Religious freedom and belief

On 16th July 2015, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks spoke in the House of Lords about the importance of Article 18 - the freedom of religion and belief - of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for enabling us again to address this vital issue of religious freedom, and indeed Baroness Berridge for chairing the APPG [All-Party Parliamentary Group] on International Religious Freedom and Belief, and I salute their courage in confronting perhaps the single greatest humanitarian issue of our time. Three things have happened to change the religious landscape of the world.

First, the secular nationalist regimes that appeared in many parts of the world in the 20th century have given rise to powerful religious counter-revolutions.

Second, these counter-revolutions are led by religion in its most extreme, adversarial and anti-Western form.

Third, the revolution in information technology has allowed these groups to form, organise, and communicate to actual and potential followers throughout the world with astonishing speed. The Internet is for radical political religion what printing was for Martin Luther. It has allowed them to circumvent and outflank all existing structures of power.

The result has been the politicisation of religion and the religionisation of politics; and throughout history this has been a deadly combination. In the long run it will threaten us all, because in a global age no country or culture is an island.

We must do minimally three things. First, given that religious freedom is enshrined as article 18 in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there should be, under the auspices of the United Nations, a gathering of religious leaders and thinkers to formulate an agreed set of principles that are sustainable theologically within their respective faiths, and to which member nations can be called to account. Otherwise article 18 will continue to be a utopian ideal.

Second, we must do the theological work. That is fundamental. That is what happened in Europe after the wars of religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A group of thinkers, among them John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Benedict Spinoza, sat down, re-read the Bible, and formulated some of the most important ideas ever formulated about state and society: the social contract, the moral limits of power, liberty of conscience, the doctrine of toleration, and the very concept of human rights.

These were religious ideas based on the Bible, which is what John F Kennedy meant when he said in his inaugural address, “the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
We have not yet done the theological work for a global society in the information age; and not all religions in the world are yet fully part of that conversation. If we neglect the theology, all else will fail.

Third, we must stand together, people of all faiths and of none, for we are all at risk. Christians are being persecuted throughout the Middle East. Jews are facing a new and resurgent antisemitism. Muslims who stand on the wrong side of the Sunni/Shia divide are being killed in great numbers. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Bahai and others face persecution in some parts of the world.

There must be some set of principles that we can appeal to, and be held accountable to, if our common humanity is to survive our religious differences. Religious freedom is about our common humanity, and we must fight for it if we are not to lose it. This, I believe, is the issue of our time.