Humanism, Humanitarianism, and Human Rights

Patti Whaley is a member of the Sea of Faith steering committee, and of the SOF editorial team. This address was based on her contribution to SoF's book "Time and Tide", published in 2001. She was speaking here in her personal capacity.

In my work at Amnesty International I have had many opportunities for reading and hearing current discussions about the relationship between human rights and religion. As someone deeply interested in both religion and human rights, I find the tone of this discussion very interesting. Much of the discussion follows one or two common threads: either tracing origins or forerunners of human rights in the various religious traditions, or evaluating how different religions conform to the human rights standard, usually in terms of their ethics and philosophy, but also in terms of their actual practice.

I often sense, in those writing from a religious point of view, a certain defensiveness in these sorts of comparative assessments, a certain aura of religions trying to hold their ground, which may originate in a recognition of the nearly ubiquitous moral power of human rights discourse as compared to the growing uncertainty, at least in the western liberal Christian tradition, about the metaphysical basis for the moral claims of religion.

There seems to be relatively little discussion comparing on equal terms the philosophy, purposes and values of religion to the philosophy, purposes and values of human rights. Robert Traer argues in his book Faith in Human Rights that commitment to human rights involves an act of faith similar to religious faith, requiring a commitment of faith in humankind and their capacity for virtue and self-improvement. Michael Perry argues in The Idea of Human Rights: Four Enquiries that belief in inherent human dignity is per se a religious belief; in order to believe that the individual has intrinsic, objective value, one must believe that the world itself has intrinsic, objective value, which, he asserts, is by definition a religious belief.

These writers are exceptions to the general rule. By and large, writers on human rights seem to regard religion itself as of little interest except in so far as it either contributes to or conflicts with the realisation of human rights. Rights are more often regarded as a sort of culmination of a long discussion about how we are to live our lives, and one might conclude from reading the discussions that human rights could in fact replace religion entirely and we would be none the worse off. The situation might be compared to the old debate between science and religion, when religion found itself needing to reconstruct its apologia in response to the new, universal, objective language of science.

Many of us in the Sea of Faith, and probably also in other organizations that exist on the borderline between religion and humanism, are undecided about whether to revive the old religions, create a new form of religion, or abandon religion altogether in favour of a completely secular value system such as that described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I'm not going to try to answer that question, but I would like to offer a reflection on the relationship between human rights and religion that might both help us to strengthen our understanding of the continuing value of religion in the post-realist or humanist context, and help us to shape a more concrete contribution both to religion and to human rights. I would like to suggest, very briefly, three ways in which religious humanists could usefully engage with human rights at both the philosophical and the practical levels.

First, we need to share ideas and support in the debate about the ways in which both religion and human rights can claim legitimacy and authority in the absence of absolute or metaphysical foundations. The widespread loss of belief, at least in Western liberal society, in metaphysical foundations and absolute values has affected religious thought and human rights thought in somewhat similar ways, particularly by opening the door to challenges about whether either system is more than simply an expression of personal or cultural preference.

The drafters of the 1948 Declaration did not seem overly concerned about the basis for rights; they simply asserted in the preamble of the Declaration that "Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world". But we are less confident, and in our era the idea that human beings inherently "possess" dignity or rights has been strongly challenged. Alasdair MacIntyre famously declared in After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, that "there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and unicorns....[E]very attempt to give good reasons for believing that there are such rights has failed". Certain governments, particularly in Asia and Africa, have exploited these challenges in their own arguments against the universality of human rights, asserting that the supposedly universal values are peculiar to the West and that their imposition on the rest of the world is an act of cultural imperialism.

Human rights philosophers have responded by arguing that the universality of human rights rests not on its absolute foundation, but on its practical effect: it leads to what an increasing number of people recognize as a better life, and it does this more effectively than any other form of social morality which we have yet devised. It is then not necessary to argue that human rights are true, but only that they are efficacious; they are based not on what human beings inherently are, or what qualities we inherently possess, but on what we aspire to be.

