Media Release: Freedom of religion only with freedom of choice

Ian Robinson / 01 February 2009

1 February 2009

The Rationalist Society of Australia has made an important submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century. Some key messages from the RSA submission are:

(1)  We are concerned that statements which promote freedom of religion as a part of Human Rights vehicles are being used by some to curtail other important human rights. We ask the commission to be alert to the use of the right to freedom of belief to cloak a disregard of other equally central human rights.

(2)  If we are to have freedom of religious belief, people must be presented with a range of religious choices, especially during childhood and adolescence when most people solidify their religious commitments. Belief can only be free when it is the result of free choice between viable options. To promote freedom of belief is not simply to promote absence of coercion; it is also to promote presence of choice. We believe that this can only be accomplished by introducing courses in comparative religion in schools, at a level appropriate to the age of the children.

(3)  Freedom of belief is not extended to the citizens of many Muslim countries where apostasy or denying one’s Muslim religion is punishable by death. It is only when fellow Muslims call these archaic and barbaric practices into question that the perpetrators may be led to think about and even reconsider what they are doing. We call on Muslim organisations and individuals in Australia to campaign vigorously for human rights in Muslim countries where apostasy is a capital offence.

(4)  No-one quarrels with measures to combat racism, but laws to stifle robust criticism of religion are problematic.  Religion gets away with its protected status by the sleight of hand of yoking itself with race, so that racial and religious vilification are presented as similar. There are stark differences between race and religious belief which bear significantly upon the question of protection from vilification.

(a)  A person is born into a race and cannot change it.  Religious beliefs are a choice. Therefore, people are responsible for the beliefs they hold and for the consequences of holding them.

(b)  The race of the persons one interacts with has no intrinsic relevance to the outcomes of those interactions. On the other hand the expression of a religious belief can have devastating effects on others and has done so over the ages. Therefore  negative feelings towards religion may be simply one of many legitimate human responses to the expression of religious belief in the world. So it is clear that while laws against racial intolerance are justifiable, laws against disparagement of religion are unacceptable.

(5)  Federal and state governments should withhold financial assistance in any form to organizations such as exclusivist cults which use mind control techniques on their followers, and/or, do not uphold their human rights as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A copy of the submission will be on the Australian Human Rights Commission website shortly:

www.humanrights.gov.au/frb

For further information contact the President of the RSA Ian Robinson on 0407 240 024.

All the more reason.

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