WHC2014

A.C. Grayling addressed the World Humanist Congress in Oxford, U.K., Friday Aug. 8, 2014. Photo by British Humanist Association via Flickr

This weekend, the World Humanist Congress brought 1,000 delegates from 67 countries together in Oxford, U.K., to explore the most pressing challenges to freedom of thought and expression.

Along with their lack of religion, many delegates shared a legally protected right not to be offended in their home countries, a “privilege” they enthusiastically pledged to abandon.

Delegates passed the Oxford Declaration on Free Thought and Expression, which states: “There is no right not to be offended, or not to hear contrary opinions.” Despite the alarming fact that 47 percent of countries have laws penalizing blasphemy, apostasy and/or defamation of religion, there is indeed no fundamental human right not to be offended in international law.

The declaration relies heavily on Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which together guarantee the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, opinion and expression.

The declaration’s section on the right not to be offended states:

“Respect for people’s freedom of belief does not imply any duty or requirement to respect those beliefs. The expression of opposition to any beliefs, including in the form of satire, ridicule or condemnation in all media and forms is vital to critical discourse and any restraint that is exercised in this expression must be in accordance of article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely to protect the rights and freedoms of others. The best response to the expression of a view we disagree with is to reply to it.Violence and censorship are never legitimate responses. All laws that criminalise language on grounds of ‘blasphemy’ or of offence to beliefs and values impede human freedom and should be abolished.”

These are important words, and I fully agree with the “We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief” sentiments expressed.

In his 2009 book Giving Offence, cartoonist Martin Rowson, who spoke at the congress, writes, “In the Babel of conflicting human opinions, the right to be offended is just another tactic to win an argument by compelling your opponent to shut up because what they say is offensive.” Rowson says religion is often cited in the course of this silencing.

In the companion title Taking Offence, Caspar Melville suggests that “the right to offend is part and parcel of our world, but we must choose our targets with care and know why we are doing it.”

I think that’s sound advice

Other sections of the declaration I find particularly interesting (they’re all important) state “No one anywhere should ever be forced into or out of a belief” and “Freedom of belief is absolute but the freedom to act on a belief is not.”

Genuine belief, by its very nature, cannot and should not be forcibly applied to or deprived an individual. Governments and societies can’t make people believe something they don’t. They can only force them to pretend, which accomplishes homogeny at the expense of freedom.

Restricting one’s freedom to act on particular beliefs is obvious and necessary to protect the rights of others. If my beliefs tell me to kill you, your right to life should hopefully save the day.

You can read the full declaration here.

42 Comments

    • “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.” – Thomas Jefferson

      Perhaps we should adopt the Questions for the Prime Minister ethos– you have the right to offend, but it must always be unfailingly witty, urbane and charming.

  1. There is no ‘right to offend’. There is freedom of speech, and free speech will sometimes be offensive. That can & should not be prevented. But it would be a misunderstanding to interpret this inevitable consequence of freedom of speech as a ‘right to offend’. Rights are meant to protect basic aspects of human dignity and flourishing. Our capacity to offend people does not belong to our dignity and flourishing. Also, rights are there to explore to the full, while being offensive is not something we should try to maximize.

    • In reply to Steven, and maybe just to clarify: the ‘right to offend’ is not a phrase or indeed a claim that occurs either in this article or in the text of the Oxford declaration itself. As he says, it would be more correct to say individuals have a right to free expression, and that our expressions can (and inevitably sometimes will) be offensive to some; this does not constrain or remove that right. The emphasis on offence is presumably because, so often today including in high level debate, the right to free expression is mistakenly said to be duly restricted to avoid causing offence of various kinds – often religious ‘blasphemy’. Understanding the right to freedom of expression as so restricted would be to vastly diminish, if not render it basically unusable for critical discussion.

      • Uncivilized maybe, but cause for criminal sanction, never. Free speech is not to protect what is popular and well liked but to protect what isn’t. What gives offense or may not be “civilized”.

        The only exception is speech deliberately designed to harm such as fraud and defamation. Defamation being as narrowly defined as possible. The US has a good model for this. It is nigh impossible to get a libel or slander case going without something really egregious, intentional, and malicious.

    • Got to remember this is America. There are dozens of countries where what I say on a daily basis as a freethinker would land me in jail. I think this is what the conference was getting at. If I disagree with the Koran in Saudi Arabia I’m going to jail, and not a very nice one. Here or in England that would be laughable; I can stand on a street corner all day long criticizing the Bible. It’s the word “offend” I have problems with. Here it means “to piss off.” In other countries it simply means to mention or say, and not necessarily in a negative manner. We have it good here; we can say “God is not great” and have a nice chat.

