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Religious Foundations of Human Rights
(Presentation given in a Comparative Religion course.)

    It is both easy, and difficult, to speak on human rights.  It is easy because so many people have some idea of what the term means. Yet it is difficult because no one definition can adequately explain the term. In attempting to develop a common concept of human rights, it is often useful to look at the major world religions to see if a foundation of respect for human rights can be found in all religions. 

    This is actually quite a debate in the field of human rights.  Some say that human rights are universal, and therefore particular human rights are applicable to all peoples.  Others, however, feel that human rights are a culturally specific concept, and that each culture defines values in terms of concepts and symbols which are proper to that tradition, and, therefore, are not universal.  In light of this debate, I thought it would be interesting to look at whether studying the world’s religions would shed some light on the controversy.

     The first question is whether the notion of human rights is universal among world religions.  One of the central points of debate within the whole discourse on the cultural relativity of human rights is that some contend that the very notion of ‘human rights’ is of Western origin.  While it is certainly true that Western nations did dominate early efforts to create international standards of basic human rights, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights just after World War II, does that necessarily mean that the very notion of human rights is entirely of Western origins?
     Its true that the sanctity of the individual and the importance of protecting basic human rights are principles that abound in Christianity and Judaism.  Countless parables and statements in the scriptures of these religions provide support for human rights values. For example, Jesus repeatedly tells of the value of every individual in the eyes of God, and Paul, in Hebrews 13:3, states "Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were mistreated."  Examples can be found in Judaism as well.  Our textbook tells of the respect for human rights that pervades the religion, stating that in Judaism "each individual possesses an inalienable dignity and makes an irreplaceable contribution to the world. Not one human being is expendable.”

       But again, does that mean that the very notion of human rights is of an entirely western origin and wholly absent from non-western religions? One of the books that I drew from for this paper looked at this question of Western origins in the context of the world's religions, and the author concludes that “the moral worth of each person is a belief that no single civilization, or people, or nation, or geographic area, or even century can claim as uniquely as its own.”  In truth,  propositions about human dignity and equality are present throughout the world's religions. And throughout the literature, many people of diverse religious backgrounds dispute this claim that the human rights tradition originated in modern Europe. Many Muslims have categorically stated that Islam was the very first culture on earth to which God imparted a complete set of human rights values, and the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights--a declaration on rights that was created by leaders of Islamic nations--emphatically reinforces that Islamic precepts have always included human rights. 

      What about eastern religions?  Can the notion of human rights be found in Buddhism or Hinduism or Confucianism? One of Buddhism’s leading moral concepts is that of compassion--literally ‘passion for all’--which extends to cover the realm of all sentient beings.  The example of the cherished bodhisattva, who sympathetically delays entrance to nirvana as long as there is suffering in the world, illustrates to Mahayana Buddhists the importance of fostering deep concern for all sentient beings. Precepts like this underscore Buddhism’s promotion of a unified humanity based on compassion and respect for all. Likewise, many scholars feel that support for certain human rights concepts can be found in the writings of leading Confucian thinkers.  Indeed, Confucian teachings encouraged civility and inspired humane concern and mutual respect.  The laws created by Confucian leaders not only reflected fairness, but also reasonableness, and human concern.  Now, it has be noted that although Confucianism strongly affirms the moral equality of all humans, certain social inequalities were accepted.  However,  the foundation of respect for dignity and rights still comprises much of the underlying philosophy of Confucianism.  Hinduism, on the other hand, can be a bit more problematic. Although the first ethical principle of Hinduism is non-injury, traditional Hindu society largely denies the equal worth of all human beings 
by drawing sharp distinctions between individuals based on differences in caste, age, and sex.  Yet there are aspects of Hinduism which do denote equality, such as the Arthanaareeswarar form in the Shiva godhead, which is composed of two halves--the right half male and the left half female--indicating that males and females have equal positions, powers and rights. 

       Thus, despite uncertainties in Hinduism's concept of human rights, it can be clearly stated that the philosophical foundation for human rights and human dignity can be found in many of the world’s religions, most especially as evinced through the prevalence of the concept of  reciprocity.  All major world religions adhere to the common principle that one should treat other people as he or she wishes to be treated by others--essentially the 'golden rule.'  Under this precept, I would take human rights to be those rights which I claim for myself, and must therefore concede to others. The prevalence of this value, in addition to parables and doctrines and teaching that reinforce human rights, points to a common foundation for the notion of human rights. 

