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‘Freedom of belief must include those we disagree with’ – Andrew Copson at Ministerial opening

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson (in his capacity as President of Humanists International) has just spoken at the opening ceremony of the International Ministerial on Freedom of Religion or Belief. The conference is being hosted today and tomorrow in London by the UK Government. The focus is ‘to urge increased global action on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) for all.’ Andrew spoke alongside major global religious leaders and the Foreign Secretary.

Humanist delegates are also participating in other events in the main programme, Humanists UK is hosting or participating in seven fringe events, and it has a stall.

Andrew Copson’s opening speech was made in a session that also features a speech from the Foreign Secretary, video contributions from the Prime Minister and Prince Charles, and speeches from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi, and Muslim and Sikh leaders. In his remarks, he rejected so-called ‘religious freedom’ in favour of ‘freedom of religion or belief’. He highlighted that the latter includes the non-religious. And he will point out that it must include ‘those with whose choices, values, and beliefs we may be in profound disagreement’:

‘If FoRB is to be for everyone everywhere, we must all resist the temptation to impose our beliefs on others. This is how so many violations of FoRB originate. That is true of the Christian in China whose atheist government prevents her from congregating freely as her conscience leads her and of the non-religious woman in the West when Christians in her Government block her conscientious choice of an abortion or any other practice. Illiberal totalitarianism, whether atheist, Christian, Islamic: many forces limit freedom of religion or belief today. All of us are in the minority somewhere and all of us have brothers and sisters subject somewhere to the vilest of persecution.’

Andrew Copson’s opening speech:

‘For those with a humanist approach to life, freedom of thought and belief has always been the first freedom.

‘The humanist approach is non-religious, rooted in this one world and this one life, centred on human welfare and happiness – and the thing most central to the very concept of the human being for humanists is our ability to feel and to think, to reason and to contemplate, to develop ethics, values, and beliefs, and to connect with our fellow human beings, one person to another.

‘But we’ve been asked this morning to reflect from our traditions particularly on the idea of Freedom of Religion or Belief for all.

‘This idea is of profound importance for humanists, because, unlike some ideas of “religious freedom”, the legal human right to “freedom of religion or belief” also protects the freedom of conscience of those with non-religious beliefs and that’s the first thing I would like to share.

‘Over 140 countries in the world impose legal restrictions or disabilities on non-religious people and in some countries it is illegal to even form a humanist organisation. For me to be on stage alongside religious leaders would be impossible and my words would be a crime. But “freedom of religion or beliefis a legal right for non-religious people: and not just those like me who were raised with their own positive non-religious beliefs. It is also a right for those who dissent, critique, reject, and even condemn the religions of their parents. It’s their freedom too.

‘That connects to the second thing I want to say about FoRB for all, which is that this freedom cannot just be a right for people whose beliefs we find agreeable. It is also a right for those with whose choices, values, and beliefs we may be in profound disagreement.

‘And if FoRB is to be for everyone everywhere, we must all resist the temptation to impose our beliefs on others. This is how so many violations of FoRB originate.

‘That is true of the Christian in China whose atheist government prevents her from congregating freely as her conscience leads her and of the non-religious woman in the West when Christians in her Government block her conscientious choice of an abortion or any other practice. It’s her freedom too.

‘Illiberal totalitarianism, whether atheist, Christian, Islamic: many forces limit freedom of religion or belief today. All of us are in the minority somewhere and all of us have brothers and sisters subject somewhere to the vilest of persecution.

‘Of course that persecution has to stop. But the third thing I want to say is that freedom from persecution, though essential, is only the starting point. Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief is not just a freedom from, it’s also a freedom to.

‘Freedom to think freely, to pursue the good as we see it and the truth as we perceive it, to share our thoughts and beliefs and to hear the beliefs of others, to reflect, to change. This is empowerment and a vital aspect of human development. It is indispensable for individual happiness. It is indispensable for social and economic development, which depend on the dynamic diversity generated by individual freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. This freedom should touch every aspect of our politics and law, from our schools, to our family law, our criminal codes and our public services. It should apply to all people, regardless of their gender, sexuality, age, or any other factor.

‘Equality of freedom should be our goal and that perfect freedom of religion or belief is not a reality in our world anywhere today. No-one is as free as they could be, and every country can do better. I hope that competing for that excellence will be an aspect of your conference here this week and look forward to participating with you in that endeavour..’

Notes:

For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

Read more about the Ministerial.

Read more about our work on international campaigns.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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