Do Religions Have Rights? Further Pages from The Victim’s Handbook

The passage of the Organization of the Islamic Conference’s “anti-defamation” resolution by the UNHRC is a completely non-momentous event, the kind therefore that will evoke cries of anguish from outraged friends of liberty everywhere. It is another installment in the non-luminous history of an increasingly irrelevant organization that seems only to be in the business of brokering perks, passing unenforceable resolutions, and offering obnoxious pedants a chance to grouse about America and Europe.

Crafted by the Pakistani delegation, the resolution urges states to provide “protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general.” Essentially, its force is diminished by the simple fact that the twenty-three nation majority voting in favor of the resolution were Muslim nations. Eleven nations, mostly Western, opposed the resolution, and 13 countries, including India, abstained. The United States did not vote on the resolution because it is not a member of the council.

According to Pakistan’s ambassador, Zamir Akram, “Defamation of religions is the cause that leads to incitement to hatred, discrimination and violence toward their followers.” That is stuff and nonsense of course. It is like saying that impugning General Motors workmanship is the cause of a car wreck. If religions, by a stretch, are products of culture, then the fact that they are sometimes “defamed” (read: criticized) might just have something to do with quality control and less to do with the insidious intentions of their detractors. To resituate the causes of religious violence and hatred from its source to the “defamers” is a standard tactic redolent of the Victim’s Handbook available at your local Discourse and Broomsticks Bookstore.

Before I am called out for the “false analogy” in that last paragraph (I know the difference between a religion and a Buick) let me offer a good reason not to take the UNCHR resolution seriously.

Language, practices and beliefs are the elements of religion. These elements, if they are benign in their effects, are the private, collective business of the adherents of a faith. But because religion is practiced in a social context, its effects on its own members and on unbelievers who choose to reject its doctrines are not strictly its own business. Speaking mainly of the western democratic mind-set, religions do not have the right to coerce belief. They do not have the right to kill the (ever-changing) enemies of God. They do not have the right to seek the protection of law (or even a tepid UNHRC resolution) for their view that religion occupies a status different from those institutions—banks, legislatures, labour unions—that do not claim exemption from ridicule. Whatever laws may pertain to the establishment and function of such institutions, they do not possess “rights” as the United Nations and other constitutional agencies have come to define the term. Religions, as social institutions with dues-paying members who share—more or less–a common world view and praxis, do not have rights.

The claim that religion is entitled to special protection because it is a different species of social institution is based on the belief that its focus is “transcendent” and its object sublime. But that is a doctrine belonging to faith and conscience, not to society. The sheer growth of any religion—Christianity, Islam, or any future competitor-faith – would doubtless make the crucial distinction between religion and society muddier (history has dealt with the coextension of religion and the state many times), but the steady progress toward human rights has depended on keeping the difference clearly in view. The idea of “universal human rights” (like the idea of a global community) is merely a modern form of nominalism, of course, but it at least performs the service of postulating a civil community – a human community – that regardless of the growth or decline of any particular community or special interest, encircles it and ideologically rises above it. The Jewish kingdoms, Christendom, and the worldwide Ummah, however populous and powerful these religious associations may have been or may be, are stubbornly particular in relation to the modern understanding of a global civil community. The humiliating failure of the United Nations in this episode is in not offering a convincing argument about why the idea of universal values erodes the claim that religions have special status.

Religions occupy not sacred space but real space regarded as sacred. The languages they use, whether Arabic, Latin, Sanskrit, or Urdu, are human languages that can be used for liturgy, poetry or to incite to riot and murder. The practices they encourage, ranging from Pentecostal highs to requiem lows, find their explication within the life of the religious community: no one outside the group is beholden to find it meaningful, moving, rich or true. When it is called insignificant, backward, intrusive, or harmful the redress of the religious community is not to seek legal protection for private systems of belief. The oxymoronics of victimology need to be outed: the bombing of abortion clinics by pro-life Catholics and the killing of Muslims at prayer by differently-inclined Muslims in Jamrud is not the exercise of free speech. It is not discourse. It is not the pursuit of the higher good. And it is certainly not “caused” by defamers. Whatever else 9/11 was, it was not a private act or the exercise of free speech. It was a liturgical act directed at innocent victims. Real victims. The profanation of religion is the option of its adherents, not of those who ridicule the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is the option of popes who preach shoddy science and mullahs who scream banalities at Friday prayer.

The claim of victimization has always had a strong appeal: the early Christian apologists were past masters of the art: “The more we are mown down by you the more we grow,” a snide Tertullian says to an unlistening emperor. “The blood of our martyrs is the seed of the church.” But to give the Christians their due, they took it on the chin and not once, as far as I know, did they seek anti-defamation legislation from the Roman Senate. Their “defamers,” from Celsus to Marcus Aurelius, were silver throated and persuasive. And their recourse was argumentation. One further thing: The religiously-induced violence of the last century exceeds by leaps and bounds, in terms of lives lost and atrocities committed, anything witnessed in the ancient world. Put the UN resolution in that pipe before smoking it.

In the long run the resolution will be promoted as it was passed by those who support the victimist view that the trouble with religion is people who don’t like religion. (It is telling that 13 countries abstained, spinelessly indecisive about what to think or believe, or more likely not wishing to cause offense to Muslim sponsors or western opponents.) What needs to be watched is the United Nations’ stunning inability to reconcile its promotion of human rights with a new calculus that sees religion as possessing human rights. It doesn’t. Contraception, bombings, stonings and beheadings, adolescent marriage, female circumcision, the eradication of civil law and educational rights for girls and women – religion has a lot to say about each of these things. Scandalously, the UN has now leant respectability to the idea that moral outrage is only the “right” of those whose religious feelings have been hurt.

R. Joseph Hoffmann is Chair of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER) at the Center for Inquiry and Editor of CAESAR: A Journal of Religion and Human Values. He is Scholar in Residence at Goddard College and editor of The Just War and Jihad: Violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Prometheus Books, 2006).

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