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Human Rights and Religious Wrongs

Although the discourse on human rights has a long pedigree, traceable at least to early modern natural rights theory and politics, the philosophical case for human rights against one alternative, religion, has yet to be made. Hence Religion and Human Rights: An Introduction, the new volume edited by John Witte Jr. and M. Christian Green, both of Emory University's Center for the Study of Law and Religion, elicits high hopes. Unfortunately, despite its range of expertise, constituted by contributions from scholars across borders and disciplines, it not only fails to make that case, but indicates an acute unawareness of its very need or urgency.

Relevant Links
No Human Rights for Jews?  Elena Bonner, Sakharov Center. Speaking in May 2009 to the Freedom Forum in Oslo, the late Elena Bonner denounced the blatant anti-Semitism of her fellow human-rights activists.
Human Rights Watch vs. Israel: An Inside Story  Ben Birnbaum, New Republic. A tale of bias and bigotry in the human-rights organization that is a major force in international politics.

The book's fatal weakness is betrayed on its cover by the presence of the Christian "Golden Rule," as illustrated by Norman Rockwell.  In reducing religion to the merry mantra "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," religion's latent critique of the contemporary human-rights agenda goes unnoticed. Instead, the book is from the start firmly in the human-rights camp. The authors' purpose, then, is to sell human rights to religious believers.  This is accomplished in two ways: the book's first section investigates possible bases of religious authority for human rights amongst the world's major religious traditions, to demonstrate that the two are theoretically complementary; and the book's second section explores the reality of the encounter between human rights and religion in the contemporary world, to demonstrate that the two are empirically complementary.

To outline the religious critique of the human-rights agenda, a review of its evolution is, as the editors appreciate, in order. At the end of World War II, it was "time to restate the basics of life, freedom, and community," a necessity which prompted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), drafted by a multinational committee of experts and ratified by the General Assembly of the UN in 1948. But the UDHR was not merely a restatement of acknowledged moral norms.  Rather, it staked a profound philosophical position potentially at variance with earlier moral systems, such as religion—and, especially, Judaism.  In deciding that the "basics" are to be found first and foremost at the level of the individual and not the community (such that one is a human being first and only after and if one chooses, a Jew), the UDHR presented a philosophical alternative to earlier approaches which put the community first.

Consider the language of human-rights declarations. The articles dealing with religion in the UDHR were called the rights of "thought, conscience, and belief," and were elaborated by subsequent conventions, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted by the General Assembly in 1966, the Declaration on Religion, adopted in 1981, and the Copenhagen Document, adopted in 1990 by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The ICCPR declares that "freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others." Effectively, the human-rights regime determines the contours of religion (with the who-is-a-Jew question, among other thorny issues, neatly elided by the assertion that "Everyone shall have the . . . freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice"), and the demands of religion do not supersede the autonomy of the individual. The prerogative assumed here by the supra-state human-rights regime used to belong to the State. But inevitably, with the rise of human rights, the State itself, like religion, becomes enervated.  The Declaration on Religion, meanwhile, insisted that parents' education of their children must ensure that 

the child shall be protected from any form of discrimination on the ground of religion or belief. He shall be brought up in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, peace and universal brotherhood, respect for freedom of religion or belief of others, and in full conscience that his energy and talents should be devoted to the service of his fellow men.

The doublethink in this article is almost as astonishing as its totalitarian ambition.  The demand that a child is to be raised both to believe in the spirit of understanding, tolerance, and universal brotherhood, but also to respect the freedom of religion and belief of others, severely limits what those religions and beliefs of others can be. And the aspiration to dictate the terms and content of the education of every child on earth is a remarkable conceit.  Education is necessarily the prerogative of someone other than the object of that education, and the question is whether that prerogative belongs to the parents, the religious community, or the State.  According to the Declaration of Religion, the answer is: none of the above.

Ever the apologists, the book's editors insist this allows for the "manifestation of religion" (a revealingly sterile locution) to be subjected to "‘appropriate" state regulation and adjudication—a disingenuous defense if the Declaration is to be taken at its word that the State has no role but to enforce the cosmopolitan human-rights regime.

Given the profundity of the human-rights attack on religion, one would presume it reflects a thoughtful and substantive philosophy of humankind which successfully draws together the remarkable variety of human predilections and beliefs. But when Jacques Maritain, a member of the UDHR's drafting committee, was asked precisely how such a diverse group holding such divergent viewpoints could agree to a definitive list of fundamental rights, he responded, "We agree about the rights but on condition no one asks us why." The goal, apparently, was to agree "not on the basis of common speculative ideas, but on common practical ideas," a tacit admission that there is no comprehensive—perhaps no coherent—moral logic to the human-rights agenda, despite its confidence in a utilitarian individualism directly at odds with religion.

