Lords debate Article 18 and the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief

25 July, 2014

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights honours the freedom to subscribe to whatever philosophy you choose, be that religious or not. A debate was held in the Lords yesterday on ‘International compliance with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights concerning freedom of belief.’ Several examples of gross intolerance based on religion or belief were cited in the House, including the plight of the non-religious.

Baroness Berridge, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, addressed the House, ‘The report Freedom of Thought 2013 by the International Humanist and Ethical Union states that you can be put to death for expressing atheism in 13 countries.’ Lord Alton of Liverpool also spoke of two prominent cases of individuals who were persecuted for atheism, saying this highlighted the ‘universal applicability’ of Article 18. ‘A young Indonesian man, Alexander Aan,’ he said, ‘was jailed for more than two years simply for declaring his atheism on Facebook. Mubarak Bala, a Nigerian, was confined to a mental institution for the same reason.’

Many speakers expressed concern about events concerning religious hatred around the world, from persecution of Christians by the terrorist group ISIS, including demands that they convert to Islam, to anti-Semitic riots closer to home in France and Germany. Upholding Article 18 is imperative to progressive society, with attacks on religious groups often masking other ugly traits such as racism or sexism. Peppering the debate were many personal tales, including an impassioned plea from Lord Singh of Wimbledon: ‘Religions do not help themselves by claims of exclusivity or superiority. This simply demeans other members of our one human race and suggests that they, the others, are lesser beings. We all know what happens in the school playground when one boy boasts—it is usually boys—that, “My dad is bigger or stronger or cleverer than your dad”. The end result is fisticuffs. My appeal to our different religions and the leaders of religion is to stop playing children’s games.’

Non-religious perspectives were not entirely absent from this debate, with Viscount Bridgeman saying: ‘As many noble Lords have said, freedom of religion or belief ensures that we are not compelled to believe anything that we do not want to, taking agnostic or atheistic positions if we choose. It is important that Article 18 does not stand alone.’

Tolerance and cooperation was the order of the day, and the discussion showed a strong consensus among parliamentarians in support of freedom of religion or belief, both at home and abroad. However, there is still much work to be done. The British Humanist Association (BHA), which in August will host the 2014 World Humanist Congress, which will bring together over 1000 humanist activists from over 50 countries under the banner of freedom of thought and expression, will continue to strive for the rights of everyone to exercise freedom of religion or belief.


For further comment or information, contact Pavan Dhaliwal at pavan@humanists.uk or on 0773 843 5059.

Visit the World Humanist Congress site: whc2014.org.uk

Read the 2013 Freedom of Thought Report: freethoughtreport.com

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.