  2. More group think grandiose from thr resident “free thinking” humanist.

    Its laughable that you rely on am institution to inform you of the freedom, even positive or negative rights, that you were born with. You will always lose more freedom simply by submitting your mind to institutional thinking, as you referencing here, than by simply doing away with institutionally granted systems of freedom which are artifical from the start.

    And now the great hypocrisy these self adorned “free thinkers” never like to look at. They want the right to offend you, religious people….so they can march down their narrative of “free thought” and blast it from more sources and to more recipients. But they never, ever, want to be offended themselves simply on the basis of differing opinions regarding topics like homosexuality, social association, or any pet legally protected minority section of society. In fact they actively legislate tolerance by taking away your freedom!

    Yet, they claim its ok to offend yoh based on religious arguments. You just can’t offend them based om any number of institutionally group think planning sessions where the aim is to create their version of society that is actually less free than before they got togather.

    Go to hell humanists. You guys are the problem, the greatest systemic roadblock to actual human freedom there is.

    • Haha…Nice try. The day Atheists behead others based on violating their belief system is the day we move into the running for “roadblock”..Until then….

    • Here is my personal experience with these free thinkers:

      I used to comment a lot on thehumanist.org, in part to learn about them and in part to challenge them from a christiam perspective.

      They have this cutsie section of their website for cartoon strips that exclusively make fun of religious perspectives. One such cartoon made light of chastity before marriage, which really irked me because I believe it not only takes incredible discipline to live such a commitment in slutty american society, but there are major relationship benefits for any couple that can come together having pulled this off.

      So in response, I suggested to the editors simply that “I knew a few good gay jokes that I thought would make good cartoons, and id make free submissions if they liked”.

      Banned. I got banned. Not only was I a hater, bigot, homophobe, racist…according to them. These “freethinkers” could not bear the thought of having such an offensive person postint on their boards.

      And now see the arrticle above. Humanists want you to know they can offend you based on religion and its ok. You may not reciprocate based on a religious viewpoint. Thats not ok. And they have a big society actively seeking lawmakers who will make it so.

      Again..I am in no way impressed with the actual equality of thinking these humanists do. Its shoddy, poor work and there is bias throughout that makes it unacceptable for society as a whole. Its only good for the groups their disingenuous message is geared toward.

      • Mark Sullivan

        Actually your problem is you take too much personally. If you believe in chastity before marriage and by practice find it challenging, then that’s your right. That’s like saying because a woman wore a short skirt and got raped that it’s her fault. Oh no, no, no.

        So some of us (who are actually atheists) make fun of your religious beliefs so you give it right back and then we rebut and then you get offended. That’s called discourse and debate.

        You get too “butt”hurt when some rebuts you. And if you’re forming an opinion from online chatter VS actually interaction of Humanists, then you need to get out more.

        • No, my problem was censorship by free thinking humanists of opposing worldviews.

          Now my problem is I got some dingo atheist thinking he is undebateable in my face stretching logic associations in an attempt to offend me again.

          You guys are so classy.

          • So you want the right to give offense, but not receive it in kind. A special privilege to be a whiny baby that nobody wants to give you.

            How pathetic.

        • Cold Industry

          So some of us (who are actually atheists) make fun of your religious beliefs so you give it right back and then we rebut and then you get offended. That’s called discourse and debate.

          No, that’s called a day at the playground. Which, come to think of it, exactly describes the level of “discourse” so many Internet atheists engage these days.

          True discourse is an honored scholarly tradition that entails the proper formulation and debate between certain theses and supporting evidences according to the rules of philosophical inquiry. Wit, satire and all other manner of rhetorical devices can, of course, be employed, but certainly do not constitute its core members–unless you are of that ancient Greek school of thought otherwise known as sophistry.

      • Your right to freedom of belief does not impose on anyone else the obligation to help you disseminate those beliefs. Anyone who finds a belief offensive is completely within their rights to refuse to provide you with a forum to express it.

          • Yes, and they are perfectly within their rights to. What church would give the atheists a forum in their church bulletin?

        • Cold Industry

          The irony is that even “free” thinkers have their sacred cows.

          No, they are not really “free” thinkers at all. They are a tribal, insular group, living life according to a set of philosophical assumptions that they are mostly loathe to question.

