frequently asked questions

Why is this Charter necessary now?

A growing number of academic studies and reports show that “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” is widely neglected and threatened today. A recent Pew Forum report*, for instance, says that three quarters of the world’s population live in countries where is a high degree of menace to their faith – sometimes through government repression, sometimes through sectarian violence, and sometimes through the mounting culture wars that we are now seeing in Western countries.
In our global era, it is said that “everyone is now everywhere,” and that “living with our deepest differences” has become a massive global problem, especially when those differences are religious and ideological. This is a huge problem for the future of humankind that must be resolved.

What is the Global Charter of Conscience?

The Global Charter of Conscience is a declaration reaffirming and supporting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It sets out a vision of “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” for people of all faiths and none, and calls for the cultivation of civility and the construction of a civil public square that maximizes freedom for everyone.

What is the purpose of the Charter?

Like the Universal Declaration itself, the Charter is not a legal document. In its own words, it seeks to be three things:

First, a beacon of principles setting out the highest aspirations to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Second, a benchmark enabling societies to assess the depth of freedom of thought, conscience and religion that they have achieved.

Third, a blueprint empowering the practical development of freedom of thought, conscience and religion in both law and education.

Who is behind the Global Charter of Conscience?

The Charter has been drafted and published by a group of followers of many faiths and none, politicians of many persuasions, academics and NGOs who are committed to a partnership on behalf of “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” for people of all faiths and none.

Isn’t the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sufficient?

Sadly not. The fact is that sixty-four years after the Universal Declaration (Paris 1948) Article 18, which protects “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” for all, has become the most neglected, misunderstood and embattled of all the human rights. It therefore needs to be reaffirmed and set out in the context of the powerful challenges of today.

Is the Charter meant to be a legal document or a cultural influencer?

The Charter itself underscores that three things are needed for “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” to be established firmly in any country, and it only claims to be the first of the three: It is a declaration of principles, which has to be followed by legal implementation, which in turn has to be followed by civic education, so that freedom becomes in Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous term, the “habits of the heart.”

How will the Charter help to solve our problems?

There is no silver bullet or fail-safe panacea for the profound challenges of managing diversity today, but what the Charter provides is a vision and framework within which many of the present problems can be negotiated and resolved – so that the world can genuinely be “safer for diversity.”

Isn’t civility a rather weak idea?

Civility has become a wimp-word today, confused at best with table manners and dinner party etiquette and at worst with niceness and squeamishness over unpleasant differences. But civility is actually a classical virtue and a duty. It is the virtue that allows citizens in a diverse society to be true to what they believe while negotiating peacefully with the differences of others. The substance of civility concerns the ‘3 principles’ or ‘3 Rs of civility’ – rights, responsibilities and respect. To be real, these have to be taught from parents to children and from teachers to students until, through civic education, they truly become “habits of the heart.” Civility is not the same as docility. The Charter recognises that robust and noisy public debate is good for society and proposes some ground rules for engagement, not the shutting down of debate.

What on earth is a “civil public square”?

The notion of a civil public square stands in contrast to two current ways of dealing with religion and public life, both of which easily become extremes. One is the “sacred public square,” in which one particular religion is established or preferred to the point where all other faiths are excluded or treated as second class. The other is the “naked public square” where all religions are strictly excluded and religious voices are allowed no place in public life.
A “civil public square” is a vision of public life in which people of all faiths and none are free to enter and engage public life on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed and accepted to be just and free for all other faiths too.

Are you proposing to abolish existing settlements of religion and public life, such as the laïcité of the French system or the establishment of the Church of England?

Not at all. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for religion and public life, and each country is free to create and follow its own settlement in the light of its own history and its chosen values. But what we are saying is that, whatever the ultimate settlement chosen, a country or society will be more free or less free according to whether they expand the political and social sphere within which all citizens enjoy a full measure of “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” This is what a civil public square maximizes for all.

What do you mean by “fundamental freedoms”?

