Omission of non-religious from European dialogue is challenged by atheists and religious

Keith Porteous WoodThe European Conference on the Religious Dimension of Intercultural Dialogue took place in San Marino on 23-24 April. Secretary General Terry Davis declared that religious communities had a tremendous potential. ”They can help to heal wounds, and they can build bridges…..They can become an enormous power for peace and tolerance, by making it clear that an attack against one faith is an attack against all of them”, he added.

The conference brought together Christians, Jews and Muslims as well as with civil society and paid special attention to the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue which is one of the Council of Europe’s core policies.Internatonal Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) delegates Keith Porteous Wood (pictured) and Terry Sanderson of the UK’s National Secuar Society (NSS) were the only ones there specifically representing the non-religious.

The NSS’s account of the event described how “Speaker after speaker lauded the virtues of religion – how it had practically invented human rights, how it promoted democracy, how nothing could be real and valuable without it. Several had alluded to the horrors of totalitarianism under Stalin and Hitler, for example, as the consequences of (as they were disingenuously trying to portray them) of the absence of religion, and – predictably – not one had acknowledged any abuse of human rights coming from a mainstream religious source.

One delegate after another demanded privileges, such as religious bodies being consulted on all matters and that it should be the religious that would set the agenda in the Council of Europe in any cultural dialogue.”

However (Catholic) François Becker of the Réseau Européen Eglises et Libertés said in his speech that the Council of Europe must go beyond inter-religious dialogue and the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue to take account of the contribution of non-religious currents of thought….Organisations for the atheist, humanist and agnostic convictions also contribute to demonstrating values, the search for meaning and the spiritual life”

And Porteous Wood added “I am concerned that the non-religious voice is very much in danger of being ignored here and indeed in the dialogue we are discussing. This is unfair and unacceptable.

What has struck me most about the contributions to the conference has been the repeated assertion that religions are the guardians of human rights and indeed it was even claimed by some to be the source of them. I take a diametrically opposing view: religion is the greatest threat to human rights, and a growing one….The Pope is keen, like other religious leaders, to denounce secularism, yet secularism is the best guarantee of equality and human rights for those of all religions and none.”

On the second day of the conference Sanderson cited research demonstrating that organised religion is in a long-standing decline which is projected to continue. “Yet, the non-religious population, which might even be in the majority by now, are being ignored and side-lined. Where are their voices in this supposed “dialogue”? This needs to be addressed,” he said.

Becker, in the conclusion of his speech, stated that “as to the proposal of the Council of Ministers for Annual meetings of the Council of Europe on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue, I propose in the title, to replace ‘religious dimnesion’ with ‘dimension of convictions/beliefs’…” The communiqué from the conference – the final San Marino Declaration – included several significant positive changes on the initial draft. Instead of simply mentioning religious groups, there was now an acknowledgement that the views of humanists and others in “civil society” must be taken into account. Some delegates protested at this, saying that religious voices were not to be equated with those of the non-religious, but the changes stood.

The final report of the event stated  “Many participants noted that the [shared, founding] values [of the Council of Europe] were rooted in the cultural, reeligious and humanist inheritance of Europe.” Read more from the NSS’s account

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