Macquarie University
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The secular promise of liberty and equality: revisiting Rawls on freedom of belief

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posted on 2022-03-28, 18:07 authored by Margaret Quain Wallace
In this thesis I consider the universally adopted right for all individuals to have and follow a religion or other life stance based on personal moral values (a 'Belief') of their choosing. This right is contained in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ('UDHR'), adopted by the 190-plus member states of the United Nations. -- However, the UDHR provides that practising one's Belief can be limited by the state for the protection of the principles of democracy and the rights of others (Article 29). I argue that this is aimed at ensuring that this right is enjoyed equally by everyone. -- I outline current perceptions of the meaning of Freedom of Belief in practice, concentrating on such bodies as the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights. These perceptions include the view that religion merits privileged status over other Beliefs; individuals are entitled to exemption from the law on the ground of religious belief; and governments can establish, endorse, support or privilege a particular Belief system or organisation over others. -- Adopting a theoretical model of democratic pluralist liberal society, specifically that established by John Rawls, I critique these perceptions. I argue they fall short of delivering the ideal of political secularism (that is, state indifference to Beliefs in the exercise of its power) that Rawls advocated as central to his model of political liberalism. -- I suggest a different perspective on freedom of Belief that accords with the international human rights treaties, and is consistent with Rawls's political liberalism. -- This proposed model involves (1) recognition that all Beliefs, religious or otherwise, are to be equally protected; (2) no person or organisation warrants special treatment (favourable or otherwise) on the sole basis of their Belief, and (3) this requires state-Belief separation, that is, governance based on the principle of political secularism.


Table of Contents

1. The right to freedom of belief -- 2. Theoretical and historical background -- 3. Rawls and the nature of secularism -- 4. Secular liberal democracy and human rights -- 5. Equality and freedom to exercise belief -- 6. The scope of the relevant articles -- 7. What is protected in having or adopting a belief? -- 8. What is involved in manifesting a belief? -- 9. The relationship between state and belief -- 10. Conclusion and proposed revised perspective.


Bibliography: pages [382]-420

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Arts, Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations

Department, Centre or School

Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Ian Tregenza

Additional Supervisor 1

Malcolm Voyce

Additional Supervisor 2

Denise Meyerson


Copyright disclaimer: Copyright Margaret Quain Wallace 2012.




420 pages

Former Identifiers

mq:28295 2066349