T13 – Faith Of Our Fathers

Human rights – the child and critical friend of faith

Download the complete article as a PDF.

T13 intro video – audio transcript.

Faith Is Full Of Surprises

A few years ago I was invited to give the Alan Bray Memorial Lecture, in Soho.  I chose the topic of rights, diversity and Catholic social teaching.  This was because my hosts were the Roman Catholic Caucus of the much broader Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.

What is going on here?  An association of Gay Catholics?

It is no longer compulsory to be Catholic in Britain, much less Christian, much less religious – so why do people do it, why remain within a faith which (to put it mildly) appears to have little to say to them, indeed which seems at times downright antagonistic to their core sexual identity? Isn’t the Pope and the Catholic Church as a whole supposed to be resolutely anti Gay?

The lecture was in the Anglican St Anne’s Church, but there is now a regular mass for gay and lesbian Catholics in the Church of Our Lady and the Assumption in the West End.  True there are Catholic protestors but the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols is unequivocal in his support: ‘anybody who is trying to cast a judgement on the people who come forward for communion really ought to learn to hold their tongue’ is his robust response to critics.

It is the same with another apparently unequivocal Church position, the use (or non-use) of condoms – even the Pope now accepts (as priests and others on the ground have for years) that there is a moral basis for their use in exceptional circumstances.

None of this supports the Catholic church of secularist caricature, epitomised by what some of the contributions to the excellent  New Humanist had to say on the occasion of the Pope’s visit to Britain.  If I knew more about the Moslem faith, the Hindu religion or indeed any other established belief structure I am sure I would be able to make the same sorts of points about them: perhaps some of our contributors can provide evidence of progressiveness in unexpected (religious) spaces?

The first stage in understanding the role of religion in the protection of human rights is to acknowledge that humans are complicated and that easy answers to bald questions will rarely be the correct ones.

Now of course it is obvious that secular antagonism to religion has not sprung out of nowhere.

History Matters…

While it is right that we should hesitate before we jump to any conclusions about religion, this does not mean that we must avoid making any judgments at all.

  • The modern history of human rights starts with antagonism to religion.  The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 was part of a social revolution that saw the destruction of religion as an essential precondition of the birth of a new France.  With the demolition of the great Cluny Abbey (established in 910 CE) the revolutionaries were serving notice of their intent, an intent to which many human rights advocates remain firmly committed to this day: religion and human rights are incompatible.
  • Advocates of human rights prize reason above all else, and they see the major faiths as indelibly hostile to the power of the independent human mind to deliver answers to the problems posed by the world.  They cannot understand how the Pope can claim to have rationality on his side (as he did in his controversial address at Regensburg) when what they know about the Church is that it condemned Galileo and wishes that many contemporary scientific advances (but I can’t help adding not all: see the latest on stem cell research) were not occurring.  Other religions place much less emphasis on reason than the Catholic Church, emphasising the authority of tradition or an ancient text (the Bible; the Koran), and this makes them even easier to criticise from a rationalist perspective.
  • For many activists and campaigners, their belief in human rights is rooted in a deep commitment to individuality.  A core truth for them (us?) is this idea of the autonomous individual, someone with life chances which are their own – and their own alone – to work through and make decisions about.  From the human rights point of view, dignity is about being able to lead a full life, untrammelled by the constraints of others.You can see immediately how this does not fit with taking instructions from others, priests, ayatollahs or whoever:Subjugating personhood to external dictate is profoundly alien to the whole human rights idea.
  • And then there is Marx: ‘Religion is the opium of the people’.   You do not have to be a Communist or a socialist to agree with this: many democrats feel the same way.  They see religion as an historic barrier to social progress, attacking progressive ideas, allying itself with the forces of the status quo, damning efforts to improve the  lot of mankind, and then – long after they are defeated – scrambling to catch up by making a few progressive noises.

So what can we say with confidence?

One judgment we can certainly make is that the emergence of the human rights movement, out of the Enlightenment and further inspired by the French revolution, is that it defined itself in opposition to religion. Indeed it nourished on this hostility in order to make social progress.

… But History Must Not Rule

What is true of the past is not necessarily true of the present.  We must respect the past but not be slaves to it.  In particular we must be careful about carrying on with the hostile addictions of our predecessors long after the necessity for them has faded away.

One of the core purposes behind this project has been to challenge easy assumptions about the history of human rights: see especially my account of this on common track one.  The meaning of human rights is worked afresh in every generation, and the idea’s relationship with religion needs likewise to be constantly rejuvenated.

We should by now have left the useful hostility of the 18th century far behind.

  • As the book by Sam Moyns that I discuss on common track one makes clear, religious thinkers had a strong influence on the drafting of the human rights charters that emerged after the Second World War.  The notion of human dignity so prominent in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drawn from various faith systems and from its earliest days the main supporters of the  European Convention on Human Rights were Catholic intellectuals intent upon rejecting Communism without having to plunge as a result into  unregulated capitalism – with all the dehumanising effects that thoughtful Catholics rightly deplore.
  • When the idea of human rights next took hold in the 1970s, one of its main strengths lay in its critique of the debilitating effects of Communist thinking on individual freedom.  One important aspect of this oppression was widely and immediately understood to be the denial of the freedom to practice one’s religion.

In this new human rights order, far from being the enemy, the right to religious observance – to live your life fully as a person of faith – has become an important part of the human rights message.

It is because we believe this that we react with huge sorrow to the exodus of Christians from Iraq, and also share the Pope’s dismay at China’s continuing refusal to allow true Catholic worship.  We know people are losing part of what they are when coerced in this way, into either departure or silence.

  • Modern scholarship is these days much more intelligent than heretofore about what is entailed in what it means to be ‘an individual’. There is much less of a sense of the ‘isolated monads’ that Marx thought human rights described.  Instead, partly by way of reaction to the insights of communitarian thinkers, human rights have learned to see the individual as more than just him or herself alone, as connected to – made real by – the interactions that make a successful life possible.  These include family and community and so on  –  but also clearly embrace one’s faith and those with whom one shares one’s beliefs.
  • Since the end of the Cold War and the dramatic rise of capital (common track one again), it has been more obvious than ever that the human rights movement shares many of its core ethical perspectives with the major faith groupings.  There is a common distaste for the debilitating impact of unregulated markets: both the Catholic Church (in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate) and the Archbishop of Canterbury (most recently in his Christmas Day sermon for 2010) have been uncompromising on this, as have other faith leaders I am sure – perhaps once again reader/contributors can supply details?
  • For those who are concerned about social rights (discussed on Track Nine), the churches are now strong allies, taking radical positions on wealth accumulation and property ownership. Their insistence on obligations of hospitality would put many human rights activists to shame.

Indeed if I am right in what I said about nature on track four, human rights and religion are bedfellows in the working through of the benign human instincts that I say may be at the root of why it is we care for others.

So Why The Continued Hostility?

Religion is only dangerous to human rights when uncompromising versions of it threaten to win.  The success of secularism and nationalism in Europe and further afield has meant that there is no longer space for theocratic ambitions on such a vast scale, so far as Christianity is concerned at least.  What these churches have left is an ethic of right behaviour, a poor substitute for terrestrial power perhaps from their point of view but from the human rights side of things a very useful thing to have around.  After all, this is a time when all post religious societies are running into difficulty with developing a common ethic that they can truly call their own. (I deal with this at the start of common track four).

