HSV Submissions – June 1997

Right to Believe

Submitted 27 June 1997 to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

Background

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has distributed a Discussion Paper (DP), Free to Believe: The right to freedom of religion and belief in Australia.

Both HSV and Council of Australian Humanist Societies prepared submissions, setting out ways in which Humanists are pushed to the margins while religious groups still have centre stage in Australian communities. The DP examines Australia’s compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (the Declaration). In discussing the Declaration, the DP notes that:

‘religion’ and ‘belief’ should have meanings at least as broad as they have in the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), which is a binding treaty and of higher status in international law.

In the ICCPR, “religion” and “belief” are given a much deeper meaning:

Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms belief and religion are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions.

Recognition of this by the DP document is recorded in the last paragraph, on page 21:

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion therefore entails the right to hold any thoughts or convictions – religionconstituting one form of belief while thoughtand consciencemay encompass a wide range of beliefs not necessarily based on religious precepts.

There are two factors contributing to the DP’s bias towards religion. First, the exclusive reliance on the Census as its only source of statistics on religious adherents, which as Humanists know asks a question, “What is the person’s religious denomination?”, which inflates the number of adherents in each religion. Second, the deeply established cultural understanding of religion as a belief and other points of view as non-belief, therefore outside the parameters of discussions on belief.

Published: Victorian Humanist, Aug. 1997: 4

Submission

To the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, in response to the discussion paper, Free to Believe: The right to freedom of religion and belief in Australia, we made the following points:

General
We value personal freedoms highly, but believe that competing interests should be resolved for the benefit of the group as a whole. Religious practices with potentially harmful consequences should be curtailed by law. Some religions uphold gender inequality, isolate children and so deny participation in the wider community. The acceptance of diversity must not extend to practices that are a relic of past brutalities. To deem some attitudes and practices as no longer acceptable constitutes the civilising process. In this, some individuals or minority groups could be perceived as oppressed. In an organised, civilised society there can be few totally unmitigated freedoms.

Specific points

  1. Education – Religion is a set of beliefs often disputed by others and often a source of violent conflict. The teaching of denominational religions should not be at public expense: those who wish such instructions should form private groups for that purpose and bear the cost. Education should be entirely secular. If religion is included in a school curriculum, it would only be appropriate as a comparative study of religions. Segregation on religious grounds should not be assisted by the State.
  2. Tax exemptions & benefits for churches – We regret that, in our modem, secular society, discriminations instituted by ancient communities based on irrational beliefs are still respected.
  3. The law of blasphemy – It is a relic of religious persecution, a penalty on opinion and is inequitable: it does not protect the often vilified atheists, pagans and infidels. Criticism of political beliefs and allegiances is rightly permitted and unrestrained. Freedom of religion should not include freedom from criticism. We urge that this archaic law be abolished, as advised by The Legal and Constitutional Committee of Victoria (Discussion Paper No. 3, Freedom of Expression in Victoria): “Abolition by statue of the common law of blasphemy”.
  4. Religions in the Census – We regard the National Census as a grossly inadequate means of assessing the prevalence of religious adherence and practice in this country. Denomination is often registered as family tradition of the past in the absence of any contemporary use or attendance at services. Yet grants and benefits to churches are allotted on the basis of this assessment. We urge that more accurate surveys of religious practice be used, or the question deleted from the Census, as in the UK.
  5. The all-male jury case – We enclose a report on a case where women jurors were rejected on the grounds of the defendant’s religious beliefs. “As a Christian man, it’s against my religious beliefs to be judged by women as is specified many times throughout the Bible and that it was man’s God-given right to judge,” said the defendant. (The judge complied, the HSV complained.)
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