Trying to Think About Human Rights and Religion

Today is one of those times when I bring you along on an epic journey into my inner monologue, so buckle up. (Or alternately, skip ahead to the penultimate paragraph, which provides your regularly scheduled sniping about awareness raising campaigns.)

Over the last couple of months I’ve attended a series of panel discussions on religion and human rights, sponsored by Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration, and Religion. It’s a fascinating topic with lots of scope for discussion, and yet, the take-home message for me was that it is apparently impossible to get anyone to talk about human rights and religion at the same time.

Despite a long roster of interesting panelists, very few of the presentations got at the core issues around which the panels were organized: the similarities between religious and rights projects, the role of religious actors in rights promotion and diffusion, and conflict between normative frameworks. Instead, most of the participants’ remarks addressed either human rights or religion, leaving it to the audience and one overworked moderator to draw links between the two.

I’ve been thinking about why this might be a difficult subject to spark dialogue on.

Perhaps most obviously, it’s a rare academic or activist whose expertise overlaps the fields of both human rights and religion. Most of us, asked to speak at a conference, prefer to present material we know well. But at an event explicitly organized to discuss the relationship between two issue areas, it’s perplexing that the conversation remained stubbornly focused on one or the other.

Maybe we who “do” human rights are just too irredeemably secular to produce complex thoughts about religion. But as Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch pointed out in his remarks during the first panel, religion poses one of the biggest challenges for human rights activism. This is a good reason for those of us involved in the study and practice of human rights to try harder to think about it.

So, here’s my effort to assemble some thoughts on the subject:

Human rights discourse sometimes betrays an unfortunate assumption that the targets of activism are essentially an empty space, waiting to “receive” human rights. (See frequently invoked metaphors about “black holes” and “bringing light to the dark places of the world.”) This tendency has prompted harsh criticism of the human rights movement as at best ignorant, and at worst neocolonial.

Because of course, the absence of commitment to the human rights project doesn’t mean the absence of a normative framework that envisions duties and obligations owed by a government to its citizens. Recognizing the existence of such pre-existing commitments to alternative normative frameworks is important, because they can block or complicate the diffusion of rights ideas.

We can easily see this in the challenges posed to rights advocacy in strongly religious communities. It’s particularly clear in cases where activism has bumped up against strict ideas about gender roles in society – advocacy on women’s rights in the Islamic world, or gay rights in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance.

But religious tradition is not the only example of a cultural commitment to competing norms. In the United States, activists’ efforts on domestic human rights issues have met with resistance from those who believe that the U.S., with its rich constitutional tradition, doesn’t “need” human rights. Like religion, civil rights law in the U.S. is potential competition for the human rights project.

Recognizing these “normative competitors” should facilitate efforts to design effective strategies to promote rights take-up. This is obviously something that many rights advocates in the field understand well. One prominent example is the success of the campaign against FGM in Senegal through efforts to “build consensus, African-style, on the dangers of the practice, while being careful not to denounce it as barbaric as Western activists have been prone to do.”

Cases like the Senegalese example suggest that “vernacularization” or “localization” can facilitate the spread of human rights ideas and practices by helping them to resonate with local normative frameworks. At the same time, what resonates locally may be a far cry from rights as understood by international activists. Anthropologist Daniel Goldstein’s work in Bolivia finds, for instance, that co-optation of rights language can create perverse outcomes, even undermining the core content of a right, as when local communities interpreted their right to security to permit vigilante lynching of suspected criminals.

All of this – issues of competing normative commitments, and debates about localization – raise the question of whether the human rights project is comparable to other efforts to spread moral frameworks. In other words: Is human rights a religion? And are efforts to spread rights ideology essentially proselytization?

Stephen Hopgood draws the comparison explicitly with his book and article title choices:  an ethnography of Amnesty International titled Keepers of the Flame, and a recent paper, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry ICC.” He suggests that human rights practice entails a degree of faith as significant as any religious commitment.

