The Tandem Project
Michael M. Roan


I. United Nations Position

Tensions within and between religious and non-religious beliefs are emerging threats to civil society. We need to find ways to hold our own religion or belief in tandem with the right of others to believe as they choose, subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and necessary to protect the public. The UN promotes moral values that are inclusive, rather than divisive.

  • Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion orbelief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Article 18 is codified as human rights law on faith-based religion or belief by the 1966 United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
  • The UN Human Rights Committee in General Comment 22 on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, states; “Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.” (1). The UN is agnostic on questions of metaphysics. It takes no position on the ultimate meaning of life in order to give equal protection to the right to profess all religious and non-religious beliefs.
  • General Comment 22 on Article 18 further states, “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 from a single tradition.”
  • In September 2000, a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to the General Assembly made the following recommendation; “Value-oriented human rights education alone is insufficient. Human rights education should make reference to human rights instruments and mechanisms of protection for ensuring accountability.”

II. United Nations History

The United Nations was founded in San Francisco in 1945 in response to the atrocities of World War II. This war was justified by a pagan German ethnic-religious ideology and a Japanese Emperor considered by the Japanese people to be a divine deity. Most religious expression openly opposed to these beliefs was violently suppressed.

In 1948, the UN appointed Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States, Rene Cassin of France, P.C. Chang of China and Charles H. Malik of Lebanon, to write a draft Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 of the Declaration says, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change his [her] religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his [her] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

In 1961 the UN approved a Working Group to begin to draft a Convention on Religious Intolerance. Deliberations on a legally-binding Convention were deferred in 1967. Instead, a Sub-Commission of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights was mandated to draft a non-legally binding Declaration on religion.

In 1981, the UN General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. It is the only international human rights document with the phrase “religion or belief” in the title to accommodate the religious-ideological conflict between proponents of religious freedom in the West and proponents of atheism in the Eastern Soviet Bloc.

Member States of the UN of religious and non-religious persuasions issued reservations on the Declaration. Bulgaria, representing the Eastern Soviet Bloc, registered a reservation complaining that the Declaration favored “religion” over “atheistic” beliefs. Iraq representing a religious bloc of UN Member States issued a reservation on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, implying it did not favor “religion” enough. (2)

After passage of the UN Declaration, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist party issued a policy statement on the religious question. The policy declares the Chinese Communist Party is atheist, but calls for limited freedom of religion in the People’s Republic of China. According to Article 36 of the 1982 Chinese constitution, “no one may make use of religions to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the state educational system.” This language reflects Article 18 and the 1981 U.N. Declaration on the legal limitations a U.N. member state may place on a religion or belief.

On 5 August 1990, a meeting of Foreign Ministers of the 55 country Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) adopted The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. Article 1 reads, “All human beings form one family whose members are united by submission to God and descent from Adam.” The Cairo Declaration is a religious rights paradigm for those who believe in Islam, not a universal human rights paradigm for those who do not hold supernatural views of reality. (3)

III. Human Rights Education

The UN General Assembly on 10 December 2004, Human Rights Day, adopted a new World Program for Human Rights Education. The relation of international law to religion or belief is a prerequisite to teaching the true essence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Education on the ultimate meaning of life often has a mixture of common principles and competing truth claims. Religions or beliefs have their own pedagogies for teaching metaphysical-moral values. For example, the Roman Catholic Catechism has both similarities and differences with the Augsburg Confession, a statement of Lutheran doctrine formulated by Martin Luther in 1530. Other Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, indigenous, new religions, and many others hold principles in common and visions in opposition to each other.

There is a difference between Western monotheistic religions looking outward for a messiah, or the revealed word of God through His prophet, and Eastern religions in a search for the Universal Mind. But as commonly described, these are theistic and non-theistic beliefs identified by a supernatural or reincarnated reality. Charvaka, the ancient Indian philosophical system of materialism, traceable to the Rig Veda in 600 B.C., is different from T’ien, the impersonal secular standard of justice of Confucius (551-479 B.C.), and both are quite different from modern materialist versions of Marxism.

