Does Human Rights Need God?

By Elizabeth M. Bucar; Barbra Barnett | Go to book overview

7
Religion, Religions, and Human Rights

LOUIS HENKIN

The fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 (the “Universal Declaration”) surely deserved celebration. Celebration also provides an occasion for reflection, and I have been asked to reflect on the vexed relationship between religion and human rights. I do so as a human rights scholar and as an observer of religious practices, not a student of religion or religions or religious ethics.

I speak of religions in the plural. Religions are particular, concrete, historical communities with members, practices, and boundaries. If we ask why religions have been slow to embrace the human rights idea, the answer often lies in the nature of these particular, concrete, historical communities — in the exigencies of identity, social function, and group survival. Theologians, philosophers, and other academics properly distinguish “religion” from “religions,” but in that distinction, “religion” is abstracted, and the claims that are made about it are claims about an abstraction. In the public mind, “religion” does not exist; there are only “religions.” Surely, in the political universe in which human rights are played out and matter, “religion” cannot avoid identification with “religions,” with every — any — particular religion. And, unhappy as this is to say, every religion at some time, in some respect, has had to answer to the human rights idea for human rights violations, many of them unspeakable. Moreover, theoreticians dealing with the relation of “religion” and human rights make their task too easy, dismissing the actual practices of actual “religions” as perhaps aberrant, certainly as less telling than their gen-

This essay was originally published as “Religion, Religions, and Human Rights,” Journal of Religious Ethics 26, no. 2 (1998): 229–38. This slightly modified and reedited version appears here by permission of the author and Blackwell Publishing.

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