Making a related point about the religiosity of human rights, Samuel Moyn locates the relevance of the religious metaphor not in the faith of the human rights project’s adherents, but in its utopian vision. In his conference remarks, he suggested that we ought not be taking an a-historical view of the diffusion of human rights ideas, but rather should place it within the context of previous attempts to spread Western-originated normative frameworks (for instance: Christianity, communism, capitalism).

Moyn’s approach requires that we look both at how pre-existing relationships of interdependence established by these efforts affect the human rights project, and how the success of human rights diffusion compares to these efforts. Next to the effort to spread Pentecostal Christianity, occurring at roughly the same time, human rights is a far less successful example of normative diffusion. But do we attribute that result to an inherently less appealing “norm package” or to differences in norm promoters’ tactics?

I’m also curious how these analyses of human rights advocacy as an essentially religious endeavor would treat the rise of the modern awareness raising campaign. Groups like Save Darfur and Enough expend a substantial portion of their time and resources on activities that sound more like proselytizing than like the traditional human rights tasks of documenting abuses and pressuring violators. From my curmudgeon’s-eye-view, an activism model where success is measured not by improvements to rights, but by “number of people made aware of the violations,” is essentially a conversion effort.

If anyone’s still with me, please share your thoughts in the comments. One Lucky Charms limited edition whale marshmallow just for showing up, as it turns out this is a strangely difficult topic to say anything clever about…

Kate Cronin-Furman


  1. I was quite surprised when I learned that even the *real* proselytizers put a lot of thought into this. "One goal of missiology is to distinguish between practices that are essential to Christianity which must be practiced by Christians in all cultures, and other strictly cultural expressions of Christianity that can vary between societies while still expressing the Christian faith" (Wikipedia, "Missiology"). But it would be very hard to find neutral ground for inter"faith" dialogue on this.

  2. If human rights is a religion, who is its pope and who is Luther? 😉

    On a more serious point: I think the similarities between religion and human rights stem from the fact that both are essentially value systems, designed at their core to guarantee the functioning of society. As an atheist I may be biased, but I always found it astonishing how "spirituality" is actually not the most dominant part in most religions. Instead, the regulation of social interactions seems to play the most important role (see the ten commandments for example).

    So maybe we shouldn't start to perceive "human rights" as a religion, but religion as an important part of how society "works", which we must understand and appreciate before we can start to try and influence these processes.

  3. Let me offer a few quick thoughts before trying to work up something more thorough when it isn't 2am. The very short version is that I don't think religion means what you think it means. Breaking "religion" into its elements might help you in trying to deal with it, even if you aren't very interested in understanding it.

    1 – You clearly see "religion" as a competing force. There's a lot of ground to be gained by discussing the cooperative efforts. Yes, we can find areas where any two ethical systems disagree, but most of the ground is pretty common.

    1.5 – You also never ask what HR can learn from religion beyond tactics. If you put more effort into "what can I gain from working with religious people or religious thinking" HR might come off as less neo-colonialist.

    2 – It's easy to dump any "cultural thingy" into the "religion" camp. Most Christians used to believe things that we today would consider barbaric [it is okay to use that term when referring to fellow Westerners, right?]. Changing cultural practice [abolish slavery] did not however change the fundamental parts of the religion [belief in Jesus as Savior and Son of God] despite the fact that many Christian theologians provided arguments in support of slavery at one time. There needs to be more of an understanding that religion and culture are separate but easily confused and conflated. The more you can get to the heart of the religion and show that what you want is NOT in conflict with the core beliefs, the less competition you will generally find and the more ways to overlap.

    3 – I have read far more defences that say "You don't have to have God to believe in natural rights" than that point out that the Declaration of Independence specifically says we have human rights that come from God. You'd get a lot more conservative Christians on board approaching it from that perspective. In the back of my mind, I have this worry that if it is the UN or any government deciding what is and isn't a right, the UN can also take it away, specifically because of the Continental Congress' debate whether the King gave us those rights or they came from God. If the King gave them, he can take them and the rebellion was unethical.

