Religious freedom vs. human rights?

The rise of religion globally threatens human rights, according to British academic Stephen Hopgood in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post.  After the jump, read his argument and consider the thoughts I raise.

From Stephen Hopgood, The end of human rights – The Washington Post:

Human rights made sense for a secularizing Europe that sought a moral alternative to religious faith. But the world has not followed the secular path. If anything, it is becoming more intense in its religiosity — that is the second challenge. Over the past century, for example, Christianity has seen a massive shift toward the south, with more than 60 percent of Christians now living in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In Africa alone, the number of Christians rose from 9 million to 516 million between 1910 and 2010. And we are as aware of the intensity of Islamic faith held by millions in many of the countries of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia as we are of the passionate evangelism shared by millions of Christians in the Americas and Africa particularly.

The language of human rights is a language of protest and resistance, not of authority and discrimination. In a religious world, secular human rights of recent heritage and ambiguous origin increasingly compete with long-standing cultural claims legitimated by traditions and gods. Where strong faith meets human rights, the classic modernizing assumption — that secular rights trump religion — no longer holds.

A more multipolar world, America’s ambivalence, Europe’s decline and more competition from faith-based movements — all these forces put extreme pressure on a human rights model that is heavily Westernized and centralized in funding and organization. And so a paradox emerges. Achieving progress in civil and political rights, for example, might mean ceding ground in other areas such as social justice and women’s rights. All rights are equally important to the global human rights regime with which we are familiar. But for many of those who are poor, or committed to socialist politics, or deeply religious and/or conservative, both inside and outside the West, which rights deserve primacy requires discussion and compromise, not diktats from New York and Geneva.

The classic Human Rights Watch strategy of “naming and shaming” rights abusers is irrelevant in cases where, for example, the imposition of sharia law is considered desirable by those who must be shamed for change to happen. In the multipolar world, justice for acts of egregious violence may mean the death penalty — or it may mean outright forgiveness. This world may be one where women seeking an end to domestic violence and desirous of education for their daughters nevertheless oppose reproductive rights on principle. Or where the idea that children have rights they can claim against their parents, rather than obligations, seems to strike at the heart of the most valued social institution of all, the family.

In this world, religious groups of all kinds have an opportunity to play a greater role in struggles for freedom from hunger and repression than they have done in the decades when secular experts in development and human rights held sway. Pope Francis, Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” has insisted that the church is not a nongovernmental organization — meaning it has more to offer than secular activism and advocacy. The church has a deeper, more powerful, more attractive and more important spiritual message to spread, he has said, surely recognizing that the weak grip of conventional Western human rights principles in individual communities is no match for the moral power of the church. The new pope’s seemingly more liberal stances on social issues and his critique of capitalism may make him a better bet for radical change — he can in principle mobilize a billion people — than the rather arid, dry and legalistic claims of secular human rights advocates.

What the classical human rights movement has achieved is the recognition of each human being as the moral equal of all others. This is a massive feat. But the nationalist, authoritarian and conservative-religious backlash against the language and practices of secular human rights opens the need for alternative forms of mobilization, of which conventional human rights — meaning civil and political rights diffused from the West — will be just one part.

We are waking from the European dream of one world under global, secular law. The result may be a reinvigorated universal church. Or it may be parallel and permanent zones of freedom and zones of repression, and a global middle class seeking desperately to move themselves, or at least their children, from one to another.

1.  Professor Hopgood assumes that the concept of human rights is a secular, humanist invention.   Never mind that Christians were talking about human rights since before the Magna Charta.

2.  Have you noticed that we don’t hear much about “humanism” anymore?  I remember when I was in college reading quite a bit about a new religion based on the human spirit and all that.  But today’s secularists, for the most part, seem skeptical about that kind of mystification also.   Postmodernists reject modernist humanism and many environmentalists consider human beings a plague.  This essay admits the decline of  humanism, which he thinks is necessary for a belief in human rights, and the victory of religion, which like a good humanist he associates with tyranny (while offering some hope for Pope Francis).

3.  Notice how all religions are lumped together and assumed to be essentially the same, as if Christianity has the same cultural effects as Islam.

4.  Do you see where this line of thought may lead?  (Suppressing the right of religious freedom in the name of advancing more contemporary rights, such the right of sexual liberation, the rights of children against the authority of the family, etc.)

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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