But how true is it that all churches, all faiths have lost their power everywhere, that religious belief is in decline?

We only have to state the question to grasp how inaccurate is the assumption it questions.  This is where my benign version of history runs into trouble.

Certain kinds of faiths are experiencing tremendous growth.

  • A particular reading of Islam has gained immense ground since its first great triumph, the establishment in 1979 of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  This stresses certain ideas as foundational and outside history and rejects engagement with secular society and with humanist traditions within the Islamic faith.
  • Evangelical Christianity is also on the rise, especially in South America and some parts of Africa.  It is similarly committed to a text (in this case the Bible rather than the Koran) as a definitive mantra, the solution to all problems.  Like the Islamists described above (whom they in so many other ways resemble  as well) these Christians refuse to engage with any intellectual critique of their foundational texts, simply disregarding any difficulties that might arise from science, or the exigencies of translation, or the simple (but for them to be disregarded) brute facts of history.

Each of these faith blocs does operate in ways that are antagonist to human rights, whether it is in closing down all free discussion (epitomised by the Salman Rushdie fatwa) or claiming that certain humans deserve death because their country had sworn ‘a pact to the devil’ (as evangelist Pat Robertson said about Haiti after its earthquake at the start of 2010 had killed over a 100,000 people).

They are powerful, funded by Saudi or Iranian money or by American religious extremists.

Their appeal lies in the emptiness of the lives of so many to whom they speak;

  • people rendered futile by the effects of globalisation, whose communities and whole way of life have simply melted away, leaving poverty and uncertainty in their wake
  • societies labouring under authoritarian regimes which keep them in poverty while their leaders ransack their land for wealth
  • men and women who have been wholly deprived of educational opportunity providing any kind of platform to grow as individuals

We call this sort of unreflective dogmatic kind of religion ‘fundamentalist’ and human rights people are right to oppose it, and to do so strongly.  It is the opposite of what human rights should be about, being joyless, anti-rational and full of hate for the world outside its enclosed and suffocating space.  It is also easily exploited by cynical leaders, whether they be ‘populist’ tyrants like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or millionaire ‘Televangelists’ like the execrable Pat Robertson.

The Right Human Rights Balance

Here is my agenda for the right set of relations between religious faiths and supporters of human rights.

  • Proponents of human rights should embrace the religious instinct towards care and hospitality to the outsider, recognising in it an attitude to the world which is identical to their own, and which may indeed stem from a common natural propensity towards empathy for the stranger.
  • Most religious persons and organisations work through this religious instinct in a way that resembles that of the human rights believer, particularly in the importance that both approaches accord to the primacy of human dignity.
  • It is true that this idea of human dignity is worked through in different ways in different circumstances, and that the shape it takes in a religious context will not always be identical to (or even perhaps closely resemble) what the human rights people take it to mean.

This does not mean the religious and human rights movements are on opposite sides: they are writing the same book, just using different language

Where a religious perspective is engaged in this way, in a good faith fleshing out of what human dignity entails, then human rights believers need to be less quick to condemn and more open-minded to debate: humility is an important virtue in the search for truth

  • Even where a religious perspective is fundamentalist in the sense identified above, it is perfectly possible to work with its believers on shared projects, while not committing to any kind of agreement on basics.  It is even easier to do this – work together – where the instinct for hospitality and the primacy of universal dignity are agreed and the only differences lie in fleshing out what this primacy entails in specific contexts.
  • The one exception to positive engagement is this: proponents of human rights should refuse to work with fundamentalist religious entities and individuals whose denial of individual dignity and equality of esteem is at the core of their faith and then this denial is aggressively reflected in their work.  It might be through violence or the preaching of hate. This is not the religious inclination but a distortion of it. Human rights believers must not only avoid but must seek to challenge such views, engaging in confident dialogue with a view to achieving change.

If we take this approach we can see that human rights supporters have much that they can still learn from religion.  There is the persistence of the Gay Catholics in their religious observance for example – what are they telling us about the centrality of faith to identity?  There is the commitment to human rights shown by many intellectuals from the Islamic tradition, so usefully brought together in a recent book by Professor William Twining (Southern Voices).

We hope to that the authentically religious will accept that they too have much to learn from human rights.

Religion and human rights need each other – whatever the loudest voices on either side might tell us.

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29 Responses to T13 – Faith Of Our Fathers

  1. Fatima Ahdash says:

    It is clear that the world’s religions and human rights share much of the same intellectual ground: the belief in the fundamental right to life, to family life etc, and generally a respect for human rights. But where I originally come from, the Middle East, some people have fears when some religious leaders align themselves with dictators and become thier theological mouthpieces, sanctioning thier oppressive dictatorships. It is this link between the political and religious leaders that makes some sceptical of the role religion can play in the promotion of human rights. I believe that for there to be human rights progress where I come from (and where I selfishly care most about!) the devoutly religious need to speak up and show on whose side they align themselves with. Only when the devoutly religious (in the case of the Middle East it is mostly the devoutly Muslim) and the human rights activists join with each other can there be any hope for the respect of human right

  2. Lee says:

    As an atheist I was puzzled by the religion of my science teachers. How could someone so dedicated to logic, proof and scientific method believe in God and reconcile having faith with their work? Yet I agree, Conor, that this fundamental antagonism does not exist between human rights and religion (“they are writing the same book, just using different language”). Whilst there are skirmishes relating to discrimination, religious dress, speech and so on, many core values are shared. Indeed, a search for a single foundation and justification of human rights seems as impossible as proving the existence of God. In a way, belief in human rights is like a faith and I don’t always find arguments as to the reason and rationality of rights to be persuasive: where rights conflict reason lets us down and we return to faith, or value judgments. We must remember that just because we believe in human rights does not make us right: we must remember our tolerance and diversity.

    But I disagree that human rights needs religion. You build this argument on the “religious instinct towards care and hospitality to the outsider”, an instinct which I find to be a human instinct usurped by religion. The religious and non-religious in this world protect and violate human rights in equal measure. Human rights need people of conscience, believing in the mutual benefit in doing right by our neighbours. If an individual finds guidance in this from religion then so be it, but the inspiration can equally come from elsewhere.

    • Christina says:

      YES! Human rights needs people of conscience. It is a belief in the fundamental human rights, life, liberty, freedom form torture or war, which gives us our humanity. Sachs said it. it is a definition of humanity. But I am perplexed that soem rights are more fudamentsl, than others, one would always hope that tolerance was an important right. can there be a heirarcy of rights? surely the religious leadrs anti-human rights or careless of life, are similar to the globalised corporations out for profit no matter what.

    • Alex says:

      I couldn’t agree more Lee – to be a moral individual with an interest in the rights and welfare of our neighbours is not exclusive to religious individuals. I’m a staunch atheist, but also believe that doing right by the people you live with is a key part of ensuring that we maintain a culture and society which is not only tolerant, successful, and progressive but also overwhelmingly fair.

      I was however exposed to more religion than the majority of devout people through my choral education and have witnessed first hand how many of the clergy are involved in projects which are undeniably attempting to further the human rights cause. As Conor has already said (and you’ve already quoted) “they are writing the same book, just using different language”.

