Whatever happened to freedom of conscience?


Professor Toby Kelly is Head of Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh and Deputy Director of the Global Justice Academy.

Northern Ireland MLA, Paul Givan has proposed a Freedom of Conscience Bill. Invoking a three hundred year tradition of freedom of conscience and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Givan calls for greater toleration of different beliefs.  Yet, Amnesty International has said the bill was ‘not welcome and is not needed at all’. Indeed, it went so far as to say ‘what is proposed is not a conscience clause, it is a discrimination clause’. At first glance this appears a little surprising, given that Amnesty first came to public prominence as an organization that campaigned explicitly for freedom of conscience, and Prisoners of Conscience still play a significant part in Amnesty’s activities.

Givan’s Bill is an attempt to give people of religious conviction exemptions under the Equalities Act (Sexual Orientation) (Amendment) Regulations (NI) 2006.  It explicitly mentions the right of a Catholic adoption agency to refuse adoption by a same-sex couple, and the case of a bakery that refused to make a cake covered with a pro-same-sex marriage slogan. The proposed law can tell us a great deal about the role of religion in Northern Ireland’s electoral politics. As defensible as Amnesty International’s response was, it also raises questions about the forms of conviction that human rights groups are able and willing to tolerate.


Freedom of conscience has played a central role in the history of human rights since the Second World War. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, invoked by Givan, declares in its very first article that all human beings are endowed with ‘reason and conscience’. In this vision to be human is to have a conscience. The Universal Declaration also implicitly assumed that to have a conscience is to act for the good. Amnesty International campaign for Prisoner’s of Conscience simply required that someone was imprisoned for their beliefs, and formally remained agnostic about the content of those beliefs. There were exclusions of course. Nelson Mandela was refused Prisoner of Conscience status because he advocated armed struggle. There was also a long debate over whether imprisonment on grounds of sexual orientation qualified for Prisoner of Conscience status. Since the 1970s though conscience has seemed to slip down the human rights agenda. Amnesty International still campaigns for Prisoners of Conscience, but they no longer play as prominent a role as they once did. When I have talked about freedom of conscience to human rights activists, they often respond that the very category is ‘slightly old fashioned’.  So, what has happened to freedom of conscience?

There are multiple reasons for freedom of conscience has moved into the relative background of the human rights movement. Conscience has, in part been crowded out by the expansions of social, cultural and economic rights, amongst other things. But there is perhaps also something in the very ways in which we understand conscience itself that explains this partial eclipse. The Universal Declaration does not define what conscience looks like. Indeed to limit what counts as freedom of conscience would seem to be a contradiction in terms. Freedom of conscience therefore potentially includes the freedom to be immoral, bad, or even malicious. The Universal Declaration may implicitly assume that conscience is associated with the moral good, but even people who do very bad things can think they are acting conscientiously. In the ’60s and ’70s many of those who sought recognition for their conscience were pacifists, or dissidents under right wing and totalitarian regimes. Yet, anti-abortion activists, anti-vaccination movements and those opposed to gay rights can also make claims of conscience. Those people on a global stage who claim to be acting out of conscience are most likely to be evangelical pastors, Prime Ministers who declare war in the Middle East, and armed militants on the Iraq-Syria border. Conscience can be a shade away from fanaticism. But the point is more than that seemingly bad people have consciences too.  Or that freedom of conscience can clash with other rights, such as equality, although it does that too. It is also that by the start of the twenty-first century, conscience has come along way as a human rights category. We are less ready to valorize conscience as the basis for political or other forms of action. Many of us are less ready to trust convictions of any sort.