          • TheOccasionalAtheist

            Do you speak from experience or just wild speculation? Its always interesting when an outsider talks of insider’a knowledge.
            Can you name the sacred cows, per chance?

      • TheOccasionalAtheist

        So, you get offended by someone’s opinion of religion, you attempt to show the level to which you were offended by denigrating other humans, then you get further offended when someone showed you the door?
        It would seem that you think It’s ok for you to be offended, but no one should be offended by you. Selfish much?

        Don’t despair because they booted you or claim it’s a violation of your right to free speech. There’s a bit in the Constitution that covers the right of any group to associate with those whom the choose and that doesn’t infringe on your free speech.
        “Freedom of association is the right to join or leave groups of a person’s own choosing, and for the group to take collective action to pursue the interests of members” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_association
        A privately run message board has no need to allow any speech on their system. Don’t like that? Go setup your own and moderate it as you will. May I come to your church and extol the virtues of Atheism? I suspect not. Should I be offended? Hardly.

        “If thy eye offends you, cut it off and cast it away, for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.”

        Lles Nats says: (edited for spelling)
        “It’s laughable that you rely on an institution to inform you of the freedom, even positive or negative rights, that you were born with. You will always lose more freedom simply by submitting your mind to institutional thinking, as you’re referencing here, than by simply doing away with institutionally granted systems of freedom which are artificial from the start.”

        We do not “rely on” them informing us of obvious freedoms. Some freedoms are self-evident. As for your mention of “institutional thinking”, it is much more “laughable” considering christianity has not evolved much for the last 2000+ years and it’s tenets are demonstrably “artificial from the start.”
        Isn’t the church famous for informing followers of the latest interpretation of your collective hallucinations?

        Lles Nats says:
        “Go to hell humanists. You guys are the problem, the greatest systemic roadblock to actual human freedom there is.”
        Thanks, but it is your hell, not ours. This is hilarious when spoken by a “true believer” since they fail to understand many Humanists are also Atheists. “Go to Hell!” has the same effect as yelling, “Go to heaven!”. They are both man-made carrots and sticks made to entice, but with a horrifying threat of filicide and eternal torture by “our loving father.” Any way you slice it, it’s all just bollocks.

        MEMO to Lles, Atheists don’t believe in your hell. Your threat is baseless, rather amusing in it’s buffoonery and indicative of your obvious, murderous contempt for fellow humans. Very christian of you, your saviour did say he was coming “not to send peace, but a sword.” (context, right…)

        Good Day!

        • Cold Industry

          Belief in hell isn’t evidence of murderous intent. Put down the Nietzschean stereotypes and try understanding Christianity on its own terms: hell provides the promise of justice in the face of incredible evil. It gives reason not to take revenge and so limits the cycles of violence otherwise so natural to humans. For example, see Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf.

          As for this:

          Very christian of you, your saviour did say he was coming “not to send peace, but a sword.” (context, right…)

          I suppose you are making some sort of half-clever joke (not every atheist is going to be as clever as Hitchens), but Jesus was making a hyperbolic statement about how his ministry was going to divide even families (which in the ANE context constituted the closest set of social bonds).

          • The Great God Pan

            I suppose it depends on your definition of “incredible evil,” eh? According to Christian doctrine, murderers, thieves and rapists go to Heaven so long as they accept Jesus as their savior. It is only non-Christians who burn in Hell, regrardless of the evil acts they have or haven’t committed.

          • TheOccasionalAtheist

            Belief in hell may not be murderous intent, but sending someone there with gleam one’s eye certainly is.
            Nietzsche aside, I have seen christianity on it’s terms and I was horrified, especially since I could see the hypocrisy first hand.

            No matter how you try to justify hell, it remains the preferred destination for most every apostate/heathen/infidel who has the pleasure of conversing with the religious. The look of orgasmic joy on the faces of the faithful is a bit sad, knowing that they will never experience the true joy of seeing us suffering in hell.

            Tell me, what justice is there in heaven if rapists and murderers can get in on a prayer? jeebus said that all who belive in him are heaven bound. There is the conundrum facing the holy. Imagine meeting your abusers in heaven. How much fun would that be?

            Thank you also, for the tremendous insight into jeebus’ thought processes. That changes so much. I wasn’t aware that he was a real person, so imagine my surprise when you cleared up my misconceptions.

            The fact that it’s holy word has to be interpreted shows how poorly conceived it was to begin with. The vast number of contradictory passages reveals the truth. It was written and edited by man, for the express purpose of keeping the ignorant from learning just how far the church is willing to go to preserve the power they have become addicted to.