      I’m not sure about the final comment that two sides NEED each other however , but they can certainly learn from one another; I think the overdone Einstein quote still holds some sway (“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”). Religion was the precursor of human rights, and we have much to learn from its evolution, including the fact that there are multiple branches which differ in beliefs and yet should be granted equal weight. I can quite easily see a point where human rights are seen as a unifying belief in the place of religion; that’s not to say it will ever or happen or even that it’s desirable, merely that it’s logically possible…

    • Absolutely. Human rights doesn’t need religious people, or atheists, or agnostics; it needs people who believe in its values and are prepared to work towards them. An instinct towards care is found everywhere, regardless of where an individual sees its roots; as a Christian I’m no more entitled to have this instinct than anyone else. Those of us believe in human rights need to work together regardless of how we spend our Sunday mornings, Friday sunsets or any other period of the week.

    • Sophia says:

      It might be true that human rights may not need religion and ‘religious instinct’ may merely be ‘human instinct’ rebranded. But I’m not sure that human rights talk or philosophical talk has ever managed to arouse these instincts as successfully as religion has. Religious language is poetic, narrative and often moving. Its power to inspire sacrifice, soothe suffering and glavanise action can easily be evidenced.

      If there is shared ground, surely human rights should celebrate and build on it. Religious leaders and institutions are powerful and religious sentiments can travel further and often hit harder than political or philsophical ones. Certainly human rights could logcially exist in an areligious world. But on the whole we live in an incredibly religious world and the belief that the HR movement cannot benefit from religion I think is mistaken.

      Equally for those with a religious agenda in situations, like Christians in the UK, where their ideas are losing impact, they could certainly look to the human rights movement, to some extent, as a political, legal and practical manifestation of some of their foundational ideas about mankind and the best ways in which we can flourish. This might be a great way of bringing the church back into the public consciousness as a relevant and forward thinking institution.

      • Paul Bernal says:

        I agree with a great deal of that – but I do wonder whether it’s more a matter of happenstance and history that has meant that human rights hasn’t often had the same levels of poetry and inspirational language as religion, rather than something inherent. Actually, taking it further, perhaps it’s more to do with the fact that so much human rights ‘stuff’ has been the realm of lawyers in the past, and legalese is rarely poetic or inspirational. If we take human rights out of the hands of the lawyers (as Conor has suggested elsewhere, most directly in T9 – Resisting Law’s Empire) the potential for inspiration will naturally increase.

        Anyway, there’s plenty of inspirational stuff in the human rights field if we look for it – Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ is human rights at its most inspirational, and little in religion is better than that, is it?

        • Zoe Fiander says:

          That’s a very clever way of explaining it, very persuasive. I think some areas do lend themselves better to inspiring rhetoric but as you point out, human rights should surely be one of them! I can’t resist the quote – time to kill all the lawyers…?!

  3. chris garrigues says:

    To have one linear version of history, let alone one “truth” about reality is a standard that has been largely enforced by the West. It is not that reason and rational thinking are somehow evil or imperialistic. However, it is that people have different stories and come from a variety of experiences.

    For example, there is a political prisoner in Sudan. If I write a letter every day demanding a fair trial, while Bob engages in daily prayer asking for hearts to be moved… then the day that our comrade is released will bring us both vindication. If that day doesn’t come, then maybe there weren’t enough letters from the Amnesty crowd… or maybe it just wasn’t in the mystical cards. The rational reasonable bystander would consider us both crazy. You really think a bunch of letters did/would do anything to free a prisoner? And you really think your fancy man in the sky exists and then cares about one man in Africa? I would wager that all three of us are right. Meanwhile, there is a prisoner that will or will not be released. Human rights don’t exist. They are fictions of legal documents, philosophical musings and the salary guarantor for millions of NGO professionals and academics. And at the same time they are damn real. They are real when a court upholds a law. They are real when the key turns on a jail cell door. They are real when a few dozen workers takeover a factory to secure their livelihoods.

    These are all different ways that life is experienced and perceptions will continue to be rooted in each person’s story. So, if religion brings 1 person or 1 billion people into activism on behalf of what they consider to be the right thing – keeping our fingers crossed that it’s not contradictory to what is just for the other 6 billion – for human rights. Then that might just be small reformative tweaks that are necessary while we work toward more revolutionary change.

  4. Sebastian says:

    Temperance, humility, tolerance and a heightened state of awareness of one’s inner life (such as our thoughts, emotions, habits, assumptions and preconceptions) are vital life-qualities for human rights activists, gay catholics, lesbian vicars, muslims, the chinese, atheists…everyone. ‘The West’ could do a lot worse than teach simple meditation techniques at school – and one day perhaps they will – in order to cultivate the above qualities so vital for a peaceful and conciliatory future world…vital for humanity’s evolution.

    It is a human decision whether or not to adopt a conciliatory/open state of mind. If we can adopt a conciliatory/open mind-set then, I think, it is easier to see common ground and build bridges; looking for opportunities for collaboration on the practical issues.

    As I prepare a PhD proposal on the emerging ‘jus post bellum’ – I find so much of the literature approaches the topic of peacemaking/peacebuilding with a religious slant, usually Christian. It seems to make perfect sense though.

    As for the lamentable fact that religion and human rights is subject to fundamentalism and closed-mindedness, well this is also true of economists, military strategists, car drivers, cyclists, – fundamentalism is the other side of the human coin. It produces mistrust and confusion though so we should discard it.

    Finally, Conor, thanks for the reminder, it has been a hectic period for me, but I shall certainly remind myself to keep coming back to this excellent online project, soon to be committed to old fashioned paper.

    I hope some of this makes sense! Peace.

  5. Christina says:

    I don’t know how else to put this in, it responds to the previous track which is closed.

    Sorry, couldn’t get into the site on Thurs.

    Supping with Mammon, profit , greed or downright lies?
    Business must need, but never embrace HR.

    HR is usually human resources in business jargon. Weasel words. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if HR stood for human rights, and resources looked at the usage of natural resources.

    Never underestimate the power of language, and the power of the media to obfuscate. Don King on the mis use of language…mission statements. Collateral damage, friendly fire.

    on the mis use of language…mission statements.

    an act of asymmetrical warfare’
How Rear Admiral Harry Harris, Guantanamo Bay camp commander, described the suicides of three prisoners. Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June 2006. (thanks to Noel Burchmore)
    “’As is common in these cases, these parties agreed to keep the amount confidential, in part to protect the families from unwanted solicitations and to allow them to move on from this difficult period.’ Toyota statement, ‘Toyota to pay $10 million to crash family’. Sydney Morning Herald, 24 December, 2010”

    …the international community is helping Iraq move forward on a free and peaceful and democratic future… And we are here to to partner with the Iraqi people as they work to realize a better future…’ White House Press Secretary, Scott McClellan when asked by Helen Thomas of the Boston Channel why we are killing people in Iraq.

    I’ve been fascinated by those people who have taken on some responsibilities.
    The ANZ bank was sending CEOs to work on aboriginal reservations to learn.

    Then the jewish refugee who was appalled by the waste in the hospitality industry, and who set up OZ Harvest to re-distribute food to the vulnerable.

    The CEO from micros soft who took a serendipitous turn whilst trekking in Nepal. and was appalled by the poverty and lack of education. “When you come back you will bring us some books?”

