When freedom of religion trumps free speech


In March, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a non-binding resolution for member countries upholding Religious Freedom over Freedom of Speech.

Practically, the resolution urges member countries to work for a world where forms of defamation of religion, made under the guise of freedom of speech, are considered an affront to human dignity. Because they restricted the freedom of adherents of a religion they would not deserve the protection of laws upholding freedom of speech.

The move has been criticised by many as limiting human rights. But it should be seen in the context of the ever deepening debate between proponents of religion and those of secularism. Those who uphold the good of religion are now asking what's next in the secularist's armoury or gun-sights. Secularists who seek legitimacy are asking where we can look for a foundation for values if we don't want to look to religion.

The consensus among those who agree to the resolution is that human dignity is a foundational criterion which can privilege freedom of religion over freedom of speech. Human dignity provides boundaries that restrict individual human rights and the human rights of groups and associations, if those rights infringe on human dignity.

How human dignity is established in a way that both religionists and secularists could commit to will be the next debate. Unlike many debates the United Nations has opened, and has been criticised for, because they have pitted the West against non-West, this one must deal with history and heritage. It cannot be hijacked by those who want to deny the past in order to build the present and future.

The concept of human dignity has a glorious history in both religious and secular disciplines, and across the East-West divide. The history of how both disciplines have developed the concept can help place human rights and freedom of speech inside boundaries that not only assure life for all, but leave room for a purpose for life for all.

Not only religions oppose secularists' demand that freedom of religion give way to freedom of speech in upholding human rights. A secular national court has held the human dignity of the members of a religion to take priority over a secular organisation's right to use what was determined to be religious imagery in order to promote its own aims. Many had considered this use to amount to religious defamation.

In April this year, Germany's highest court ruled against the United States based animal rights organisation PETA. The organisation's posters, used to promote vegetarianism, veganism and human dissociation with animals, juxtaposed photos of Jewish inmates of the Nazi Concentration Camps with photos of farm animals in cages and pens. These bore the banner, 'To Animals, All People Are NAZIS'.

The Court's ruling recognised that to the Jewish people, the Holocaust is now part of the identity of being a Jew. So any attempt to use the fate of the victims of the Holocaust for banal and trivial reasons defames the Jewish religion and impinges on the human dignity of its adherents.

Human dignity has been given definition, in part, because the protection of human life and the human right to religious practice has been given precedence over the right of a group to publicise its view that humans should be judged badly if they eat meat or associate with animals in any way.

Recent history, combined with 5000 years of serious reflection and study grounding regard for human dignity and the integrity of human association with animals, has been given prority over individual and group human rights in defining what constitutes life and its purpose.

The debates will continue, I'm sure, but I was pleased to read of these small but significant contributions to them.

Mick MacAndrew Fr Mick MacAndrew is parish priest of Bombala-Delegate in south-east NSW. 

Topic tags: mick macandrew, holocaust, peta, free speech, freedom of religion



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Thankyou for drawing our attention to yet another insidious attack on human rights by PETA.

Since their interference with the Australian wool industry over mulesing, I have regarded PETA as a bunch who don't have all the facts, (flyblown sheep suffer terriby) but the sight of the holocaust poster sickened me.

Christine Slattery | 11 August 2009  

Did the judge really call the extreme abuse of billions of animals on factory farms a "banal or trivial reason"? I find that outrageous. Comparing it to the Holocaust is offensive, but that doesn't lessen the importance of the issue PETA was advocating for. If we learned any lesson from the Holocaust, it's that we should not look upon acts of institutionalized cruelty and let it happen.

yehadut | 11 August 2009  

As a Catholic deeply engaged in my own faith I find this article troubling.
I thought we had come along way in the discussion about the sanctity of life - all life; and the relation of the people of God to the rest of creation.

If we understand this to be one of stewardship rather than exploitation I think we should have some respect for the aims of PETA. They are about ending the mindless infliction of suffering, driven by greed, in the excesses of a sick and unhealthy system of food production, which is literally costing the earth, in environmental terms. It also costs the human dignity of the vast populations who don't have enough to eat and can't while land is consumed in excess for meat production.