            Those who cling to centuries old revenge fantasies are sad examples of the morality of ancient clan feuds and petty insults to so-called honor.

            Lastly, I’m flattered you chose to compare me to Hitch! Such an honor! I don’t deserve it I know, but one can strive towards greatness!
            Thablnk you also, for calling my poor attempt at humor ‘clever’ although I was not aware there were degrees of cleverness!
            Good day!

    • Equally laughable is that you rely on a religion to inform you of the morals you use in life. You are correct, “You will always lose more freedom simply by submitting your mind to institutional thinking”. Religion takes away your freedom to think, so get off your knees and onto your feet and live free, not under the oppressive yoke of some false God.

      And now the great hypocrisy; a Christian calling “free thinkers” offensive when Christians are so offensively arrogant they think they’re somehow so special a God cares how they behave, what they do, and even what they think. Just those that think like they do, but no one else.

      So arrogant that they think they have the right to offend anyone by controlling laws, and putting their religious icons on property owned equally by everyone. They think they can trample down “free thought” and blast their religious BS from more sources and to more recipients so they drown out free thought and attempt to assimilate others into their belief system like the Borg. But they never, ever, want to admit they are offensive themselves simply on the basis of hateful opinions regarding topics on homosexuality, social association, or any pet legally protected minority section of society. In fact they actively legislate intolerance to take freedom away from those who don’t hold their views!

      Yet, they claim its ok to offend you based on their religious arguments. You just can’t offend them based on their religious institutionally group think where the aim is to create their version of society that is actually less free than before they got together.

      Don’t go to hell (doesn’t really exists) religious people. A free thinker wouldn’t wish that pornographic torment on anyone. Instead, remove the veil of faith that shrouds your free thought, and your true freedom.
      Realize, you guys are the problem, the greatest systemic roadblock to actual human freedom there is.

  3. “Governments and societies can’t make people believe something they don’t. They can only force them to pretend, which accomplishes homogeny at the expense of freedom.”
    Unfortunately this is not completely true. Children especially are very vulnerable to assimilating beliefs uncritically from authorities or the masses, but adults too are vulnerable. The best way to make someone believe something is to make them act as if they do, and surround them by others who do.

    • Completely agreed. It just reinforced group think exercises.

      Critial thinking and reciprocity concepts are lost, by design. To make people easier to manage to a desired objective. All these mechanisms involve a lesser degree of actual freedom in exchange for artifical comfort.

  4. Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Meanwhile atheists in the U.S. get in a rage over a restaurant that had the nerve to give a discount to those who said grace before eating (all acts done by both parties voluntary). Of course that such a small benevolent matter which few would take advantage of enrages atheists and make them send lawsuit threats shows a clear level of intolerance.

    • This is exactly the point of the declaration. The restaurant and its patrons have the right to believe what they want. That should not give them the right to not have those beliefs criticized or even ridiculed. That atheists criticize the restaurant is perfectly within the intent of the declaration.

      If the threatened lawsuit happens or is successful, that would be because of the actions of the restaurant (providing a discount) not because it expressed a religious viewpoint.

      • As bizarre as it sounds, would you be against a restaurant offering discounts for different, voluntary public actions that were not religiously based and equally not practiced by a large group of people? Lets test this.

        What if discounts were offered, just as subtly for people wearing hats, or who threaded their shoelaces in a particular pattern? Thats benign thought because behavior basis is loose. What if the discount was offered based on average lenght of time thr person chewed their food? Thats behavior based but subconscious. What is it was given for tucking the napkin into the shirt collar? Thats a good one because its a conscious behavior based on a belief…that they will keep their shirt clean.

        Would you think a lawsuit is warranted then?

        I won’t hide my motivation in asking. While its bizarre, I doubt anyone would threaten lawsuit over it. But I think you do in thr case of prayer because you personally are conditioned to take exception to all traditional christianity and are further conditioned to connect it to harm to society. I believe you are reactionary. With little real thought, only what you have been told to believe is harmful behavior….that being a dominant religion you recognize and have been trained to react to.

        • I take exception to military discounts. There would be no public support for myfight against military discounts…but they are no less discriminatory than prayer discounts. Both are behavior based. And apply unequally. Why not then be offended at military discounts?

          Good grief, if there is one american societal myth that deserves to die, its that our military only “fights to protect our freedom”. That has not been the case in generations. Why give mercenaries a discount?

