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Religions with Rights

Do religions have rights?
by Brother Paul Stein, LC | Source:

Does religion have rights? The Obama administration seems to think so.

When the
U.N. Human Rights Council brought our freedom of speech to the table in October, they considered that there might be some exceptions to that staunchly defended right. The restriction was part of the free speech resolution that passed and was mainly the work of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to recognize any “negative racial and religious stereotyping” as a violation of free speech. They seemed to think that we need some guidelines so that our love for free speech does not overstep its bounds. With the exception they found, however, the table became a chopping block.

It was a relief when Secretary of State Hilary Clinton recently showed her disapproval, but that was after the fact. The Obama administration, representing the number one, undaunted promoter of democracy had joined this effort to restrict our freedom of speech, making it bow down to religion: fifty years after the Human Rights Declaration we choose to crumple our liberation from authoritarian dictatorships and toss it into the wastepaper basket. The purpose of the Declaration was to protect the individual against any power that would assert itself over the individual, using him or her for its own ends. Now, that great human achievement has been toppled to the ground.

Is it “we, the people,” who have inalienable rights, or a particular religion, or worse still some nebulous idea of religion? To give religion “rights” is the same as giving politics rights; and saying that politics has rights is as frightening as it is absurd. If we were to say that politicians have rights or rabbis have rights, we speak coherently. So how can we give rights to something that is an abstraction of a collectivity of practices?

In practice, we find ourselves at loggerheads. If we must bow our head to religion, then we will not be able to work Friday, Saturday, or Sunday because different religions hold that to work those days is an abomination to God. What will we do when religion offends religion? In the long run, “sin” (also known as: wearing the wrong thing; in other places: not going to church on a certain day of the week) is punishable by the country’s criminal law; all without encroaching on the person’s rights. The irony of the situation screams at us.

Those countries that “dictate what clothes a Muslim woman should wear” are not only western countries as President Obama intended in his speech at Cairo last summer. A number of eastern countries dictate what they must wear as well. Who is to say that a woman cannot wear a headscarf or cannot wear a tee-shirt? It is respect for those people that do wear headscarves and do wear tee-shirts that must limit the freedoms I take with my words when I am speaking about those people.

People alone have rights because they have a worth—in most places called dignity—that demands respect and honor. That is why we prohibit the indiscriminate sale of organs and human beings: it devalues them to put a price tag on them. Things do not require respect (There is nothing evil about saying that a certain scarf is ugly) and much less does an abstraction or a concept. For this reason, I respect a differing opinion only in so much as it is someone’s opinion not because it is an opinion or because it is different. To begin giving our rights away to vague generalizations is to transform our freedom of speech into freedom from speech.

Religion has no rights over me, nor do I have any duties towards any religion whatever. I own no lip service to any creed just because it is a religion that someone in this planet of six billion people believes in, even if a great majority of those people believe in it. We do not have duties towards any abstraction whether we are talking about geometric figures. We are tired of hearing about fifteen-year-old boys being arrested in Britain because of holding up a sign stating a personal opinion (“Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult”), about writers getting fined for stating historical facts (such as: “Mohammed was a pedophile because of his marriage to the 6-year-old Aisha which was consummate three years later”), or about Yale printing The Cartoons That Shook The World with the pictures of the cartoons cut out. No doubt we do not want things to stay this way, but it would be a good idea to get a plan B ready.

I respect Muslims not because he is a Muslim or because she covers her head and face, but because they are human being. I respect them because they are people like I am despite our differences, not because of them. A religion is a way of life, a lifestyle, not a human being. It is a structure, not a person. We say that people have rights because we have a duty towards all as equals and as a brotherhood of mankind. Religion does not fit in here.

As people of democracy aren’t we suppose to support freedom and equality and not provide more reasons for it to be taken away? Yet, the effect of putting freedom of speech at the mercy of religion is that nearly three hundred years of human struggle against absolutism is brought to naught. At the twenty year mark of tearing down the wall raised in Berlin in the name of “utopia” why must we raise another wall in the name of “religion”?

Brother Paul Stein LC is a seminarian at the Regina Apostolorum University in Rome .

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