Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Human rights and religion

The Dish linked to this fascinating column about human rights and religion's role in their foundation. Here is Anat Biletzki arguing that god and religion are not necessary foundations for human rights:

I dare say that religion, even when indirectly in the service of human rights, is not really working for human rights. Although there is recognition of the human as sacred, it is not the concept of rights that propels the religious person. For him, the human status of sacredness draws from divine creation and directive, from man (and woman) having been created in God’s image, and therefore has nothing to do with a human right. As Jack Donnelly says in “Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice,” “ ‘Traditional’ societies…typically have had elaborate systems of duties…conceptions of justice, political legitimacy, and human flourishing that sought to realize human dignity, flourishing, or well-being entirely independent of human rights. These institutions and practices are alternative to, rather than different formulations of, human rights”.

The problem arises not when we act together, but rather when we don’t. Or put differently, when we act together, the problem stays in the realm of theory, providing fodder for the philosophical game of human rights. It is when we disagree — about abortion, about capital punishment, about settling occupied lands — that the religious authority must vacate the arena of human rights. This is not to say that all religious people hold the same views on these issues or that secular persons are always in agreement (although opinion polls, for whatever they are worth, point to far more unity of thought on the religious side). It is rather that an internal, secular debate on issues that pertain to human rights is structurally and essentially different from the debate between the two camps. In the latter, the authority that is conscripted to “command” us on the religious side is God, while on the secular side it is the human, with her claim to reason, her proclivity to emotion, and her capacity for compassion. In a sense, that is no commandment at all. It is a turn to the human, and a (perhaps axiomatic, perhaps even dogmatic) posit of human dignity, that turns the engine of human rights, leaving us open to discussion, disagreement, and questioning without ever deserting that first posit. The parallel turn to God puts our actions under his command; if he commands a violation of human rights, then so be it. There is no meaning to human rights under divine commandment. A deep acceptance of divine authority — and that is what true religion demands — entails a renunciation of human rights if God so wills. Had God’s angel failed to call out — “Abraham! Abraham!” — Abraham would have slain Isaac.

I was planning on writing a long reaction in which I flesh out the foundation of what I conceive of as human rights. But my head hurts. So I'll just try and condense what Biletzki states by saying that I don't think religion or god are good foundations to human rights because we don't have a single, direct translation regarding what god says should be human rights. And while religions may have some basic overlap, their foundations for rights all go back to what they say god says.

Or to be even more concise, there is no god and thus human rights can't be grounded in something that doesn't exist.

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