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Human rights and religious exceptionalism

By Ian Robinson - posted Monday, 9 February 2009

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is conducting a public inquiry into Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century. The Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA), and other free thought organisations in Australia, are concerned this inquiry may be used by religions as a smoke screen to further their own agendas and shore up their already privileged position in the Australian political and financial system, rather than as a vehicle to explore broader issues central to freedom of belief and religion.

In the first place, the attention of the AHRC seems to be too narrowly focused on freedom of individuals and groups from religious persecution, which hardly exists in Australia. But to fully promote freedom of belief is not simply to promote absence of coercion; it is also to promote presence of choice. A more pressing problem in this country is the lack of real freedom of religious choice for many Australians, stemming from lack of exposure to alternatives. This has been exacerbated by the burgeoning number of “faith-based” schools, which accelerated under the previous government’s policy of generously funding religion.

The importance of choice is very clear from Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the cornerstone of the AHRC mission, which insists on choice as a central component of freedom of belief (emphasis added):

  1. … This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice;
  2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.

Choice implies a range of options from which one option can be selected. If we are talking about belief, this can only mean a range of different beliefs. So if we are to have freedom of religious belief, people must be presented with a range of religious choices, especially during childhood and adolescence when most people solidify their religious commitments. They need to have adequate knowledge of the various religions and of non-religious approaches to life from which they can choose. Belief can only be free when it is the result of free choice between viable options. If we are genuinely committed to freedom of belief and freedom of religion, we must make such knowledge available.

We believe this can only be accomplished by introducing courses in comparative religion in all government schools, at a level appropriate to the age of the children. Non-government schools would not have to teach such courses, but if they did not, they would not be eligible for any public support or funding, on the grounds that they were not meeting their human rights obligations to promote freedom of choice in religion and belief.

If this were implemented we would begin to have freedom of religion and belief in Australia. And if individuals were truly given a choice, as the ICCPR requires, rather than being indoctrinated at home and at school, it would be interesting to see what choices were then made.

Second, we are concerned that clauses which promote freedom of religion as a part of human rights proclamations such as the ICCPR are being used by some to curtail other important human rights. Such principles, which rightly condemn persecution or discrimination on religious grounds, are being used by some religious groups to stifle another crucial human right: freedom of expression. Laws which do this already exist in Victoria and Queensland and a federal version is being promoted by the AHRC in its proposed federal Freedom of Religion bill.

The Victorian Act makes it illegal “on the ground of the religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons, [to] engage in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons” (Section 8). But can we reasonably deny to an African child who has been born with AIDS because a priest has told her mother the use of condoms is a sin, or a wife whose innocent husband has been killed by a religiously-motivated suicide bomber, or a woman whose clitoris has been mutilated by religious elders when she was a child, or a man who has been kept from contacting his children because his wife has joined an exclusive religious cult, the right to hate and detest the religion responsible? Let alone try to stop them from trying to convert others to their point of view. Serious contempt or even revulsion of religion may be the appropriate human response in such situations.


Religion seems to get away with its protected status by the sleight of hand of yoking itself with race, so that racial and religious tolerance and their flipsides, racial and religious vilification are presented together as indistinguishable. The Victorian Act is called the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, implying they are analogous. Who can quarrel with measures to combat racism, the argument goes, therefore we must stifle criticism of religion too.

However, this alleged link between race and religion is entirely specious: there are stark differences between them which bear significantly upon the question of protection from vilification.

First, a person is born into a race and cannot change it. Therefore, to vilify someone because of their race is clearly unjust and unjustified, similar to making fun of someone who is congenitally blind or lame.

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About the Author

Ian Robinson is a freelance writer and editor based in Kyneton, Victoria. He has an Honours Degree in Philosophy from the University of Melbourne and was subsequently a tutor there in Political Philosophy.He later taught Philosophy of Education at Coburg Teachers College then worked for many years in the curriculum and teacher development areas of the Victorian Ministry of Education.Ian was Buckley in the cabaret group "Buckley, Hope and Nun", and has acted in and directed plays at La Mama and elsewhere. He has a long list of educational and general publications. He is Immediate Past President of the Rationalist Society of Australia and a former editor of their journal, the Australian Rationalist.

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