    4 – I wrote a book chapter on ethics (Food Policy for Developing Countries, Ch 11). From that work, I think that a large part of the question that isn't confusing religion with culture is likely to boil down to differences between deontology vs. HR, or virtue ethics vs. HR, rather than "religion" per se.

    5 – So do you mean "religion" as culture, as an ethics system, as an organizational hierarchy [FGM example], as a convenient excuse people can wield when change is inconvenient, as a core set of beliefs or practices dealing with the nature of God and our relationship to the divine, as a means that people use to identify Us vs Them, as mortar for the social mosaic, or as something else completely?

  4. Reform movements require some people, those who hold some of the power, to sympathize with those who do not hold power, and who are oppressed as a consequence. The "other" has to be recognized as "same". Religion provides one mechanism for people to see the "other", to spectate, and thereby to sympathize. Adam Smith discusses how sympathy is generated from spectating in Theory of Moral Sentiments.
    But in so doing religion often oversteps. That is, it identifies a utopian position and can recommend a wholesale shift to the utopian position from the current position. This neglects what Public Choice Economics has come to call the "transitional gains trap." That is, the innocent individuals who are not directly benefiting from the current unjust system, but who would be hurt by fixing the injustice.
    Here is where good religion can come into play. Good religion can sacrificially offer to compensate the losers from any change in situations which are intended to bring about justice for the oppressed.
    If religion fails to make this sacrifice, then we are stuck in the transitional gains trap, and religion fails to be anything other than another special interest group defending its own privileges.

  5. Kate – I actually published a paper that may touch on some relevant issues. No-self’ at Trial: How to Reconcile Punishing the Khmer Rouge for Crimes Against Humanity with Cambodian Buddhist Principles, 26 WISC. INT’L L. J. 87 (2008).

  6. Along the lines of my earlier comment, there's this from The Economist on Islam and culture:

    Yet some attitudes can shift, Mr Akyol adds. His book, “Islam without Extremes”, cites slavery as an issue where the Koran’s words can be reread. The text favours freeing slaves, but does not demand the abolition of the practice. “Does that mean God condones slavery, or that God spoke within the norms of the seventh century which are open to change?” he asks, noting that several Muslim theologians have said the latter. As it happens Christians have made similar points, picking over the words of Saint Paul. Islam, like Christianity, offers rigidity for those who yearn for it. But it leaves room for nuance too.

  7. The insightful journalist on religion William Boles in his occasional blog Theopol, has it exactly right, I think: ”Religious adherents and secular souls alike have embedded values, whether these are declared or not. Such values and assumptions will surface in politics, particularly during periods when critical masses are moved by the immaterial dimensions of life, struggle, and conflict. This appears to be one of those times.”
    There is, I think, another fundamental way that describes how religion and human rights work when we examine how things happen within the normative framework described by Boles. Religion is either a unified state, that is, a political and theological system of a society fundamentally based on belief (see Iran) or a part of a rule-based secular society, which allows for the existence of religion but within which it’s body politic exercises formal political power (see United States).
    Either way, to make basic changes in the way human rights are advanced by religion requires deep commitment by the people whose human rights are under attack. Those of us who aren’t from that affected group can hardly make the difference whether by belief or imposition without that. We must serve an ancillary role.
    An example for me is the role of religion in the human rights struggle to end segregation in the United States. Black church leaders embodied by MLK , not politicians or academics or the average citizen, led the way for an ultimate appreciation, acceptance of, and enforcement of the right to be treated the same regardless of race. And, those leaders had to inspire their congregations to belief and action by making human rights part of their everyday being.
    Little things can make enormous differences when large numbers of people act to make something as powerful as the Montgomery bus boycott or exercising the right to vote in Mississippi successful. Many such things coalesce in people’s beliefs and actions.
    For me, the Soul Stirrers February 2, 1956 recording of “Must Jesus Bear This Cross Alone?” (with a chorus from Amazing Grace mixed in) embodies this concept. The stirring interplay between the great gospel singer Paul Foster, bass lyrical and ranging, and the legendary Sam Cooke, smooth and rhythmic tenor soaring, sent a powerful call for human rights to black churchgoers generally and those in Montgomery Alabama pews in particular at a deep and resonating level where the authorities could not touch it. Listen to it for chills and tears. That’s real soul-giving power.

