Religion, Human Rights, and Neo-Liberalism in a Post-Humanist Era

By Sung, Jung Mo | The Ecumenical Review, March 2018 | Go to article overview

Religion, Human Rights, and Neo-Liberalism in a Post-Humanist Era


Sung, Jung Mo, The Ecumenical Review


With the secularization of the modern world, particularly in the West, and religion's consequent decline in private life, the activities of churches and religious groups in public life--that is to say in the political and/or economic arena--came to be seen as somewhat inappropriate, or requiring some sort of justification. In general, churches that accepted secularization in the modern world used to justify, and still do, their actions in the political and social arena around the concept of human rights: the sociopolitical activities of religious groups and churches were seen as a way of responding to God's call, and, at the same time, defending human rights. In other words, the discourse on the defence of human rights was a way of translating into secular language, understandable and acceptable for modern society, what these groups and churches understood and still understand as a mission entrusted to them by God. In a certain sense the churches' mission was justified by a humanist idea of the world.

The aim of this article is to discuss this relationship between churches' actions in public life and the notion of human rights, and to contextualize this practice with regard to today's dominant neo-liberal culture which denies the very notion of human rights, particularly in the socio-economic arena.

Religion and Human Rights in the West

Interventions in public life by Christian churches that accepted the modern division of the world into a religious sphere and a secular sphere in the second half of the 20th century were, and continue to be, justified socially with two concepts that come from the broader idea of human rights: (a) social justice against mass poverty and glaring social inequality; and (b) the defence of human rights against torture, repression, and other forms of political oppression such as military dictatorships in Latin America, and, in the United States, in the form of civil rights advocacy against racism.

Although such behaviour marked the history of the West in the second half of the 20th century, its roots go back to the first half of the century. In 1948, faced with the social inequality between the developed countries of Europe and North America, and the poor countries of Africa and Asia, the World Council of Churches (WCC) at its founding assembly in Amsterdam stated that justice "demands that the inhabitants of Asia, and Africa, for instance, should have benefits of more machine production," (1) and "that economic activities be subordinated to social ends." (2) This demand for justice was also called "social justice." It was in the name of social justice that various churches in Latin America were later to embark on social and political struggles on behalf of the poor, and to overcome glaring social inequalities.

Parallel to this, the churches, under military dictatorships such as those in Latin America from the 1960s to the 1980s, and the institutionalized racism seen in the United States and South Africa, raised the banner of human and/or civil rights: the right not to be tortured, censored, treated as inferior, or prohibited from participating in "normal" social life.

These notions of social justice and human and civil rights are aspects of the same principle that says human beings are bearers of certain fundamental rights which are prior and superior to positive rights, to national laws or the laws of the dominant economic system, and generally referred to as human rights.

The theory that human beings possess certain basic, fundamental rights, prior to the positive right of each and every nation, is not obvious, and has not always existed. It is the creation of "universal religions" that believe in a transcendent God, above the specificities of peoples, who gives these rights to all human beings, regardless of their nationality, beliefs, or social condition. The common bridge between religions in substantiating these basic rights is the notion that life is sacrosanct. …

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