Eh? What and human rights?

I see on Tina Beattie’s page at Roehampton that one of her teaching interests is Religion and Human Rights. That’s a strange pairing, I thought – even stranger than those pairings of ‘Religion and Ethics’ that we see everywhere (such as at the BBC). Why religion and human rights? It is so often bishops or priests or mullahs who oppose human rights rather than supporting them – it seems odd to link them. The pairing of religion and ethics gives religion the credit for ideas and views that are often entirely secular; pairing religion with human rights would seem to do the same thing.

Human Rights Watch is aware of the tension.

Is there a schism between the human rights movement and religious communities? Essential disagreements appear increasingly to pit secular human rights activists against individuals and groups acting from religious motives. The list of contentious issues is growing: on issues such as reproductive rights, gay marriage, the fight against HIV/AIDS, and blasphemy laws, human rights activists and religious groups often find themselves on opposing sides.

Yes we do, and on the human rights side we find ourselves dealing with bad or no arguments from the religious groups. ‘We want to block these suggested rights, and we don’t have a real reason, we just know that God wants us to, so we’re more devout than you are, so we have the moral high ground, so you should give in to us.’

The controversy that hit the EU in October 2004 around…conservative Catholic Rocco Buttiglione illustrates some of the issues at stake. Unperturbed by the furor he was arousing, the candidate for Commissioner on Justice, Freedom, and Security—who in that function would have been in charge of fighting discrimination—affirmed in front of bewildered members of the European Parliament that “homosexuality is a sin” and that “the family exists to allow women to have children and be protected by their husbands.”

Well…maybe what we mean is ‘Liberal Religion and Human Rights.’ But that’s not what it says – and the sad fact is that most religion isn’t liberal. It’s a comfortable illusion of the safe middle-class in the safe developed countries that most religion is liberal and getting more so all the time – hence perhaps the bewilderment of the members of the European Parliament – but it is indeed an illusion. One of the perks of religion is being able to be dogmatically and arbitrarily opposed to lots of things you don’t happen to like, and most believers have no interest at all in giving up that perk. If it’s human rights you’re after, religion is generally the wrong place to look. (Yes there are exceptions; yes MLK was religious.)

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