  8. Dear Kate and Amanda,

    I think this point deserves its own separate post: “how these analyses of human rights advocacy as an essentially religious endeavor would treat the rise of the modern awareness raising campaign. Groups like Save Darfur and Enough expend a substantial portion of their time and resources on activities that sound more like proselytizing than like the traditional human rights tasks of documenting abuses and pressuring violators. From my curmudgeon’s-eye-view, an activism model where success is measured not by improvements to rights, but by “number of people made aware of the violations,” is essentially a conversion effort.”

    There are two different ways to approach this problem: first, from a practical point of view: if more people care about the issue, will more things actually get accomplished, assuming you live in a democracy? What does it take to build political will, and are incremental steps worth celebrating? I think this is sort of analogous to the quest to cure cancer. Just because it didn’t cure cancer, should we not celebrate when one researcher isolates some protein that might be important or sequences some DNA that might lead to something someday? Similarly, just because the situation still hasn’t changed, shouldn’t we celebrate making people more aware of human rights problems?

    But the second point speaks more to your question in the post and more to the analogy with religion. One of the things often said in church is
    “what you hear in darkness, proclaim in the light, what you hear in whispers, shout from the housetops”. There’s this idea in the church that talking about something is an inherent good. That repeating words or mentioning things has power. And that’s something common to awareness raising efforts.

    I think part of the awareness raising dialogue is the idea that if people are concerned about these violations, that is in and of itself a good thing, even if they can’t do anything about it. I think part of this might be some sort of idea of fairness? We, or maybe just I, feel that if there is mass suffering somewhere, people should know about it and feel bad about it and want to do something. It seems like an inherent evil to be ignorant of such important issues, even if you don’t believe in prayer or praying about them. I wonder if this is a holdover from religion? Or if it is a belief in democracy, as in, the more informed the populace is, the more likely we are to do the right thing?

    But I also think there is a more interesting question about whether awareness in and of itself might remedy some human rights violations. Some crimes, like disappearances, genocide, extraordinary rendition, are aimed at erasing the victim, at making sure no one ever knows what happened to them, at obliterating their very identity as a social being. In that context, discussing and remembering what has happened negates what the human rights violator is trying to do. I think that is a fundamental principle of a lot of Truth Commissions and memorials, and even part of our practice as lawyers (sometimes just telling a client’s story in court is a remedy for them). Elaine Scarry wrote a book about torture called “The Body in Pain” which discusses how torture is fundamentally an erasure of language. Words and writing might just be talking, but I think there is a way in which they are actual action and redress.

    Obviously awareness alone cannot be sufficient. This quote by Lakhdar Boumediene is what made me return to this post: “I’m told that my Supreme Court case is now read in law schools. Perhaps one day that will give me satisfaction, but so long as Guantánamo stays open and innocent men remain there, my thoughts will be with those left behind in that place of suffering and injustice.” At the same time, though, it’s better than ignorance.

  9. An important post.

    In essence, while there is a lot of common ground and there is a lot of scope for tactical cooperation, human rights and religion are each others’ opposite.

    Indeed, the essence of the human rights agenda is a humanist value system, created in consensus by humans, while the essence of (Western) religion is that the value system is god given and not to be questioned.

    The word of god is not to be questioned by mere humans.

    Human rights activists who understand this are of course not willing to discuss this aspect openly, as it would be a tactical blunder to fight the major religions head on, before they have been sufficiently weakened by this alternative value system.

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