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"Religion or Conviction"

An IHEU Board paper January 1996
Harry Stopes-Roe*
Summary: International Declarations and Conventions establish special rights for theistic and non-theistic life stances, as against opinions in general. In this, Humanism is treated equally with the religious.
To talk of Humanists as "non-believers" in the context of discussion of their human rights, and in particular to demand "Rights for non-believers", is to reinforce prejudice and discrimination, and to undermine the fundamental human rights of Humanists - It implies that non-theistic life stances do not now have those special rights; that is, it implies that the existing instruments are not sufficient,
It suggests (whatever the user may intend) that the issue concerns those who are without conviction (Fr), weltanschauung (Ger), or life stance, which eliminates the legitimacy of the Humanist claim.

1: Introduction

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts:
Art. 18: Tout personne a droit à la liberte de pensée, de conscience et de religion: ce droit implique la liberté de changer de religion ou de conviction, ainsi que la liberté de manifester sa religion ou sa conviction seule ou en commun, tant en public qu'en privé, par l'enseigment, les pratiques, le culte et l'accomplissement des rites.
This basic statement establishes equality of rights between "convictions" and "religions", including in particular those "convictions" (as for example Humanism) which do not accept a god. I quote this in French because the English version has caused great confusion by replacing "conviction" with "belief". This (I will argue) has encouraged discrimination against those who do not accept a god. The German version has "Weltanschauung" at these points, and this word also clearly includes non-theists. My purpose in this paper is to examine the confusion and discrimination induced by the word "belief".

The underlying cause of difficulty is the absence of a universally accepted word in English which encompasses both religions and alternatives to religion, without discrimination between them. The French and German words conviction (Fr) and Weltanschauung (Ger) approximate to what is required. In English, the word religion itself is ambiguous: is a "religion" which does not accept a god a religion? In English law the answer is "No" (with Buddhism accepted as an exception) and this use holds in such International Declarations and Conventions as I have studied, and I suggest that it should be accepted. To fill the need for a fair umbrella tern in English, "life stance (1)" was introduced some years ago. It is now widely, used in Britain, and increasingly in countries where English is used; it is an essential element in the IHEU agreed "Minimum Statement". Humanism is a non-theistic life stance; Christianity is a theistic life stance.

2: The English words conviction and belief

Why was conviction (Fr) and Weltanschauung (Ger) translated as belief (Eng)? The answer I think is first, that there is no traditional English equivalent; and secondly the word conviction in English, unlike French, is used for criminality in a court of law. Conviction (Fr) is entirely uncontaminated by this, being used only in senses related to commitment, belief. Because of this second meaning in English, the text would have been a joke in English if it had read "freedom to change his religion or conviction" and "Freedom to manifest one's religion or convictions". Thus the translators saw no other word than belief (Eng).

But belief (Eng), unlike conviction (Fr), Weltanschauung (Ger) and conviction (Eng), can have religious associations imposed upon it. In itself belief (Eng) is open, for belief can concern anything. But if one adds the prefix non- or the suffix -er one imports the idea of a particular belief which one is respectively rejecting or accepting. Cultural convention normally supplies the required particularity; religion is assumed. Thus believer (Eng) is not merely one who believes something, but one who believes a religion, and non-belief (Eng) is non-belief in all religions.

The religious implication attached to believer (Eng) and non-believer (Eng) contaminates the word belief (Eng), though properly speaking it should not. If, it may be said, a "non-believer" rejects religion, then (supposedly) "belief" is religious; and (it may be added) "'belief' implies irrational faith"). This association may lead someone of fundamentalist anti-religious prejudices to smell religion in the Universal declaration. Thus they fail to see the rights it gives to "non-believers".

3: The rights of non-theistic life stances

Art. 18 of the Universal Declaration gives special rights to "les religions ou les convictions", over and above those given in Art. 19 to "opinions" in general. It is clear that Art. 18 establishes equal rights to non-theistic and theistic life stances. Conviction (Fr), Weltanschauung (Ger), and (viewed without prejudice) belief (Eng) all include non-theistic life stances. The point is underlined in Article 18 by the wording: the introductory "la liberté de pensée, de conscience et de religion" is followed by the specific "la liberté de changer de religion ou de conviction". The opening "religion" refers to a domain of alternatives over which freedom runs, which is exemplified in the alternatives "de religion ou de conviction" which follow. This is important, because it establishes that conviction (Fr), Weltanschauung (Ger) and also belief (Eng) are, in this context, limited to the domain of religion and alternatives, i.e. life stances.

The words croyance (Fr), Glaube (Ger) and belief (Eng) are directly equivalent. It is significant therefore that these words are not used in those languages, namely French and German, where terms are available which are entirely free of religious associations. It is clear that the French and German versions express the intention of the Article, while the English version is unsatisfactory, in that it is distorted by the peculiarities of the English language. The object of Art. 18 may be expressed more accurately as "religions and non-theistic life stances". The juxtaposition articles 18 and 19 demonstrates the special privileges due to the deep convictions of a life stance: the former refers to life stances; the latter gives lesser rights to opinions in general.

The truly most basic problem before those concerned with freedom of conscience is to secure the proper recognition of the range of beliefs entitled to these rights: it is theistic and non-theistic life stances. Without this recognition, proper implementation of the rights is, of necessity, frustrated.

