to the new post (if I can work out how it’s done).

    Like

  30. People have always striven for ideals and utopian societies.
    It’s part of who we are.
    There are always going to be flaws in any society.
    That’s why freedom of speech is an important value.

    Again Cedric, freedom of expression is only important is you have a specific goal in mind. Other goals may not include such robust expression. And if atheism is true then each opinion is arbitrary and no more correct than it’s opposite. You can not logically get ought from is. And why are your ideals for a society more correct than the Muslims’ ideals? If there is no objective rule then all moral opinons are equal. I many agree with you on slavery – but so what? Those who disagree are just as correct.

    Making those right choices is not “laughable”, it’s fair and sensible.
    It’s not “strange”, it’s reasonable and humane for any civilized person.
    There’s no “feigning” about it.
    Understand?

    Don’t you get it – there are no objectively “right choices.” We are just coggs in the materialist machine. And it would be quite silly to point to another cogg with blame. He is just doing and thinking what the process created him to do and think. It’s like getting mad at a duck for flying south…

    Like

  31. James, Ken had kindly opened a thread devoted to morals.
    We can take your preaching there.

    Yet before we do, it would be nice of you to address the topic of this thread for once.

    You’ve got a whole thread to talk about morals now.

    So how about you actually address the topic here?

    ……………………………………………………

    Ken said…”Will you stand alongside me and condemn these practices?”

    I condemn them.
    I condemn them because I choose to. I condemn them because that’s just the kind of decent person I am.
    No “feigning” here.
    I don’t worry about what the pixies will do to me if I don’t condemn these practices. That’s got nothing to do with it.

    How about you, James?

    Care to show a little courtesy to the host?

    Ken said…”However, I would dearly love contributions on the issues raised in the current post.”

    Like

  32. I condemn them.I condemn them because I choose to. I condemn them because that’s just the kind of decent person I am.

    Ok, so now you are a “decent” person. Really… If you were raised in a Muslim country or Stalin’s Russia, or Mao’s China you most likely would not support human rights – and you would be a “decent” person – according to their national mores. You guys don’t have a moral or logical leg to stand on – sound and fury signifying nothing…

    Like

  33. James said…”You guys don’t have a moral or logical leg to stand on – sound and fury signifying nothing…”

    (Well, you DO seem to be an expert in sound and fury signifying nothing. That’s how you derailed this thread, right?)

    😦

    Care to show a little courtesy to the host?

    Ken said…”However, I would dearly love contributions on the issues raised in the current post.”

    How about it? Since you believe that you actually do have access to an “objective morality” magically provided to you by the Flying Spaghetti Monster then…do you support freedom of speech?
    What is your stand on this?
    Why are you dragging your feet and refusing to commit?

    Let’s hear it at long last.

    Like

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