[As some of you know, I follow the issue of human rights and religion closely. I have found materials that ask important questions. I share them with you here – Claudio Schuftan].

A battle between faith and science?

-Is science the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition? (Adam Smith)
-Science says the body is a machine; advertising says the body is a business; the body says I am a celebration; does the Church say the body is guilt? (Eduardo Galeano, Apuntes para Fin de Siglo) So, as regards guilt, without explaining it, does Christianity actually considers the original sin as a defining element/determinant of human behavior? (Edmundo Moure)
-Considering the immense power of Christianity, does this remind believers of their basic and uninterrupted condition as sinners? (Milan Kundera) So one can justifiably ask: What results then when God instructs the heart, not by ideas but by pains and contradictions? (De Caussade)1. Theology often poses as a science; does it assume human beliefs and matching behaviors are constant and are thus predictable? The question is who is served and who is dispossessed or ostracized by the methods theology and its proponents use. (Jorge Lillo)

2. Does placing restrictions on science or on philosophy by non-rational or irrational, dogmas of faith(i) put progress at risk? Consider: The Church in the middle ages was very supportive of a good deal of scientific research. But they did step-in when the conclusions of any research, or of philosophical thinking, clashed with dogmas of the Catholic faith, or seemed inconsistent with what the Bible proclaimed to be true. The 17th century started with the very dramatic event of the burning of Giordano Bruno essentially for ideas deemed heretical.(ii) Since then, there has been a constant battle between faith and science, seeking to explain natural phenomena through empirical reason or through some higher being.Has there been a moral and a scientific price to pay for that? (Steven Nadler)

(i): Many scholars ask whether whatever is dogmatic in religion waives people’s need to think critically. Is thus accepting the dogma to permanently live in a state of unconsciousness? George Orwell called this ‘doublethink’, i.e., the fact of simultaneously accepting two contradictory beliefs admitting both at the same time. In the economic realm, part of this is making people believe that their standard of living is higher than that of their ancestors and that material wellbeing is constantly improving. Does the secret of this dogmatic power reside in making people believe in the infallibility of their own religion? (or of capitalism…?) Furthermore, dogmas are not negotiable; does this explain the fact that they often foster extreme positions? (Regis Debray)
(ii): Fast forward: Nowadays, people wear religious symbols around their necks, hang them on their bedroom walls. Is that forgetting that they are actually looking at symbols that formerly not infrequently were instruments of torture? (Paulo Coelho, The Zahir)

3. So many things test people’s faith. The life-long trust placed in the wisdom and justice of an immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, humane, universal, anthropomorphic, English speaking, Anglo-Saxon, pro-American God has began to waver (has it…?) There is the Bible, of course, but the Bible is a book, and so is Treasure Island and the Last of the Mohicans. Where is the heaven? Up or down? There is no up and down in a finite, but expanding universe. There are no miracles, prayers go unanswered and misfortune tramps with equal brutality on the virtuous and the corrupt. (Joseph Heller, Catch 22)

4. Finally here, as a mystic without faith, the reason behind my misgivings about the mystical (not the scientific) explanations about the boundaries of life and death is that faith is not enough for me to accept the existence of a stratified eternal life where The Good go to heaven; The So-So go to the purgatory; The Bad go to hell and The Innocent go straight to limbo to for ever wander. (Leonardo Padura)

Have religion and culture often in history overshadowed human rights?

5. When religion and culture overshadow human rights, it is time to consider where one must draw the line, raise questions about the cultural and religious factors that infringe upon human rights (HR) and raise questions about the purported helplessness of the state in ending a sorry state of affairs when it does not raise questions about the need for social reforms. Have not, for decades, traditional conservative religious notions of gender and morality dominated the exercise of HR, especially those of women and girls? The controversy has continued into the present. When religious doctrines join hands with established conservative cultural systems (e.g., machismo), it leaves barely any space for a broader interpretation of individual justice, freedom and HR. And when left unchallenged, do not these often intolerant norms pave the way for the exploitation of HR in the name of rituals, conventions and even spirituality? “I believe that society really needs to collectively develop its own conscience and decide on its own what it wants”. (Ranuka Rao)

Can the conflict between religion and human rights, therefore, be very real?

Religions can and do speak up for human rights and dignity when in opposition. Why have they many times become obsessed with their rightness and the need to purge others of their purported wickedness once they attain power? If and when they retain their distance from power and show modest expectations about what they can achieve, they can (and have) stir(red) new possibilities though. (Wassily Leontief)

6. Is it not irrational to always leave it up to the outdated laws or to religion to govern the character of societies that ever evolve? This assertion is not about joining forces against religion(iii); rather it entails standing up for people’s rights, transcending the prevalent social, cultural and religious forces when these are negative.(iv) The challenging of some lay, secular norms prevails among followers of almost every religion. Even when people sense a right from a wrong, are not most un-willing, in specific cases, to publicly call attention to it, because of the religious bearing attached to it? (R. Rao)

