June 13, 2011

Is The United Nations A Secular Organization?

English agnostic George Holyoake coined the term “secularism” in 1846 and defined it as follows: "Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life." (italics mine)  Wikipedia defines "secularism" as “the belief that government or other entities should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs.”

In his address at the 2009 Summit of Religious and Secular Leaders on Climate Change in London, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the UN as follows:

“As a secular organization, the United Nations has no common religion.  But, like all the major faiths, we too work on behalf of the disadvantaged and the vulnerable.  We share the same ethical foundation:  a belief in the inherent dignity of all individuals.  That is why we work in partnership with Governments, corporations, civil society and faith-based groups.  That is why we support the Alliance of Civilizations, which is fighting extremism and working to improve understanding and cooperation among nations and peoples.”

Two UN documents also show the UN to be secular in that it is concerned with facts that are:  1) founded in the present life; 2) pertain to the experience of this life, and 3) are capable of being tested.  These documents are the UN Charter of 1945 and the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief of 1981.

Article 1 of the Charter describes the UN’s purposes and principles as the maintenance of international peace and the prevention and removal of threats to international peace and security.  It also works to suppress acts of international aggression and facilitates the peaceful settlement of international disputes.  It also serves as a forum for promoting international friendship between nations based on a respect for equal rights and self-determination among all peoples.  The UN relies on cooperation among the member nations for solving international economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems, and promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.  Finally, the Charter states that the UN exists as a center for harmonizing these common ends.

The 1981 Declaration neither promotes nor supports any religion or belief.  Its concern is for how persons are treated on account of their religion or what they believe.  Citing past disregard of and infringement on the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or whatever belief,” the declaration addresses the war, suffering and hatred between the world’s peoples and nations caused by such transgressions.  It simultaneously calls for understanding, tolerance and respect regarding religion and all beliefs and prohibits the use of religion for ends inconsistent with the UN Charter and other UN documents of principle.  The eight articles of the Declaration are exclusively concerned with human rights and freedoms in terms of religion, conscience, and belief.  They also put limits on “manifesting” one’s religious beliefs when such limitations “are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

Secularism promotes a truth about the experience of human life as it is lived each day on Earth.  It is a truth that can be tested by practical experience.  The UN accepts this same truth and seeks to protect the rights of all Humankind, secular and religious, to believe as we choose without threat or fear of discrimination or harm.  This is a secular effort to maintain human dignity through international cooperation and law.

I agree with Holyoake, secularism is not anti-religion.  It is an alternative to religion that asserts the right of all to believe and think as we wish, including the rejection or acceptance of religion and secularism.  Secularism is best promoted through the further accumulation of scientific evidence and the efforts of the UN, not through the ridicule and destruction of religion.  Secular truths hold whether religion exists or not.  The conventions, declarations and works of the UN are secular for they only defend the rights of Humankind to choose what religion to follow or what to believe, or not.

Further Reading

Palestine Statehood Bid:  US Cuts Off UNESCO After Palestine Vote, Huffington Post, October 31, 2011

1 comment:

Chuck said...

As always, Jim, I find your arguments to be articulate and cogent, You enlighten me, and I am now amazed to find that I could comfortably define myself as a secularist....at least in certain regards. (Please don't tell my friends at church.....I am trusting that they are not reading this blog!) I am grateful for the way you intelligently challenge my thought patterns and beliefs.

Chuck Bergstrom