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The Nexus Between Human Dignity and Religious Freedom

  • Ján Figel
  • January 22, 2024

Peace is a fruit of justice. The core of justice is based on the respect of fundamental human rights. And the foundational principle of human rights is human dignity. Moreover, there is a strong and deep nexus between the human dignity of all and freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) for all.

Today, the agenda of human rights is hijacked by various groups representing ideologies, violent extremism, or ethical relativism. We also tend to forget or neglect our human duties towards the other and towards society.

In order to make our era more humane, we must return to the original meaning of key documents and definitions on this subject. Following are three basic sources that articulate the priority of human dignity—two secular documents, and a faith document:

a) The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which recently marked its 75th anniversary.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) reads: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” [emphasis added]

Indeed, the word “dignity” appears five times in the UDHR. The concept of human dignity is also central in Article 18 (on freedom of thought, conscience, and religion). The UDHR reflects assumptions of a triune dimension to the dignity of the human person: rationality, morality, religiosity (spirituality).

b) The European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights (2000)

The European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights recognizes dignity as the first founding value of the Union. Article 1 states unequivocally: “Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected.” [emphasis added]

c) Vatican II Council Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae (1965)

Likewise in its historic statement Dignitatis Humanae, the Vatican declared that: “The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person.” [emphasis added]

Respect for human dignity is a meeting point for religious and secular humanists. Dignity as a term is today recognized and included in more than 160 of the world’s constitutions. The Judeo-Christian tradition states that mankind is created in the likeness and image of God. Karamah (Arabic) in Islam has Quranic roots when angels are asked to bow in front of Adam.

The convergence of different traditions and concepts leads from a common ground to a common good. Dignity is the highest worthiness that each person possesses and therefore transcends the whole material world. Each human being is a person: a unique being with intellectual, spiritual, and material dimensions. Only a person can have rights and duties. A person is always a subject (not merely an object) with reason, conscience, and freedom.

Furthermore, rights cannot work without duties. We should promote awareness of and respect for human duties. A culture of human dignity brings together two ancient ethical rules:

The Silver Rule: “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.” This is a basis of justice, reciprocity, tolerance, and equal treatment.
The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is a source of compassion, acceptance, solidarity, charity, and love.

The dignity of each person represents a balance and interdependence of rights and duties, freedom and responsibility. Freedom without responsibility cannot survive. My dignity is a call for my duties—as parent, spouse, neighbor, citizen, etc.

Equal dignity as a moral principle has a socio-political implication: equal, fair, inclusive, dignified citizenship. In dignity we are all equal. In identity we are all different (people of the past, present, future). This is not a problem; this is the principle of creativity (in opposition to copying or cloning).

Dignity is the best theme for learning how to live together, not merely to exist together. We are invited to live in a spirit of brotherhood. Reason and faith, science and religion in quest for truth, working for the common good of all people, can drive our civilization forward and upward.

Dignity is more than a right; it is a reality from which rights are derived. Dignity is a daily learning process through which we discover what it means to be human in every situation. It is the best permanent lesson on rights, responsibilities, and reciprocity.

About Ján Figel

Ján Figel is a Former EU Commissioner and former EU Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB).

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