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The paradox of religion and rights

While religion is foundational to human rights, it is also problematic. Broad concepts of religion often obscure identity and hide an imperialistic organization of the world. How, then, can we understand religion as more than an external social category that only protects theoretical rights, rather than lived realities? A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate, Religion and Human Rights.

Religion is as foundational to human rights as it is problematic. While Larry Cox argues that human rights and religion need one another, it is still unclear whether they hinder each other more than they help. This paradox is evident in the context of NGOs and the United Nations, where the term “religion” is a strategic concept that carries both positive and negative associations in the rights discourse. 

In this sense, the abstract concept of “religion” does a lot of work in the UN Charter, where religion is linked to human freedom and individual rights. This concept is also outlined in article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which operationalizes “religion” alongside “thought” and “conscience.” The official deployment of this term for global rights underlines that hard political realities and human suffering are both aided and confused by a concept that is historically very ambiguous. After all, concepts matter for truth and the values of human life. As Cox argues, many of the world’s greatest advocates for social justice have come from deep faith. So what does this concept of religion actually do within the institutions of human rights? 

Image of former U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with the English version of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Wikimedia Commons).

According to Carrette, the UN Declaration of Human Rights operationalizes the term “religion” along with similarly ambiguous concepts as “thought” and “conscience”.  

The United Nations and Human Rights system have their foundations in the moral frameworks of many cultures and traditions that inform the fundamental value in human life and its expressions. Arguably, the ethical base of human rights emerges from many ancient textual and oral traditions, aspects of which we sometimes mark out as “religion.”

As the mission statements of religious NGO groups show, from Judeo-Christian to Muslim and from Hindu to Buddhist, religious groups become active at the UN on the basis of their shared values with the UN. In fact, religious groups such as the Quakers and Bahá’is were present at the founding UN conference in San Francisco in 1945. Rights discourse has a pluralistic echo because it resonates with centuries of diverse traditions honoring the value of being human. In turn, religious groups identify with this understanding from their particular traditions. Here we might say that “religion” and “rights” have grown together in the formation of a global ethical understanding.

But the idea of religion is also problematic because that diverse and complex world is embedded in social practices not so easily divided into religious and non-religious. This point is illustrated in the fact that the United Nations does not classify NGOs as “religious,” because it is almost impossible to demarcate the nature of a religious versus a secular NGO. More importantly, the UN does not define religion according to a group or social identity. As we see in the Defamation of Religion debate at the UN (1999-2011), religion was defined as an individual rather than group right, in response to Islamic concerns over the treatment of Muslims. In the modern political apparatus, religion is an individual matter. The assumption of the “individuality” of rights, while perhaps contradictory of practice, has become a political placeholder for protecting people in complex and plural worlds. 

Nonetheless, we might challenge the adoption of religious language by recognizing that some groups do not classify themselves as religious because of the Christian bias of the term. In survey analysis for NGOs at the United Nations, for example, we find that “religious” is often not the preferred descriptive category, even when offered more than one option. NGOs see themselves much more as “faith-based,” “spiritual,” “inter-faith,” “ethnic” or “secular with religious roots.”

These research findings suggest that broad concepts of religion obscure identity, because they do not capture the nuances of individual groups. Religion is an external social classification and becomes, in effect, an official protective category for theoretical rights rather than lived realities. 

Even more unseen and unacknowledged, the term religion also hides an imperialistic organization of the world, built from colonial forces and power that sought to capture non-western societies. When the language of religion is set up for a western-Christian or secular civil society sector, it is no surprise that Asian traditions are some of the most under-represented in the United Nations, and that over 70 percent of so-called religious NGOs are Christian. Muslims are also under-represented in UN civil society and instead become represented through the State and diplomatic structures. Arguably, most concepts of civil society privilege cultures that separate religion from politics and markets. To create such sectors in society is to refuse the cultural reality of many non-western religious/cultural traditions that do not operate on such divisions. It is here we see the greatest problem of religion – the false religious-secular division that privileges the western elite and its ordering of reality.

Secularity is complex and multi-dimensional, but it is formed by the idea of the religious in opposition. That is, religion gets framed as the under-developed and irrational, something opposed to modern values. This view privileges belief over practice (a monotheistic tradition), divides the social world into distinct domains (a modern, western practice that is being universalized) and divides the social world to privilege economy and politics (a capitalistic value system linked to the establishment of the nation state). 

In turn, this division means that at the UN so-called secular groups often do not support discussion about religious rights. We see this most clearly in the debates about the relation of women’s rights and religion – arguably the most challenging tension in human rights discourse. 

Depending on the strategic position, religion can either protect groups, if it is seen to be helpful in identity politics and the protection of minorities, or it can cause division, oppression and intolerance. As Cox argues, human rights activists are acutely aware of the power of religion. What this means in practice is that NGOs deploy the language of religious identity in discussion with other NGOs and UN diplomats when it services “rights,” and hide it when it does not.

The problem of religion is finding the right language for “rights.” We do not yet fully understand how such language helps and hinders the attempt to overcome persecution and suffering, but we do know that such language definitely matters.


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