    Roomtoread currently builds 4 libraries a day, and is working across 9 countries. They first educate in mother tongue. NGO and second sectors can raise awareness and have the resources and money to pressure govt. He also uses a barter system ,so that in stead of paying for his flights from these countries the chair of Goldman Sachs has donated his air miles.

    Conor catch 22 : which comes first a weakened state? , a government bribed or the multinational which has undermined the local government to get access. Surely this is why Wiki leaks is such a threat, as we know very little about what corporates really do. They do contain good people. Let’s hear it for the whistle blowers. Who will police it? the UN? theElders?

    Crazy idea. In our love of celebrity and awards such as oscars, could we have awards to the most ethical companies: Triados and Co-op.(?) I’m skeptical, but I’d love Bill Gates or Warren Buffet (or Richard Branson?) to make the equivalent of a gold disc, to award to the most ethical company, not just in its trading, but in the source of its raw materials, its impact on the countries where it is located.

    Please talk to me not of carbon footprint and air miles. My trip home to Australia, uses nothing like the carbon emissions of a Harrier or other fighter jets. I’ve kind of forgotten which country has just fulfilled a big order for these. The environmental damage of a sweetie coloured land mine. there must be some heat and light emission as it blows off the hand of the child in the war zone. Which countries are at the top of the armaments manufacture?

    Interesting statistics ; civilian casualties
    WW I 10%
    WW II 50%
    Vietnam 70%
    Iraq 90%

    I wonder if we consider that Iraqi’s are entitled to the right to life?

    Where is the media telling us these things? Whether or not we vote for a government, we are complicit in its policies abroad, its war, and its exploitations, it “ethical business”?
    Shall we come out? Yes.
    Shall we take to the streets? Just possibly the lethargic worm is turning. Happy new year. It’s a new decade, just possibly I feel a new awareness of human rights, coming on!

  6. nick mcgill says:

    We should judge the effects of religion on human rights in the same way as we judge business. Many religions through their evangelism seek to gain new converts so increasing their strength through power and resources. A religion can gain great power in a situation where a state is weak just as a business can. Charities through their budgets can have substantial influence on weak governments and in certain cases replace them for certain functions. I agree with the proposition outlined in the last tract that Business should be accountable in their home countries (as long as they do not all rush to register in the Cayman islands) but I would not restrict that obligation only to business but NGO’s, charities and religious organisations.

  7. As in academic thought, religious beliefs need constant questioning and reconsideration. This is how the world moves on and we get closer to the truth, in whatever form it may take. It is through discussion and self-reflection that our beliefs and convictions are defined and strengthened. Just as the Catholic church’s opinion on condoms seems to be changing (albeit slowly), our understanding of what constitutes human rights and how they can be enforced is constantly adapting and changing (the gradual acceptance of women’s rights, orientation rights, social rights…) This is how people learn, and the human race as a whole improves itself.

    As discussed before, an individual can subscribe to human rights regardless of the (non-)religious basis of their beliefs. Human rights activists need to work together to reach their goals, and disagreements should not be able to stop this when they are incidental to the main cause of the furthering of human rights. As for the point about not engaging with fundamentalist groups who deny dignity, I find it difficult to see why such fundamentalist groups would wish to work together on such projects; if you disagree you are not going to make headway on either party’s aims.

    One final note on the origins of beliefs in human right; I was reminded of the discussion over T4 – Doing What Comes Naturally. There was a lot of agreement over the sentiment that sometimes human rights just ‘feel right’. In a similar respect, such a point is also the basis for many religious beliefs (the concept of faith in particular). Reason and rationality are vitally important, but sometimes a basic impulse simply cannot be ignored, especially if it creates good in the world, as both human rights can and continue to do. This should not, however, prevent the continual questioning of these impulses.

  8. Ronan McCrea says:

    This is a very elegantly written piece. You make a good case that some elements and interpretations of some religions are indeed supportive of human rights.
    However, I am not sure that it gets to the heart of the potential difficulty that exists between religion and human rights. What I understand your agenda to be saying is that those in favour of human rights should cooperate with religious forces when religious claims coincide with those of human rights defenders and that “fundamentalist” religions should be opposed when their claims clash with fundamental rights.

    It seems to me that this only indirectly addresses the key issues.

    The crux of the difficult relationship between human rights and religion is that human rights place the utmost importance on the lives of humans as lived on earth while most religions believe that our life on earth is only of secondary importance and that, in the event of a clash between one’s earthly and divine interests, the divine interests should prevail, even at the cost of causing earthly suffering.

    Your approach seems to assume that the true interpretation of all religions will result in a human rights compliant theology and only fundamentalist interpretations (which I understand you, perhaps wrongly, to regard as erroneous). This seems rather a large claim. Whether any particular faith, from that of the ancient Greeks to Quakerism and Scientology is consistent with human rights is dependent on the beliefs of such a faith, and in the context of the major Abrahamic religions, on the content of the foundational text as interpreted.

    I readily concede that there are interpretations of the Bible, the Torah and Koran that are consistent with liberal democratic human rights norms (and that modern human rights, just like modern secularism have been influenced by Christianity in particular).

    However, there are other sustainable interpretations of these texts that are not similarly compatible. Indeed, given the nature of these texts and given the degree of religious diversity in the world, there are always going to be religions (or viable interpretations of religions) whose theology is not compatible with human rights norms. Moreover, it is not only fundamentalist religions that make claims incompatible with human rights. The Catholic and Anglican Churches in Uganda, for instance, have been largely in favour of the recent proposal for the criminalization of homosexuality in that country. Although the more politicized versions of Islam that have come to the fore since 1979 are indeed less tolerant that many forms of Islam, mainstream Islam still overwhelmingly rejects the idea that homosexuality should not be a crime. Clashes between religion and human rights cannot therefore be resolved by suggesting human rights consistent theologies and we need to accept the reality that there will always be religions or interpretations of religions that are not consistent with human rights principles.

    The key question is not whether those committed to human rights should cooperate with religious people who have similar commitments (I would argue that it is clear that they should do so), but rather, what attitude are religious people to take when, as will inevitably occur for some religions, their religious beliefs clash with the principles of equality, self determination and dignity that human rights cherish.

    In other words, what is a Muslim who believes that their religion commands that apostates be killed to do when voting on a law mandating the death penalty for those who leave Islam, what is a Christian who follows Orthodox Vatican teachings in relation to sexual behaviour to do when voting on a law criminalizing homosexuality, what is an Orthodox Jew who believes that all of the land West of the River Jordan was granted to the Jewish people by God to do when voting on a peace deal establishing a Palestinian State?

    It is precisely only when there is a clash between religion and the human rights that we reach interesting and demanding territory. It is this question that you need to address. As there will always be some religious claims that clash with human rights we will always be faced with situations where religious followers are faced with conflicting demands between adherence to their faith and respect for human rights.

    In this respect, most major world religions are problematic in Human Rights terms. As most major religions (at least in the West and Muslim worlds) give priority to the after life and adherence to divine commands above all else the conflict between earthly human rights values and the will of God should always be resolved in favour of the divine. Respect for Human Rights can only be possible when the religious manage to engage in a degree of cognitive dissonance whereby they forgo a divine command to do something such as killing an apostate or criminalizing a person engaging in homosexual conduct in order to avoid the conflict that necessarily would ensue in a religiously-diverse world should each religion attempt to force everyone to live in accordance with the norms of a particular faith.

