Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion/Belief – Connecting to the Common Good
July 31, 2023
| By Azza Karam
Bank of Baroda BC Sakhi from Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh depositing cash in customer's account. (Bank of Baroda and Women's World Banking Jan Dhan Plus Project, 2021-22)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights addresses, not “FoRB” (the abbreviation of Freedom of Religion or Belief), but Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion/Belief. Article 18 holds that:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his [sic] 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.”

Albert Einstein once said that “Genius is making complex ideas simple, not making simple ideas complex”. In that spirit, I will pose some questions: why is it significant that ‘thought’, ‘conscience’ and ‘religion’ each are spelled out, rather than thought and conscience subsumed under religion? And what does freedom of thought, conscience and belief have to do with the common good?

In the next few paragraphs, I will share some reflections, less to answer the above questions than to simplify some complexities that often are taken for granted and point out what we may have overlooked in our varied pursuits of FoRB.

When we think of why Article 18 separately lists ‘thought,’ ‘conscience’ and ‘religion,’ it would be wise to consider that religion does not intrinsically constitute all of who we are. In fact, while some of our thoughts and feelings are connected to our religious beliefs, not all are about or derive from religion or religious beliefs. What the three refer to, however, and indeed emphasize, is that to be human, and to be dignified as human, we need to be free to think, to connect (or not) to a sense of conscience, and to have a faith (or not), and that it is a human right to exercise freedom in ways that do not conform to specific belief systems. While Article 18 would appear to advocate for the right to have a religion or faith, at the same time it does not posit religion as the sole purpose of our conscience or thought.

So, we have a right to freedom to think, have a conscience, and have a religion (or not). Beyond a connection to other freedoms, including that of expression and assembly—to which FoRB is often linked, Article 18 is about freedom as the exercise of democracy itself. In fact, this Article is about the freedom to live in peace and a safe climate, and poverty-free. Think about it: how are we free to think in authoritarian and/or militarized regimes? How are we free to think in the midst of wars, famines, fires, floods, and other climate related disasters? How are we free to think when we are forcibly displaced from our homes? How are we free to think when we are being violated emotionally, physically or mentally? The answer is, we are not. Article 18, therefore, grounds freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief in living with a dignity that exceeds material needs, and yet requires these very practical material needs.

The ability to secure practical material needs in a time when our world is facing multiple planetary crises, along with a crisis of political and institutional legitimacy, suffers armed conflicts worldwide, and is facing an unsecure future brought on by demographic changes and productivity, is not about looking to secure the interests of a specific group of people. Whether they are majorities or minorities, whatever the gender, age, geographical provenance, race, or even religion, the need for material security is not tangential to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, but rather, is a necessary prerequisite.

Why the common good?

Although it many might think we all would agree on what we mean by the common good, let me explain what and how I understand and use this term. According to the Britannica[1], the common good is that which benefits society as a whole, in contrast to the private good of individuals and sections of society. Often used in the context of political philosophy and/or politics and political actions, the idea of the common good often posits that certain benefits, such as security and justice, can be achieved only through citizenship, collective action, and active participation in the public realm of politics and public service. “In effect, the notion of the common good is a denial that society is and should be composed of atomized individuals living in isolation from one another. Instead, its proponents have asserted that people can and should live their lives as citizens deeply embedded in social relationships”[2]. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy expands this understanding of the elements of the common good to include material, cultural or institutional facilities “that the members of a community provide to all members in order to fulfill a relational obligation they all have to care for certain interests that they have in common. Some canonical examples of the common good in a modern liberal democracy include: the road system; public parks; police protection and public safety; courts and the judicial system; public schools; museums and cultural institutions; public transportation; civil liberties, such as the freedom of speech and the freedom of association; the system of property; clean air and clean water; and national defense”.[3]

Before getting carried away with the common sense of it all, let us focus on real-world dynamics and the challenge of realizing the global public or common good. Let us look at what the world’s largest International Financial Institution, the IMF, tells us what public goods are. According to the IMF, public goods should be available to – and repeatedly enjoyed by all (“nonexcludable”), without diminishing the benefits they deliver to others (“nonrival”). “The scope of public goods can be local, national, or global. They encompass many aspects of our lives: from our natural environment, our histories and cultures, and technological progress down to everyday devices such as the metric system”[4].

But we also are warned that public goods universally are undersupplied. Why? Because whether at the national, regional or global level, the ethos of profit to/for the provider(s) – whether governmental or nongovernmental (and especially for the private sector), needs to be ‘profit’ of some sort. Moreover, those who either supply, or care for such public goods, often do not do so in perpetuity. Think about it: a political party elected into government will look after the public good – in certain ways – only as long as it serves in government. Another political party, or ruling regime, will see matters differently. You only need to think of how some governments enact, or remove, certain environmental protection laws and processes to get the picture.

Yet profit, properly understood, also provides an opportunity we should not overlook. Much research on human rights, especially on women’s rights, points to the fact that efforts to advance women’s rights were strengthened at national policy levels once the case successfully was made for how engaging women in the public sector would increase a nation’s GDP; or how opening more spaces for women in parliaments, corporations, and financial institutions increased profitability. We can make a case that freedom of thought, conscience and belief is necessary for the common good. But we also need to make the case that this freedom is profitable.

And we need to make this case worldwide, not only in the southern hemisphere.  Freedom of thought, conscience and religion/belief is endangered everywhere. We have no time to lose.

Azza Karam is Professor of Religion and Development, Vrij Universiteit of Amsterdam (The Netherlands) and Executive Director of Plazza Inc.



[2] Ibid, Britannica




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