Faith and Human Rights: Time To Restore Diplomatic Relations

By David Griffiths*

"From a Christian perspective, there is a significant relation between the Gospel message and the recognition of human rights in the spirit of those who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Pope Francis

As tens of thousands of young people took to the streets in cities across the USA to call for an end to gun violence in the historic “March for Our Lives”, @Pontifex tweeted, “Dear young people, never get tired of being instruments of peace and joy among your peers”. The same Pope has regularly used his Twitter voice to encourage generosity towards refugees and migrants, and call for an end to exploitation.

At a time when vanishingly few world leaders are willing to speak out for human rights, Pope Francis’ voice has taken on great importance. His moral clarity and the simplicity of his exhortations have won him friends from across religious divides.

Pope Francis is not only the leader of one of the largest religious movements in the world, but arguably the pre-eminent champion of human rights in the world today. Yet, in general terms the relationship between religious faith and human rights – inasmuch as it exists at all – has over decades become almost totally estranged.

This is a great shame, and it impoverishes both human rights and religion. It is also historically aberrant, since human rights has drawn substantially from the moral reasoning of a variety of religious traditions, and has enjoyed the active support of religious communities throughout much of its short history.

Maybe this estrangement is partly explained by the fact that human rights looks like religion for a secularist era. Human rights is a value system with a vision for a healthy society – some of which is at odds with the traditional order associated with dominant religions. Much of its potency and relevance depends on being championed by people committed to its values, like any faith community. And similarly, it has built up an infrastructure of laws and institutions which, while creaky and often dysfunctional, provide a solidity and sense of permanence.

But mutual estrangement is depriving all sides of an important partner in confronting questions of human values which have taken on new urgency. In these strange and uncertain times, identity politics and protectionism are growing as the world shrinks, and politicians and the media prey on people’s anxieties about a future which is globalised, ecologically damaged, churned by a shifting world order, and upended by disruptive technology. For many populist leaders, religion and ethnicity are sources of group identity which can be readily tapped. This fragmentation and zero-sum view of relations between groups accompanies a palpable surge of attacks on human rights across the world. And both faith groups and the human rights movement are left asking, what kinds of societies do we want to live in, and how do we build them from here?

This seems like a good time to build new bridges between faith and human rights. But what would be the terms of engagement for a renewed dialogue between them? I would like to suggest three areas.

Firstly, we need a sophisticated approach to human rights abuses committed in the name of religion, or with religious endorsement. In a world of heightened identity politics and cultural protectionism, many leaders court the patronage of majority religious communities. Evangelical conservatives in the USA have sanctioned many of President Trump’s worst instincts. In India, Hindu nationalist narratives have driven rising hate crimes against minorities. The leaders of so-called Islamic State claimed they were creating an authentically Muslim society. And so on.

Facing this reality, human rights groups have too often overlooked the religion factor. But it is not enough simply to appeal to the better nature of governments who stand on majoritarian support. Violence against minorities is part of the logic of identity politics and a proven political strategy. It is the almost inevitable long-term consequence of long-term narratives of “us versus them”. Real redress is not only about accountability and non-discrimination, it is also about governments deliberately creating an environment for pluralism to thrive. Human rights groups and religious leaders should work together to this end. Faith leaders need to call out the instrumentalisation of religion for political gain, while human rights groups should push for the protection of freedom of religion for all.

Secondly, there is plenty of unexplored potential for the human rights movement and faith communities to make common cause on wider societal challenges. Both speak about values, and both draw on the engagement of people who want to realise those values in the world. Human rights organisations should not try to teach religion to religious people, but there is potential for them to build on religious and cultural values. For example, in promoting welcoming attitudes towards refugees or minorities, human rights groups already tap into the moral resources that are often provided by religious faith. This could be developed into deeper partnerships, for example by placing refugee families in the care of welcoming communities, which can set a positive example to others.

Thirdly, we are reaching a point in history when exponential technologies are raising new questions about what it means to be human. In Noah Yuval Harari’s analysis, religious faith is a pre-modern survival mechanism, while the idea of autonomous individual agency (in which human rights is rooted) has now reached its twilight. In the merging of humans and machines which we now confront, in the new social contracts mediated by algorithms, we are entering uncharted territory when it comes to questions of what it means to be human.

If we reach a situation in which a supreme caste of humankind is enhanced by machine while other humans are pre-emptively removed from society because they are judged likely to commit certain crimes, will we still even pay lip service to an ideal of human equality? This is the kind of existential question which concerns faith communities, and which has profound implications for human rights.

As the negative implications of powerful exponential technologies become ever clearer, the need for an ethical framework for technologies such as artificial intelligence is abundantly clear. As to the question of whose ethics, that will be largely determined by whoever turns up to have the discussion. Faith communities and the human rights community should both be paying attention.

I have suggested three areas to help us build a constructive engagement between faith and human rights. None of this precludes mutual critique, and both faith communities and the human rights movement will rightly continue to make criticisms of each other. But as @Pontifex has seen clearly, the bigger need today is for voices of moral clarity to speak out against forces of injustice and division in these turbulent times. Can we start to end the estrangement?

* David Griffiths is Head of the Secretary General’s Office at Amnesty International. He holds degrees from Oxford University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, and has previously specialised in freedom of religion and the rights of minorities in Asia. All opinions expressed in this article are that of the author, not that of the CRGA or any other institution.