Four questions: Daniel C. Dennett on the most pervasive and serious threat religion poses to human rights

‘It’s the practices that are on the boundaries of what is acceptable to people that raise interesting problems’

Daniel C. Dennett is the author of Breaking the Spell, Freedom Evolves, and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, among other works. He is also the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

Q: What can Canada expect to achieve by promoting religious freedom abroad?

A: Religion has a track record of providing good things like hope, love, freedom, and morality in many places for many people. It is a very important part of their lives, and not for bad reasons. Many people around the world organize their lives around their religion. It’s their community, their friends, and their networking. And we don’t want to tamper with that unless it’s absolutely necessary. It’s a wonderful thing for these people.

However, religions should not be allowed to have practices, no matter how traditional they are, that violate fundamental laws. For instance, there should be no human sacrifice, and there should be no polygamy. Those are simply not to be tolerated, and you couldn’t have religious freedom [with them in place]. It’s the practices that are on the boundaries of what is acceptable to people that raise interesting problems.

Q: Would atheists be protected by an Office of Religious Freedom?

A: That depends on what’s being protected according to these principles. Will the office protect the right of free assembly and the right not to be interfered with?

Atheists ought to be protected. If the freedom to have no religion at all isn’t included in the freedom of religion, then that is a bad policy. That said, there is only a miniscule portion of atheists in any population that I think would need any protection, as only a small fraction of them belong to actual atheist groups.

Q: Is there a difference between a government promoting religious freedom within its borders and abroad?

A: So long as a government is promoting religious freedom within its own borders [as well], there does not have to be. Promoting religious freedom abroad is no different than promoting free elections, justice, equality for women, and fair labour practices for children around the world. These are all worthy national and international goals, as is religious freedom. Of course, religious freedom is a more hard-edged issue in some ways, in that some countries clearly have a long tradition of religious intolerance and this policy cuts against that.

Q: In establishing an Office of Religious Freedom, will the Canadian government implicitly place religious freedom above other human rights?

A: The government implicitly elevates religious freedom: if you have a special office for one [human-rights issue] and not for the others, that does raise a question. Why not for all? Why not have an office that promotes human rights in general? Why should you single out religion if you are not already willing to defend the rights of, say, women, or gays and lesbians, and so forth?

There are certain human rights that conflict with religious freedom. The most pervasive and serious is a child’s right to access information about the world. I think that many religions attempt to shelter children from knowledge of other religions, or even the history of their own religion. They want to closely control the information that children growing up in that religion have. That’s a very serious issue. The state should not permit a religious group to say, “We forbid our children to learn how to read,” for instance. That would clearly be outside acceptability. But some might say it is a matter of religious freedom. I don’t think that case has ever come up, but if it did, you could say that it is a form of child abuse to deny your children the ability to read. In [situations like that], the promotion of the right to read for children everywhere should take precedence over protection of religious freedom.

The New Missionaries is a joint project between Maclean’s and OpenCanada.org, the Canadian International Council’s (CIC) hub for international affairs. Click here to learn more about the CIC.




Browse

Four questions: Daniel C. Dennett on the most pervasive and serious threat religion poses to human rights

  1. if you believe in some thing and have faith in your belief, and you want to do it and its not against justice and law(s), and it is not against the rights of what you believe in,.that is religion!!!! and you live in a culture that believe in human rights, would you not call that,justice, law, human rights,and freedoms, by the law that was written from justice, and the statues, to call it faith.AND   religion for the laws can be enforced so you can have freedoms and rights so it comes from the charter of freedoms and rights so that you can call it a government, and the crimical code. In  what country you are from. …????

  2. “However, religions should not be allowed to have practices, no matter how traditional they are, that violate fundamental laws.”

    And what, exactly, is the source of “fundamental laws”?  We religious folk would say “God”, or perhaps “God as manifested by a rational examination of nature”.  Since that authority is higher than any human authority, it follows that such laws do indeed take precedence.

    On the other hand, if “fundamental laws” are determined by what is “acceptable”, as Dennett seems to suggest, then of course they aren’t fundamental at all.  They’re just the majority’s opinion on a given day, subject to whim, popularity, and persuasion.  In that case no right stands a chance, since if it conflicts with the will of the majority it must go.  This is what we religious folk call “might makes right”, or “atheism”.

