The Strong and Deep Nexus Between Human Dignity and Religious Freedom

Ján Figeľ is the former European Union commissioner and  special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the European Union.

Peace is a fruit of justice. The core of justice is based on respect of fundamental human rights. And the foundational principle of human rights is dignity.

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. These actions and inactions inevitably lead to contention and conflict. In order to make our era more peaceful and humane, we must return to the original meaning of key documents and definitions on the subject of human dignity. 

Key Documents: The Nexus Between Human Dignity and Religious Freedom

Following are three basic sources that articulate the priority of human dignity—two secular documents and a faith document. These documents reflect and attest to the strong and deep nexus between the human dignity of all and freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) for all.

  1. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that

[a]ll 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.

If Article 1 is a foremost article of the Declaration, Article 18 is a central one:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Both articles speak about the triune dimension of a human being: rationality, morality, and religiosity/spirituality.

The word dignity appears five times in the UDHR, including in its Preamble. Today dignity is a term recognized and included in more than 160 of the world’s constitutions [1], most of which post-date the UDHR.

  1. Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000)

The preamble of the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights recognizes dignity as the first founding value of the Union:

Conscious of its spiritual and moral heritage, the Union is founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity . . . .

Chapter 1, Article 1, further acknowledges the inviolability of dignity:

Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected.

And Chapter 2, Article 10, mirrors the UDHR in recognizing human dignity as the basis of human rights, including

the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

  1. Vatican II Council Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae (1965)

The Vatican II Council Declaration on Religion Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, declares

that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person.

Respect for Human Dignity As a Common Ground for the Common Good

Respect for human dignity is a meeting point for religious and secular humanists.

The convergence of different traditions and concepts leads from a common ground to a common good. The Judeo-Christian tradition holds that mankind is created in the likeness and image of God [2]. Karamah (Arabic for human dignity or nobility) in Islam has Quranic roots, in an incident when angels are asked to bow in front of Adam in recognition of his dignity [3]. The international Declaration of Modern Humanism affirms “the worth and dignity of the individual” in affirming fundamental human rights. Indeed, multiple worldviews agree that dignity is the intrinsic, highest worthiness that each person possesses; and most agree that dignity therefore transcends the whole material world.

The recognition of human dignity is the recognition of each human being as a person: a unique being with intellectual, spiritual, and material dimensions. A person is always a subject, possessing reason, conscience, and freedom to believe and act. Only a person can have rights and duties.

Rights, Duties, and Human Dignity

Rights cannot exist or work without duties; thus, we should promote awareness and respect of human duties in conjunction with human rights. A culture of human dignity brings together two ancient ethical rules, relative to rights and duties.

  • The Silver Rule: “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.ˮ 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 father, husband, neighbor, and citizen.

Equal Citizenship as a Fruit of Equal Dignity

Equal dignity as a moral principle has a socio-political implication: equal, fair, inclusive, and dignified citizenship. In dignity we are all equal. In identity we are all different (for example, people of the past, presence, or future). Difference, however, is not a problem; rather, it is a principle, reflection, and source of creation and creativity (as opposed to copying or cloning).

Human Dignity as a Framework for Learning How to Live Together

Human dignity is the best framework 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 the quest for truth—working for the common good of 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, most constant and lasting lesson on rights, responsibilities, and reciprocity.


[1] Press Release, U.N. Office of the High Comm’r for Human Rights, Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: 30 Articles on 30 Articles – Article 1 (10 Nov. 2018).

[2] See Genesis 1:26 (Hebrew Bible & KJV).

[3] See Qur’an 2:34, 7:11–27, 15:29; 17:61; 18:50; 20:116; 38:73–74.