The sculpture “Freedom of Religion” presents a man holding aloft a sphere embossed with the symbols of the main religions of the world, symbolically maintaining and supporting the sacredness of our beliefs – as interprets its author, Marlene Hilton Moore. The McMurtry Gardens of Justice in Toronto, Canada, 2012. [@Aitkens-Flickr/ACN]

Article 18: An indivisible right divided

By: Dr José Luis Bazán

Aid to the Church in Need (08.06.2023) – During the drafting process of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in May 1948, the representative of the USSR recommended a provision emphasizing independence between freedom of thought and religious freedom, giving prominence to the first to, allegedly, “guarantee the freedom of conscience”, “to promote the development of modern sciences … [and] to discard all old-fashioned beliefs and religious fanaticism.”[1] The Soviet delegation justified the proposal by stating that “the expression ‘freedom of thought’ included scientific and philosophic thought as well as thought in its religious forms”,[2]a position similar to that of the Chinese representative who expressed the view that “freedom of thought included freedom of conscience as well as religious freedom”.[3]

Whereas the United States confirmed the proposal that made “freedom of religion” (and not only “religious observance”) a part of the UDHR Article 18,[4] a final agreement was reached only following a principle expressed by the Philippines that a declaration on human rights “should attempt […] to express a common philosophy for all nations and thus further the advancement of the human race”[5]by way of recognizing a single right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The USSR reluctantly accepted the final version of the draft text because “other countries were not as progressive as his own and therefore, it would have been too much to expect them to subscribe to the same guarantees as the USSR”.[6] 

The 1948 USSR concept to divide the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion into three autonomous, albeit connected, rights is back. Of note are efforts to carve out and rank the components of Article 18, to single out freedom of thought and conscience as belonging to the realm of non-religious individuals while freedom of religion would be, in that perspective, only for religious believers. 

This deconstruction of the single right into three was evidenced in a 5 October 2021 report titled The Freedom of Thought by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, when he stated that: “freedom of thought is recognized as one of three distinct, but equal rights within the right to freedom of ‘thought, conscience and religion or belief.’”[7] The approach divided the rights into three – instead of one indivisible right with three dimensions as originally conceived – with an singular focus on freedom of thought. 

This line of reasoning is also evident in documents by humanist associations. For example, the Humanist International in its annual The Freedom of Thought Report highlighting “violations of freedom of conscience and of belief […] against the non-religious in everyday life”,[8] the word “religion” doesn’t appear, considering only “thought” and “conscience”.

Finally, this right is also reshaped in the #Faith4Rights toolkit promoted by the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights. For example, in Module I (Context) addressing freedom of conscience, the authors state: “Freedom of conscience is imperative and larger than the freedom of religion or belief.”[9]

These efforts not only negate the internal harmony of this triadic right – and of the human rights system which is based on equal dignity for all – but contradicts the spirit of Article 18, which opens space for the transcendent conscience of each person to think, feel, decide, and live in accordance with the most essential questions about our human life and final destiny.

Following the thesis of Karl Marx that mankind should be freed “from the witchery of religion”,[10] the attempt to subordinate religious freedom to freedom of thought and conscience would demote freedom of religion to a “second-class” freedom, associated with irrationality, superstition, and sectarianism – a permanent source of problems. Accordingly, this would elevate the other rights to “first-class” freedoms, as expressions of rationality and universality and a solution to social tensions. Ultimately freedom of religion would become freedom from religion.

Religious freedom, however, has a historic place in human history as it was “of decisive importance for the development and practical break-through of the human rights idea in European and North American constitutional history”[11] and is considered “the canary in the coalmine”, the most trustful tool to anticipate general human rights violations by a repressive regime or tyrant.

Religious freedom – which is not reducible to worship as “it radiates upon the entire spiritual and practical human life”[12]– cannot exist without freedom of thought and conscience as these freedoms imply per se a position about religion, be it adherence to, rejection of, or indifference towards. 

[1] William A. Schabas (ed.), “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Travaux Préparatoires”, Volume II: December 1947 to August 1948, Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp. 1574 and 2489.

[2] Ibid, p. 2500

[3] Ibid, p. 2495

[4]Ibid, p. 1573

[5] Ibid, p. 2494

[6] Ibid, p. 2505

[7] “Human rights questions, including alternative approaches for improving the effective enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms”, Seventy-sixth session, OHCHR, 5 October 2021;

[8] Andrew Copson, Preface to the 2022 edition:

[9] “Module 1: Freedom of conscience”, OHCHR, 2023


[10] Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme”,, 1999: (accessed 14th March 2023).

[11] Luchterhandt, Otto, “The Understanding of Religious Freedom in the Socialist States,” Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe, Vol. 3, Iss. 3, Article 5, 1983, p. 15: (accessed 13th March 2023).

[12] Luchterhandt, op. cit., p. 17 (accessed 13th March 2023).