Archbishop Rowan Williams' Lecture on Human Rights and Religious Faith (Full Text)

In what follows, I want to suggest some ways in which we might reconnect thinking about human rights and religious conviction ”“ more specifically, Christian convictions about human dignity and human relatedness, how we belong together. Similar points may of course emerge from other kinds of religious belief. I believe this reconnection can be done by trying to understand rights against a background not of individual claims but of the question of what is involved in mutual recognition between human beings. I believe that rights are a crucial way of working out what it is for people to belong together in a society. The language gets difficult only when it is divorced from that awareness of belonging and reciprocity. This is not just to make the obvious (and slightly tired) point about rights and responsibilities. It is to see the world of ”˜rights’ as anchored in habits of empathy and identification with the other. And I shall also argue that a proper understanding of law may help us here. Law, I believe, is not a comprehensive code that will define and enforce a set of universal claims; it is the way in which we codify what we think, at any given point, mutual recognition requires from us. It will therefore shift its focus from time to time and it cannot avoid choices about priorities. To seek for legal recognition of any particular liberty as a ”˜human right’ is not to try and construct a universal and exhaustive code but to challenge a society that apparently refuses full civic recognition to some of its members….

The ”˜Universal’ aspect of rights, though, is a central element. What makes the gap between religion and the discourse of rights worrying is that the language of the Universal Declaration is unthinkable without the kind of moral universalism that religious ethics safeguards.

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Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, * Culture-Watch, Anthropology, Archbishop of Canterbury, Globalization, Law & Legal Issues, Religion & Culture, Theology

2 comments on “Archbishop Rowan Williams' Lecture on Human Rights and Religious Faith (Full Text)

  1. Terry Tee says:

    Oh dear. RW argues gently, with his usual dignity. The progression of the argument indicates a desire to be a clear as possible, but I suspect that many will find it hard to follow. As far as I understand it he is saying that language of human rights implies both a sense of community and an inherent dignity to each person. This dignity derives from something sacred about humanness. A narrowly rights-based, legalistic approach, is in danger of forgetting the dignity, the sacredness of human beings. A narrowly religiously based approach is in danger of fragmenting the sense of a community to which we all belong.

    But … see paras 14 and 16 where he tries to address the problem of judicial activism. IMHO these key paragraphs overlook one of the most troubling issues associated with human rights issues, namely the question of whether many of those who bring cases themselves share a sense of belonging to the wider community. I feel more and more that these cases are initiated by people who use human rights against the wider polity to enlarge their sectional interest. Nor does it grasp the problem of constantly enlarging the domain of the state. The more rights are legislated for, the more we are asking the state to intervene in people’s lives, until we reach a stage where the state is actually infringing freedom so as to impose certain rights.

    On a less serious note, I am bothered by RW’s constant use of scare quotes. This indicates an equivocating mindset, using words, using concepts, only immediately to qualify and weaken them. Pick almost any paragraph and find the scare quotes scattered like shotgun pellets across the page. Just one example: para 11 refers to (and I quote) the ‘culture’ overall’. Well, is this or it is not a reference to the culture in which the debate takes place?