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Food for a pious thought

Human Rights Reader 304


[The issue of the relationships between human rights (HR) and religion has been in my mind for long. I already wrote a HR Reader about it (No.177. “In some cases, the human rights discourse is religion-skeptic”). I was rereading R. C. Solomon’s, Introducing Philosophy: A Text with Integrated Readings, 4th Edition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989,  and delved more into what the text had to say on religion to then apply it, if and whenever possible, to the HR discourse. Here, paraphrased, is what I found].


-The same way you find water when you dig, sooner or later, man finds the incomprehensible everywhere. (A. Lichtenberg)

-Because they are closed thought systems, the supposed advantage of all religions is that they have an answer to all questions. (A. Gomez)

-The ship of our church is navigating against head winds in storms that threaten it; we have sometimes even thought that God is asleep and that he has forgotten us. (Pope Benedict XVI, 12 October 2012)


1. One can be religious as a humanist and not believe in God. But people are drawn to God by, what seems, an irresistible force. Religious people perhaps too often make use of God above all else in their arguments.  Religions claim they have given happiness to mankind. But have they? (Does this mean then that, by definition, a rebel atheist cannot be happy…?)


2. In a way, atheists claim atheism is a logical reaction of contemporary rationality and, in the view of many, the proper antidote to centuries of superstition.  Atheists would say: Twenty one centuries of Christianity (or many more of Judaism), for example, have passed without a sign from heaven to mankind *. Not only that, but during the Inquisition, fires burned endlessly for the greater glory of God and ‘heretics’ were burned. Before that time already, Roman Catholics passed-on all authority to the figure of the Pope who wields it till today.

*: As a concern, I am aware about this particular Reader being too Judeo-Christian-centric. Men have worshipped different supernatural forces since pre-history and Judaism and Christianity is only a part of that experience.


3. Dostoyevsky worried that God is too willing to forgive absolutely anyone. He thus concluded that if there is no God everything is permitted. God thus for him is an instrument of un-freedom and a way to keep people ignorant and hopeful. (What struck me in this, was this ‘keeping people ignorant and hopeful’. I immediately linked this to the human rights issue, so I read along and what follows is what I found).


4. For A. J. Ayer, the  British philosopher, religion is a piece of old machinery that has never worked correctly. He is adamant: there is no possibility of demonstrating the existence of God. It is sometimes claimed, he says, that the existence of a certain sort of regularity in nature constitutes sufficient evidence of the existence of a God. But no religious wo/man would admit this line of arguing.  Atheists, on the other hand, hold that it is at least as probable that no God exists. The question whether a transcendent God exists is, by all means, a genuine question. One is thus indeed entitled to disagree with theists. Religions may, to some extent, be based on men’s awe of natural processes which they cannot sufficiently understand, Ayer argues. He also notes that it is common to find belief in a transcendent God conjoined with belief in an after-life. Religion cannot really stand in any logical relation to the propositions of science, he goes on; science takes away one of the motives which make men religious. Science tends to destroy the feeling of awe with which men regard the world since it can understand and anticipate many natural phenomena. God is much more an object of faith. It must be taken on trust rather as a matter of intuition –and intuition does not reveal truth; it is not a genuinely cognitive state; it gives us information of a state of mind; it is a psychological point of view. Intuition does not imply any more than our having moral sentiments. (On this point of moral sentiments, again, I was intrigued by the relationship religion/HR).*

*: Solomon then comments on the piece by Ayer: The truth and falsity of religious doctrines may not be subject to rational scrutiny, but the motivation of religious thinking might be, he says. Why do people turn to religion? As a rationalization for the lack of justice in this world? (this would link it to HR…) Or is it an escape, a kind of irresponsible reaction to a world we cannot cope with? (this would not…). Or is it perhaps due to people’s unwillingness to give up an illusion of security?


5. For Marx, humans invented religion to escape their intolerable social condition (an argument against its being linked to HR). And once we accept this, we should reject religion as an escape instead of embarking in correcting these conditions that make such an escape necessary (an argument in the direction of HR?). Marx was unambiguous: Religion does not make man. The state and society produce religion. Religion is a basis of consolation. It is the opium of the people (thus the famous quote). Hence, when criticizing religion, man regains his reason.