(iii): “I thought you did not believe in God. I do not. But the God I do not believe-in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He is not the mean God you make him out to be. Let us have a little bit more religious freedom between us. You do not believe in the God you do not want to and I will not believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?” (J. Heller, Catch 22)
(iv): Consider the following: Since the late 18th century, tradition, ethics and religion have been steadily discredited, in the hope that rational, self-interested individuals can become part of a utopian-liberal-political-community that defines its shared laws and ensures dignity and equal rights for each human being, irrespective of ethnicity, race, religion and gender. This has become the basic premise of secular modernity that only seems menaced by religious fundamentalism and is now endangered by elected right-wing demagogues everywhere, not least in its very heartlands –Europe and the US. (Pankaj Mishra) Mind you, rational skepticism has, for millennia, attempted to dissolve Christianity; it has attempted it, but has not succeeded. (M. Kundera)

Religion and the underdogs

7. The dominant interpretations of the world of any given period are the ones that legitimize, enable or pave the way for the social changes carried out by the dominant classes or groups —scarcely any of them in the direction of HR. For instance, the still prevailing dualism between nature(v) and society contains a principle of radical hierarchical differentiation between the superiority of humanity/society and the inferiority of nature. The differentiation is radical in that it rests on a sort of difference that has been purportedly inscribed in the plans of divine creation. Was racism not conveniently reconfigured to signify the natural inferiority of the black race and, therefore, the ‘natural’ conversion of slaves into commodities? Has not the same happened in the case of women and the reconfiguration of women’s ‘natural’ inferiority in many religions that dates from much further back? In spite of being as productive as men, women’s work has conventionally been labeled as reproductive so that it can be devalued. Can we thus speak of the sub-humanity of racialized, sexualized bodies deep in the marrow of the capitalist, colonialist and patriarchal transformation of the world? Militating in this understanding of the world, there are in the capitalist, colonialist and patriarchal societies in which we live, many deep-seated interests –not least those of some religions. The three main modes of modern domination –capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy– work in a concerted manner that tends to vary with the social, historical, cultural and religious context –seldom the HR context. (Boaventura de Sousa Santos)

(v): Adoring nature, pagans practiced idolatry and offended God. Did they offend God or rather offended budging Capitalism in colonial times? (Eduardo Galeano, Apuntes para Fin de Siglo) Take the evangelizing mission: Was it a civilizational imperative or a horror about diversity?

We have to understand religious heretics –Jesus or Mohammed (or Buddha) did not come to make selected people rich and powerful who cling to their status against all odds (Chris Hedges)

-Have ownership and patriarchy unfortunately lead to past and ongoing interest of ecclesiastical authorities to support existing power structures and vested interests?

8. Take Saint Augustine and Blaise Pascal: For Saint Augustine, the love-of-God is oriented towards our fellow beings and is thus called amor socialis. Love-for-oneself (amor sui) subordinates the common good to one’s own interests. This being so, is it not difficult to justify the development of capitalism as a mode of production where the key moving element is selfishness opposed to divined will?
For Blaise Pascal, love-of-self makes man to be dominated by three libidos: Libido sentiendi comes from man’s sensuous passions; libido dominandi comes from man’s desire for more possessions and for dominating his fellow man; and libido sciendi touches on man’s passion to see, conceive and know. These three libidos, a product of amor sui (love-of-self), are opposed to the love-of-God. In reality, Pascal never proved the existence of God, but rather the interest of man in believing he existed. (From Louis Casado)

Does true religiosity need the favor of the worldly religious powers? (M. Kundera)

9. Why have many a religion not understood that the workers’ movements are the movements of the humiliated, of those who demand justice, fairness an their inalienable rights? So, are we to blame workers for becoming atheists? (Mind you, playing devil’s advocate, is atheism as dangerous a superstition …as Voltaire claimed…?) Or put another way, are there also dangers in the monotheism of reason? (Luis Weinstein)

10. Let me end with a thought about spirituality that importantly relates to HR work. Behind each act of creative social resistance there is a spiritual act. The spiritual revolution must have happened first within each of us before we can create the new world we all aspire to. (Nicanor Perlas) But beware, only if we use ‘spiritual’ in its essential meaning, I guess we can agree. But many persons devoted to social resistance perhaps rightfully look with suspicion at what is spiritual. Why? Because ‘the spiritual dimension’ has been manipulated by religions and gurus. (L. Weinstein)

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City
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Religious institutions are the oldest social service providers known to human kind, and several basic health and educational institutions of today are administered or influenced, to some extent, by religious entities. Facts and figures as to how many social services are provided by/through religious institutions continue to be provided and roundly disputed. Some governments (such as the USA and the UK) have fiddled with engaging with religious NGOs both at home in their own countries, and with supporting some of them in their development and humanitarian work abroad. UN development entities have also invested to generate interest of their largest Northern donors in the relevance of religious organizations in development. The UN has indeed steered initiatives to engage with religious actors and has enhanced partnerships with them around health, education, environment, women’s rights and humanitarian work. This question becomes especially pertinent when we begin to look at the religious composition of the Northern governments now keen on supporting religion and development abroad –they are mostly Christian. And if we look with suspicion at other governments that have long been supporting religious engagement for development and humanitarian purposes overseas, they tend to be Muslim. Rather than efforts driven by some governments to work with select religious actors, in some countries, the challenge (which is fully achievable) is to strengthen the multi-faith and broad-based civic coalitions of legally registered, bona-fide NGOs known to their governments and to the UN entities, at national, regional and global levels. Otherwise, the danger is that efforts through religious channels will be (mis)construed as the new colonial enterprise in international development playing into rising religious tensions globally. Is not history replete with examples where mobilizing religious actors in other countries, no matter how well-intentioned, can create some rather unholy alliances? (Azza Karam)