What we mean by fundamental freedoms are essential rights that underpin, guarantee, or lead fruitfully to the healthy protection of other freedoms. For example, freedom of conscience is required to enjoy freedom of expression, which in turn is needed to enjoy freedom of assembly. These freedoms are laid out in international documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the European Convention on Human Rights.

Is there a difference between freedom of conscience and freedom of religion?

The two terms are often used interchangeably, though the Universal Declaration expressly speaks of “freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” which is the full understanding. In other words, religious freedom is far more than “freedom of worship,” which is limited and generally includes what happens in worship places (like a mosque, a church or a temple) or in one’s heart or home. “Freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration, includes “free exercise” as well as conscience, and it covers public life as well as private.

Why the emphasis on the “common good”?

Human rights are not only universal, but mutual and reciprocal. A right for one person is a right for another person and a responsibility for both. The ultimate test for human rights is whether the rights of the smallest minority and the most unpopular group are protected. This is commonly forgotten in a day of individualism when people’s concerns are too often “all about me.” A useful antidote is to remember the equal rights of others and the importance of the common good.
The common good is a term used to describe a popular consensus about a set of values that are beneficial to all or most in society. This goes beyond majority opinion or the public interest and is informed by historical and cultural factors. It is an essential basis for an intergenerational framework for debates about what is right and good for society. The common good can only be determined through persuasion rather than coercion.

Doesn’t a secular state provide the best platform for religious freedom?

It all depends on what you mean by a “secular state.” If, by that, you mean a state that recognizes and protects the rights of all impartially, we are talking about the same thing. But too often, talk of a secular state has been identified with an exclusive version based on non-religious worldviews. With this view, the secular state is confused with what could be called a secularist state, and then used to attempt to exclude all or most religious voices from public life. The end result is to favour exclusive secularism or non-religious worldviews in public life, even with good intentions.
Contrary to what is sometimes said, “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” was in fact pioneered in various historic edicts of toleration, and as well a century before the Enlightenment by such heroes of freedom as Roger Williams, William Penn and John Milton. Freedom of religion pre-dates the secular state and therefore supports the freedoms that have shaped it. There is a difference between a secular state that values freedom of religion as a foundational freedom and a secularist state which does not. The former will have a culture that is historically shaped to have a high view of freedom of conscience.

Aren’t there limits to religious freedom?

Yes, there can be. It has always been recognized that “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” is absolute when it comes to belief (the so-called forum internum) but not limitless when it comes to behaviour (forum externum), because it touches on other people and other things.
Put differently, the limit to each person’s rights is the fact that all others have equal rights too, and that sometimes these equal rights will clash and therefore will need to be mutually accommodated. However, the claim of The Global Charter of Conscience, which is in line with the Universal Declaration and other instruments, is that one should always seek to maximize “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” for everyone and resort to limitations only exceptionally and under strictly defined circumstances.
Special care has to be taken to protect the rights of the smallest minorities and the most unpopular groups. All freedoms need to be harmonized with other freedoms and the Charter seeks to provide a vision and framework that facilitates the harmonization and the resolution.

Isn’t the “civil public square” only a search for a lowest common denominator unity between different beliefs?

No! The Charter affirms precisely the opposite. When it comes to the differences between beliefs, those differences are ultimate and irreducible, and no one has ever found the so-called “common core.”
The Charter in fact allows everyone to be free to be faithful to what they believe. It celebrates what Lord Sacks* aptly calls the “dignity of difference.” Differences make a difference and the Charter has a clear and unequivocal commitment to acknowledging that differences concerning ultimate beliefs are unavoidable and irreducible – but can be discussed civilly.

Do all beliefs demand the same treatment?

No. All beliefs, whether religious or not, have the same right to freedom of conscience but “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” has always been viewed as a protection of believers and not of the beliefs themselves.
Put it like this: ‘The right to believe anything does not mean that anything anyone believes is right.’ The first half of the sentence is freedom of conscience, whereas the second half would be nonsense if we believed it. People have a right to believe what they believe, and we should respect that. But what they believe may be intellectually half-baked, socially disastrous or even evil, and other people have the freedom to challenge them – though with civility.

Aren’t such issues best resolved through democratic decision making?

