Human Rights Vs. Religious Rights

Alex Mitchell
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These are not mutually exclusive. Religious rights and the freedom to worship are in fact part of human rights legislation and international treaties/doctrines. The issue here is whether one should take priority over the other. This point is debated on numerous grounds, be it gay rights, women’s rights, and the right to free speech amongst other discussions.

Human rights are arguably universal, yet not all of us have religious faith, and the number that does believe is steadily decreasing in the Western world. Human rights try to encompass protections and freedoms for all regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexuality or faith, rights formed through legislation following World War II to ensure that the systematic and calculated persecution of peoples would never be repeated again. They define each human as equal in law and in theory there should be no exceptions to this. However, when you contrast this imperative with a belief system that adamantly upholds certain moral principles, you can see where the discrepancy comes from.

I am all for religious freedoms as I do not judge those with religious faith, nor do I seek to convert them to atheism. I like to learn about their cultures and traditions. I find the notion of religion to be interesting, a shared belief across races, continents and languages in one set of doctrine passed down through generations. I find it saddening that the Israeli Palestinian sees conflict along religious lines between two peoples who are descendants of the half-brothers Isaac and Ishmael, the sons of Abraham.  The divide that religion can cause is deep, but should be one that human rights try to bridge.

Whenever I debate gay rights with religious people I am amazed at the irony in their arguments. I remember one person saying to me “Of course I think gay people should have equal rights, I just don’t think they have the right to marry.” Well in that case you don’t think they should have equal rights then, for equality means for all, without discrimination. This selective take on rights is demonstrated beautifully in The West Wing:

Religious people sometimes use their faith to justify discrimination, be it against LGBT, or women, or even other religions. I do not question their right to worship, but question the things and people seek to exclude. Let us not forget homosexuality was around before Jesus’s time. Theologists even argue that the phrase “abomination” as so often referenced to homosexuality means little more than uncustomary. This interpretation is different to that of a sin against god. We now see this religious justification being used to force through legislation in Uganda and Nigeria against homosexuality. Any group of people, be it religious or political that seeks to discriminate and to exclude people loses credibility.

It has been argued that prioritising a minority based on sexuality can lead to the overriding of human rights in their more traditional sense of freedom of religion and belief. However, human rights do not just enshrine religious doctrine. Human rights can evolve unlike traditional religious thought which resists change and acceptance within society. Religious discrimination is not a right; freedom from it is.

The struggle to maintain religious integrity and the right to preserve moral codes in practice manifests itself through public debates which more often than not advocate elevating their specific religious beliefs over those of differing beliefs. This inward fighting between religions is confusing as the same point of origin unites many belief systems. Surely if you are arguing for religious freedom, it is for all religions and not just your own. In practice, however, this is problematic

Is there a case of religion trumping human rights? Arguably it comes back to sex and conception, a subject that religion likes to intervene in often. When it comes to abortion, some religions class the foetus as life, so should human rights extend to the unborn? If that were to happen, which life would you choose if there were complications with the pregnancy and the mother’s life was at risk? Pro-life campaigners would put the foetus’s life on an equal level as the mothers, however this contrasts with the law in England and Wales which states that you are not considered to be living until independent from your mother. When issues of life and death depend on interpretation and differing definitions, the stakes are raised and religion increases its unwise grip on public opinion and policy.

So should one come before the other? It depends. When governing, religion should take a back seat. Yet religious opinion should not be ignored, but should not be taken as a deciding factor when it comes to passing legislation. In society there should be human respect, which links the two together neatly. We should not blindly assert our rights, but should endeavour to assert the responsibility that goes hand in hand with those rights. A respect for human individuality and a respect for shared religious beliefs. On the other end of that scale there should be a respect for those without religious beliefs. Human rights serve as basic legal protections for individuals ensuring free thought and opinions as long as it does not harm anyone.

Live and let live. Everyone has the right to hold their beliefs but when its manifestation infringes on someone else’s rights then it should be subject to restrictions. The law does not intend to control thoughts, it does however intend to protect individuals from the real world implications of those thoughts, be it through oppression, discrimination, bigotry, or violence.

About Alex Mitchell

Political observer and current affairs addict. I observe - I analyse - I debate