What is meant by the term ‘religion and belief’?
The term ‘religion and belief’ is one of nine ‘protected characteristics’ specifically identified by The Equality Act (2010), and is defined in the following terms:
(1) Religion means any religion and a reference to religion includes a reference to a lack of religion. (2) Belief means any religious or philosophical belief and a reference to belief includes a reference to a lack of belief.
Precisely how useful people find these definitions was something asked in our survey. In relation to religion, 44% of people thought it a useful definition in contrast to 43% who did not. Some additional comments concerning this definition of religion included:
Nonsensical to refer to ‘a lack of religion’ as a definition of religion.”
In my opinion, a lack of religion is a lack of religion. Being an atheist person, I feel disregarded and patronised when I am told by a legal document that my lack of religion is my religion.”
The phrase ‘lack of religion’ suggests a deficit perspective that promotes religion as the norm. I think that public policy and discourse should be making much more use of terms such as agnostic and atheist – which in my opinion reflect the majority of the population.
In relation to belief, 50% of people found it a useful definition in contrast to 38% that did not. Some additional comments concerning this definition of belief included:
Disbelief (a chosen option not to believe) is not the same as lack of belief (too lazy/thoughtless/inept) to consider the matter and make an informed choice.”
Atheism is not a lack of religion nor is a it religion. It is a secular belief and should be titled as such or something similar. Not a negative!”
In this case ‘lack of belief’ is an almost impossible position since one finds that almost everyone has a belief system albeit they do not recognize it or acknowledge it.
Some background to the Protected Characteristic
Part of the background to The Equality Act (2010) specifically identifying religion and belief as a protected characteristic resides in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which states:
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.
However, it is worth noting that Article 18 does not provide a carte blanche. Rather, it is conditioned by Article 19.2 and, more specifically, by four subsequent statements on this right in the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). These four statements are:
1) Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his [her] choice, and freedom either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his [her] religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”
(3) Freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”
(4) The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
One should note that the ‘freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others‘ (Article 18.3, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), emphasis not in original).
The human right of religion and belief is therefore a “conditioned” right that can be limited by law to the extent necessary to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. This idea of “proportionality” between various differing, and sometimes competing, human rights is increasingly entering into public discourse.