    This cognitive dissonance was forced on mainstream the Christian denominations in Europe largely as a result of religious wars that laid waste to the continent and as a result of their defeat in the centuries long conflict that most of them waged against both liberalism and the secular state (indeed, it has not entirely been accepted by many denominations who still seek to use the law to enforce compliance with their teachings when possible). It is a mistake to assume that religions that developed in very different circumstance will inevitably have the same approach. Indeed, the Islamic Declaration on Human Rights proves the contrary.

    The only sustainable foundation for security for human rights in a world that is still strongly religious is to require religious individuals to internalize the reality of religious pluralism by accepting that it is illegitimate to found laws that will bind all on the basis of religious teachings alone. A further element to such internalization of the reality of pluralism must also be the recognition that the conscience rights of all are equal and conscience claims that happen to be religious in nature cannot by that reason alone claim greater exemptions from generally applicable laws. This is an element that most mainstream Christian churches in the UK seem to struggle with. I could continue but have gone on at length so I will stop there and summarise by suggesting that religion can only be a true support to human rights in the context of a robust secularism whose values of pluralism have been internalised by the religious.

    • Sebastian says:

      A very forceful argument, very well communicated too.

      But in analysing the ‘conflict’ that a person of faith may experience when faced with the competing principles (Human R.s and their faith) it is tempting to simplify the psychology of the matter so as not to over-complicate/weaken the overall argument.

      I think a person of faith would agree that the most fundamental aspect of their practice is the direct personal relationship with God which they experience. All I wish to add here is that this is a difficult ‘internal/private relationship’ to conceptualize and write about. . .

      If we agree that there are multiple interpretations of the main religious texts, it follows that it is always open to a person of faith to seek an interpretation that accomodates instead of criminalizes, that accepts and tolerates, rather than condemns and expels. There are different shades here, maybe you don’t need full acceptance with open arms, just a nod and a smile.

      I also don’t think that the life after/life here distinction is helpful since for all faiths ‘life here’ is at the very least a foundational element of the ‘life there’. For example, in my understanding of Hinduism, the human/vital life (body), the spiritual life (mind), and the Divine life (brahman) are all equally important to life on earth and should guied our decision making/our actions. So the life after/life here conflict isn’t so important.

      The ‘conflict’ exists for us because of our rational approach, our mind ‘does the math’ and produces conflicts in the rationalizing logic of each discipline. So what? Let’s move on and build bridges, seeking guidance from the heart and not the head.

      • Ronan McCrea says:

        Thanks for those interesting arguments Sebastian. I would like to make two short points in relation to them. The first is that the fact that there are many viable interpretations of religious texts does not mean that there are no right and wrong interpretations. Therefore the existence of many possible interpretations does not necessarily provide a way out for religious believers who believe that their particular interpretation of their holy book (which clashes with orthodox human rights principles) is the correct interpretation and that the other interpretations are wrong.
        The second is that although life on earth may be an important element of the after life for many religions, some religions, notably Christianity and Islam, see life on earth as clearly secondary in importance to the after life (indeed, life on earth is largely seen in instrumental terms as a means to get access to the after life).

  9. Paul Bernal says:

    As someone who entered into the human rights field as a staunch atheist, one of the things that most surprised me at first was the way that so many of the good people I came across seemed to be people of faith. I worked with Quakers in Norway, Catholics in Croatia, Buddhists in Burma, Muslims from Palestine, Jews in Israel – and when I did my Masters in Human Rights at the LSE, one of my favourite fellow students was a Jesuit. If you had told me that before I started, I would have been hugely surprised – I was ‘brought up’ to believe that ‘believers’ were generally bigoted, ignorant, self-centred and/or stupid, or perhaps brainwashed, or perhaps even downright ‘bad’. My experience of the real people, once I opened my mind from the kind of closure that I had previously thought the exclusive preserve of the religious, showed me quite the opposite. So yes, Conor, I think that faith is far from the enemy of human rights – and indeed, they can be the closest of friends and allies.

    There is one particular aspect of religion, however, that I still find very hard to reconcile with human rights – the idea of ‘certainty’. My personal ‘revelation’ about the possible benefits of religion came about through the realisation that I had been wrong. Wildly wrong. The opening of my mind to that – and to the natural consequence that I would very often be wrong again, might often misunderstand things, misjudge things, make mistakes, and so on – was to me crucial. If I am to respect other human beings, I must continue to remember that – and therein lies the problem (for me) with religion. If a religion provides ‘certainty’, it leaves no room for mistakes, and for others to be right, or at least to be able to challenge my own certainties. And, on the face of it at least, most religions seem to have at least some part of this certainty (‘the one true way’ etc) built into their existence. While its there, for me there will be a problem. Of course it’s not present in most people – people generally know they’re not infallible, thank goodness – but it’s there in their religions. As a consequence, I have few problems with religious people, but still quite a lot of problems with religions…..

    • Zoe Fiander says:

      I empathise with much of this & would echo your concerns about certainty/’the one true way’. I think I mentioned this in the previous track on truths. Often I find myself having to consciously overlook that element when responding to people who are guided by their religion.

      But then of course I can’t get away from the fact that I would like belief in things in human rights to feel just as true as religion does for its believers (the difference being the source of the ‘true’ feeling, I suppose). As Sophia notes, religion has an almost unparalleled power to inspire. I remember thinking in relation to the previous track that it would be great if human rights could somehow tap into that, make the appeal to truth in the same way as religion somehow does – probably quite an offensive thought to some (!). Anyway. Ultimately I come down in the same place as Anthony – I don’t think we are really writing the same book. More that certain phrases happen to be the same…

      • Paul Bernal says:

        I’d agree with almost all that – but as I’ve just mentioned in my response to Sophia above, I think human rights can be inspirational, and actually often has been. Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ is the most obvious example to me – every bit as inspirational as any religion….