The similarity to the post-realist or humanist view of religion should be obvious. Post-realists are concerned with how to retain religious value in the absence of metaphysical or absolute foundations. Although religious post-realists are less concerned with claims to universality than human rights post-realists, they share a need to revalidate their practice on its own merits, without resorting to claims of inherent truth. Like the post-realist human rights philosopher, the post-realist theologian's task is not to argue whether God is "true" but to explore the ways in which the religious demand, embodied in God, helps us to achieve a better life.

In both cases commitment relies less on philosophical or empirical demonstration than on a simple leap of faith. Thus, for example, Robert Traer states that "faith [in human rights] involves trusting in these standards of human dignity, despite the inability to prove to the satisfaction of all others that the standards are true" (Faith in Human Rights, p. 219); a statement closely paralleled by Jack Miles' description of post-realist religion as "the felt necessity, somewhat mysterious in itself, to live a moral life even when the grounds of morality cannot be known" (Religion makes a Comeback, p. 59).

There are other parallels as well. Human rights and post-realist religion both rely heavily on story-telling as a means not only of expressing known values but of exploring new ones. Richard Rorty, for example, argued in Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality that inspiring people to protect human rights is not achieved by arguments about whether humans inherently possess the rights enumerated in the various human rights declarations, but by telling stories that evoke our sympathy for those deprived of their rights. Human rights and post-realist religion both see their ideals as something to be achieved primarily in this life, rather than the next, whether that ideal is "a world in which the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are enjoyed by all people", as it is expressed by Amnesty International, or "a world in which every human life is valued as though it was the incarnation", as expressed by Sea of Faith member Jude Bullock ("Out in the open now, with faith", in Renew, September 1996).

This post-realist or humanist view of religion has however had less success than the parallel views of human rights, for reasons that are not difficult to understand. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is primarily a statement of values and aspirations relating to human behaviour rather than a statement of metaphysical belief; to the extent that there is an underlying belief in the inherent dignity of humans, this belief is secondary to what the Declaration is actually trying to achieve, and that purpose can survive the loss of the implied underlying belief relatively easily.

For religion, at least for the monotheistic religions, a more fundamental shift is involved; the loss of a "real" God appears to many traditional believers to remove the very essence that defines religion itself. Nevertheless, the success of the human rights system should give support to the view that faith and commitment to a value system are possible in a humanist, non-foundational context; and human rights philosophers and post-modern theologians can usefully learn from each other how to justify faith and commitment on the basis of values and practice alone.

Second, it would be useful for religious humanists to work with the human rights movement in the philosophical and practical defence of religious freedom. Religious intolerance continues to be a major source of conflict and suffering in the world, both in terms of conflicts between the religions themselves and as an underlying factor in conflicts between ethnic and political groups; as Hans Küng has repeatedly warned, "there will be no peace among nations without peace among the religions". Religious intolerance against specific individuals, as documented by Amnesty International and others, may take the form of persecution for blasphemy, heresy, apostasy and other transgressions of belief; persecution for certain practices such as proselytism or conscientious objection to military service; or denial of equal rights simply by virtue of belonging to a religion or sect that is illegal or unacceptable.

Efforts to improve religious tolerance take different paths depending on whether one takes a human rights approach or a religious approach. Among human rights advocates, religious tolerance is viewed primarily as a legal matter, as a right to be protected by governments regardless of the state of sympathy between the religions themselves. This legal, rights-based approach can "call a truce" between religions and create opportunities for tolerance and dialogue, but on its own it cannot resolve the underlying theological sources of intolerance. Among the religions, religious tolerance is usually based on one of two principles: either one's own religion is the only "true" religion, but all persons are nevertheless entitled to tolerance, respect and freedom in the choice of religion; or all religions are relatively imperfect reflections of a truth which cannot be empirically proven or cannot be directly (i.e. non-metaphorically) expressed. Both approaches retain a belief that absolute truth exists, even if we cannot grasp it.

