Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Clash of Theism and Human Rights

The human rights tradition sprung from the enlightenment, was solidified during the French Revolution in the publishing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and is documented in its modern context in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the United Nations after World War II, on 10 December 1948. ( It embodies concepts which are at odds with the Bible and the Quran, the primary sources of religious doctrine of the three most prominent modern theistic religions. These governing religious documents tolerate, and sometimes even prescribe inequalities that are not tolerated in the human rights documents.

There is a fundamental difference in the documents underlying religion and those underlying human rights. The former are immutable, the latter subject to change as circumstances change. Civilization has changed dramatically since the Bible and the Quran were written. Is it to be bound to principles and laws that are a product of a time when knowledge and understanding of human and natural phenomena were primitive? Or are we to benefits from generations of study and enlightenment?

Until recently, modern religious practice has mitigated these conflicts by accepting some of the tenets of human rights. Countries have precluded conflict by prescribing separation of religion and state, while others have a state religion, but nevertheless accept human rights principles, while still others incorporate religious law into their governing law.

The continued coexistence of religion and human rights depends on either a compromise of religious principles or human rights principles, in some cases. In the past decade we have seen a rise in religious fundamentalism which shows less tolerance for human rights and a greater demand for obedience to religious principles enumerated in the Bible and the Quran. In the case of Islam, this has resulted in Islamic extremism which condones terrorism to achieve its ends. In the case of Christianity it has resulted in the election of a born-again Christian president, and increased demands from the Christian community to accept a greater degree of Christian influence in government and a renewal of tensions between the human rights and religious communities. Many of the conflicting issues now before the American people have religious roots, including abortion, stem cell research, attitudes toward and rights of homosexuals, toleration of religious symbols in public places, and use of religious organizations as instruments of government activity. If the trend continues we can expect to see protests against tax exemptions for religious institutions, and income tax deductions for individual giving to religious institutions.

We live in a very pluralistic world of many cultures and religions. Our foreign policy is dependent on an understanding and appreciation of other cultures. If our country becomes bound by religious traditions and customs even more than it is now it will complicate our role as a citizen of the world or isolate us from countries that don’t accept our religious principles. We must deal with countries that have even more deeply held religious beliefs and where religion governs the society. Will we be better able to change or accommodate these countries if we are bound by an equally restrictive set of beliefs. Or will we be better equipped to handle foreign diplomacy by keeping religion a private matter and out of the arena of government?

Discussion of religion and its consequences has been somewhat taboo in American society because a large majority of Americans have some religious affiliation or sentiment. Most religious people turn away from any discussion of their beliefs, considering it a private matter and out of bounds to anyone else. But, it is becoming less of a private matter and more of a public matter when religious people demand more than their right to practice their religion and defend it. When religious dogma begins to infringe on human rights and affect other people it is an open subject for discussion and legislation. It’s time for a frank discussion of religion, particularly in the context of its conflict with human rights.

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