  10. Ivan Manokha says:

    I agree with most of what you are saying. However, I think that in your analysis – especially in its historic part and particularly when you make reference to Marx – there is one important missing element: there is no mention of the concept of ideology. For Marx and Marxists, religion is not just ‘opium for the people’, but is a set of beliefs whose nature is inseparable from the rest of social totality, and most notably from economic relations. Thus, in feudal social setting characterised by various forms of personal/juridical dependence of producers on those appropriating the surplus of their labour, the function of surplus extraction was carried out by means of political coercion. The peasants who occupied and tilled the land were not its owners, with agrarian property being privately controlled by feudal lords, who extracted surplus from the peasants by politico-legal relations of compulsion in the form of labour-service, in kind or in the form of money. The feudal lord, in his turn, would often be the vassal of a feudal superior, and the chain of such dependent tenures (linked to military service) would extend upwards to the peak of the system—a monarch. The direct political exploitation of producers and unequal class relations of the feudal order had an ideology which helped to sustain them. This ideology involved interpreting social relations as having a divine origin and purpose with each individual performing a specific function ascribed by God: every member of society must receive the means suited to his or her function, and must claim no more. This ideology spiritualised the material by incorporating it in a divine universe. As Jorg Larrain once put it, In feudalism ideology thereby assumes a religious form; the justification of personal dependence is found in a sacred order which is revealed by God and which consequently cannot be altered by man. Personal dependence upon, and loyalty to, the landlord is spontaneously expressed in the ideological submission to God, from which all subordination is modeled.
    With the rise of capitalism (a system in which goods and services are produced for profitable exchange and all economic actors are dependent on the market—workers, who must sell their labour power for a wage, and capitalists, who depend on the market to buy their inputs and to sell their outputs) the function of surplus extraction is gradually transformed from being based on politico-juridical means into one carried out in the market by economic means—through a wage–labour relation—as the producer is separated from the conditions of labour and the appropriator has absolute private property in the means of production. Once producers lose free access to the means of production, labour becomes a commodity. Thereby feudal politico-juridical inequality and coercion become unnecessary for surplus extraction since it is now the economic need that compels the worker to transfer surplus labour to the capitalist in order to gain access to the means of production. In other words, the social allocation of resources and labour no longer takes place by means of political direction or religious obligation, but through the mechanisms of commodity exchange. This gradually makes possible political emancipation and political equality, as political coercion is no longer necessary for surplus to be extracted from the direct producers. It allows for the development of new political structures breaking with the tradition of divine right and emphasising the equality of individuals, their natural rights and their power to establish and change political authority. However, what is crucial is that political and civil liberty and equality are increasingly seen as the liberty and the equality, while the fact that exploitation and inequality exist in the market is taken for granted and objectified. In other words, a new form of ideology develops constituted in the view that in capitalism individuals are free and equal, freedom and equality being in fact confined to the realm of the political. Such an ideology first appears in the writings of social contract theorists such as Hobbes and Locke, while the foundations of its internationalisation are laid by Kant.
    In short, capitalism’s structural separation of the economic from the political has crucial ideological effects: it enables the wage relation to take on the appearance of a voluntary exchange between abstract individuals in the market; while, at the same time, the state may appear as a class-neutral public sphere in which abstract individuals may interact as formally equal citizens pursuing an instrumental politics of self-interest. Thus, capitalism makes possible a form of democracy in which formal equality of political rights has a minimal effect on inequalities or relations of domination and exploitation in other spheres. The notion of individual rights is not only compatible with the functioning of the market but also codifies some of its most fundamental elements—the right to property and the right to employment objectify the existence of private property and wage labour which constitute the key institutions of capitalism.
    Seen from this perspective, you argument that religion and human rights need each other is still valid, but it might be considerably enlarged by adding this historic dimension via the concept of ideology.

    Ivan Manokha

  11. Richard Buck says:

    I agree with Conor that religion should not be viewed as an enemy of human rights. Of course, specific religious institutions are the enemy of human rights and they must be opposed. However, like global capitalism, religion is often in a position to champion human rights in places where state institutions are the enemy of human rights, and international intervention by liberal democracies, NGOs and other is not effective. Also, where human rights abuses are imbedded in a culture and supported by a hegemonic religion, engagement with religion may be the only way to make a change. One way for this to occur is through dialogue among people of different faiths and among faith leaders. This occurs today, but not nearly frequently enough.

    It should also be recognized that people of faith often do not take the intransigent positions
    taken by their religious leaders. I live in Ireland, where there the Catholic Church has been culturally hegemonic. It is in a weakened state now, but the Church hierarchy still takes some positions contrary to human rights. Most Catholics are more tolerant and receptive to human rights. Parish priests often have very enlightened views relative to human rights. As Conor points out: people of faith believe in human dignity, which is the basis for human rights.

    Today many people, rather than consider themselves religious, claim to be spiritual. They believe that there is something beyond the material world, but have not bought into the theology of any particular religion. You might label this as New Age spiritualism and be tempted to dismiss it. However, people so inclined are serious about it and it is a faith like any other. Often this type of spiritualism has an affinity to Buddhism. What is important from a human rights perspective is that it emphasizes the interconnected of all human beings and places great importance on compassion for others and tolerance of all religious positions. This type of spiritualism should be a great ally of human rights advocacy.

  12. Conor – I rejoin the discussion on a subject of great interest to me, the relationship between religion and human rights. As always, your post covers all the bases in a balanced way. On the one hand I think this is an excellent approach – noting the historical relationship, looking at what is good and bad in the present, and emerging with a result which allows us to have our cake and eat it too: to say that while there are problems with religion, on balance its contribution is valuable and should be fostered. I can certainly see the reasons as to why such a conclusion is attractive; at the same time I think it seriously elides some very important tensions – not withstanding your unequivocal condemnation of fundamentalism.

    For me, I think a large part of my concern here is tied up in the tension between what I think of as philosophy and political philosophy. Philosophy (I’m old fashioned here, at least for brevity of discourse and the sake of the argument) tries to establish the truth of the matter, or at least, to give a justificatory rationalization as to why we should pursue human rights, why they are a good thing, and how we understand what this means; political philosophy, on the other hand, tries to think through how to develop a scheme where we all get on tolerably well with one another without killing each other. It is less concerned to establish or resolve the reasons we think we have human rights than it is concern to locate the extent to which we agree with one another on human rights outcomes. Thus, talk of overlapping consensus (Rawls) and incompletely theorized agreement (Sunstein), etc. These strategies are less concerned with “truth” (or justified metanarratives, etc) than they are concerned with mitigating or managing conflict and making it bearable within political communities.

    And this is what I feel happens with the question of religion in human rights: many commentators are quite up front about all the reasons they have for being dubious about religion, but they end up endorsing it (sans fundamentalism) because large numbers of people are religious, because many of these share at least some human rights values, and because – in the political sphere – we are much more likely to achieve human rights goals with the religious on board, rather than with them estranged or in opposition. However, from a philosophical point of view, this compromise is hard to swallow.

    Quite often that is where the discussion finishes. I don’t think it gets us far enough however, because – as I think I may have said before – the differences of opinion about substantive human rights issues cannot be divorced (at least not always) from the deeper philosophical issues. Scratch a surface disagreement – by which I mean a hot political topic – about whether, say, children have to be taught the religion of their parents in schools, or a variety of other freedom of religion/freedom of conscience issues, and you arrive at fundamental philosophical differences which, in most cases, go back to the individualism which is at the heart of the rights tradition and which is in fundamental – shall we say, contrast – to much religious teaching.

    Many people live their lives in the interstices between the reality of their political and social situatedness, and the imperatives of philosophical questioning. I think it is this which provides the answer to your questions about how it is that – to take your opening example, one which has much personal resonance for me – gays and lesbians can continue to exist in their church despite its social, political and philosophical opposition to them. On the one hand, people of deep religious faith and identity cannot countenance leaving their life in the church and so work to change the church; on the other hand, many people – faced by the day to day hand to mouth imperatives of living – simply find a way forward where they are: they don’t have the luxury of the time or energy or social and familial freedom that might be required to make a break. Some will argue that a break does not have to be made – but as is probably clear, this is not a view that I find intellectually compelling. To me, the fact that, as you put it Conor, “progressiveness” can be found in such religious spaces is not so much a tribute to religion, as it is a tribute to those who have the courage to be progressive in recalcitrant social organisms.