    • It is pretty ignorant of you to make a comment like that about atheism. Atheists are a widely varied bunch of people, many who have strict moral beliefs that arise out of “rational examinations of nature” but not from a codified system of laws passed from a religious authority. What about humanists (which are one subgroup of atheists)? Certainly there are many humanists that live in regions where their beliefs are not shared by the majority. Fundamental laws aught not be based on majoritarian feeling, nor on what some believe to be God’s laws (for surely these are different between religions, denominations, time periods etc) but on a basic respect for the right of individuals to pursue their own happiness so long as it does not infringe upon the right of anyone else to do the same. “Might makes right” has been the law of religious expansion for centuries, how you associate it with atheism is beyond me and can only be seen as a complete denial of the history of religion across time and space.

      • “Fundamental laws aught not be based on majoritarian feeling, nor on what some believe to be God’s laws (for surely these are different between religions, denominations, time periods etc) but on a basic respect for the right of individuals to pursue their own happiness so long as it does not infringe upon the right of anyone else to do the same. “

        And by what authority do you claim that individuals have rights? Yours? The government’s? The majority’s feelings about it?

        If the highest authority on earth is humans, then “rights” can be given or taken away by humans. In other words, might makes right. The only logical reason for there to be rights which can’t be overridden by human authority is if there is a higher authority. Capische?

        I’m not saying there aren’t good atheists or bad religious types; I’ve known plenty of both and been both myself. What I’m saying is that atheists who believe in fundamental human rights are being illogical, as are Christians who trample on fundamental human rights.

        • I’m afraid your understanding of ethical and moral philosophy is seriously lacking if you believe atheist who believe in fundamental human rights are illogical. There is an large literature and dialogue devoted to secular ethics based very much on reason in contrast the the concept that the only source of ethics or morality is a higher authority. Are you telling me that only reason you don’t commit murder is that God says it is a sin? Is there not a basis for believing that there are shared feelings and experiences across mankind on which ethical discernment might be made? I value my life and freedom, I need to have food and shelter, I avoid pain, I love my family etc. If I want these things for myself it is rational to assume that others do as well and so I respect them in the hopes that a mutual system may be developed in which we each reinforce one anothers rights. Is your suggestion that this is not a rational foundation for ethical relationships? Certainly, the only way in which an ethical system sourced from religious doctrine could be applied completely is through religious absolutism exerted against a population of people, many of whom do not share your beliefs. Clearly your higher authority has not been so effective at preventing rights from being overridden by humans, in fact, some of the most horrific violations have been committed by religious interests. It seems the only hope for a world of diverse spiritual beliefs, including atheists, is to continue to develop secular rational ethical philosophy that does don’t discriminate but offers the same rights to everyone without inflicting a religion dominion upon them.

          • “I’m afraid your understanding of ethical and moral philosophy is seriously lacking if you believe atheist who believe in fundamental human rights are illogical.”

            Doubtless. I only write on behalf of the fool, you know. You can’t expect too much.

            However, I have not claimed, nor do I believe, that ethics requires a belief in God to be logically consistent. I am somewhat of an Aristotelian, in fact, and therefore believe that ethics can be derived rationally without any reference to divine authority.

            However, what I do (and did) claim is that the notion of fundamental rights requires the concept of a higher authority to be logically consistent. Your own response admits as much: your reason for considering murder to be wrong is “in hopes that a mutual system may be developed in which we each reinforce one anothers rights”. In other words: murder is wrong if we agree to make it wrong so that we can mutually watch out for each other, and thus we all come out ahead. Social contract. It’s not wrong because humans have a right to live regardless of what other people decide, it’s wrong because other people have so decided. In other words, it’s not a fundamental right. Or, as I summarized it earlier, might (whether of one man or of a social collective) makes right.

  3. Fundamental rights are a generally regarded set of entitlements in the context of a legal system, wherein such system is itself said to be based upon this same set of basic, fundamental, or inalienable entitlements or “rights.”
    Human rights are commonly understood as “inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being.” Human rights are thus conceived as universal (applicable everywhere) and egalitarian (the same for everyone).

Sign in to comment.