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The purpose of this training manual is to develop critical skills of inquiry and analysis that will enable you to write a Community Report on Freedom of Religion or Belief using the 1981 U.N. Declaration as an overall concept or paradigm. Before we begin, you need to understand the basic concepts used by this training manual; the phrase “religion or belief,” principles on the ultimate meaning of life, principles common to all religions or beliefs, the influence of truth claims and what is an integrated worldview. We start by learning five basic concepts:


To understand the following subjects as concepts for freedom of religion or belief:

  • U.N. Phrase: Religion or Belief
  • Principles and Truth Claims
  • The Ultimate Meaning of Life
  • How to Live Accordingly
  • Steps to Integrated Worldviews

U.N. Phrase: Religion or Belief

The U.N. created the phrase “religion or belief” for use in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It includes all metaphysical beliefs as having a right to manifestation in worship, observance, practice and teaching:

ARTICLE 18 PROTECTS THEISTIC, NON-THEISTIC AND ATHEISTIC BELIEFS, AS WELL AS THE RIGHT NOT TO PROFESS ANY RELIGION OR BELIEF. . The terms belief and religion are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reasons, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility by a predominant religious community. 2

Human rights education (HRE) is neutral regarding core religious or other beliefs. It does not making a declaration on the ultimate meaning of life. There are two sub-sets in this phrase, “religion” or religious education (RE) which includes traditional religions, new religions and spirituality, and “or belief,” humanist education with a capital H (HE) which does not accept supernatural views of reality. Understanding that these two sub-sets are treated equally is a key to understanding the U.N. approach to religion or belief.

The word religion comes from the Latin religare --“to bind together.” There are many other definitions. On comes from Stephen Jay Gould, the former Harvard professor of Zoology, who said, “I will accept the word itself and construe as fundamentally religious [if used to literally bind together] all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship among people.” 3

Common Principles and Truth Claims

There are commonly held principles held by many of the world’s religious and non-religious truth claims. Everyone has a right to freedom of thought and conscience and its manifestation in religion or belief. It is interesting to see how many of these core beliefs are similar in their hopes and manifestations.

Common Principles

Religions or beliefs give hope, consolation, healing and meaning to life. Most of these core beliefs have principles that are held in common with each other. One such example is the common principle of the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Here are some examples of how this common principle is expressed in a variety of religions or beliefs:

  • Hinduism: Do not to other what ye do not wish done to yourself.
  • Taoism: To those who are good to me I am good.
  • Jainism: Treat all creatures in the world as they would want to be treated.
  • Islam: None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.
  • Confucianism: What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.
  • Sikhism: As thou deemest thyself, so deem others.
  • Judaism: What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.
  • Indigenous: Do not judge another person until you have walked in their moccasins.
  • Christianity: Therefore all things whatsoever ye would have done to you, do ye even so to them. 4

The Golden Rule expresses a universal common principle of love and concern for others. Three other principles thought to be held in common by all religions or beliefs include the sanctity of life, the need to express our core beliefs and a full realization of justice. These principles do not have agreed upon applications, but they are principles that all religions or beliefs seem to have in common.

Truth Claims

Most religions or beliefs claim their explanation of the ultimate meaning of life is universal. These are known as “truth claims” many of which differ dramatically and conflict with each other. Truth claims are held in faith, a Latin word fidere meaning “to trust”. This is an attitude of belief which goes beyond the available evidence. There are both religious and non-religious forms of faith. Religions often refer to themselves as “faith-based” or participating in “interfaith” dialogue. Truth claims may be thought of as being given expression in two ways:

  • Allegory: Those who see their truth claim as a metaphor or symbol illustrating a religious truth or spiritual principle for them, their community and the world. Texts such as scriptures in the Bible that involve miracles are often thought of as truths illustrated in the history and context of the time they were written. In Eastern religions and philosophies allegories or stories often are used to point toward an individual inner search or struggle for the truth.
  • Absolute: Those who see their truth claim as a literal or fundamental revelation from God or a higher power, commanding the following of a religious principle or dogmatic text by individuals in a community of like-minded believers. For some religions or beliefs this becomes a mission to tell others what in one tradition is called the “good news” to follow literally their understanding of the ultimate meaning of life and how to live accordingly.

