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Religion and human rights need each other, says Dr Williams

01 March 2012

by a staff reporter

Early adopters: children at the UN international nursery in New York study a poster-copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on its second anniversary, in 1950 UNITED NATIONS

Early adopters: children at the UN international nursery in New York study a poster-copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on its second a...

IT WAS important to reconnect thinking about human rights and religious conviction, the Archbishop of Canterbury said on Tuesday. He identified a “worrying” gap opening up between those who followed what was perceived to be a legal code and those who followed moral and religious intuition.

Dr Williams, speaking during a visit to the offices of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, described the 1948 Universal Declara­tion of Human Rights as “unquestionably a landmark in the history of moral conscious­ness. . . Yet the language of human rights has — surprisingly — become more rather than less problematic in recent years.” Religious groups, especially, “feel that alien cultural standards are somehow being imposed, particularly in regard to inherited views of marriage and family”.

At the heart of the problem was a mis­under­­standing of the place of law, Dr Williams suggested. “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. . .”

Law was informed by cultural agreements. There was a universal aspect to hu­man rights, and here religions were the natural defenders of the principle “that there is a level of respect owed to human beings irrespective of their nationality, status, gender, age or achieve­ment.

“Take away this moral underpinning, and language about human rights can become either a purely aspirational matter or some­thing that is simply prescribed by authority.”

It was thus “important for the language of rights not to lose its anchorage in a universalist religious ethic — and just as important for religious believers not to back away from the territory and treat rights language as an essentially secular matter”.

The purpose of a universal law was that it could secure recognition for those who had been denied it. “The law steps in to assert that women have received less than is due to them, and that practices that perpetuate this are now proscribed. Probably more rapidly than anyone expected, the same principles have led, in many parts of the world, to various enact­ments for the protection of sexual minorities.”

There was anxiety, Dr Williams went on, that the law was being used “proactively to change society”. This was to usurp the part played by culture. “Laws change as societies become more conscious of what they are and claim to be; as we have said, it may take time for a society to realise that its practice is incon­sistent — with respect to women and to ethnic, religious, or sexual minorities. Law may indeed turn out to be ahead of majority opinion in recognising this. . .

“But these tasks remain ‘negative’ in force. If it is said, for example, that a failure to legalise assisted suicide, or same-sex marriage, per­petu­­ates stigma or marginalisation for some people, the reply must be, I believe, that issues like stigma and marginalisation have to be ad­dressed at the level of culture rather than law.”

The Archbishop called for a “credible, sus­tainable doctrine of human rights”. He warned religious bodies not to make “anxieties about their freedom” an excuse for “denying the unconditionality . . . of the language of rights”.

Link to Dr Williams' text: http://bit.ly/AxtbbI

Link to Dr Williams' text: http://bit.ly/AxtbbI

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