I don't think that's trivial, and if we are talking about 'religion' neither do hindus and buddhists with empathy for the suffering of other sentient beings. I don't support this campaign by PETA. I think the judgement is right not because the cause is trivial but because the message is offensive. We can respect Jews, and also respect the cause to address the suffering of animals, rather than calling it trivial.

danielle pacaud | 11 August 2009  

Animal rights and Human rights are both good things that I think go hand in hand. I'm disappointed in PETA shading things by equating the vast majority of farmers and consumers who humanely treat animals with the complete and blatant disregard for human life shown by the Holocaust perpetrators (not just with the way they ended people's lives but in all their treatment of Concentration Camp internees).

Unfortunately in line with PETA's complete opposition to even humanely-done mulesing techniques. PETA are welcome to their views but not in ways that belittle alternative viewpoints and seek to replace room for dialogue with venomous absolutes. I feel that on this occasion the United Nations Human Rights Council has got it right.

John Monaghan | 11 August 2009  

The following article by Rober Spencer puts the UNHRC's resolution into context. http://www.jihadwatch.org/archives/025507.php.

In the article Spencer shows that the declaration was actually sponsored by Muslim nations as a means to silence examination and criticism of Islam.

These laws are extremely dangerous. Instead of allowing for open examination and debate, these laws give anyone aggrieved or offended the 'right' to silence others. Hurt feelings are highly subjective and hardly the basis for restricting another's right to express an opinion.

Peter Reid | 11 August 2009  

I think it's safe to assume the offensiveness of the poster was intentional. PETA have a history of executing succesful awareness campaigns on low budgets. It is clearly a play on the idea that almost anything can become socially acceptable when 'called by its sanitary name'.

But this was a bad choice by PETA - not just because it's offensive - but because it's inneffective. Most people don't buy the simple line 'meat is murder' - so they were never going to be swayed to vegetarianism by a comparison of human victims of genocide with cattle.

Sally Rose | 11 August 2009  

Whilst I personally would have baulked at the idea of including a photo of a Jewish concentration camp inmate on the poster in
question, readers might be surprised to learn that the linkage between the Holocaust and the routine maltreatment and objectification of animals is not a trivial contemporary matter, nor should it automatically be seen as anti-Semitic or as an affront to human dignity.

The Nobel Prize winning Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer made just such a connection in a number of his writings, notably in his novel 'Enemies: A Love Story', where he has one of his characters make the observation that in their dealings with animals most humans act akin to the Nazis.

I suggest that we should be outraged wherever we encounter abuse and neglect, irrespective of whether the being in question is human or one of our fellow animals. Indifference is no trivial matter.

THOMAS RYAN | 11 August 2009  

Respect for all animals is a contomitant of respect for each other - not an alternative.

Patrick Mahony | 12 August 2009  

Treat animals kindly and humanely, certainly. Then kill them humanely! Being a carnivore is not a sin. Eating meat is part of the natural order. Vegetariansim is not mandated by any divine law of Judaism or Christianity.

Carnivore | 12 August 2009  

Thank you for this article, which draws our attention to such degrading advertising practices. We have laws to guide us in the humane ways of killing animals for sustenance. To become a vegetarian is a free choice, but to advertise this life-style, using the unspeakable sufferings perpetrated by the Holocaust, is to my mind an affront to human decency, and is not be tolerated. Has an animal more, or the same value, as a human being?

Bernadette Introna | 12 August 2009  

I would suggest that both 'Carnivore' and Bernadette Introna would find the writings of Anglican theologian Andrew Linzey informative and thought provoking, especially his 'Animals and Christianity', 'Animal Theology', 'Creatures of the Same God'.

There would few who would fail to prefer humane killing to its alternative, but this not not address the moral probity of killing in the first instance. To bring this issue into clearer perspective, does humane euthanasia of human beings, for instance, resolve the moral controversies surrounding that issue?
And the question 'Does an animal have more, or the same value, as a human being?' seems to me to be asking the wrong question. All too often we ask what is is that separates humans from animals, whereas the more appropriate question is what is it that separates us among animals.

Surely our conception of God ought to be expansive enough to conceive that God values all his creatures, and as Andrew Linzey articulately argues, the weak (both human and non-human) ought to have moral priority and deserve our especial care. That strikes me as a much more dignified and respectful outlook.

