Human rights without religion is like a fish without a bicycle

Is separation between religion and the state essential to human rights?  Meredith Tax says secular space is necessary for the protection of religious and sexual minorities, freedom of thought and expression, and women's rights. It might even be central to the survival of the planet.

Meredith Tax
23 June 2014

What should be the relationship between religion and human rights?  Larry Cox, formerly of Amnesty USA, says the two belong together. "Human rights and religion need each other".

I am reminded of the old feminist one liner, a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.  

Cox argues that, without religion, human rights professionals are just talking to each other; they need to reach out to the popular classes, who are religious, as well as work in coalition with progressive religious groups and connect with the "inherent religious dimensions of their own ideas."  But why does one have to believe that human rights are inherently religious in order to work on campaigns with religious groups?  As Michael Bochenek says, "these partnerships hardly require a debate on the religious foundations of the rights movement in order to be effective".

The discussion emerges from legitimate concerns: a feeling that human rights work is too professionalised, lawyerish, and divorced from popular movements. But the way Cox has framed the questions obscures the critical point that every faith has its right and left wing. There is a Catholic Right, Jewish Right, Protestant Right, Hindu Right, Muslim Right and a rapidly growing Buddhist Right—all tending towards virulent nationalism, ethnic cleansing, and fundamentalism.  Despite positive examples like Shirin Ebadi and Rev. William Barber, in the last twenty-five years, the political thrust of religion has been overwhelmingly to the right. A quick scan of recent headlines is makes the point:

Bloody Toll: Boko Haram behind deadliest killing spree since 9/11

Sri Lanka Buddhist mob attacks Colombo mosque

Is There a Christian Nationalist Majority in America?

Radical pyromania: How the religious right and the Haredim are setting Israel aflame

India Weed Out Christianity, says Hindu BJP nationalist leader

The question of the day is not how to get human rights professionals to reach out to regular folks, but how to counter the power of religious fanatics, strengthen civil society, and encourage free discussion rather than mob rule. 

The issue of secular space is central here.  I use the term secular space rather than secularism because so many people wrongly equate secularism with atheism.  Atheism, like a lot of other isms, describes a belief system.  Secularism describes a political system in which religion and the state are kept separate, for the protection of both.  Note that this is different from the state atheism practiced in the USSR, China, and some other countries.  Countries with policies of state atheism do not just separate religion from government; they try to crush it.  

Separation of religion and the state does not dispose of all social problems.  In countries with a secular state, you can still find racism, sexism, gender prejudice, authoritarianism, economic want, cruelty to children, corruption, and discrimination.  But it is impossible for the state to say these flaws are dictated by religious doctrine or that one group of people is privileged because God likes them better than the rest.  Thus separation between religion and the state creates some of the preconditions for a level playing field.

This is in theory; in practice no state is completely secular, whether in the North or South.  As Elizabeth Bernstein and Janet R. Jakobsen point out, states tend to skew in the religious direction of their founding population.  In the supposedly secular US, this means Christian: 

"U.S. politics, when secular, represents a hegemonically Protestant version of secularism. This hegemony means that when different actors are brought into the mainstream of U.S. public discourse, the connecting points tend to be those that emphasize similarity to the dominant Protestant heritage..... Moreover, it is the alliance between Christian influence and conservative secular politics that has empowered the participants in this coalition over the past several decades. To focus on either religious or secular influences alone would be to miss the relational dynamics that have promoted conservative power".  

Every country has its own approach to secularism.  In Lebanon, it is seen as the way to have checks and balances between different faith communities; this has resulted in 18 different systems of personal law governing marriage, divorce, and child custody.  Germany guarantees freedom of religion but people are born into a faith and have to pay a Church Tax unless they opt out.  The UK has an official majority faith in which hardly anyone participates, but religion looms large in relation to minorities, where the state's tendency to pick fundamentalist advisors has led to such violations of human rights as sex-segregated seating in university meetings and Law Society instructions on how to draw up sharia compliant wills.

In Quebec, the furor over "values" that arose when the Parti Quebecois attempted to pass a secular values charter in 2013 (and lost the election partly as a result), shows how far the question is from being resolved—and how self-described secularists may also practice discrimination: the discussion focused on religious symbols and, while the PQ said the Jewish kippeh, Muslim hijab, and Sikh turban could not be worn by public servants, they saw no problem in having a crucifix hanging in the National Assembly.

The same tropism towards Christianity can be seen even in ultra-secular France, as Aurelien Mondon notes, comparing government indifference to protests by the Muslim Right against the 2011 burqa law to government capitulation to the Catholic Right, when it turned out thousands to protest legalization of same-sex marriage.  To paraphrase Orwell, all religions are equal but some are more equal than others.

The Indian version of secularism is also showing signs of strain; in the past, it has "signified the peaceful co‑existence of religious communities and a creative interaction between various traditions...[not] state atheism, or an active opposition to religion, or even a ban on the public display of religious sentiment (as long as this was non‑ aggressive)".  This version of secularism has been increasingly under attack and is now threatened more than ever by the election of Hindu fundamentalist Narendra Modi.

Separation between religion and the state—secular space—is critical to women's human rights. As feminists like Gita Sahgal, Pragna Patel, and Karima Bennoune argue in The Struggle for Secularism in Europe and North America (2011), edited by Marieme Helie-Lucas, any approach to multi-cultural harmony that capitulates to organized religion is a threat to the rights of women and sexual minorities. The participation of women in society is dependent on their being defined not as members of an ethnic or religious group but as individual citizens, with rights equal to those of every other citizen, including their fathers and husbands.

Secular space is a necessary condition for freedom of thought and expression; only if state politics are kept clear of religion can people of different belief systems talk without anyone being jailed for blasphemy.  Secular space protects both religious and non-religious people, as well as minority faiths.  It is also the only way to ensure freedom of scientific investigation, which has been threatened by fundamentalists from the Taliban, who oppose vaccination, to Christian fundamentalists, who oppose stem cell research.  No suprise that fundamentalists also think global warming is just a theory.

The threat of fundamentalism is far broader than military drives and terrorist attacks by groups like ISIS and al Qaeda.  Examples are everywhere: Uganda and Kenya's new laws against homosexuality; Putin's alliance with Orthodox church in Russia; the leading role of  fundamentalist settlers and their backers in denying Palestinians their rights; the never-ending struggle for abortion rights in the US; Buddhist persecution of Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka; and the enthusiastic use of blasphemy trials to silence free thought in Pakistan and Egypt.  

In her dazzling article, "Why I Am Not a Postsecularist"" Australian sociologist Melinda Cooper discusses similarities between today's fundamentalist movements and the fascist movements of the 1930s:

"It is remarkable, in fact, how closely the paranoid taxonomies of Hindu Nationalism or Salafi Islamism reproduce the discourse of European fascism in the mid-twentieth century, or for that matter the American religious right of today, both of which obsessively rehearse the cultural failures of 'Western secular liberalism'. The civilizational taxonomies of post-secular theory not only misrepresent the historical complexity of relations between religion and the state, they also seriously misunderstand the transnational organization of political religion today".

Which brings us back to the original question, the relationship of religion and human rights.  Because secular space is a necessary basis for protection of religious and sexual minorities, freedom of thought and expression, and women's rights—and might even be central to the survival of the planet—it cannot be compromised by ideas like "human rights and religion need each other."  Separation between religion and the state may not yet be part of the official human rights framework, but it must in time become so. 

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