The right to hold allegorical or absolute ways of expressing a truth claim is a fundamental freedom. Individuals, communities and institutions have the right to proclaim their truth in a way suitable to them and to try to convert others to their understanding of the ultimate meaning of life. But peace and harmony in a civil society depends on the way such truth claims are manifested. Take for example the Christian Gospel of John on the words of Christ:

“I am the way, the truth and the life, no come comes to the Father but through me.” (John 3: 16). “The truth shall make you free.” ( John: 8:32)

For Christians this is a message of hope, peace and reconciliation. For non-Christians, it is viewed as a coercive message of fear and damnation. How the message is conveyed can lead to peace or conflict. The sacred book of the Qur’an says; “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (II:256.) Unfortunately, religious and non-religious truth claims have always been misused by small numbers of followers throughout history to sanction minor cases of intolerance and discrimination, unjust acquisitions of power through economic, social or political means, or even approval to violence, murder and mass atrocities. These are wrongful manifestations of a truth claim In the topic notes, name and discuss a religious and a non-religious example where a truth claim has been misused in these ways.

Ultimate Meaning of Life

The study of a religion or belief starts with a study of its first principles or core beliefs. A philosophical word for this is metaphysics, the first branch of philosophy which means “beyond” physics, involving the principles on the meaning and final purpose of life. The following sentence is helpful in explaining this concept from a human rights perspective:

Religion or Belief explains the Ultimate Meaning of Life and How to Live Accordingly.

The first part of this sentence “the ultimate meaning of life“ involves first principles and final purposes. The second part of the sentence “how to live accordingly” involves how these principles are manifested in moral traditions, ethics and public life. Here are some examples from major beliefs about how to live according to an ultimate meaning of life.

  • Judaism: A compact between God and Abraham to foster the development of a special people in exchange for their devotion. To be lived according to the Torah (Mosaic Law) and the Talmud (civil and religious laws).
  • Christianity: Jesus Christ as the son of God was crucified to atone for the sins of all people and to provide immortality to believers. To be lived according to the ten commandments (Old Testament) and the Gospels (New Testament.)
  • Islam: The literal meaning is “submission to God.” It is God’s word revealed through his prophet Mohammed who said, “Islam is to believe in the one true God and His Prophet, to say proscribed prayers, give alms, observe Ramadan and make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Life is lived according to the Qur‘an, the sacred book of Islam.
  • Buddhism: Gautama Buddha believed the ultimate meaning of life was to come to terms with suffering, to rise up to the past of misdeeds and to produce no more which will result in Karma, a release from the wheel of rebirth. Live according to the ethic of universal compassion and concern according to teachings of the small vehicle (Hinayana) or great vehicle (Mahayana.)
  • Hinduism: The religious system of India is sometimes called “Dharma” or right action rather than a religion. The ultimate meaning of life is to attain knowledge through a cycle of incarnations (rebirths) until you know the Universal Mind which liberates you from the cycle. Live according to the Vedas, scriptures meaning knowledge, and a system of values in which life is to be mastered according to a succession of stages.
  • Confucianism: Confucius taught the ultimate meaning of heaven is t’ien, a non-theistic universal standard of justice. His followers live according to his sayings called Analects, love of fellow human beings (jen) and order in family life (filial piety.) If order is present in individuals and families, it will be present in the state.
  • Humanism: The International Humanist and Ethical Union states, “Humanism [with a capital H] is not theistic, and does not accept supernatural views of reality.” It depends on individuals and human reason to define their own ultimate meaning of life.

How to Live Accordingly

Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that everyone one has the right to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching. This is the second part of the sentence--“how to live accordingly.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights takes no stand on the ultimate meaning of life. It has no business telling any religion or belief what is true or not true. But it is interested in protecting individuals, communities and institutions following truth claims from intolerance and discrimination. These principles of the Universal Declaration in matters relating to religion or belief are embodied in international law through Article 18 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. They serve to protect religions or beliefs from the state, religions or beliefs from each other and the state from religion or belief.

