(Adapted from the BIC statement – Reclaiming Freedom of Conscience, Religion or Belief to Promote Social Integration)
The theme of social integration, so central to the challenges at every level of society, has been described as the capacity of people to live together with dignity and respect, as well as a process of fostering stable and just societies, in which individuals and communities are free to shape their present and their future.
While much attention has been focused on eliminating the socio-economic barriers to social integration, the full achievement of this goal requires that we also address issues outside of traditional notions of exclusion and disadvantage. To the extent that efforts towards social integration will reflect the diverse voices and aspirations of the world’s people, governments will need to tackle one of the most challenging and neglected issues of our time—ensuring every individual’s freedom of conscience, religion or belief.
The human being is not only an economic and social creature, but also a noble one with a free will and a conscience that make possible the search for meaning and for truth. Without the freedom to pursue this fundamentally human quest, neither dignity nor justice is possible. The nations of the world have repeatedly committed to upholding an individual’s right to freely adopt and change his religion or beliefs, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Yet, approximately half of the world’s population still lives under laws, which restrict the right to freely adopt and change one’s religion or beliefs.1 Moreover, restrictions of religious freedom have been linked to diminished well-being in the general population, increased social conflict, poor socio-economic outcomes and political instability.
Over the years, the United Nations has increasingly acknowledged the important links between religion, freedom, and human development. The 1995 World Summit for Social Development noted that “societies must respond more effectively to the material and spiritual needs of individuals” and that intolerance and religious hatred pose “severe threats” to human security and well-being. In 2004, the United Nations Human Development Report, for the first time, acknowledged cultural liberty as a vital part of human development and affirmed the “profound importance of religion to people’s identities.”
In an equally significant contribution, the 2004 Arab Human Development Report identified freedom as both the “guarantor and the goal” of human development and the primary requisite for development in the Arab region. Indeed, there are no grounds for thinking that freedom of conscience, religion or belief is a Western value or concern. Nor should this freedom be seen as a luxury to be pursued only after basic needs for food and shelter have been met. Rather, it is central to efforts to restore human dignity and strengthen community life.
In virtually all parts of the world, religion has become a subject of major political and social importance. As compared with legal norms, it is religious and cultural norms that have proven to be the more powerful determinants of attitudes and behaviors—frustrating many governments while bolstering others.
The freedom of conscience, religion or belief may well be the next frontier in the march towards social integration. With every successive moral battle—whether focused on slavery, apartheid, racism, discrimination against women, or nationalism—humanity has broken down barriers to social integration and raised yet another pillar of a more just global community.
Any long-term strategy to foster an understanding of this freedom must be rooted in efforts to promote literacy and education: women, men and children who can read their own scriptures and those of other religions or beliefs, who are free to question and discuss, and who are able to participate in the generation and application of knowledge will be better prepared to counter the forces of ignorance and fanaticism. It is also necessary for governments to initiate movements that foster understanding between people from different faith communities, and between faith communities and wider civil society.
The individual’s freedom of conscience, religion and belief is at the core of social development and of efforts to create a just and harmonious society. As such, the collective task of moving towards increasing levels of integration will require the recognition of not only the economic and social dimensions but also the spiritual and moral dimensions of human life. Before one can connect with others, one must be free to think, to know, and to believe.
(Photograph courtesy of Earl Redman)