In 1947, the UN Commission on Human Rights set about developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). (the Commission). The final version adopted the term “freedom of conscience, religion or belief’. This has been reduced to the descriptive term ‘freedom of religion or belief’.
I argue that repetitive use of the term ‘religion or belief’ gives rise to misconception. It places emphasis on religion, which is in fact a ‘belief’ (acceptance of facts unsupported by evidence).
George Lakoff in his book, Don’t think of an Elephant!’, pointed out that ideas can be influenced by the way they are expressed, or ‘framed’. Constant repeating of a term influences the way we subconsciously interpret an expression. He argues that framing can be used as propaganda.
So we find ‘freedom of religion and belief’ is used to imply that ‘religion’ is the basis of freedom, and (non-religious) belief is of inferior worth, It has become a weapon for religionists who seek government favour for religious principles and bodies.
However, the European Court of Human Rights described freedom of ‘thought, conscience and religion (Universal Declaration of Human Rights Art. 18):
‘It is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of [religious] believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned. (Kokkinakis v. Greece, (1993), §3)1.
The term ‘thought, conscience and religion’ then, refers to all worldviews: a genuine perception of the meaning and purpose of life and a set of rules to govern them, endowing all with equal value and respect, –
‘Worldview’ for example applies to an overall perspective involving a collection of beliefs (convictions) about how to live. It can include religious or non-religious convictions.
‘Freedom of religion or belief’ then, is meant by the UNDHR to refer to a worldview that includes knowledge, unsubstantiated beliefs and values to be applied to one’s life, be they based on thought, conscience or religion, along with recognition of cultural pluralism and government’ role in preserving public health safety and stability.
It is thus proposed that use of more accurate terminology would lead to acceptance of all rights-based worldviews, including respect for cultural diversity.