Bahiyyih G. Tahzib stressed the importance of definitions in her commentary, Freedomof Religion or Belief: Ensuring Effective International Legal Protection; “Sensitivity to labels is critically important for religious and nonreligious people when trying to reduce intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief. Passionate anger can quickly arise if people perceive their deeply-held beliefs being described unfairly. Giving a label to matters of religion and other beliefs has always been a challenge to the United Nations and its Member States as it involves complex and sensitive definitional issues.” (4)

Scholars continuously debate the meaning of the term “religion.” The Latin term religare means “to bind fast together” The agnostic Stephen Jay Gould, professor of Zoology at Harvard, found this etymology acceptable in his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, “if used to construe as fundamentally religious, literally, binding together, all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship among people.” (5)

Sigmund Freud, in his book, Civilization and Its Discontents, described the meaning of religion by an honored religious friend who told him it is “an oceanic feeling, a sensation of eternity and one may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion.” Freud commented by saying, “I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself, but this gives me no right to deny that it does in fact occur in other people.” (6)

Professor Robert Jackson of Warwick University made this observation, “In the 1988 Education Reform Act in England and Wales, a significant change was the use of ‘religious education’ to replace ‘religious instruction’ with its suggestion of deliberate transmission of religious beliefs. Religious education has changed dramatically, partly as

a response to secularization, partly under the influence of the newly emerging discipline of Religious Studies in the 1960s and early 1970s and partly in acknowledgement of the increasingly multi-faith and multi-cultural nature of society.” (7)

Humanism has different definitions depending on the values of a person or organization. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), a non-governmental organization (NGO) in consultation with the United Nations, has a Minimum Statement on Humanism which says, Humanism with a capital H “is not theistic, and does not accept supernatural views of reality.” (8) This is an atheistic or non-theistic definition, as distinct from other uses of the term such as Christian humanism coined in the West during the Renaissance.

IV. Religion and Science

In the introduction to Sigmund Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, Peter Gay wrote, “In the manner of the eighteenth-century philosophies, he argued that religion and science are mortal enemies and that every attempt at bridging the gap between them is bound to be futile.” Contrary to this position the late Stephen Jay Gould said science and religion each have their own realms, separate from the other. Science does not take a position on the ultimate meaning of life and religion does not do science. Polls taken on the metaphysical beliefs of scientists divide roughly as follows; 40% define themselves as theists, 40% as atheists and 20% take no position. Non-scientific followers of religions or beliefs vary widely some accepting science as confirming their beliefs and others as a threat to their beliefs.

The way in which science is viewed by the membership of a religion or belief varies from country to country and individual to individual. According to Niall Ferguson, a recent Gallup Millennium Survey of religious attitudes reports that in the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Sweden and Denmark, less than 10 percent of the population now attend church at least once a month. Only in Catholic Italy and Ireland does more than a third of the population go to church on a monthly basis. Meanwhile, 64 percent of Czechs regard God as not mattering at all, a higher rate than even in Sweden. In the United States, by comparison, 82 percent of respondents said God was ‘very important’ and almost 50 percent attend a religious service weekly. (9) “Europeans when asked if they believe in God will often say, ‘well, it depends on what you mean by God.’ Most Americans unequivocally answer ‘yes’ to the question.” The cultures of countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, South America and other regions of the world, not included in this survey, have equally strong influence on how people view science and religion.

The rapid advancement of science is challenging traditional religious understanding. The Harvard Divinity School Ingersoll Lectures is a series on immortality, held every year since 1896. In 2003, the lecture was titled, “The Desire for Eternal Life: Scientific Versus Religious Visions.” The debate was held on the values of greatly extending this life, something science in the not too distant future will be able to do, versus the mortality argument that life is extended only by God in another realm after death. (10).

It is the way in which science is used or misused that leads to debates within and between religious and nonreligious beliefs. The U.N. is currently debating a legal convention on therapeutic and human cloning. A New York Times editorial on November 5, 2003, a day before a preliminary vote, reported three positions were being proposed; a ban on all forms of human cloning, a ban on human cloning, with an exemption for therapeutic cloning for the use of embryonic stem cells in experiments to search for clues to a wide range of diseases, and a proposal to postpone the vote for two years. The United States and 60 other countries proposed banning all human cloning, Belgium and 20 other countries took the position of allowance for therapeutic cloning for stem cell research, and the Islamic countries proposed the postponement of a vote for two years. (11)