Recognition and implementation of the equality between theistic and non- theistic life stances is blocked by those who seek to retain the privileges of religion, and the fundamental way in which they do this is by rejecting the idea that non-theistic life stances have the deep significance of religion. But the significance of a religion, which endows it with special fundamental human rights, lies in its being a life stance: a life stance is a person's relation with what he or she accepts as of ultimate importance (2) the commitments and presuppositions of this and the theory and practice of working it out in living. A religion is (typically) a life stance which accepts a Divine Being. Fundamental human rights do not depend, on the acceptance or the rejection of The Divine.

The problem of making effective the rights of non-theistic life stances does not lie in any defects in the existing instruments, for they establish those rights. The problem lies in the minds of those religious people who have power: they reject our claim that Humanism is an effective alternative to religion, and therefore entitled to those rights. What is required is to get them to understand this, and to accept it; or (more relevantly!) to get those who are not prejudiced to understand and press for acceptance. This is made more difficult if one reduces Humanism to a mere "non-belief"; for this is exactly the argument religious people use to deny Humanism the rights due to it as a life stance.

Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) develop Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration, and the points noted above are restated. The UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms Of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief (1981) develops Article 18 of the Universal Declaration, but (being concerned with life stances, not opinion in general) does not repeat Art. 19.

4: The rights of "non-believers"

What are "non-believers"? Whatever the users of this phrase may intend, those unsympathetic to Humanism will interpret such individuals as persons without fundamental convictions: "les personnes sans conviction", "die Personnen ohne Weltanschauung". But however "non-believers" be interpreted, the idea that special rights should be accorded to "non-believers" beyond what is secured by Art 19 for "opinions" on the one hand, and by Art. 18 for non-theistic life stances on the other, is hardly serious.

5: The damage done by demanding "Rights for non-believers"

What ever may be intended by those who talk of a need for "Rights for non believers", for such talk, does two things:
First it implies that non-theistic life stances do not now have those special rights accorded to religious life stances; that is, the existing instruments are not sufficient.

Secondly, it suggests (particularly to those who are religious) that the issue concerns those who are without conviction (Fr), Weltanschauung (Ger), or life stance, which eliminates the legitimacy of the Humanist claim.

To talk of Humanists as "non-believers" in the context of discussion of their human rights, and in particular to demand "Rights for non-believers" is to reinforce prejudice and discrimination, and to be destructive of the fundamental human rights of Humanists.

So far as I am aware, all international instruments are scrupulous in their reference to "religion ou conviction" - except the closing document of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe Vienna 1989. Reference to this Document leads me to notice a further way in which the demand for "Rights for non-believers" damages the rights of Humanists: it legitimates giving special rights to the religious, which are seen as not relevant to "non-believers" (interpreted as "one who is without conviction (Fr)"). Certainly, some rights are important to theistic life stances which are not relevant to non-theistic life stances, such as the right to worship a god. Certainly also, the religions were in 1989 still subject to particular oppression. But international statements should recognise their long-term implications. A statement which gives rights specifically to "believers" as against "non-believers", will be interpreted by many as saying that these rights are not applicable to non-theistic life stances; and some of the rights in this European document are of considerable significance to non- theistic life stances.

The above European document develops the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms Intolerance based on Religion or Belief: 1981. But in fact it discriminates in favour of religion in just this way. Article 16 of the document develops Special rights for religious believers. (I work from the French text, and now pick up only certain salient points.) The Article opens with a basic statement of the freedom of all "de professer et pratiquer une religion ou une conviction". This is emphasised in the closing words of 16.1; but here "une religion ou une conviction" is transformed into "des croyants et des non-croyants." Section 16.2 calls for tolerance and respect between "croyants et non-croyants". But the rest of Art. 16 attributes 12 specific rights to "les croyants" and "les religieuses" and their organisations and communities (3). These include such basic rights as "à établir et entretenir les lieux ... de reunion librement accessibles" (16.4a), "à solliciter et recevoir des contributions voluntaires, qu'elles soient financières ou autres" (16.4d). It requires "les Etats participants ... engageront des consultations ... pour parvenir à une meilleure compréhension des exigences de la liberté religieuse" (16.5), and "considèront favorablement l'interet de communautès de croyants à participer au dialogue public, y compris par l'intermédiaire des moyens d'information" (16.11). The next Article 17 is general and brief, and returns to "de religion ou de conviction."

Proposed Resolution for IHEU Board: (For Humanist organisations and individuals)
A: This Board deplores the extent to which the rights of people professing non-theistic ethical life stances are frustrated in practice.

B: It recognises that the phrase "religion or belief" in the English translations of UN and EU Conventions and Declarations, representing French "religion ou conviction" and German "Religion oder Weltanschauung", when properly interpreted, includes non-theistic ethical life stances such as Humanism.

C: It therefore calls on all individuals and organisations concerned with these matters to work for the general recognition of this fact, and the implementation of the rights established.

D: It further notes the damaging effect of talk of "non-belief" in the context of Fundamental Human Rights, and in particular the damage done by calling for a new international instrument to recognise "rights for non- believers"; and it calls upon all those involved to desist from these practices.


* Board member IHEU (International Humanist and Ethical Union)
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1. Some definitions of the term "eupraxophy make it equivalent to "life stance", others make it equivalent to "non-theistic life stance". It is of the essence of "life stance" that it is impartial between theistic and non-theistic positions.

2. For theists, "that which is of ultimate importance" is God; for, Humanists, it may be expressed simply as the natural world, with human beings as a part of it, with their powers, values and responsibilities.

3. This is explicit in all Sections and Sub-sections, except 16.6 and 16.7. It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that these do not fall in with the general intention. They specify the right to determine "l'education religious et moral". This (presumably?) is seen as having no relevance to "non-believers".

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