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Free To Believe

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” That was Article 18 of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Tragically that declaration is no longer taken seriously in many nations. 70% of the world’s population live in countries where religious freedom is restricted and in 2013 the BBC reported that 100,000 Christians are martyred every year. The ‘Islamic State’ is trying to purge Christianity from its birth places in the Middle East. Muslims, Jews and people of other faiths are also persecuted in of these many countries. The refugee crisis in Europe is partly a consequence of this.

But denial of religious freedom is not limited to these extreme examples. We are privileged in Britain that religious liberty is still respected. Our Head of State openly expresses her Christian faith. We have an established church, 26 of whose Bishops sit in the House of Lords. A significant number of schools are operated by faith groups and churches provide much of the youth work in local communities. Nevertheless, secular humanists constantly seek to marginalise religion from the public square, oppose the creation of new faith-based schools and campaign for the removal of the Bishops from the Lords. Court cases have seen Christians prosecuted for expressing their faith in public, sometimes for merely wearing a cross at work. The media is currently full of allegations of anti –Semitism.

Religious freedom lies at the core of what makes a healthy society and is a key to social harmony, making its widespread neglect a serious cause for concern. So what can be done to restore respect for it? Jesus’ words “do to others as you would have them do to you” suggest a way forward. The UN Declaration includes all coherent beliefs and not just religious ones. A public square that excludes all faiths and treats them as a purely private matter actually privileges the secular worldview. Our aim should surely be to move to what Os Guinness calls a civil public square in which “peoples of all faiths and none are free to enter and engage in public life on the basis of their faith.”

This is not a pursuit of the lowest common denominator, nor does it mean ignoring truth claims. It would be to make freedom of belief a cardinal principle respected in law and legitimately nurtured by what is taught in our schools and reflected in the media. It would also shape aspects of public policy both domestically and internationally. The Home Office would treat victims of religious persecution overseas sympathetically when they seek asylum here and the Foreign Office and the International Development Department would apply diplomatic pressure on those nations. The Education Department would give a higher priority to religious education and Local Authorities would be more relaxed about working with faith groups in their communities. The media would present religious themes and issues in a balanced and fair way, not polarising every issue or surrendering its headlines to those who use extreme and exaggerated language.

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