A Concept of Morals

Morals or ethics are a code of values or norms that enables a person to discern good from bad behavior. Just as there are many explanations for the ultimate meaning of life, so there are many interpretations of how to live according to these understandings. Rules for moral behavior differ between and even within the followers of a religion or belief. Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says that a State may place limitations on a religion or belief only by law and to protect public safety, order, health, morals or fundamental freedoms. Paragraph 8 of the U.N. Human Rights Committee General Comment on Article 18, suggests the following:

“The Committee observes that the concept of morals derives from many social, philosophical and religious traditions; consequently, limitations on the freedom to manifest a religion or belief for the purpose of protecting morals must be based on principles not deriving exclusively from a single tradition.” 5

The manifestations of a religion or belief at times create conditions that place them in opposition to other beliefs or State standards of public safety, order, health, morals or fundamental freedoms of others. This is especially true in the competing metaphysical-moral visions of life in the rapidly changing scientific field of bio-ethics, i.e., in such fields as human cloning, euthanasia, right to life and stem cell research. The General Comment on Article 18 says morals must be preserved based on more than one tradition. It doesn’t say how to make the decision. Discuss how States make their decisions to protect the morals of its citizens using many traditions.

Steps to an Integrated Worldview

The motto of Socrates (470-400 B.C.) was “know thyself,” and “the unexamined life is not worth living.” For Socrates knowledge and virtue are identical. How choices and actions are integrated into an ultimate meaning of life and how to live accordingly can be learned. They can be traced step-by-step to their root sources. In addition to learning from a religion or belief tradition, the five branches of philosophy is a way this can be done. Taken together they create a system, model or paradigm for an integrated worldview.

  • Metaphysics. Aristotle called this the study of existence as such, something beyond physics. Actually, the word metaphysics came from Andronicus of Rhodes who in the first century B.C. rediscovered a book by Aristotle and gave it the title “Metaphysics.” The first principles and primary purpose of religions or beliefs fits this description. They are core beliefs that explain the ultimate meaning of life. It tends towards the building of a system of ideas. It is the basic foundation of philosophy.
  • Epistemology. From the Greek “episteme” knowledge. How do we come to know answers to our metaphysical questions about the ultimate meaning of life? Through sacred books and revelations from God? Through human reason? Though intuition and instinct? Through reason or faith? Through all of the above? This is the second of two steps that forms a basic foundation for philosophy--letting people know how you have arrived at answers to the ultimate meaning of your life.
  • Ethics. Norms and rules for individuals, communities and institutions that guide their character, values and actions. Ethics and morality defines a code of values to guide personal and group life choices and actions, whether through a traditional values system or a hit and miss life style based on random choices. The third branch of philosophy based on the two foundation branches, in other words--how to live accordingly.
  • Politics. How the ethics and codes of values of individuals and like-minded communities are expressed through public policy, laws and government actions. Political parties and elected officials create public laws, norms and standards for the conduct and evaluation of society at-large. Laws are the public expressions of the ethics and moral visions of a community. They are best agreed upon through some form of a democratic vote. This is the fourth branch of philosophy that is the public expression of “how to live accordingly.”
  • Aesthetics. The artistic expression of the human spirit through music and the arts, as inspired by the other four branches of philosophy. It pertains to an individual or a like-minded community conception of beauty. For instance, through the sacred music of traditional religions, or heavy metal rock music and art of the younger generations. Aesthetics, the fifth branch of philosophy, studies how individuals and communities consciously and unconsciously give expression to lifting their spirit, to understanding the ultimate meaning of life and how to live accordingly.

Discuss each step from the perspective of a religious and then a non-religious worldview. Answer the question in the topic notes for this subject.

Questionnaire on the Ultimate Meaning of Life

This is an outside the classroom assignment to interview people on their understanding of the ultimate meaning of life and how to live accordingly. Turn to the questionnaire in the Supporting Documents of your handbook Read the introduction and briefly review the questions. You will try to conduct four interviews with the following; a child under the age of 18, a parent or legal guardian, a religious or secular humanist leader and a government official. If you cannot do all four do as many as possible. REMEMBER your rules for respectful dialogue. Do not judge or debate the ultimate meaning of life with those you interview. Tell them before the interview that you are learning skills of inquiry and analysis to monitor human rights and freedom of religion or belief in your community and their answers will be confidential unless they give you permission to use their name. This is an assignment to gather information for a concluding discussion with your group on the concepts of freedom of religion or belief and what constitutes an integrated worldview.

Click here for Adobe Acrobat version of the Questionnaire: The Ultimate Meaning of Life.

2. General Comment 22 on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, (1993) U.N. Human Rights Committee back

3 Robert Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, The Ballantine Publishing Group, New York (1999) p. 2 back

4. Ibid footnote 1, p. 15 back

5 General Comment 22 on Article 18 of the ICCPR (HRC) 1993, paragraph 8 back