HSV Submissions – December 2008

Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century

Submitted 1 December 2008 to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

In answer to questions on Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century, HSV made the following points to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission:

  1. Humanists regard the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a key document for civilised standards of human conduct.
  2. We recognise that total, unfettered freedom cannot exist where the pursuit of common good and justice deals with competing needs.
  3. Religious tenets have the potential to benefit or to harm. (We quoted several reports of human rights abuses and destructive practices in various cults and churches.)
  4. Australia should not tolerate human rights abuses practiced in the name of religion. We expect the State to protect its citizens from such harm.
  5. Section 116 of the Australian Constitution protects religious freedom rather too well by its “guarantee of the free exercise of any religion” without saying that there are legal limits to such freedom and that the law of the land should prevail.
  6. We expressed major concerns about the separation of State and religion and quoted many cases where it is breached: in particular, funding of religious organisations, schools, chaplains, hospitals; appointment of a head of a church to an executive position in government; political lobbying, donations and intimidation of MPs on social issues such as IVF, abortion and surrogacy; outsourcing of many social services to faith-based organisations (e.g., Commonwealth Employment Services); in pregnancy counselling, custody disputes, etc. We commented that relegating basic human services to churches and charities is a return to the Dark Ages.
  7. In the aftermath of 11 September, 2001, there emerged resentment towards Islam. It is regrettable but understandable. Regrettable, because it affects the majority of Muslims who are peaceful, law-abiding and do not support or engage in The emergence of violent, fundamentalist groups caused the backlash against Islam.
  8. The subordinate status of women was established by Judaism, Islam and Christianity and is still entrenched in orthodox congregations. This ancient denial of equal rights affects the lives of many women to this day and limits their opportunities in life. (We listed some practices of gender discrimination in open defiance of these laws, as observed by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner.)
  9. We commented on and gave examples of the growing influence of religion in public policy, e.g., MPs’ religious beliefs or obligation to their churches appearing to prevail over the wishes of the great majority of their constituents.
  10. We support the freedom of religion and belief and freedom from vilification on those grounds, but not the freedom from criticism of harmful, sometimes barbaric practices in the name of religion. Such criticism is part of civilising activism, which in the past has put an end to slavery, burnings at the stake and other acts of brutality of the early Christians. We observe that much religious intolerance stems from doctrinal differences within the various religious denominations, and that they pose a threat to social cohesion. The growing numbers of non­believers are often disparaged and blamed for social ills by church leaders.
  11. We stated our conviction that the key to religious tolerance is education in comparative systems of beliefs. An unbiased comparison of beliefs is education; sectarian instruction is not. The secular State should not cater for private arrangements of such needs, and the cost should be borne by those who require religious services of any kind. We are concerned by the attempts to introduce creationism and “intelligent design” beliefs into science classes, as if they are scientifically valid alternatives to evolution, and argue at length against these attempts. Now, more than ever, we need to deal with the growing complexities of the natural world rationally and scientifically.
  12. We regret that the universality of the Declaration of Human Rights has recently been eroded by the adoption of an Islamic version of Human Rights by the UN Human Rights Council, where Islamic States form a majority. This version imposes severe penalties on criticism of sharia law, the practice of punitive amputations, hanging of gay men, female genital mutilation, stoning to death, child marriage, lashing, etc. Humanists view these developments with grave concern.

Published: Victorian Humanist, December 2008: 4

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