        • I don’t think all atheists would agree that in this case a lawsuit is warranted. The question is if this is more a case of discrimination, as it would be if white but not black people got a discount, or just supporting some activity like wearing a green shirt on St Patrick’s day, or wearing a button indicating you support a music festival or other activity. I personally do not think governments should ban public prayer or private rewards for public prayer, but they should in no way be assisting it either.

          Just because it is and should be legal does not mean it should be exempt from criticism.

      • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

        Freedom of belief means nothing if one is denied the right to act on those beliefs when they do not involve harm to another. Face up–this restaurant case is an example of atheist intolerance– demanding the right to not be offended as the Humanist group said was not a right.. If you don’t like what a restaurant is doing—go to another restaurant. You have that freedom. But in your intolerance you would rather run to court to vent your rage and take away a believer’s freedom..

    • TheOccasionalAtheist

      Meanwhile churches export their poisons to the uneducated and people are burned as witches, boys and girls are raped and abused but “Atheists get in a rage?” You’re god dam right we do! Riots, barbequed babies , murderous rampages oh wait, they threatened a lawsuit?!?

      The HORROR! Some Atheists are posting and tweeting! It’s the end times!
      You should love you some atheists… isn’t that one of the signs jeebus is coming again?

      I suspect you are being purposely obtuse and hyperbolic, but it can be hard to tell.

      Where are the threats of eternal suffering and damnation coming from?
      “Go to hell, godless heathen”
      “I hope you die and go straight to hell!”
      “You’ll be on your knees and begging!”

      I’m fairly certain that religion has intolerance all wrapped up. Would you allow an Atheist to date/marry your daughter, Deacon?
      Remember, god is watching what you type.

      • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

        Occasional You are way out of synch with the times.Would I ALLOW my daughter to marry an atheist??? Are you still into arranged marriages???
        I have no say in the matter although I can give her my strong opinion–and I would want her to marry a member of our religion because statistically the marriages of people of like beliefs are most likely to survive and broken marriages are horrible and devastating according to all psych experts. And if children are involved –according to the latest research–children of divorce NEVER recover from the trauma even suffering it into old age.

        • TheOccasionalAtheist

          Not quite artfully dodged deacon, I expected better from you.

          I’m willing to bet I’m a bit more in sync with the times than you are. After all, I don’t follow a 2000+ year old guide that hasn’t been updated since the middle ages.

          I’m not into arranged marriages, but if I were it would not involve religion at all because you are correct, divorce sucks and recent studies suggest that nonbelievers tend to stay married longer than religious folk. I wonder why.

          Tell me, why did you focus on just one comment, with feigned outrage “ALLOW HER”?!? Really, you must forgive me. I presumed that being a follower of one of the Abrahamic religions, you would be familiar with the concepts of patriarchal despotism which is proscribed in the “holy books” you folks are so fond of.

          As for your statement that atheists are demanding the right to not be offended, you obfuscate and mislead sir. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume it was unintentional.

          The atheists were defending against the discrimination of nonbelievers and even the religious who follow the teachings of Matthew 6:5 – are you familiar with the verse?

          “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”

          You see, discounts are all well and good, but only if they are provided without discriminating against certain groups. You seem to be the one who is out of sync with the times.

          Good day!

    • Michael Patrick King

      The article I read said that the restaurant owners “give a discount to patrons who ‘give thanks’ before eating”. No mention of “saying grace” was made. It further stated that the owners’ intent was to “reward spirituality”, not religiosity, per se. The specific worldview of the restaurant’s owners was never revealed. Nonetheless, THOUSANDS of posters ASSUMED that the owners are Christians and that they were giving discounts to others who pray publicly–this in spite of Jesus’ injunction to His followers to “pray to your Father in private and He will hear you”.

  5. I find I disagree with the sentiment “We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief”. There are plenty of theists I don’t respect because of their beliefs and what those beliefs lead them to do. I think it would be better stated as “We respect the right of the believer to hold any belief but not necessarily the content of the belief”.

  6. Cold Industry

    This declaration is basically the outworking of the classical liberal, Enlightenment tradition. That’s all fine and well if you’re part of the white, educated elite in Western Europe and certain coastal areas in the United States, but has little tracking with the sociological and moral concerns of the majority world, especially those parts that evaluate morality along lines more complex than individualism / harm.

  7. Henry Chambers

    “There is no right not to be offended, or not to hear contrary opinions,” hopefully also means war against designating some speech as “politically incorrect”.

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