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Religious Freedom and Civic Education PDF Print E-mail

J. Paul Martin
Center for the Study of Human Rights

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

We tend to think the concept of rights in the West is very individualistic. We have all these discussions about cultural diversity and the way rights are quite different in the East and the West. But there is a lot more in common; there is, in fact, a much more solid international consensus on these issues than the politicians want us to believe.

Those of us in the human rights world, especially those who are teaching, tend to be uncomfortable with the degree to which human rights become a sort of battleground, a sort of club with which to hit the other people on the head. This is particularly true in the political world. Often, in working with other countries, a given position by the United States is embarrassing. This occurs because the states act in terms of a wider set of political concerns than those directly involved with human rights.

The human rights movement is concerned with protecting the rights of those who cannot fulfill their rights by their own efforts, namely innocent victims, be they refugees, political prisoners, victims of domestic violence, or children enlisted into war. There are many groups in this society that don’t control their own fate. Those are the sorts of people that we who are involved in the human rights business are concerned about.

Second, the human rights movement is not just about getting people out of prison. It is concerned with social institutions—how to make our social institutions more flexible, pluralist, tolerant, just, and effective.

The third point is that the human rights movement is an international movement that says human rights violations within states are legitimately the concern of the rest of humanity. That is one of the great debates. China and other countries resist the idea that other people should be concerned with the way they treat their citizens.

The media bombard us with stories of inter-group violence. We think of countries as diverse as Armenia, Congo, India, Iraq, Pakistan, and so forth, where violence is almost a daily occurrence, whether simply on the streets of the cities or in a more organized civil war. Very often these incidences of violence, today at least, are within states as opposed to between states. Also, though these violent events tend to involve ethnic groups, they often have religious overtones in terms of the way in which these groups are pitted against each other.

Earlier in this century, the question of the Jews was no doubt ethnic, but there was also a religious phenomenon involved. There is racism, and then there is ethnic cleansing, which we saw recently in Yugoslavia and the Great Lakes region of Africa.

Another characteristic of this century is that we are being pushed into meeting each other and living together. Fifty years ago, societies were much more homogeneous. Now they are becoming much more diverse. Christians and Muslims are starting to intermingle. Some of my research is focused on the way this has taken place in Central Africa, but in fact it is taking place all over the world. This is a given which we cannot escape. We are forced to face the need for tolerance. We are forced to deal with the question of how to live with people who are quite different from us.

I was born in England. One of the things I have seen in my own life since the end of the war is the heterogenization of British society.Britain is a very, very different place than it was 50 years ago. Many British people have a great deal of difficulty dealing with that, but deal with it they must. The question is, how are they dealing with it. How effective are they in dealing with it, and are there better ways to deal with it than they have used up to now?

We are dealing with a changing world. I see the importance of international standards, of setting rules so that somehow or other everybody begins to feel that we are working on the same system, that we have mutual expectations that are somewhat similar. This has been taking place over the last 50 years through the human rights movement, specifically through development treaties.

First of all, these treaties are legal obligations. Second, not only do they say that people have a right to freedom of expression and a right to freedom of association, their most important feature is the fact that the states are obliged to protect those rights. That is something we have to keep on the surface at all times and not forget about. Recently we published a little book called Religion and Human Rights: Basic Documents. Why?

Because we feel those are the rules we have agreed on. Let’s not just put them on the shelf as though they were only words. They are much more than that. They represent an important international consensus of governments. They are not perfect, but let’s use them until we can improve them. Let’s not forget them.

The most important thing about the human rights movement is that now there are some objective rules out there which states have agreed to. It is not just a question of what you or I think in terms of our personal ethics: that this is a good thing to do or this is appropriate.

In the field of religion and belief, we have very, very few documents. In putting this book together, when we looked at what is really international law we came up with only four articles. One is Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In addition, we have Article 18 of the Universal Declaration. But that is just a declaration. It is important, it is influential; but it doesn’t really spell things out in any great detail.

Two other agreements are extremely useful. One is the Universal Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religious Belief. Again, this is a declaration, not a treaty. It clarifies some details concerning religious freedom. Another fact becoming more and more important is that the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has a committee responsible for the implementation of that covenant. The committee receives reports from governments and then asks the governments questions.

Theoretically, each government makes this report every two or three years. They are way behind schedule, but that is the theory. Making these reports forces the governments to think through what they are doing and answer to this committee. They don’t want to look like fools, so, if they have done nothing, they really try to put on their best behavior. It is a point of pressure.

This committee also gets information from other sources. It asks intelligent questions at its hearings. The committee also writes general comments on recurring problems. These opinions are becoming very important as a source for the development of international law.

