Back in early August, delegates from around the world convened the World Humanist Congress at Oxford in the United Kingdom. One major activity was adopting and announcing the Oxford Declaration on Freedom of Thought and Expression. Even in our advanced modern era, we still need to point out the need for freedom of thought and expression.
The 2014 World Humanist Congress, gathered in Oxford, UK, on 8-10 August 2014, adopted the following declaration on freedom of thought and expression:
All around the world and at all times, it is freedom of thought and freedom of expression that have proved the most essential conditions for human flourishing, but every generation must face new threats to these fundamental freedoms. Knowing this, we maintain:
The right to freedom of thought and belief is one and the same right for all. The human right articulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and elaborated elsewhere is and should be a single right, indivisible, protecting the dignity and freedom of all people by protecting their right to their personal beliefs, whatever those beliefs, religious or non-religious. As Article 7 of the Declaration says, ‘All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.’
No one anywhere should ever be forced into or out of a belief. Freedom of thought implies the right to develop, hold, examine and manifest our beliefs without coercion, and to express opinions and a worldview whether religious or non-religious, without fear of coercion. It includes the right to change our views or to reject beliefs previously held, or previously ascribed. Pressure to conform to ideologies of the state or to doctrines of religion is a tyranny. Laws that prescribe or criminalise beliefs contravene human dignity and must be abolished. Every citizen of every state has the right to demand the repeal of such laws, and all states should support those, wherever they are, who demand that their social freedoms and personal liberty be upheld.
The right to freedom of expression is global in its scope. The human right articulated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to ‘seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’. No parochial nationalism or state insecurity should prevent the global human community from fulfilling the promise of our new technologies, our mass media, our social media, and our personal access to transnational networks. States should invest adequate resources to allow their citizens’ participation in this global conversation.
There is no right not to be offended, or not to hear contrary opinions. Respect for people’s freedom of belief does not imply any duty or requirement to respect those beliefs. The expression of opposition to any beliefs, including in the form of satire, ridicule or condemnation in all media and forms is vital to critical discourse and any restraint that is exercised in this expression must be in accordance of article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely to protect the rights and freedoms of others. The best response to the expression of a view we disagree with is to reply to it.Violence and censorship are never legitimate responses. All laws that criminalise language on grounds of ‘blasphemy’ or of offence to beliefs and values impede human freedom and should be abolished.
States must not restrict thought and expression merely to protect the government from criticism. States that criminalise criticism of government policies or officials as treasonous or seditious, or as threats to security, are not “strong governments” championing the best interests of the public, but censorious bullies exercising tyranny in their own interests. States should ensure in the law of the land, in their education systems, and in the conduct of their national life generally, that freedom of thought and expression are actively promoted and pursued to the real benefit of every member of society.
Freedom of belief is absolute but the freedom to act on a belief is not. As responsible members of a community we accept that our freedom to act must sometimes be restricted, if and only if our actions would undermine the rights and freedoms of others. Freedom of belief cannot legitimise overriding the principles of non-discrimination and equality before the law. These balances can be hard to strike but with a focus on freedom and human dignity, we believe legislators and judiciaries can strike them in a progressive manner.
We assert the principles of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and secularism as providing the firmest foundation for the development of open societies where freedom of thought and expression will be protected and promoted.
We commit ourselves in all our work to uphold and promote existing rights to freedom of thought and expression within the international human rights framework and to resist national and international restrictions on the right of individuals to think for themselves freely and to openly express their views without fear.
We urge each of our member organizations and humanists worldwide to uphold these values in their own lives; to promote in their communities greater public understanding of the rights to freedom of thought and freedom of expression for all; to urge their governments to promote these values; and to join with humanists and others globally in defending and advancing them to the benefit of all humanity.
The Oxford Declaration on Freedom of Thought and Expression (some translations are available at this link)
I particulaly liked the point about there being no right not to be offended. I also liked the president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), Sonja Eggerickx, remarks concerning freedom of thought:
Freedom of thought and expression is truly vital to Humanism. Of course everyone in society needs these freedoms. But in particular the very articulation of Humanist ideas and values has always depended on freedom of thought and expression. Very often in history the reformers and the innovators who make the moral, social, scientific, artistic advances, and making progress toward liberty, reason, and secular democracy, were forging their achievements despite massive restrictions on their freedoms. And still today, these two rights are at the centre of the policy agenda of IHEU and the campaigning work of our member organizations.
It’s great that the IHEU took a firm stand for freedom of thought and expression but I’m also sad that in 2014 we still have to fight religious and political authoritarianism.