The Link Between Secularism and Human Rights

The Link Between Secularism and Human Rights February 5, 2020

Frances adady of The College of Management Academic Studies has a scholarly article at the Academia website about the necessity of Constitutional secularism because that provides the basis for the idea of universal human rights. She makes an argument much like the one I have been making for a very long time.

Credit to Chris Phan: https://www.flickr.com/photos/functoruser/78728221

The value content of secular regimes is not in secularism as such but in secular human rights. Although human rights are not a sine qua non of secularism they are the child of secularism. Human rights doctrine is a product of the shift from a religious to a secular state at the time of the Enlightenment in 18th century Europe. The religious paradigm was replaced by secularism, communitarianism by individualism and status by contract. As historian Yehoshua Arieli writes, the modem concept of human rights is the product of secularism:

The secular character of the normative system embodied in human rights doctrine is essential to its comprehension. All its premises,
values, concepts and purposes relate to the homocentric world and to ways of thought freed from the transcendentalist premises and from
the jurisdiction of religious authority. And so, the development of the doctrine of human rights is inseverably connected to the process of secularisation of Western society.

Human rights developed as legal rights in the 20th century in international and in constitutional law. They represented a breakthrough from the religious past. In secular human rights regimes, individuals within a community were entitled to autonomous moral judgment; this entailed freedom of religion, conscience and expression. All citizens were entitled to equal opportunity to participate in social,
political and economic institutions; this right to equal participation came to be extended over time to different racial and religious groups, to women and homosexuals.

The concept of human rights is currently challenged by traditionalist religious ideologies. These ideologies threaten the paradigm which lies at the heart of human rights. There is a confrontational stance opposing human rights on the part of orthodox religious institutions in most regions of the world, manifested in attacks on the political and civil rights of women, homosexuals, Dalits, heretics or non-believers. These orthodox religious institutions reject the norms of equality, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression where
these infringe on religious sensibilities.

Certainly a look around the world we live in supports that analysis. It’s not universally true, of course, as there are plenty of religious people who support secularism and human rights. But where there is a challenge to the concept of universal human rights, it comes from conservative religious ideologies. And that has pretty much always been true. Opposition to religious freedom for non-Christians at the time of the Constitution? Yep. Opposition to freeing the slaves? Yep. Opposition to women’s suffrage? Yep. Opposition to black civil rights? Yep. Opposition to equality for the LGBT community? Of course.

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