One example is an opinion based specifically on Article 18 issued by the Human Rights Committee on July 20, 1993. The focus is on about three or four pages that deal with what the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion means. It discusses the idea that Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic, and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. It also clarifies that the freedom to manifest religion or belief may be exercised either individually or in private and analyzes each one of these.

The case I am making is that we ought to keep those reference points on the surface, especially if the country in which you are operating has signed the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—even though it is not necessarily specifically enabled in terms of domestic legislation. We cannot afford to ignore these reference points.

Having considered the general framework, I would like to discuss a few specifics. In education, there are essentially three levels at which you educate: a cognitive level, which means knowledge; an affective level, which means dealing with emotions; and the behavior level, which means actions. We should be able to define our goals in each area. This is a conscious activity. Education is like building a car. You have to get everything right if it is going to work. You can have a wonderful theory about internal combustion and build wonderful wheels, but if the carburetor is not right, this car won’t run. The same principle applies in education. You really are involved in a planning exercise. When an engineer builds a bridge, it has to hold together, it has to go up smoothly, and it has to last in lots of points of crises. In our educational activities, we may have a good idea, but if we don’t work out the details, it won’t work very well in practice.

Two or three points are very important in regard to education for religious freedom and religious tolerance. At the cognitive level, two issues are absolutely basic. One is the knowledge that there are common standards. The second is that we don’t know enough about each other’s religions. Often we are quite ignorant. When I was director of the Religious Affairs and Community Action Center of Columbia, the Jewish office and the Catholic office were exactly opposite each other on a narrow corridor. I used to watch people running in and out of these offices all day. The sad thing was that, after four years, very few of those students actually knew a lot more about what was going on in the other office or in the other tradition. We have to find ways to educate one another about the other important religions in our respective societies.

Another aspect that is very important in the cognitive realm is critical thinking. We need to think through the categories, we routinely use to evaluate other religions. Typically we will pick up stories. I have received horrid, prejudicial stories about almost every religion that I know. I am not even sure if they are true or not. These stories contribute to stereotypical thinking about particular religions. What is important is to develop critical thinking skills in terms of the way we assess information about other religions. We need to develop the ability to suspend judgment. That is the first part of critical thinking—to avoid responding to a lurid statement you just heard on television or read in the newspaper and instead say, “How do I examine that in a more effective way?”

The other part of human rights education with regard to religion is the affective. I am referring to education that examines and influences other people’s attitudes. In this area also, we have to focus on religious tolerance and think about ways in which we can encourage, ourselves and our students, to be more open to other religions.

Concerning the behavioral level, we need to examine and influence the way we behave toward one another. We need to set behavioral goals. If religious people and groups are to relate to one another, they need to develop mutually respectful rules to relate to each other without feeling the danger of being proselytized. We need to create a situation in which religions can talk with one another and feel there is a certain amount of neutrality.

I have essentially four propositions as to what needs to get done that I feel are fairly urgent. Because societies are different, the application of these ideas may vary.

The first is that each state needs to examine religious tolerance within its own territory and develop institutions that resolve religious tensions on a day-to-day basis rather than focusing the state’s resources on serving the needs of individual religions. Romania, for instance, has provisions for individual religions. It pays for the clergy here, it builds churches there, and so forth. It doesn’t put a lot of money, though, into the interfaces between religions.

The second point is that international law is crucial to the debate, and we ought to keep that on the surface.

The third point is that, in recognizing legal obligations to enforce a degree of religious tolerance, states need to promote programs that provide more information on other religious groups. They need to re-examine the history textbooks used in the schools to see to what degree they perpetuate myths about historical events that aggravate current tensions. If you look at Northern Ireland, or even southern Ireland, you would be amazed at the degree to which certain events that took place hundreds of years ago dominate people’s minds. What dominates is not so much the event as the characterization of the event.

The same is true in Yugoslavia and many other countries. History books are litmus tests of where a society is at a given point in time. In most cases, when you read them objectively, you realize how detrimental they are to interfaith relations in the society.

The last point is that the state cannot afford to be the one in charge. If the state is left to do all these things, it needs an active civil society. It needs organizations and bodies that counteract the interacting with the states. The state can facilitate, but it is certainly only one of a number of forces. For their part, religious leaders need to emphasize more the relevance of their own principles of inclusiveness. Religions like to feel they are inclusive. How does that affect their relationships with one another?

As a last point, I would like to urge those of you who can to pick up a copy of a report that came out under the auspices of the United Nations in 1960 called A Study of Discrimination in the Matter of Religious Rights and Practices. Written by an Indian man named Arcot Krishna Swami, it is one of the most remarkable documents I have ever read. He sets out the problem and says, “Look, we can do better.” Though it was written 30 years ago, it is still meaningful today. You will be surprised how it elucidates the sort of questions we are discussing today.