Religion or Belief

Freedom of religion or belief is arguably the most cherished right for within it is contained the fundamental expression of one’s self in relation to the world and the value system that reaches into one’s core of being and beyond. Be it spiritual or materialistic, religion or belief invariably includes an expression of a person’s ethical and moral values, conduct in life and vision of the future.

The issue of religion or belief spans our modern society in a plethora of ways, more so today than ever, with multi-cultural elements consistently growing, mixing, influencing and diffusing the existing ‘norms’ of society.

And it is increasingly important in a world where crime, drugs and other social ills increase and tend to obliviate moral and ethical standards – standards that most commonly come from one’s religion or worldview.

If there is a decline in moral and ethical standards today, and there is, it is to a significant degree because many people adhere to a materialistic and self-centered view of life rather than a broader more encompassing perspective of mankind as a family of friends that have a spiritual dimension.

Why then does religion often have a bad name?

Of course, countless millions of lives have been ended in the name of religion – wars fought, countries colonised, people coerced, castigated, converted, prosecuted and persecuted.

Would we not be better without it? The response to that is, how much of such wanton destruction and suppression was for political expediency and/or justification for acts of self-interest and power rather than a real expression of the values of the religion?

Anyway, how could we be ‘without’ an expression of the fundamentals of life which must have a place in the fundamentals of human rights!

Yet how can we avoid the excesses of the ‘religious’ past and present, the justification for wrongness done in the name of religion whilst bringing out what might variously be called, in religious terms, right conduct, the middle way, the path or salvation without doing so at the expense of others? The simple answer to this is to remove human aberration and strive for an ideal goal. Aberration in this context can be defined in a secular way as a violation of human rights . Is not that a large part of what religion or belief is all about?

Interfaith for People

Inter-: between; among, mutually; reciprocally (Oxford dictionary). In a multi-faith society, we have to live together. For interfaith to work vital human rights have to exist and be agreed upon by the participants. For interfaith to work another element has also to be in place and that is education.

It plays a vital function here. I do not mean in the school especially, though that certainly has its place. In societies that bring together people of many cultures, we must be willing to learn and accommodate those other cultures in whatever form they may express. Unbiased and objective information about them should be available. Too often we see stereotyped versions of a religion being pushed in the media and on political platforms. A far more balanced academic and journalistic input to readable articles, on radio and television, is vital. An opportunity for religions to be explained by religions themselves without the carping criticism of detractors.

We can and do argue about certain aspects of human rights, such as homosexuality or abortion, from differing belief perspectives. Or genetic experimentation and no doubt other issues. But surely these are secondary to an over-riding intention to live and work together within a human rights framework.

Interfaith organisations, as well as simple personal interactions between people of different faiths, play an important role in all the above. Bring people of different faiths together and within their varied activities show, learn, work and educate one another through dialogue and action.

Speaking with people of other faiths, attending their festivals, working on practical projects to improve society or projects to deal with religious oppression around the world are all interfaith. All these things dispel false information that has seeped into society through false media impressions or through rumour campaigns. They bring understanding about why a religion has (for example) an expression of many gods or why one faction is in disagreement, theologically, with another. An open approach does not lead to a falling out or a disagreement – quite the opposite. Be willing to let a person believe one thing whilst believing in another. This most often leads to finding a commonality of values that are agreed upon, shared with one another and working together to attain better conditions in our shared society.

Interfaith and Religious Freedom Roundtables

A more recent innovation in this field is an ongoing initiative which is within the framework of interfaith – international religious freedom roundtables are being established around the world. Religion and belief representatives, belief interest groups and interested persons can participate without obligation, yet with the option to support and initiative actions. Forged around the US model which has more than 100 attendees consisting of NGOs, faith based organisations, government representatives and individuals – all there on an equal basis. There is now an operational European roundtable in Brussels with others growing up around the world.

This too is interfaith – acting together in the spirit and context of human rights to end abuse, as well as support and educate one another.

Interfaith at the EU institutions

Much of the above can be local, regional or national. Some say that religion should stay completely clear of politics. That is nothing more than an attempt to silence and strip religions of their right to participate. Religion should not impose its doctrine on the management of a country and this is a sane separation of Church and State. However, as issues of human rights and social reform are often closely linked to one’s religious beliefs and are inevitably often political in so far as they touch on state policy, then religions, as representatives of blocks of citizens, must have the right to speak and be able to work to influence the political sphere when it comes to these fundamental rights or in cases where issues would affect their constituencies.

At a European level, different forums such as the roundtable described above, where religion or belief representatives can raise issues about discrimination are sorely needed. Others to develop interfaith activities, actions and education are initiatives (which should be inclusive rather than exclusive) should be encouraged and developed by stakeholders as well as appropriate European institutions.

Director of All Faiths Network.