The right to freedom of religion and belief should matter for the religious and non-religious alike

Bright Blue’s campaign and petition for the UK to remain party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) after we leave the European Union is in the best tradition. The ECHR was the masterpiece of post-war British politicians who, looking out over a continent drenched in innocent blood and counting the cost in lives and treasure of human rights abuses, grasped the need for permanent legal protections against state tyranny. Indeed, it is easy for us to overlook the fact that human rights, enshrined in treaties like the EHCR, embody the lifeblood of modern prosperity. But here we take a closer look at the value, for both the religious and non-religious, of one particular ECHR-secured human right: freedom of religion and belief, often referred to as FORB. In a continent where one state had routinely targeted individuals of a certain religion through the Holocaust, this right remains one of our most precious assets today – for all of us.

It is necessary to explain exactly what this right entails, for it is often the victim of obfuscation. The right is expressed fully in the ECHR’s Article 9. It secures the freedom to hold and change one’s own religion or belief and to manifest it in private and public. This right extends to a range of non-religious as well as religious beliefs. For a belief to be protected it must be serious, sincerely held, worthy of respect in a democratic society and concern important aspects of human life or behaviour. This includes Humanism. If the state can prove a threat to public safety/order, health, morals or the rights and freedoms of other people, it can interfere with one’s right to put their religion or belief into action, but otherwise it cannot. Finally, this freedom belongs to individuals, and not to the religion or belief itself, which means that it does not attempt to shelter religions or religious figures from criticism.

So, why is Article 9 universally valuable? Firstly, because it is indispensable to the stimulation of harmony between the different communities comprising modern, pluralistic societies. History reveals that when the state does not provide equal freedoms to people of different religions and beliefs, the potential for violence is inflamed. The community with the religion or belief that is discriminated against naturally feels resentful towards the privileged faction and the Government of the day. This causes sectarian strife, which often escalates as the competing communities try to wrestle from each other control of the state. Far from being an intellectual abstraction, the FORB principle emerged from the ashes of these conflicts, as states realised that it represented the only path to sustainable peace. Indeed, countries that persist in avoiding enshrining this right continue to find themselves marred by violence. A strong case can also be made that the freedom to criticise religions and beliefs also, paradoxically, cultivates harmony. After all, if the state was to ban the criticism of beliefs, out of a sense that those holding them are likely to respond with violence, certain groups might be encouraged to resort to aggression when, inevitably, their religions and beliefs are subjected to scrutiny.

It may be objected that many countries party to Article 9 do find themselves creaking under the pressures of religious violence, in the form of terrorism. Some may even claim that freedom of religion and belief actually empowers terrorism, as it allows extremists to inflict their values on the susceptible. The latter claim is misguided. As we have already seen, the state does have the authority to intervene given a provable threat to public safety/order or the rights and freedoms of others. There is, furthermore, a strong case to be made that Article 9 throws water on the flames of home-grown terrorism more vigorously than it stokes them. It does, after all, foster the loyalty of all groups to the state, since it lessens fears of state-endorsed infringements upon their religious or non-religious autonomy.

FORB also generates loyalty to the state by facilitating economic prosperity. A climate of peace and stability is crucial to the economic success of any country, as serious turbulence obviously impedes investment and development. Countries ravaged by sectarian violence also often find themselves haemorrhaging talent, as the highly-skilled emigrate. Moreover, FORB helps to keep at bay certain types of religious regulation that harm economic activity. Some Muslim-majority countries, for instance, place certain industries in theologically-inspired strangleholds and impede the flow of women into the workforce. Indeed, it seems that religious/non-religious, economic and political freedoms are deeply intertwined. Unthread one, and all the others will threaten to fall apart.

Some non-religious people complain that FORB is valuable but, in practice, in public discourse it is often manipulated and weaponised by religious agents. We sympathise with this view. The full category of ‘Freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ is sometimes shortened to ‘freedom of belief’, but is often shortened to ‘religious freedom’. This can amount to an insidious verbal sleight of hand, which allows some lobby groups to turn the right to ‘religious freedom’ into a right to privilege over others. Sometimes, the term ‘religious freedom’ becomes nothing but a code-word for intolerance. This hurricane of insincerity throws us through the looking-glass, where we find that a right designed to impede discriminators, is wielded as a key weapon in their armoury. Obviously, we encourage governments to disown these hollow forms of ‘religious freedom’, which find no sanction in the wording of Article 9 or subsequent European Court rulings.

Despite some distortions on the ground, the utility of the principle is clear. We all tend to take rights such as these for granted. In reality, European history is bathed in the blood of the people who were not protected by such freedoms. It is also soaked in the sweat of people who struggled to see them worked into the political vocabulary of their states. To discard the ECHR would serve only to sap the power of these hard-won freedoms and insult the memory of their standard-bearers.

Andrew Copson is Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association