Religion and Human Rights: Competing Claims?

Religion and Human Rights: Competing Claims?

Religion and Human Rights: Competing Claims?

Religion and Human Rights: Competing Claims?


Much has been written about the issue of religious freedom and church-state relations. The contributors to this book, however, take up another side of the question: what has been the impact of religion on human rights. Representatives from various religious traditions address a broad range of topics, from environmental rights to the basic validation of human rights, to the rights of women in India and Iran and within Orthodox Judaism, to the global imposition of criminal justice, to pressures for democratization within the Catholic Church in Latin America. The six major essays, along with their accompanying "replies" answer questions and raise issues in a provocative and compelling debate.


Two hundred years ago, Immanuel Kant testified to the two realities that held him in awe: "the starry heavens above and the moral law within" each human being. Like other philosophers of the European Enlightenment, Kant was not astronomically intimidatable. Whatever the size of the galaxies, humans had a special relation to it all: a rationality that relates them to something ultimately precious in the universe.

These two centuries later many of us would like to emulate this Kantian confidence, but we are burdened with two difficulties: We are less sure of our unique status in that very large universe, and we are even less sure that as members of the same species we all have access to that "moral law within."

To be sure, in this fiftieth anniversary year of the adoption by the United Nations of its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we hope for an earth-wide consensus that we humans owe profound, non-negotiable mutual respect to each other. But we have little consensus as to whether Thomas Jefferson was on firm ground when he claimed that we humans have "certain inalienable rights" because our divine Creator has "endowed" us with them. Was this Jeffersonian rhetoric decorative only? Do we have to bring God into any claim that we are to respect ourselves and each other always as "ends" and never as "means"—the Kantian ethical maxim?

The authors of the essays in this collection are fully aware that our experience of our neighbors in this twentieth century, especially in our politics, has left us anything but confident in the moral status of human being. Where was the "moral law within" when the trench warfare of 1914 began? When the university-trained Nazis devised the concentration camps? When the annihilation of whole cities became standard strategy for victory in war from 1939 to 1945? When at the end of this century, as a world "community," we had compiled a record for organized killing in the range of 150 million? the pre-Enlightenment French philosopher Blaise Pascal spoke of the "grandeur and misery" of human nature. We know about the grandeur in our moon walks, our computers, and our Declarations of Human Rights. But on some deep levels, we are haunted by the misery.

Were I to propose a test question for all the authors here, I would ask:

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