THOMAS RYAN | 13 August 2009  

Dear Thomas,

I wish that you had answered Bernadette's question with a simple yes or no. For me the answer is "NO". Animals do not have the same value as humans. We humans are higher up the food chain and I like being there.

If Andrew Linzey can expand his vision of God sufficiently so that he does not tuck into a hamburger or pork roast, good luck to him. But I'll take the vision of God presented in the New and Old Testaments. In these you will find paschal lambs, sacrifical goats and fattened calves.

Remember "in carne veritas".

Carnivore | 14 August 2009  

I reply to Peter Reid and thank him for 'staying on track' with the intent of the article. The only one so far!

I do reject the prejudice evident in his reply concerning the sponsorship of the United Nations Declaration on Religious Defamation, that it is only an attempt by Muslims to limit scrutiny of their religion and its practices.

The fact that the German National Court, independent of the United Nations Declaration, and certainly not a Muslim entity, arrived at the judgement that PETA was defaming the Jewish religion and impinging on the human dignity of adherents of the Jewish religion through their advertisements, is encouragement that the issue is a genuine one for the entire human family.

Human dignity does indeed, trump some human rights. Human rights when they are codified need to be expressed in such terms that no one right casts a shadow on human dignity. The codification of human rights needs to be in terms of empowering society's on-going work at expressing just what human dignity is and how it is understood. Any codification that doesn't do this, is in fact a limitation on rights and an affront to human dignity.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew, Bombala-Delegate NSW | 16 August 2009  

Dear 'Carnivore',

Your assumption that our supposed position atop the food chain is what matters most morally seems to imply that all other life is ultimately mere means to human ends. In that case I suggest that from their position both crocodiles and sharks, to name but two other species, probably have as much claim to superior moral standing given the premise of your argument.

Even if one accepts both Bernadette's and your assertion that the value of humans always trumps that of other creatures, that in and of itself does not automatically warrant the killing of animals for food, especially when in the First World we have so many readily available alternatives. And that's before both the health and environmental advantages that flow from a non-carnivorous diet are taken into account.

Yours and Berndettes's question as to whether humans have greater value than other animals, is, I suggest, as wrong a question as if one were to ask whether humans possess greater value than the natural world. Both assume that we have a lifeboat choice of sorts to make which is simply not the case. And it pointedly overlooks the obvious fact that we ourselves are fellow animals, and creatures of the same God.

I humbly suggest that the only rights we as humans have over other animals is a responsibility to care for their wellbeing and interests. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the whole point of God is to remind us humans that we are not God.
I readily concede that the Biblical tradition is rather ambiguous on this matter, but there does at the very least appear to be a rather compelling case that the God of the Old Testament initially desired that humans should be vegetarian (Genesis 1:29).Furthermore that God explicitly speaks not only of a covenant with other creatures, but envisages a time without bloodshed (Hosea 2:18-20; Isaiah 65:25). It thus seems that a vegetarian diet anticipates the Kingdom.

Dear Fr Mick,

While you believe that all but one of the contributors to this discussion have failed to 'stay on track', my point was and is that the connection made, albeit rather unsubtly by PETA, is not in and of itself a slur or disparagement of either a people or a religion. To assume that this is the case is to be sidetracked by the belief that very legitimate concerns for human dignity somehow forbid comparisons across species. My earlier pieces also made the point that our dignity cannot me considered in splendid isolation from our treatment of, and the dignity of, God's fellow animals.

THOMAS RYAN | 16 August 2009  

I applaud PETA for seeking to draw attention to the enormous and unjustifiable cruelty inlicted on farmed animals. The similarity between the treatment of Jews by the nazis and our treatment of farmed animals was origionally pointed out by a Jewish person - not by PETA. Any compassionate Jewish person would, I'm sure, be totally supportive of the poster. Anyone who condemnes PETA for seeking to draw attention to the cruelty inherent in our animal 'concentration camps' clearly has no love or compassion for animals.

Animal lover | 22 August 2009  

I tried to locate the UN resolution mentioned, but failed to find it. Could Mick MacAndrew or someone provide a link to it. Thanks

David Murton | 25 February 2010  

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