    I think it is true that religious traditions provide resources which can be utilized by the progressive – think of the great hymns to justice in the Old Testament: “Let Justice roll like a river and righteousness like a never ending stream.” But in my direct experience and from my more disinterested observations, the custodians of these traditions of justice and righteousness have always been the very last to wake up to the progressive light (your example of the Pope’s recent mutterings out of one side of his mouth on condoms is a good example of this).

    Having said all of that, I rather uneasily come down somewhere near where you do, Conor. I take the view that it is essential to get the philosophical story clear, and that getting it clear is of serious moment. However… radical social change – or even incremental social reform – was never lead by philosophical purists. Political change requires coalition building, often with people you don’t like who have views some of which you may despise. Nonetheless, their help may edge you toward your proximate goal.

    You say at the end that the religious and the human rights movement are not on opposite sides, but that they are writing the same book, using a different language. I’m afraid I cannot be this sanguine about the situation. I really don’t think we are writing the same book. I suspect the appropriate analogy is more likely to be the over used one of a journey – but in this case, the city of god and the city of humanity are somewhat fortuitously to be found via roads which sometimes share the same river beds and mountain peaks. I hope that the shared parts of the journey can be joyous and cooperative ones – but this happy fellowship does not persuade me that we are heading to the same destination.

  13. Paul Bernal says:

    One more small observation on the matter of religion – it seems to me that where the disagreements between the major religions and human rights exist, they tend to be huge disagreements, in the sense that they are often disagreements which individually are of very great significance, disagreements on fundamental issues, and most importantly disagreements where it is very hard to find any kind of compromise or common ground. Either homosexuality is a mortal sin or it isn’t, abortion is murder or it isn’t – and either one side is right or the other side is right.

    Whether this springs from the same source as the issue of ‘certainty’ I mentioned above or from some other more fundamental feature of religion I’m not entirely clear, but it does make it hard when those issues come up to feel that we’re all ‘writing’ (or reading) the same book. Yes, we agree about a lot – but where we disagree, those disagreements can be immense and intense.

  14. Carol Coulter says:

    First of all, in relation to human rights and religion, while I am a non-believer “some of my best friends are Christians (as they say!)”, and certainly some of the most dedicated campaigners for human rights I know are. So I have never thought there is an incompatability between human rights and religious belief. Further, I was dismayed and shocked by some of the crass ingnorance and prejudice displayed by certain English secular humanists in response to the Pope’s visit, though, as someone reared in the Church of Ireland, I felt no residual attachment to his office.

    But I don’t think that’s the end of the matter.

    There is a tension between religious belief and human rights, though it is a tension that cannot be overcome by either religious people or secularists beating the other into submission. I think it stems from what you call the “right to live your life as a person of faith”. For most thinking religious people that includes espousing and arguing for a view of the nature of humanity that is different from that of those who do not share that belief, and arguing, to a greater or lesser extent, for that view to be upheld by the state in its laws.

    The most obvious place where this involves a conflict with people not holding religious views is, of course, on the issue of abortion. That is not to say that all Catholics, for example, oppose abortion in all circumstances, or that all non-believers are unequivocal upholders of the unqualified right to choose to have an abortion even in a very late stage of pregnancy. But it is a very major fault-line between religious believers and non-believers, and one which does have an impact on what many people regard as a basic human right – the right of a woman to control her own fertility. This fault-line was most recently reflected in the ECtHR ruling in the A, B and C case, and particularly in the minority, though assenting, view of Judge Finlay Geoghegan.

    I think myself abortion is a difficult subject and not amenable to simple slogans, and I don’t propose to dwell on it now. But we cannot consider it without considering what is a human being, and different views on that tend to follow religious positions.

    That by no means exhausts the matter. There are a raft of issues where people of religious belief are motivated by that belief to seek the support of the state for policies and laws aimed at upholding a certain view of the family, for example, to the detriment of other concepts of the family. Then there was the attempt in Canada to obtain state recognition for the resolution of marital disputes by Islamic courts, following an earlier Canadian state recognition of Jewish religious arbitration of marital disputes.

    I think there is a real issue the west of religious faith, which is an individual matter and the right to it is an individual right, becoming confused with, or leading either to attempts by organised religious communities (churches or whatever) to influence state policy on a range of matters, or to religious communities seeking to fence that community off from the rest of society by directing its social policy in an autonomous way, and in a way that denies members of that community (especially women and young people) rights we consider to be human rights.

    Fundamentally, many religions, including some branches of Islam, believe that there should be no difference between religious community and society, that one should be an extension of the other. At its extreme is the Islamic aspiration to restore the Caliphate. Does their right to “live their lives as a person of faith” extend to advocating the dominance of one religion over others, and more particularly over non-believers, and to the oppression of perceived apostates? I don’t think so. Nor, of course, do you, but I think there are limits to where the right to live your life as a person of faith can go.

    And what about the right to blaspheme? I know that not only are Muslims deeply offended by certain representations of their religion and their prophet, but Christians have been hurt by artist Andres Serrano’s represention of a crucifix in urine (though when you see that work in the context of the rest of his work, as I was fortunate to do in an exhibition in the US, you realise just how deeply religious his work is, and how intense is his vision of Christ as fully human), and I don’t think people’s feelings should be gratuitously offended.

    But nor do I think that religious belief should be uniquely privileged as a human attribute beyond criticism or, indeed, mockery. And if we avoid offending Muslim, or Christian, sensibilities, should we not be equally reverential to the Scientologists’ belief in our (or at least their) inner aliens?

    While I support laws that prevent people from inciting other people to attack yet others, thereby injuring them or causing them harm, I don’t think we can prohibit the hurting of people’s feelings, even if those feelings are a very important part of what they are. The right to express our own thoughts and feelings are too valuable to be undermined by a creeping censorship, even if its origins lie in a laudable desire to respect people’s right to religious belief.

    • Richard Buck says:

      Carol, you bring up one point that I would like to comment on; that is, religious groups seeking state support for their beliefs. From a human rights perspective, separation of church and state should be the desired goal. People should be allowed to pursue the dictates of their conscience as long as that belief is not imposed on anyone else, and the state should never impose a religious code. That being said, I recognize that prevailing religious beliefs of law makers will be reflected in law, and that certain religious practices will run afoul of that law. So be it, if we believe in the rule of law. Theocratic states, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, pose a special challenge here, since such a separation will not occur without the overthrow of the existing regimes. Nonetheless, the rule of a theocratic state over non-believers should not be viewed as legitimate. In democratic states, religious groups will be free to politically pursue government support of their religious beliefs, and the human rights position would be to politically oppose these moves wherever we find them. State action should be as religiously neutral as possible. For instance, the concept of marriage seems to be so enmeshed with various religious beliefs, state support should be withdrawn from it. If special state support is needed for certain types of contractual obligations, we need to be very sure that there is no gender, ethic, religious or other kind of bias associated with it.