The Sea of Faith obviously has a particular interest in questions of religious tolerance for both principled and practical reasons. In practical terms, SoF clergy have an immediate interest in questions about the limits of unorthodoxy that can be tolerated within a religion, and whether those limits apply only to membership in a religion or to licenses to preach or teach as a representative of the religion. Being denied a paid position as a representative of a religion, as at least one SoF member has been, need not necessarily be regarded as a human rights violation. It does, however, bring up questions of principle about the relative weight of dogmatic orthodoxy versus other possible indicators of religious faith; and these questions are important not only for religious humanists but for religious tolerance generally.

Religious humanists are more likely to regard dogmatic belief both as humanly created, and therefore contingent; and as secondary to religious expressions of value and ethics. Both attitudes provide a strong base not only for tolerance of other, equally human, religious beliefs but for active interest in what can be learned from them. This is not to say that we regard all religions as equally valid or worthwhile, but that all religions are prima facie worthy of examination to see how they may teach us to live a better life. The basis for judging a religion, or for judging a particular person or sect or belief within a religion, is not by its dogmatic orthodoxy but by its success in building a sense of meaning, harmony, justice and compassion, both among its adherents and towards those outside its own circle.

A stronger involvement in advocacy of religious freedom would serve multiple aims: it would provide a means of exploring and promoting religious faith as a human creation, and what that understanding of faith implies about religious tolerance; it would provide a broader framework within which we could wrestle with our own questions about the nature of orthodoxy and the limits which a religion may rightfully impose on its members; and it would provide us with a practical way of applying our values in the world. This could be done through supporting theologians who are sanctioned because of perceived unorthodoxy, such as the Sri Lankan Catholic priest Tissa Balasuriya, or through more active alliance with organisations such as the International Association for Religious Freedom and other advocates of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.

Third, a focus on religion as an expression of values, rather than metaphysical dogma, can help to rebalance the dialogue between religious values and human rights values. In the same way that human rights has provided an excellent framework for reassessing religions, there needs to be a religious framework for reassessing human rights. The human rights model has become so pervasive and so powerful that discussions of differences between human rights values and religious values tend to be phrased as if we assume that the religious "deviations" need somehow to "be reconciled with" the human rights framework; whereas a more healthy approach might be to see the two in a balanced tension, each acting as a corrective to the other.

I can suggest only three examples here, which need to be worked out in far greater detail. Of course the values that I refer to are not exclusive to religious communities; many of them have carried over into secular humanist communities as well. Nevertheless, they have tended to be put forward most systematically within a religious context.

First, religions tend to value responsibilities at least as much as, if not more than, rights. While human rights communities certainly recognise responsibilities, they tend to view them in quite restricted contexts. For example, in the dialogue between religion and human rights, responsibilities or duties are often described as if they are precursors to rights. The implied assumption is that responsibilities are the way that religions used to state rights before a proper vocabulary of rights was developed, but that this older style of expression has now been superseded by the new rights-based vocabulary.

In broader human rights advocacy, responsibility is usually viewed in terms of ensuring the rights of others, a responsibility falling primarily to governments and only recently and somewhat secondarily to other parts of society. Little if anything is said about responsibilities which are inherent in and inseparable from the exercise of rights themselves. Attempts to define social and individual responsibilities, such as the 1997 draft "Declaration of Human Responsibilities" advocated by Helmut Schmidt and Malcolm Fraser and others, are viewed with alarm by human rights advocates.

To some extent their alarm is understandable. The risk in trying to counterbalance rights and responsibilities is that a failure of responsibility by the rights-bearer could be taken as a reason for denying a right; that is, one has "forfeited one's right" to something by virtue of not fulfilling a corresponding responsibility or duty - an argument often used to justify the death penalty, for example. I don't mean at all to suggest this. But the other end of the spectrum, viewing responsibilities only in terms of general governmental or social responsibility to ensure that each individual enjoys his or her rights, leaves a vacuum at the centre of individual life. Without a sense of profound personal responsibility, ethical systems are simply wishful thinking.

In fact the growth of human rights advocacy itself would not have been possible without the deep sense of moral responsibility of the founders and members of the human rights movement; and to a certain extent the human rights movement banks on this inherited moral capital while at the same time viewing an emphasis on responsibility as a threat to the strength of the rights vocabulary. Michael Perry describes the paradox of the "passionate other-regarding character" of human rights activism as compared to the very "self-regarding" nature of rights statements themselves. In the long run, rights and responsibilities must be seen as indivisible; the world in which human rights are enjoyed by all will come about not only by people waiting for governments to bestow rights upon them like manna from heaven, or even by campaigning to demand their rights, but by also assuming the personal moral responsibilities inherent in a rights-bearing society.