Democracy is a good system for deciding political priorities and policies, but given the tensions between the claims of competing rights that currently exist in many democratic states, democracy clearly does not do enough to protect the rights of minorities, which are routinely discriminated against, or even persecuted, around the world. Without freedom of conscience, democracy can become an arena for competing power games in which individuals and minorities can lose their voice. Freedom of conscience helps guarantee a full and proper democracy, not vice versa.

Is the vision of a civil public square relativistic?

By respecting all ultimate beliefs as a matter of conscience, the Charter is actually a buttress against the domineering relativism that denies all truth-claims but its own.
Once again, the Charter recognises difference as irreducible, and yet proposes a civil way for identities to co-exist, for truth-claims to compete, and for robust dialogue to be fostered. It represents a realistic and tough-minded alternative to the suffocating non-judgementalism that stifles much modern discourse, especially in the West.

How would the Charter affect our view of equality?

The Charter emphatically affirms the equality of “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” for everyone, without exception. But it also addresses the error that being equal is about being the same. Equality before the law is essential for all people, but the law must differentiate in some areas to account for and protect different characteristics. It therefore eschews a hierarchy of rights, while accepting that there is a logical progression between different rights. Within a framework that acknowledges the dignity of difference and the fact that freedom of conscience should be maximised, the Charter seeks to identify common claims for equality, as well as where denial of difference might prevent the fullest outworking of freedom of conscience.

What is the role of the state in a civil public square?

The role of the state is to protect human rights for all citizens as well as from one generation to the next, and to work within them as their democratic mandate confers. But it is vital to recognize that “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” is inherent in being human and grounded in human dignity. It is therefore never granted by the state, though the state must guard it for all citizens.
Human rights are therefore prior to the state and independent of the state and its imperatives, and this insistence is a major bulwark against the tendency to drift towards authoritarianism. It is vital that a civic culture is fostered that values rights, responsibilities and respect. The state has an important self-limiting role in realising the vision of a civil public square in which state authority is not used to compel or culturally coerce people to enter into the civil public square.

Does the Charter address the current tensions between the religious and the non-religious?

A key part of the tensions in our world are due to the fact that a massive religious resurgence across the globe has been met in many countries by strong repression and in others by an aggressive secularism. Supporters of the Charter believe this is only deepening the polarizations and aggravating the bitterness surrounding religion in public life – as in the so-called culture wars. In contrast, the Charter seeks to recognize the rights of both religious and naturalistic worldviews and provide a common set of rights and responsibilities for both parties. In other words, we call for a partnership between responsible religious believers and responsible people of non-religious worldviews to show the world a way forward over an issue that must be settled wisely for the sake of the human future.

Isn’t there a limit to what the law can do?

Absolutely. Law, its protections and due process are precious and fundamental to freedom and human rights, but law by itself is never enough. On the one hand, law is too blunt an instrument and an ounce of healthy civility will often solve problems that no amount of lawsuits will resolve. On the other hand, reliance on law alone will always end up by reinforcing the litigiousness and creating more and more laws and regulations, so that freedom is stifled by the very attempt to protect it.
Among other things, the Charter is expressly designed to foster a rediscovery of the importance of civility and the place of civic education and the “habits of the heart.” As the classical writers would say, the spirit of liberty is as important as the structures of liberty. Law alone will never do the job.

What do you really hope to achieve through this Charter?

We are not naïve and we are not utopians. The global problems surrounding religion and public life are deep and touch on many groups that have a vested interest in seeing the tensions and conflicts continue – not least in Europe.
But we do believe that drift and folly need not have the last word in human affairs, so we publish this Charter to give our generation a promise and a challenge.
The challenge lies in the fact that living with our deepest differences is a global problem of titanic proportions, and many of the present approaches are making it worse. The promise lies in the fact that “freedom of thought, conscience and religion for all,” along with the cultivation of civility and the construction of a civil public square, demonstrates a solution that is a positive way forward for humankind.
We therefore believe that a partnership of responsible religious believers and responsible people of non-religious convictions could together accomplish something of great urgency for our continent and for the earth – the building of a world safer for diversity.