In an increasingly secular world does freedom of religion or belief really matter?

Rite & Reason: Freedom of religion or belief is as important for atheists and people who wish to leave or change their religion as it is for the devoutly religious

In our interconnected and diverse world, the protection of freedom of religion or belief is emerging as a critical concern. It has been discussed at both the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva and the UN General Assembly in New York, which has included human rights violations concerning freedom of religion or belief.

Freedom of religion or belief – or FoRB as it has become known in human-rights discourse – protects our right to believe or not believe, and to act according to our conscience in matters of religion or belief. This right is as important for atheists, and people who wish to leave or change their religion, as it is for devout followers of any religion. FoRB is about people, not religions per se – people have rights, not religions or ideological systems. The observance of FoRB around the world shows a definite correlation between the implementation of this right and the general human-rights situation in any country.

Even a cursory examination will show that FoRB is usually observably absent under repressive regimes. Between 2007 and 2017, restrictions imposed by governments on religion – encompassing laws, policies and actions that curtail religious beliefs and practices – have surged across the globe.

Washington-based Pew Research Centre’s findings reveal that instances of social hostility linked to religion, which involve violence and harassment by public or private entities or groups, have increased. Shockingly, a total of 52 governments impose either “high” or “very high” levels of restrictions on religion, marking a stark increase from the 40 governments recorded in 2007.


Furthermore, the number of countries experiencing the highest levels of social hostility related to religion has risen from 39 to 56 over the study’s duration. Also notable is the increased pressure faced by non-believers against the backdrop of some glaringly polarised societies.

Ireland’s commitment to promoting and safeguarding FoRB is demonstrated by its active engagement with this right on the international stage, particularly at the United Nations. The historical echo of religious intolerance on this island has helped to sharpen Ireland’s focus on the issue.

We in Ireland have lived experience of the violation of FoRB and a deep understanding of how it is a right essential for human wellbeing and the establishment of justice in society

In a reply to a Dáil question recently, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin articulated Ireland’s policy and approach to freedom of religion or belief, highlighting the State’s unwavering support for relevant resolutions within the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council. These are welcome statements at a time of increasing pressure on religious and other minorities.

Despite efforts to protect these fundamental rights, many minorities face relentless cruelty on an ongoing basis. The experience of the Bahá'í community in Iran – long considered a litmus test for human rights in that country – is a good example.

Since the inception of the Women, Life, Freedom movement in 2022 women, minorities and religious groups – including Christians, Sunnis and Bahá'ís – face increased persecution. The imprisonment last year of an ill 90-year-old Bahá'í, Jamaloddin Khanjani, caused international outcry. It is clear that this elderly man was no threat to the state and his arrest can be seen only as a cruel punishment for his beliefs.

Side by side with Mr Khanjani’s arrest, the persecution, arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of other Bahá'ís and non-Bahá'ís have also been ramped up.

More than 170 countries, including Iran, have ratified international agreements at the UN guaranteeing the right to believe or not to believe. Unfortunately, the gap between the signing of international agreements and their implementation on the ground is only widening.

One pivotal mechanism monitoring and addressing these challenges is the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. This role is guided by the declaration on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief, and its insights help bridge the gap between principles and practical application.

Ireland continues to be active at the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly across many of the debates condemning human rights violations, including discussions regarding FoRB.

To add to the impact Ireland can make internationally in supporting this fundamental human right, the time may have come to also establish a dedicated Irish parliamentary or governmental mechanism aimed at fostering FoRB. We in Ireland have lived experience of the violation of FoRB and a deep understanding of how it is a right essential for human wellbeing and the establishment of justice in society.

The implementation of this right and the protection of people who are deprived of this freedom necessitates a collective commitment from governments, organisations and individuals. The journey towards FoRB continues, with the hope that lessons from the past will guide a future where diversity of belief is celebrated and respected.

Brendan McNamara is a former member of the Department of Foreign Affairs committee on human rights and lectures at the Study of Religions Department, University College Cork. He also works on human rights advocacy for the Bahá'í community of Ireland