Secondly religions tend to see both rights and responsibilities as exercised in community rather than in isolation, whereas the human rights system tends to treat persons as autonomous entities. Although the Declaration refers to community and solidarity in several of its articles, these references tend to be rather vague in comparison to the references to individual liberty and equality, and tend to be largely overlooked in human rights advocacy.

Again, the fear on the part of human rights advocates is that an emphasis on community will become a justification for sacrificing the rights of the individual to the harmony of the community; and that fear is validated by the suppression of individual rights in countries such as China, in the name of nation-building or economic progress, or the United States, where the "rights of society" are invoked to justify the infliction of the death penalty on social offenders. This certainly must be avoided. What is sought instead is, as the Roman Catholic church has described it, "the rights of persons in community, and thus... neither the rights of the individual over against the community nor the rights of the community over against the individual".

The religious emphasis on the value of community should be particularly sympathetic to Sea of Faith and other groups which take the postmodern approach of seeing the individual not as a discrete entity or a permanent self but as a process or "story" that is defined only by its relationship to others. Whether we are discussing rights or religious values, we can possess them only to the extent that they have been created within a community and are validated and given meaning by the community. As an individual, one must of course make up one's own mind about one's religious values, rights, or other moral positions; but to try to do so in isolation from a community would be difficult, if not dangerous or even impossible.

Thirdly, religions tend to value forgiveness and reconciliation as much as justice and accountability. The human rights movement has lobbied strongly for improved accountability for those who commit human rights violations, as a means of establishing the unacceptability of such violations and therefore helping to prevent further violations. This has been extremely important work which is finally bearing fruit in the establishment of the International Criminal Court, the special tribunals on Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and recognition in individual countries of their responsibilities to support universal jurisdiction for persons who have committed crimes against humanity.

Again, without seeking to weaken this trend towards accountability, it is important that counterbalancing values of forgiveness and reconciliation also be recognized and that means of realising them in practice be pursued, in order that communities can be healed and rebuilt. The exercise of forgiveness and reconciliation is not to be viewed as an alternative to accountability, but a necessary partner to it.

The attitude amongst human rights advocates to these and similar values seems ambiguous. On the one hand, the rights as stated in the Declaration tend to be treated in a fairly absolutist way, with discussion of responsibilities or other counterbalancing values often viewed as an attempt to undermine human rights. On the other hand, as noted earlier, individual responsibility and service to a broader community are indispensable preconditions for achieving a true human rights culture. Religious organisations, for their part, seem to fear that assertions of counterbalancing values will be viewed as "out of step" with the prevailing human rights culture, and they hesitate to risk being seen in that light. What is needed is a more careful discussion of how human rights fit into a broader ethical framework, in which neither the human rights world nor the religious world feels threatened by the other.

In addition to a closer comparison of human rights ethics and religious ethics, it is also essential that we retain a sense of the value of religious belief and practice beyond the purely ethical. Although human rights is increasingly successful as a system of public ethics, it doesn't pretend to be a system of personal meaning or virtue; and yet, it often happens that gross violations of human rights raise deep questions about the meaning and dignity of life which are in themselves essentially religious.

One only has to think of Victor Frankl, who was led by his experience in the concentration camps to create a system of psychology based on the need for meaning; or, in a more directly religious vein, the writings of Frank Chikane, of the South African Student Christian Movement, on the way that his own experience of torture deepened his sense of faith and mission as a Christian.

Religious values can supplement and extend human rights; can help us to transcend our own views, limitations and failures; and can give our lives meaning even when human rights seem like a distant and impossible dream. If religious humanists examine and work more closely with the world of human rights activism and social justice, I believe that we will not only learn how better to achieve the aspirations expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also rediscover the need for religious value in our lives. And this would be what I regard as religious humanism at its best.

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