     More difficult to resolve, however, is the second point of debate in the controversy over whether human rights are universal or relative to cultures--that of defining the content of rights.  What is a right?   For example, does a person have a right to chose their marriage partner, or move freely within their country?  Again, religion is a very important factor here because religion plays such an important  role in defining human rights.  This is highlighted by the fact that even though there are numerous international documents--documents that provide specific and often legally binding definitions of particular human rights--the presence of a religious foundation or the religious legitimacy for a given right is often what determines whether an 'internationally agreed upon' right is respected or ignored in a society.

     Those who study the world's religions are very aware of the awesome power of religion. Religion not only influences how individuals understand and form opinions about the world, but also shapes how basic values and principles are defined and understood. Religious beliefs can be so much a part of our personality that we often take for granted how strongly our behavior patterns and relationships are impacted by those beliefs. So religion can be quite powerful in determining what is considered a human right.  Therefore, aside from the fact that people should be able to live in accordance with the precepts of their own culture and religion, it is important for tactical reasons that there be legitimacy for a particular human right within a religion in order for it to be respected. 
        The necessity of religious legitimacy for rights is often made clear when attempts are made to enforce an internationally recognized, universal human rights standard in a society for which there is no religious legitimacy for that right. Such attempts are often counterproductive and unlikely to succeed in changing the practice in question. One of the strongest examples of the importance of religious legitimacy can be found in India's caste system and the situation of India’s Untouchables. According to the Constitution of India, "Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden."  However, tradition persists, and the pattern of exploitation and oppression remains. Part of the reason for its persistence and entrenched position is because the classical Hindu philosophies of karma and reincarnation support this system, dictating that where a person is born in this life is predicated on the karma from his or her last life.  So despite a full range of political, economic, and social rights legally guaranteed in Indian constitutional law, Untouchability remains because the religious underpinnings of Indian society continue to support this system.

    We can also look at Muslim societies for another example of the importance of a religious foundation for a right.
The impact of Islam on the lives of its followers is one of the deepest and longest in history, and Islamic norms are a very powerful force in many predominately Muslim societies.  These norms can strongly impact a person’s views towards what constitutes a human right.  Also, because Islamic law is believed to be divinely inspired, in the minds of most Muslims, Islamic law supersedes any man-made laws, such as international laws on human rights.  For example,  the religiously sanctioned punishment of amputation of the hand for theft provides an example of the conflict between "universal" standards of human rights and  religious--and thus societal--sanction of this punishment. 

"From a secular or humanist point of view, inflicting such a severe permanent punishment for any offense, especially for theft, is obviously cruel and inhuman, and probably also degrading. However, to the vast majority of Muslims, the matter is settled by the categorical will of God as expressed in the Qur'an, and, as such, is not open to question by human beings.  A religiously sanctioned punishment, however, will absolve an offender from punishment in the next life because God does not punish twice for the same offense. Accordingly, a thief who suffers the religiously sanctioned punishment of amputation in this life will not be liable to the much harsher punishment in the next life. To people who hold this belief, however severe the Qur'anic punishment may appear to be, it is in fact extremely lenient and merciful in comparison to what the offender will suffer in the next life should the religious punishment not be enforced in this life."

So clearly, while this practice violates established international standards of human rights, the practice is religiously sanctioned in Islamic societies, and the notion that this punishment violates a person's basic human rights can be fundamentally absent from most Muslim societies as it is contrary to the teachings of the religion. 

       Similar examples can be found in Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and many other major religious traditions. So there are issues here that clearly need further discussion and clarification.  Yet, I feel that it can still be unequivocally stated that human rights are embraced and promoted by the world's religions in a variety of differing, yet often quite positive, ways. By studying the different approaches taken by the world's religions in fostering respect for human rights & human dignity, one can gain a better understanding not only of the religions themselves, but also how to further ensure that all humans are treated with dignity and respect regardless of race, gender, nationality, or religion.