It is precisely this opposition to religion that underlies the editors' introduction, which treats the topic in a condescending and anthropological manner. Religions, we are told, are now confessing "that their internal policies and external advocacy have helped to perpetrate bigotry, chauvinism, and violence as much as they have served to propagate equality, liberty, and fraternity." Granted, the editors rebuff the arguments of more extreme anti-religionists who would prefer to purge religion from the human-rights agenda altogether.  Nevertheless, it is only because of the residual power of religion in the contemporary world that "to exclude [religions] from the struggle is impossible, indeed catastrophic. To include them, by enlisting their unique resources and protecting their unique rights, is vital to enhancing the regime of human rights." This cynical perspective is predictably met by cynicism among the religious, who are more likely to call for human rights when their members are abused, and less likely to evaluate their own behavior toward minorities in their ranks.  

And so, quite clear that each side is using the other for its own benefit, the book commences its search for authoritative bases for the human-rights agenda in the traditions of the various religions.  The Jewish contribution is provided by David Novak, a Conservative rabbi and scholar, who shares his editors' pragmatic motivation—although this pragmatism undermines the Jewish theoretical supports which he hopes to bring to the human-rights agenda.  

In staking the claim that a tradition which is so concerned with commandments and lacks a very word for "right" nonetheless has much to offer the human-rights movement, the burden of proof is on Novak, who incorporates the rights-talk into Jewish tradition rather than finding it there organically and explicating it. Thus, somewhat resignedly, Novak notes that the Jewish people may not be able to achieve "the full and final coordination of all rights"—but that the Jews can still contribute to that full realization by someone else.

In fact, Novak wisely notes how the efforts of one people to reach out and benefit another are often underlain by an imperialist agenda of political or religious conquest, an observation which can be deliciously be turned on the human-rights regime itself.  This is the case made by Abdullah Ahmed An-Naim, who authored the chapter on the Muslim contribution. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he opens with probably the greatest defense of religion in the book: 

I find it difficult to see how any conception of human rights can be "universal" by any definition of this term if it is inconsistent with the religious beliefs of Muslims at large. If universality is a normative claim that these rights ought to be universally accepted and applied, a believer will not voluntarily accept that claim if it is incompatible with her religious beliefs. 

Although he goes on to claim that a human-rights agenda can in fact be founded on traditional Islamic ideas, he never actually makes that theoretical case. And elsewhere, An-Naim has insisted that human rights not be the standard by which religion is judged, which seems surely to argue against the aforementioned articles on religion of the human-rights declarations, which, in delineating acceptable religious practice, do precisely that.

"Human rights norms . . . have emerged today as one of the very few universal and cosmopolitan principles that are recognized around the world." And, to be sure, many religious people have thereby benefited, for the specifically religious rights afforded to individuals have been extended to religious groups, and theoretically ensure the religious rights of minorities. That said, in practice these legalistic exhortations have also often failed precisely in those places where they are most needed. But although the volume goes on to explore interesting empirical encounters between human rights and religion, not having made the case (and barely seeing the need to make the case) for a universalist human-rights philosophy as against the communalist claims of religion, the book fails to justify, or indeed recognize, its own necessity.

Jonathan Neumann is the Tikvah Fellow at Commentary, the current issue of which features his essay on Occupy Wall Street and the Jews.

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Alan Mittleman on January 13, 2012 at 9:52 am (Reply)
Mr. Neumann should read David Novak's book "Covenantal Rights." He really can't begin to criticize a scholar and thinker of Novak's stature without getting a fuller picture of his views.
Cynic on January 14, 2012 at 9:20 am (Reply)
"In reducing religion to the merry mantra 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,' religion's latent critique of the contemporary human-rights agenda goes unnoticed." That agenda is hypocritical and bigoted, with the unstated riders concerning "which human, what rights, and when they apply." As to the merry mantra, it simply ignores cultural differences--which, for all the PC applied, cannot hide the wide gap between the current Judeo-Christian agenda and the Islamic one.
Jorah Hammerman on January 17, 2012 at 12:31 am (Reply)
As someone who has studied both Orthodox Judaism and human rights for many years, I find the review of "Religion and Human Rights" sad--and particularly embarrassing to those of us with serious critiques of contemporary human rights activism. The reviewer assumes that (1) there's a single "human rights agenda," (2) there's another doctrine called “religion,” (3) "human rights" and "religion" are at loggerheads, with the former needing a “philosophical case” against the latter, (4) championing an individual’s freedom of worship equals endorsing his particular form of worship, (5) championing individual rights means means putting individuals before community, and (6) it is imperialistic to believe that certain practices in other countries are immoral and should stop. Nearly all these assumptions are obviously false. Human rights is simply the belief that certain human interests--there is some debate about what they are--should be protected and, arguably, promoted, even against general (e.g., utilitarian) policies and national interests. Some of these protected interests are also championed by religions; others are not. If this is an ideological clash, what isn't? Does a “philosophical case” for veganism need to be made against Kashrut because they don’t perfectly overlap?

True, even human rights properly understood has come under attack; but the main opponents are people on the post-modern left, who attack human rights for being--get ready--too religious, because human rights theorists assign human beings “sacred” properties. Human rights owe more to religion than to any secular morality. The anti-rights position also attacks the moral universalism of human rights--shared with every religion--as “imperialist” because it denies moral relativism. The review seems blithely unaware of all this, as well as unaware of the work of Novak and Perry in the very book he reviews. Again, this is sad, because there are serious things to say about human rights and its interaction with various faiths.

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