  15. Favio Farinella says:

    This subject more than any other is related to feelings. Up to now we were debating the relationship between politics, business, education, etc. and human rights, and we made use of statistics and a very logical reasoning. But here… I simply believe, do not know why. I feel the need. And maybe human rights are alike. In this track we come to a point in which feelings prevail. Being a religious person or an atheist or agnostic means we have a peculiar cosmovision from which we weigh and assess the world and its ideas. Anyhow, the human rights have the capacity to gather all kind of people around the same idea: help others to live better. It has a coalition power as Conor said in previous tracks.
    Then, our responses about the antagonism or mutual correspondence between Religion and Human rights will be imbued with our feelings. This is because of our intertwined spiritual-material dimensions. Two examples related to everyday life. First, last year in my local community, a judge who is also a professor at a Catholic university was forced to resign after having an argument with the Dean just because in his public capacity as a judge, he had authorized an abortion. The University was (still is) publicly against it. About ten professors resigned along with him as a sign of solidarity. Second, Argentina passed a Law in 2010 introducing the gay marriage. Some Directors of the Civil Registries are refusing to marry gay couples alleging objection of conscience, based on their faith. Some idea must prevail.

    As some of us believe in God, while cannot provide a logical explanation and we are satisfied with that, we can also believe in the existence of fundamental, inalienable, universal rights, simple because we feel (feelings again) that they provide the Right answers to perennial injustice such as poverty, discrimination and the like. At this point, human rights become a practical creed: it does not ask to pray but to fight against power to change lives.

    What from medieval times on was an ethic for Kings who were only responsible to God and pointed to an autocrat benevolent power (religion), today it is replaced by an ethic for the average man in everyday life aimed at limiting power (human rights). The idea of human rights is opposed to any faith that is allied to power. Human rights fight against the alienation of the individual whatever the motive is: an authoritarian regime or a fundamentalist religion that asks the human being to deny his/her nature. If Communism is a Godless ideology, Capitalism has replaced a spiritual creator by a material one, namely profit. In everyday capitalist life, religion is hardly present unless you face something like Jaspers’ “limit-situation” under which you – maybe- resort to religion again.

    I think that in a successful -western oriented- capitalist society, human rights are going to take the place of western religion (do not know about eastern faiths), replacing God by ‘faith in the individual’, his/her dignity and inalienable rights. The ideology of human rights is becoming a sort of secular religion, its main principles being as sacred as any dogma of former ancient faiths.
    We believe in dignity, in freedom, in equality… An this is because we feel absolutely certain that we are right and that there is nothing else to discover beyond the human rights theory. No ‘antithesis’ in Hegel’s words. So logic. Is it because human rights ideology is the ‘Absolute Idea’?.

    • Richard Buck says:

      Fabio you raise some interesting points about belief or faith in human rights being very much like religion. While human rights can become on uncompromising individual creed, action in the real world requires a more tolerant attitude. Let me propose an example. Take a country without an effective government, where gangs roam at will and commit evil acts that will never be punished. If a person ventures into the street, she risks kidnap, rape or murder. Needless to say, this country is not a rich ground in which to grow human rights. The country is taken over by a dictator who restores order and the rule of law. The law is not democratically legislated, but it is published and implemented. People know what it is and what the punishment is for disobeying it. The law has some very cruel provisions that severely restrict certain kinds of human activities. One of its provisions allows the parents to choose the spouse for a person. It does not sound like a great place for human rights. Yet, people enjoy many more rights than they did when the country was in chaos. They can walk the streets without fear of violence. They can pursue a business and will be allowed to enjoy the fruits of that business. On the whole this is a far richer place for human rights than before, even though some very important human rights are denied. While the human rights record of this country does not match our human rights creed, it is an improvement for this country. What are we to do? I propose that we should take a utilitarian approach, rather than stand on some type of absolute ethic. We certainly should not advocate any actions against the current regime that would send the country back into chaos. We are going to have to take a moderate approach, using dialog to move the regime to a more enlightened human rights position. It may take years, or never happen; but the moderate approach is better than doing something that would destabilize the country.

  16. Duygu Akdag says:

    Human rights discourse and debate can easily be conceptualized as a “broad church“ of opinion whose comparability with the diversity of opinion and practice within organized religions is just too obvious to resist. Conor asserts: Subjugating personhood to external dictate is profoundly alien to the whole human rights idea. This is not really so far away from the concept of personal conscience, which appeals to a person‘s internal spirituality taking precedence over any rule, howsoever it may or may not be observed by that individual, and which is embraced by many religious people as the true basis of their faith. Human rights is repeatedly claimed to be rational in nature, though clearly it is also based in morals and ethics, and few of us have any sense of ‘schism’ as we internally marry our rational and moral approaches. We become very rational when we seek out pragmatic solutions and tangible progress rather than over-intellectualizing and entering a kind of philosophical and semantic muddle. Conor is not alone in recognizing that the religious can be pragmatic too in their desire to promote human kindness and cooperation in a world which materially rewards the cruel and competitive. Certainty is often held up as the enemy, but there are those who are certain that human rights are absolutely universal, while others are equally convinced of the cultural relativism of human rights. When looking for a rational explanation for our desires to care for others, we may find ourselves turning to evolutionary and biochemical explanations: ‘human nature’ thus becomes something a whole lot warmer and kinder than the commonly flung accusation of innate selfishness and brutality suggests. I like the way Holly, as a Christian, captures not only the universal but the also the unifying pragmatism of the human rights cause: Human rights doesn’t need religious people, or atheists, or agnostics; it needs people who believe in its values and are prepared to work towards them. As an agnostic, I couldn‘t agree more!
    Given the normative concept of human rights enshrined in several international and regional treaties, politics is needed both to transform human rights values into the heart of states, private institutions and individuals, and also to apply those values securely and consistently, so that human rights are not only enforceable by law, but also actually exercised as a cultural norm. Historically as now, many states resemble organised religion in that they claim sovereignty over their ‘territory of belief’ and attach rights and duties to their believers, some of whom may forfeit them and become aliens having danced outside the rhythm of the state’s choreography. In such cases human rights can be seen as a global protector, offering sanctuary…
    Although religion is only a piece of the whole global justice puzzle, it is an important and very diverse one. It is clear from the discussion that in relation to human rights, not all religions are the same and lumping ‘religion’ together as a catch-all concept can be misleading. Religion is political because it is utterly human, operating at both an individual and collective level. The ECHR, for example, has often invoked on margin of appreciation on highly political issues. If states have this wide playground to regulate political matters such as abortion or euthanasia and if the majority of the population and politicians of a state have religious roots, then democratically speaking human rights is of enormous importance to be politically adopted by religious people as a core value.

  17. Christina says:

    Faith of our fathers (!)
    This doesn’t include me. Religion like every other institution is male dominated. And “Give me a child until he is 7”?
    But generally a child till 7 is likely to be under maternal influence or primary/nursery female influence. Faith of our Mothers doesn’t have the same ring.
    Mothers and females tend (forget the nuns of the Magladelen laundries) towards education and nurturing. I’m with Ken Robinson, we’re schooled into impotence and stupidity. But it makes us more compliant to the state.

    I’m sorry I have to be an outlier. What about the women? Who suffers disproportionally most from the cuts ? Jack Straw is right. It is cultural. we live in a culture which de values women, locks them away and makes them invisible. Its not just Pakistani youth who see women as objects. Our media and our culture minimizes them, and we allow that.

    I’m sorry to come in sideways on religion, but its only one of the great English institutions which reduce over half the population’s talent. It was not always thus, look to Thomas Paine and Mary Woolstoncraft. Have we ever really gone for human rights equality etc.

    This is not a feminist argument, because it is on behalf of all the disadvantaged and vulnerable peoples, child soldiers, trafficked peoples.

    Faith of our Fathers. The language excludes me. Look to the language.

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