The New York Times reported the UN put off the vote for a legal convention on human cloning. Led by a deferral motion introduced by Iran on behalf of the 55 Islamic States, the vote was 80 to 79 with 15 countries abstaining. The vote demonstrated the debate over stem cell research for therapeutic purposes is not entirely between followers of religious versus nonreligious beliefs. It shows a continuing tension within and between people of all beliefs and moral values over the use of science when it is at a crossroads with values on ultimate meaning of life

V. Method of Inquiry

International law on religion or belief, while not agnostic, is a legal application of this philosophical principle. T.H. Huxley (1825-1895) an English biologist, philosopher and educator, in 1859, in response to repeated questions as to whether as a result of Darwin’s publication On the Origin of Species he believed in God or not, came up with a new identity. He coined the term ‘agnostic.’(12) Lexicographers call agnosticism the third rail on the God-idea, distinct from theism and atheism.

T.H. Huxley explained the term this way, “Agnostics have no creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates, it is the axiom that every man and woman should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in them; it is the principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. The only obligation is to have the mind always open to conviction.” (13) This became the definition of agnosticism-suspended belief open to conviction. T.H. Huxley later in life wrote in a letter to a friend, “I neither deny nor affirm the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing in it, but on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it.”

Julian Huxley, founding Secretary-General of UNESCO, and grandson of T.H. Huxley, took an opposing view to the agnosticism of his grandfather in his book ReligionWithout Revelation, “an evolutionary view of human destiny is the chief instrument of further evolution, as against all theological, magical, fatalistic or hedonistic views of destiny.”(14) The mandate of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, of which Julian Huxley is a founder, states “they do not accept supernatural views of reality” contrary to the U.N. position which has no metaphysical position.

Religious and non-religious metaphysical beliefs are held without certifiable proof. This is the meaning of faith-based. Soren Kirkegaard (1823-1855) stated a Christian must take a “leap of faith-either/or.” Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) said transcendentalism presumed a “special knowledge” derived from intuition. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) said intuition was the key to God, “the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing about.” Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) agreeing with Islamic neo-platonic philosophy said “divine law revealed by God” complemented philosophy. Atheism is a faith-based natural belief, unable to certifiably prove there is no God or supernatural reality. Charles Darwin, a self-described agnostic after adopting the meaning of the word by T.H. Huxley, was quoted as saying, “one might as well try to illuminate the midnight sky with a candle as throw the light of reason on metaphysics.”

Consciousness by its very nature is said to exist by a separation of opposites, by acquiring unilateral vision. This may be consistent with Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) theory of the third law of motion, “to every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.” In Eastern philosophy the ancient principle of yin and yang overcomes the problem of opposites by embracing both simultaneously, in a paradoxical union that transcends and peacefully reconciles them; theist and atheist, black and white, good and evil, right and wrong, male and female, height and depth, courage and cowardice, love and hate, destiny and free will, calm and turbulence, delight and woe, universal and particular, constructive and destructive, light and dark, war and peace.

Herman Melville, author of the great American novel, Moby Dick, speaks of this when contemplating the eyes of the Sperm Whale that sees out of both sides of its head, “how is it, then, with the whale? True, both of his eyes in themselves must simultaneously act; but is his brain so much more comprehensive, combing, and subtle than man’s, that he can at the same moment of time attentively examine two distinct prospects, one on one side of him, and the other in an exactly opposite direction?” (15) James Atlas, in the New York Times Week in Review, speaks of the same question, “A mandate of intellectuals is that they be open to changing their opinions. Skepticism, the weighing of opinions, ‘the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind simultaneously’, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, are the tools of the trade”. (16)

VI. Conclusion

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief implies that one’s own religion or belief is held simultaneously with the rights of others to believe as they choose, subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and necessary to protect the public. Equal Rights by Separation of Belief and State is a moral paradigm to protect all individuals and all religious and non-religious beliefs.

In 1967 the UN deferred work on a draft Convention on Freedom of Religion or Belief. A UN staff study recalled the difficulty to legislate such a Convention as it impinges upon the most intimate emotions of human beings. Instead, after fourteen years, the UN adopted the non-binding 1981 Declaration, an effective but incomplete mechanism for monitoring human rights and freedom of religion or belief.

