Draft National Statement on Religious Diversity – Race Relations Commissioner


This submission is from the Humanist Society of New Zealand. The Humanist Society of New Zealand (Inc.) represents the interests of non-theistic people in New Zealand. We seek to build a more humane society based on human and other natural values. New Zealand census figures indicate that a third of the population has no religious belief and that a larger portion of New Zealanders does not indicate any specific religious belief.

Our organisation is an affiliated member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) with nearly 100 member organisations worldwide. This represents about 5 million members.

The Council of the Humanist Society of New Zealand endorses this submission.


The Humanist Society of New Zealand considers that the Draft National Statement on Religious Diversity is well intentioned but does not support the Statement as it is currently worded. The Society considers the Statement as written conflicts with the human rights of New Zealanders. However, it is possible to redraft the Statement so that it is consistent with human rights legislation.

The Statement currently discriminates against people who are either not religious or who are alternatively religious. It undermines the ability to have freedom from religion if this is an individual’s choice. The Statement would make it harder to respond appropriately to religious extremists. Our government should not endorse the draft Statement, as this would attack the separation of religion and state in a secular New Zealand.

The Statement gives rights to religious people but it does not give these same rights to those that are non-religious. This unjustified discrimination is against the New Zealand Human Rights Act. The Statement talks of giving rights to faith communities. This is in conflict with our human rights legislation that does not mention faith communities, but instead focuses on the rights of individuals. The Statement overly limits freedom of speech as outlined in the New Zealand Bill of Rights and other human rights documents.

The Statement is also at odds with how the United Nations is structured in that this body does not have a special representative that focuses only on the freedom of religion. Instead, the United Nations is inclusive and it has a special representative that focuses on the freedom of religion or belief.

There is often strong disagreement over whether something is religious or non-religious in nature. For example some people claim that Humanism is a religion while others say that it is a philosophy. It would be wrong that the person who believes that Humanism is their religion has more rights than those that consider that it is their philosophy. The standard way of removing this type of confusion about entitlements is to talk about the rights of religion and belief at the same time.

These faults in the Statement can be remedied through the examination of current human rights documents and the amendment of language so that the Statement can agree with New Zealand law and the structure of the United Nations. Current human rights legislation shows that it is quite possible to have declarations about religion or belief instead of just narrowly focusing on the rights of the religious.

Religious people are not somehow disabled and in need of help when they already constitute a powerful majority in New Zealand. Our national anthem includes religious people of different faiths but it has no provision for people without a belief in a god. Religious people have huge financial reserves and significant tax exemptions to help protect their interests. In contrast, non-religious people have relatively few resources to protect their rights.

There is negative stereotyping of atheists and agnostics in our country and in other western countries. This bias is shown in a 1999 Gallup poll where only 49% of American adults would vote for an otherwise qualified presidential candidate if they were an atheist. In the same poll 59% of Americans would vote for a homosexual candidate and over 90% would vote for black, Jewish or female candidates. This suggests that in America known atheists are more discriminated against than homosexuals, while at the same time other minority groups such as Jews are widely accepted. Similar prejudices would also be applied to atheists and agnostics in New Zealand.

The introductory part of the Statement refers to people settling in New Zealand of differing religious beliefs but it ignores the beliefs of people who were already in New Zealand and the settlers who were not religious. The Statement gives an excuse for Christians to have special rights over others by saying that Christianity is an integral part of New Zealand’s culture. The Statement, in focusing on religions from particular geographic areas, also excludes people from other parts of the world. The discriminatory highlighting of particular religions or beliefs clashes with human rights legislation, which is usually inclusive of everyone.

In saying that faith communities have a right to security the Statement forgets that everyone has a right to security. Generally, there should not be a focus on the rights of nebulous groups such as communities. Instead, we should talk more about the rights and responsibilities of individuals who can be directly harmed or rewarded in observable ways. To say that someone only has rights because they are part of a specific community would be wrong. Giving rights to faith communities will take away the rights of individual women, children, heretics, and homosexuals. The human rights of individuals need to be invoked to prevent torture, genocide, and terrorism.

The Statement substantially weakens free speech from how it is stated in New Zealand’s Bill of Rights and other legislation. The current wording would silence those who speak to stimulate debate and those deemed to be uninformed by others. Socrates, Jesus and Muhammad would all have easily broken the draft guideline about freedom of expression. The guideline would prevent legitimate editorial comment, political debate, social discussion and blogging.

People need to be able to criticise extreme religions and ideologies. It should be possible to criticise Islamic terrorists, Maoists, the Exclusive Brethren, and the Destiny Church. Unfortunately, the limitations on freedom of speech given in the Statement will deter people from criticising the negative aspects of different religions.

Some people associated with Humanism have been wrongly persecuted for voicing what was perceived to be blasphemy. Socrates and Theo van Gogh have been killed for presenting their different opinions about religion. Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasrin, and Dr. Younus Shaikh have been seriously threatened with death for their comments and actions. Galileo suffered imprisonment when he disagreed with church authorities. With these historical examples it is clear that Humanists would want to have freedom of speech maintained.

The Statement means that religious people have to be reasonably accommodated to. For this to work religious people would also need to reasonably accommodate to New Zealand society. There is no corresponding right of accommodation for non-religious people given. However, if someone who is religious can take time off work to pray, then someone who is not religious should also be able to take time off to have a break of similar length. To protect public order and safety it may be necessary to require the removal of burqas at certain times, for example when checking passports and during court proceedings.

The education guideline should be reworded so that it does not suggest that religion will have to be taught in all schools to every student. There should not be the forced introduction of a new religious subject into the curriculum, when it is already difficult to teach all that which is in the current curriculum. Any teaching of religion would need to comply with the secular provisions in the Education Act. If religious traditions were to be taught in schools then non-religious philosophical traditions would also need to be discussed in education. The Statement says religion should be taught in an impartial manner but this may mean that people will be afraid to criticise religious extremism.

The guideline on faith communities building relationships with government undermines the separation of religion and state. Instead, all individuals and groups should have equal opportunity to form relationships with the government. Generally, the last guideline seems to give encourage Exclusive Brethren type arrangements within parliament to occur, without there being reasonable restraints.

We thank you for the opportunity to give feedback on the Statement.

Recommended Reading

  • New Zealand Bill of Rights Act
  • Human Rights Act
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief
  • Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on freedom of religion or belief