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?
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
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.
We can also look at Muslim societies for another
example of the importance of a religious foundation for a right.
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.