Human rights, religion and belief – dialogue holds the key

I was born into a churchgoing, Anglican Christian family. The community I was brought up in was generally law abiding (though as a child I did pinch apples from my neighbour’s tree and ride my bike with no lights on more than one occasion). Laws abided to were both those enforced by state law, and those enforced by my parents, relations and friends. The latter were often unwritten, and referred to such things as treating adults with respect, being kind to my sister, and applying myself at school. These were my responsibilities. I tried my best to meet them, not always with success.

As I grew older I was also keen to let people know that I didn’t agree with everything I was told. I discovered Thomas the Apostle who doubted the resurrection of Christ. ’Doubting’ Thomas became somewhat of a lightening-rod for my search for independent thought. Thomas was a believer in the end of course, my journey somewhat less worthy of print. But I was discovering the language of rights, particularly the right to freedom of thought and speech. It was a language that would become more important to me as the years went by.

For years now I have kept a pocket size version of the Human Rights Act in my day pack. It reminds me that, in addition to freedom of thought and speech, we are entitled to civil and political rights, the right to life and liberty, the right to food, to work, to education (Human Rights Act 1998).  The language of rights also encompasses an expanded number of protected characteristics. We all have the same fundamental rights no matter our age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, or sex (Equality Act 2010).

So, when it comes to the expression of religion or belief, we are protected by the law. We have the right to express our faiths and beliefs, whether religious or not. But how should we think about the impact of such expression on others? Adhering to a broad human rights framework that gives room for the expression of multiple, different faiths, beliefs and identities requires us to open our minds to diversity; to not let our attachment to our own beliefs shut down the need to respect those of others.

I would like to think our human rights and equalities legislation provides a decent framework in which we can can encourage the expression of our whole selves. In so doing, we must also hold responsibility for the impact of what we say on others. In this sense, how we express our right to freedom of thought and speech is as important as the basic right itself.

There are echoes here of the popularly held belief that we should treat others as we would expect others to treat us. Considering how our words might be received by others not only avoids causing needless offence, it can also help us get our ideas across. It is important for us to speak for ourselves and not for others, to take in what someone else is saying instead of focussing on formulating the response in our own head.  In doing so we can open up ideas rather than close them down. We can avoid playing a zero-sum game that pits one view against another until one is deemed ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong.’

I am not suggesting here that we need to agree with everyone. What is important is to demonstrate respect for faiths and beliefs different to our own. We can do this by choosing our words carefully and by remaining open to difference. How else can our broad human rights framework function? Can we at once say everyone is entitled to express their faith, belief and identity and act in such a way as to delegitimise those we chose to have issue with?

Implicit then in our approach to human rights is the need for understanding of and empathy with those who have faiths and beliefs different to ours. This, I would argue, can only be facilitated through dialogue. The philosopher and physicist David Bohm defined dialogue as ‘the ability to hold many points of view in suspension, along with a primary interest in the creation of common meaning.’ (David Bohm, Science, Order and Creativity). The task of generating common meaning maybe beyond most of us, but the importance of holding points of view in suspension is something we can teach and encourage. It helps us empathise with others. It lies at the heart of 3FF’s approach. A key task of 3FF facilitators working in schools, for example, is to establish a group commitment to an ‘ethical dialogue’ that all can invest in and share joint responsibility for, before the class starts, to help manage sensitivities that may arise.

We would do well to commit to such ethical dialogue day to day. For whilst the need for legislation and the importance of protection from hate speech must be recognised, we must do more to build the skills and confidence we need to handle controversy and disagreement in our day to day lives. Such skills and confidence will help us work through an arguably increasingly complex world. It will help us understand those different to ourselves; help us understand our own assumptions and biases, and how to responsibly challenge those of others. How else can we uphold both our rights and responsibilities when it comes to handing differences between faiths and beliefs? While legislators do their bit, it is down to us as daughters, sons, parents, relations, colleagues and friends, to demonstrate and teach the ability to express our own faiths and beliefs whilst remaining respectful of those of others.

Phil Champain is the Director of 3FF, the UK’s leading interfaith organisation.