As the civil union bill becomes a hotly-debated topic in the Maltese Islands, the right of freedom of belief is being thrown around by people from both ends of the spectrum. But how much does our society really believe in this right?
This is nothing new under the sun in Malta. The situation in the months leading up to the divorce referendum in 2011 was identical. However, this attitude is not restricted to the local scene. It is a characteristic of contemporary Western culture. One prominent case some years ago was the debate to remove crucifixes from public schools. I do not intend to take sides on any of these issues. However, I do believe that these occurrences are a good time for introspection of society as a whole.
Whenever a discussion on a controversial topic arises, those in favour as well as those against harp on freedom of belief. The former claim that no one has the right to force his/her beliefs on anyone else. The latter insist that the issue goes against their religion and impedes their freedom of belief.
In light of these contradictory statements, what exactly is freedom of belief? Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’
According to this definition, freedom of belief does not mean that one cannot express his/her religious inclination in public. Freedom of belief does not mean that public schools must remove crucifixes from classrooms. After all, if the sight of a crucifix offends people’s freedom, we might as well cover up churches and mosques as well. Freedom of belief does not mean that one must wish others ‘Happy Holidays’ and that saying ‘Merry Christmas’ is wrong. It means that one is free from the decrees and dogmas of any religion and can choose to follow them at his own will.
Does this hold true for Maltese and Western society? In these societies many people get angry when a religious institution expresses its opinion on a controversial subject. Some people even go as far as saying that religious authorities have no right expressing their opinion on such matters.
The definition given by the UDHR is clear that anyone is allowed to express this opinion in public. After all, isn’t being, for example, in favour of divorce also a form of belief? Why should either opinion not be allowed to be said? When people express opinions influenced by their religious beliefs, they are not going against freedom of belief.
People who get angry when non-secular beliefs are expressed are not upholding this freedom. On the contrary, they are going against Article 19 of the UDHR, which states that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’
Let us look at the local scene. I dislike generalising, but to a certain extent one is forced to do so when reflecting on society. We live in a nation where many people talk about freedom of belief in terms of accepting either secular ideas or Christian thought. However, many Maltese people, whether practising Christians, non-practicing or atheists, show contempt towards religious minorities, particularly those who adhere to the teachings of Islam. With this in mind, I do not think that most people in our society are advocating freedom of religion. Rather, I think that Western society has adopted a freedom from religion mind-set where secularity is the order of the day and religious belief becomes a private affair, not to be expressed in public.