Religious Approaches to Human Rights
Grassroots conservatives and the Oxford Centre for Religion in Public Life
To help secure a strong foundation for, and wide acceptance of, the concept of human rights necessary for the development of a British Bill of Rights.
Human Rights was developed as a powerful tool to promote human flourishing. Religion has recently come to be perceived as a barrier to human rights and been subject to sustained attack. However religion is needed to provide a robust philosophical foundation for human rights, and is a vital component of the human flourishing that human rights aims to achieve.
Religions vary in the basis on which they give support to human rights. Yet, all religions have come to support in principle the concept of basic human rights, and any Bill of Rights must be drafted in religiously intelligible terms. Christianity has been the main driver for the development of human rights and is the prime guarantor of freedom of religion for all. So we need to celebrate this nation’s Christian heritage as we work together with people of all faiths and none to draft a British Bill of Rights able to promote human flourishing.
FORMAT OF REPORT
Outlines the relationship between religion and human rights in the contemporary world, focussing on the six major world religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Leaders from all six religions have been consulted in preparing this report.
- Chapter 1: What is meant by the term ‘human rights’. Development from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 to the present day.
- Chapters 2-7: How each religion has responded to the development of human rights since 1948, how they understand human rights in the light of their worldview, the diversity of approaches within each religion, and areas of tension over human rights.
- Chapter 8: Why religion and human rights should not be seen in opposition to each other. The vital contribution of religion to human flourishing which is the aim of human rights.
- Appendices: Full texts of statements about/declarations of human rights from each tradition. The 1998 ‘Universal Declaration of Rights’ produced jointly across religious traditions.
THE PLACE OF RELIGION
Religion has increasingly come under attack in contemporary Europe, including the UK. This assault on the free exercise of religious conviction is in large part driven by a human rights agenda which sees religion and human rights as intrinsically antithetical. The growing threat of terrorist activity rooted in an Islamist ideology has led many governments to conclude that religion can be dangerous and that the best way to counteract this danger is by suppressing the dissemination of ‘extremist’ religious ideas. This combination of a secular rights ideology and fear of Islamic terrorism risks undermining the very rights that activists and Western governments seek to promote.
The originators of the modern concept of human rights were seeking to promote human flourishing in the face of political tyranny. Rights language was a tool to bring this about. The decision as to what makes for human flourishing, and hence what ‘rights’ people should have, must be decided by each individual or group on the basis of their religious or philosophical convictions. In this debate, a secular approach has no greater a priori claim to validity than a religious approach. Secularism can itself be described as a ‘religious’ approach in that it is a pattern of practice rooted in a commitment to a particular view of the world and the place of human beings in it.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE RELIGIONS
The question of why a human being has value underpins any concept of human rights. Each religion gives a different answer:
- Christianity: Human beings are created in God’s image. As a son of God, value is not dependent on performance; each human being is of infinite value, per se. God values them enough to become incarnate in Jesus Christ in order to die to redeem them.
- Judaism: Human beings are created in God’s image. As a son of God, value is not dependent on performance; each human being is of infinite value, per se.
- Islam: Human beings are created by God with the ability to obtain knowledge, engage in conceptual thinking and decide whether they will believe in God and submit to him. As a subject of God, the value of each human being is conditional upon submission to God.
- Hinduism: God is present in all human beings, all of whom work to maintain the cosmos. Of all creatures, humans are best poised to achieve escape from the birth/death/reincarnation cycle.
- Buddhism: Human beings are the ‘precious birth’ because of all forms of re-incarnation they are the best poised to achieve enlightenment/Buddhahood.
- Sikhism: All human beings are created by the one God,
These cannot be reduced to a single ‘religious account’ of human value, nor can their differing understandings of the nature of human existence and relationship to God all be true. Yet, each provides a basis for giving value to human beings in a way that a secular materialist viewpoint which sees human beings as the accidental product of an unthinking and uncaring universe does not. The most robust basis for human rights comes from the Judaeo-Christian understanding which ascribes infinite and unconditional worth to human beings.
RELIGION AND STATE
Four basic models:
- Only one religion permitted. Provides a strong, coherent and universally accepted moral framework which can help to promote human flourishing. But no place for freedom of religion and belief, a vital component of human flourishing.
- Secular state. Claims to be neutral, but is a version of model 1, promoting the secular worldview/religion. Its denial of God and/or an objective transcendent moral law means that it fails to provide a strong and coherent basis for identifying what is good for human beings and hence what is needed for human flourishing.
- General encouragement to religion, but endorses no one in particular. Can enable human flourishing, allowing freedom of speech, religion and belief. However, lack of a coherent understanding of human flourishing threatens community cohesion.
- One religion is established, with freedom for the exercise of all religions and none. This can provide the state with a clear and coherent account of human flourishing while allowing space for dissent and the free exercise of religion and belief.
The UK follows model (4) with the establishment of the Church of England, which serves as the guarantor of freedom of religion for all, and is seen by other religions as a bulwark against the totalitarian tendencies of a secular state.
PUBLIC POLICY IMPLICATIONS
We need to end the attack on religion, and instead publicly celebrate this nation’s Christian heritage which provides a coherent and inspiring vision of human flourishing. We need to work together with Churches and those of all faiths and none to strengthen a common commitment to duties and responsibilities based on the consensus about human rights developed since 1948.