Aware of the emerging threats of extremism and the rise of tensions within and between all religions or beliefs, The Tandem Project calls for dialogue on the pros and cons of asking the UN to reconstitute a Working Group for a draft Convention on Freedom of Religion or Belief in 2006, during the 25 th anniversary year of the 1981 UN Declaration.

If the UN prefers not to consider a legally-binding Convention then, in the opinion of The Tandem Project, they should be open to a more comprehensive enforcement mechanism using the 1981 UN Declaration and other existing human rights instruments to promote tolerance and prevent discrimination based on religion or belief.

1.) The U.N. Human Rights Committee, General Comment 22 on Article 18 defines the protection of religion or belief as follows: “Article 18 protects theistic non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.” The term, ‘not to profess any religion or belief,’ is close to the agnostic position postulated by this paper. The General Comment goes on to say, “The terms religion or belief 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.) Bahiyyih G. Tahzib, “Freedom of Religion or Belief: Ensuring Effective International Legal Protection,” Kluwer Publishing, Amsterdam, 1996, p. 185. She refers to comments by Japp Walkate of the Netherlands on reservations to the 1981 Declaration; “According to Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and the U.S.S.R., the 1981 U.N. Declaration gave a one-sided version of freedom of thought, conscience and religion; it did not take sufficient account of atheistic beliefs. In their opinion, the 1981 Declaration disregarded the rights of persons who did not profess any religion or belief. They considered the 1981 Declaration unnecessarily incomplete. Iraq entered a collective reservation on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference as to the applicability of ‘ any provision or wording in the Declaration which might be contrary to Islamic law (Shari’a) or to any legislation or act based on Islamic law. Syria and Iran endorsed Iraq’s collective reservation.”

3.) Tad Stahnke and Paul Martin, Religion and Human Rights: Basic Documents, “The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (1990), Center for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University, p. 185

4.) The U.N. Commission on Human Rights focus is on eliminating discrimination based on religion or belief, which includes sensitivity to labels, definitions and the evolution of the phrase “religion or belief.”

5) Gould, Stephen Jay, “Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Random House, Inc., 1999, p. 62.

6.) Freud Sigmund, “Civilization and its Discontents,” 1929, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud in 24 Volumes, p. 12.

7.) “Religious Education in England and Wales,” a paper by Professor Robert Jackson, Director Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of Warwick, Coventry, United Kingdom.

8.) The IHEU Minimum Statement on Humanism. For a more complete explanation of Humanism with a capital H read the Amsterdam Declaration for 2002 on their website:

9.) Niall Ferguson, N.Y. Times Editorial, June 8, 2003. Ferguson is a professor of financial history at New York University and senior research fellow, Jesus College, Oxford, United Kingdom.

10.) Daniel Callahan, “The Desire for Eternal Life: Scientific Versus Religious Visions,” Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, Volume 31, Number 2, Spring 2003.

11.) New York Times Editorial, “A Fight at the U.N. Over Cloning,” November 5, 2003

12.) Adrian Desmond & James Moore, “Darwin”, Warner Books, Inc. 1992.. “The Metaphysical Society was a menagerie of faiths and heresies; bishops and archbishops mingled with Positivists, deists, and Unitarians, and for spice there was even the odd atheist. Before anyone could pin him down he came up with a new identifying label, ‘agnostic.’ An agnostic did not deny or affirm God’s existence; he did not pretend to know whether the world was made up of matter, spirit, or whatever.” Darwin in a letter asking if he believed in God replied, “ that a man undoubtedly can be an ardent Theist and evolutionist, but if he had to wear a label, Huxley’s agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.”

13.) T.H. Huxley, “The Agnostic Annual, 1892

14.) Julian Huxley, “Religion Without Revelation,” New York: Harper, 1927.

15.) Edward F. Edinger, Melville’s Moby-Dick, An American Nekyia., Inner City Books, Toronto Canada (1995) p. 30. Many people consider Moby-Dick to be the greatest American novel. A major theme of Moby- Dick is the problem of opposites, white whale, black eyes, etc.

16.) James Atlas, Perspective/Changing Minds, New York Times Week in Review, October 19, 2003.

The Tandem Project
Michael M. Roan