Religion Opposing or Engaging Human Rights?

When religion and human rights are mentioned together the main narrative, or story, in Europe and America is that of opposition between the two. Religion is opposed to human rights. Religious ethics are based on divine sources and their authority is found in those sources, while human rights are man-made secular or humanistic ideas. Religion tended to support the ruler of society while human rights have encouraged democracy and multiple participation. Religious ethics place God or some other divine force at the centre of the ethical system and good and bad are calculated in terms of obedience or alignment with the will or rule of this divine force. Human rights, on the other hand, place human begins at the centre of moral concern, human interests, human needs and so on. Human rights are seen as a liberal force that is permissive. It allows people freedoms which religion in the past prohibited. This is seen in the restrictions placed on women by patriarchal religious authorities, and in general social order is conservative. So religious sexual ethics are restrictive, limiting sexual activity to ideas of marriage or parenthood determined by sacred texts and religious traditions, while human rights sexual ethics are permissive because they encourage freedoms through access to contraception, abortion services, recognition of same-sex relationships and so on.

This way of seeing the religion human rights relationship supports a view which says that basically religion is an undesirable feature of history that is best kept out of modern political debate. Religion is quite conservative and backward-thinking and relies on unchallenging sources such as revelation, the voice of God and so on. Religion empowers the forces of community order against the freedoms of the individual.

However there is a quite different way of telling a story about religion and human rights. In this story, religion engages human rights. This story acknowledges religious exclusivism and intolerance but sees human rights struggles as struggles within religions as well as other features of life. So the struggles for individual freedoms, women’s liberation and democratic participation, are not forces opposed to religion but forces both within and across religions. The battles around human rights are between particular ideologies, extremist views and reformers. It is not about a battle between secular rationality, a non-religious logical and justifiable way of thinking, and an irrational, traditional, narrow-minded and superstitious system. Thomas Banchoff and Robert Wuthnow, in their book Religion and the Global Politics of Human Rights (Oxford, OUP, 2011) argue instead that it is:

“rather the outcome of deliberation among like-minded thinkers and activists from both religious and secular back-grounds, each drawing on the elements within their traditions that emphasize universal human dignity – religious traditions provide vital resources – most centrally the belief in the transcendent equality and dignity of all human beings – for reflection on the foundations of rights and how to secure them.”

This view gives legitimacy to the involvement of religious views in political life. Religious rights then have this wider sense of religion being allowed to have a voice in decisions about public life. The other view sees religious rights as limited exclusively to freedoms to believe and worship.

There are many examples of a much more positive role of aspects of religion in human rights. There are many examples of religiously motivated human rights campaigners in the anti-slave movement throughout the last five centuries, and in the present era, religiously sustained pro-democracy human rights movements, such as in Burma. Pope John Paul II wrote extensively on human rights and worked to support anti-Soviet movements in Eastern Europe, following in the footsteps of Pope Leo XII who at the end of the nineteenth century wrote powerfully in favour of worker’s rights in industrialized and industrializing countries.

The view also reveals an essential element of human rights thinking – the role of belief in the worth of every human being irrespective of any action or attribute that they have. Without this belief it is difficult to provide an argument for human rights. It is for this reason that some view the role of religion as essential for human rights, though Banchoff and Wuthnow hold back from such a step.

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