6. For Nietzsche, religion has corrupted the reason even of those strongest in spirit. Religion negates, slanders, and often stands truth on its head; it has no point of contact with reality (does he imply religion is thus not a straight defender of HR?). Religion pronounces nothingness holy, he says. God, soul, free will, sin, redemption, grace, forgiveness of sins, repentance, kingdom of God, last judgment, eternal life are all directed at appeasement. (Prayer is asking God to transform situations; but atheist ask: does it work? Or they add: Is relying on sermons and homilies that appease our conscience too rooted in our societies?).


7. Sigmund Freud, on his side, reduces religion to mere illusions; the ills of an insecure child who has never properly grown up. The child needs protection, is helpless and needs to cling to a powerful father figure. It is an enormous relief to the individual psyche if the fears of childhood are removed by a solution that is quite universally accepted, i.e., religion.


8. Towards the end, Solomon comments: Although religions have in the past and do still support holy wars, they have been used to support concerted social activism and humanism. (Again I find the link to HR here). But there are many many people for whom religion is primarily an emotional support without which they could not even function as human beings. The balance is precarious. No one can deny that there have been thousands of atrocities committed in the name of religion. Religion is one of the most controversial and sensitive part of our lives. For religion, reality is, in a word, divine. It is part of a search for  meaning, for morality and ultimately for a special type of justice –divine justice (definitely not something HR agrees with). It is strictly an emotional commitment beyond the domain of rational argumentation and understanding. There are those who see belief in God as an outmoded belief left over from the inadequate science of previous centuries, he repeats. Religion is humanity’s oldest philosophy and it is still the most controversial area of philosophical concern.


I turn now to sporadic comments I have found elsewhere:


9. One common denominator of all religions has been to neutralize –by faith– the spirit of curiosity. No matter how we look at it, religions have not had/do not have another justification than the sure fact of death. For religions, people’s lives revolve around carrying around their necks the feeling of fear of death so that when their time has come, they can receive death as a liberation. (Adapted from J. Saramago, Las Intermitencias de la Muerte, Alfaguara, Santillana Ediciones, Buenos Aires, December 2005).


10. Men invented God, because they need him mentally and sentimentally; that need is one of the characteristics of human weakness. Thereafter, men gave their invention a sense and gave it prestige so they would not feel ashamed of adoring him. (G. de Montherlant)


11. Religion still has its power, actually an enormous one, to define the political reality including the status of HR. But it also is the most vulnerable to being denounced as a creation of human minds. (A. Gomez)


12. Ethics, as opposed to religion, had to evolve, because it simply has had to be adaptive since it helps human beings to survive and prosper in their particular age and social environment. (M. Beckoff)


13. When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries the bible. They taught us to pray with the eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the bible. (Jomo Kenyatta)


14. The worst of bad things of bad people is the silence of good people. (Mahatma Gandhi)


15. As refers to God, one has to believe, not reason. If one reasons, God fades away like a puff of smoke. (Mario Vargas Llosa)


16. Even people who oppose religious institutions have to be aware that individuals consciously or unconsciously act according to religious norms and values. Religion (not only modern faiths, but also animistic belief systems) is the lens through which many people view the world. It is also how they approach their natural surroundings. Asian and European religious and secular traditions always contain elements of solidarity and include the moral and spiritual motivation to help each other. (R. Tandon) (Another possible link to HR)


17. As an edifice constructed by the human mind, religion turns against itself decimated by human nature. (A. Roy)


18.  To close, let us go back to my more general concern about how all this relates to human rights. Let me suggest some ideas for a thesis although, I am afraid, I have more questions than answers:

Is religion a basis for human rights?  In other words, can we found our advocacy for human rights on religious grounds?  There are both practical and theoretical problems involved here.  One of the practical issues is that some of the most effective advocates of human rights (I am thinking of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but there are others) drew inspiration from religion for their advocacy. What relationship should an atheist have to them?  How can we sort all of that out?  What is the ‘good HR side of religions’? If religion is not a basis for human rights, then what is?  Neither religion nor HR are coded into our genes, so they both must adhere to something social (as well as the reality that people as biological organisms require certain necessary conditions for a decent life).  So, what is that social reality that underlies human rights? Is it not religion? Only some of these questions are addressed in this Reader. (M. Andreson)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

(Most older Human Rights Readers can be found in under No. 69).


-Is Marxism a substitute for (early) Christianity? Replace God with Marx, Satan with the bourgeoisie, Heaven with a classless society, Church with the Party and the form and the purpose remain similar. (Arundhati Roy) Or put in a milder way: Is socialism thus a non-believer’s substitute for the often-times invoked Judeo-Christian ethics?

-God, I suspect you are a left-wing intellectual. (Paris Revolution graffiti)



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