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Religious Freedom and Human Dignity: Workshop Report and Declaration

By Thomas David DuBois

A few weeks ago December (12-14), I attended the “Law and the Politics of Freedom of Religion in Asia” workshop that was hosted by the NUS Law School, and co-sponsored by the BYU International Center for Law and Religion Studies.

With seven panels, and a closing roundtable, the event covered a great deal of ground.   Papers discussed the evolution of legal ideas and bureaucratic structures, with significant emphasis on the events or cases that made individual jurisdictions unique. Geographically, papers focused largely on Southeast Asia, but others reached from Japan to Pakistan, with some discussion of Australia as a point of comparison to other countries that share a common law background.

Just over half of the papers spoke in some way to the conflict between majoritarian and individual rights. Most of the attendees came from a legal background, and many spoke from their own experience in advocacy, or as jurists. Others provided first hand updates of the state of religious minorities in Pakistan, Myanmar or China.

Although it was never stated as such, the event had a clear goal of advocating for maximal religious freedom. Its two sponsors—the National University of Singapore and Brigham Young University—embody two very different approaches to achieving it. Both the application of Singapore-style “illiberal democracy” to engineer social harmony, and the historical experience of religious persecution by the Mormon Church were raised repeatedly during the sessions, most notably during the final roundtable, as was the intellectual parent of the event, a human dignity conference that had been held in Uruguay just a few days earlier. The document from that conference, the “Punta del Este Declaration on Human Dignity for Everyone Everywhere” was circulated at the end of the Singapore workshop, and those who wished to do so were given the honor of being among the first signatories.

The combination of the conference and the document gave me pause to think about the relationship between religious freedom and human dignity more generally. The intense politicization of religious freedom in the United States is well known; even when pursued in good faith, religious freedom is often conceived in such a way as to favor certain religious groups over others, or they advocate the interests of the religious exclusively. Nevertheless, the disproportionate number of religion scholars, practitioners and advocates among the document’s planners and signatories not only establishes the fundamental importance of religious freedom in how the drafters conceive of human dignity, but suggests that they may be thinking of religion itself in a way that is something more fundamental than the narrow confessional affiliation that is the most common criterion of religious freedom monitoring. To this, the ability to understand secular societies as ones that are characterized by something more than the mere absence of religion will be of profound significance.

One contribution may be the choice to frame the document in terms of human dignity, rather than human rights. At a practical level, eschewing the language of rights in favor of dignity has the power to disarm some of the predictable opposition from corners of the world that tire of being hectored on human rights, often with the claim that such demands are politically motivated, or overlook progress on other fronts, especially poverty alleviation through economic growth. Whatever one thinks of these arguments, a more neutral wording itself has power to bring people to the table.

But I think that the word choice is more than a cosmetic ploy. The Lockean discourse of rights may or may not reflect uniquely Western values (as is often claimed), but it does reflect a particular moment of Western history, one that conceived of individual rights largely as freedom from the dual tyrannies of church and king. It remains naturally attuned to the rights of individuals or minority groups to exist of oppression, but is less sympathetic to the idea of communitarian obligations, religious or otherwise. Hence the problem of cultural boundaries. Anyone familiar with past debates over whether Confucianism properly constitutes a “religion,” or whether premodern China had the conditions for capitalism or civil society will recognize the futility of hammering away at a concept that carries too much baggage to be useful, or simply does not fit. By switching the terms, initiatives like the Punta del Este Declaration aim to lay the grounds for a new conversation about what “human dignity for everyone everywhere” actually means, and from there, how to achieve it.

Thomas David DuBois on academia and his personal blog Noats from the rode.

Latest book: Dubois, Thomas D. Empire and the Meaning of Religion in Northeast Asia: Manchuria 1900-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.