Seeing the Myth in Human Rights

Seeing the Myth in Human Rights

Seeing the Myth in Human Rights

Seeing the Myth in Human Rights


The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been called one of the most powerful documents in human history. Today, the mere accusation of violations of the rights outlined in this document cows political leaders and riles the international community. Yet as a nonbinding document with no mechanism for enforcement, it holds almost no legal authority. Indeed, since its adoption, the Declaration's authority has been portrayed not as legal or political but as moral. Rather than providing a set of rules to follow or laws to obey, it represents a set of standards against which the world's societies are measured. It has achieved a level of rhetorical power and influence unlike anything else in modern world politics, becoming the foundational myth of the human rights project.

Seeing the Myth in Human Rights presents an interdisciplinary investigation into the role of mythmaking in the creation and propagation of the Universal Declaration. Pushing beyond conventional understandings of myth, which tend to view such narratives as vehicles either for the spreading of particular religious dogmas or for the spreading of erroneous, even duplicitous, discourses, Jenna Reinbold mobilizes a robust body of scholarship within the field of religious studies to help us appreciate myth as a mode of human labor designed to generate meaning, solidarity, and order. This usage does not merely parallel today's scholarship on myth; it dovetails in unexpected ways with a burgeoning body of scholarship on the origin and function of contemporary human rights, and it puts the field of religious studies into conversation with the fields of political philosophy, critical legal studies, and human rights historiography. For Reinbold, myth is a phenomenon that is not merely germane to the exploration of specific religious narratives but is key to a broader understanding of the nature of political authority in the modern world.


The state is invisible; it must be personified before it can
be seen, symbolized before it can be loved, imagined
before it can be conceived.

—Michael Walzer, “On the Role
of Symbolism in Political Thought,” 194

There are any number of reasons why one might object to seeing the myth in human rights—why one might object, in other words, to the work of conceiving of contemporary human rights as a powerful form of modern myth. One might argue that such a conception ties contemporary human rights to a religious logic that such rights were specifically designed to supersede. One might argue that such a conception, in addition to undermining the avowed secularity of such rights, also threatens to undermine their universality—to portray human rights as intractably indebted to culturally specific values and languages and thus to reinforce the perception of human rights as a mechanism for a subtle form of cultural imperialism. More generally, one might argue that the word myth by definition serves to call into question the very legitimacy or viability of human rights. All of these potential objections are valid insofar as they presuppose a definition of myth as a vehicle for, on the one hand, particular religious dogma or, on the other, erroneous or even duplicitous discourse. The central premise of this book, however, is that such presuppositions about myth are unfaithful to contemporary scholarship in the field of religious studies, and that they are therefore blind to a series of important insights that the academic study of religion has to offer into the unique logic, authority, and history of universal human rights.

Contemporary scholarship on religion has converged upon an understanding of myth not merely as a mode of doctrinaire or duplicitous discourse, but as a mode of human labor that serves the broad, enduring function of . . .

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