Some modern human rights, such as freedom of religion, were won in opposition to established religions and this may have helped generate the broader impression that religions are opposed to human rights.
A project was initiated in 1993 to look into what had so far been an unexamined relationship between religion and human rights. It is called The Project on Religion and Human Rights and was located in New York.
The aspect of the Project I worked most closely with, in close collaboration with Professor Harvey Cox of Harvard University, addressed the issue whether religions can serve as positive resources for human rights. As we investigated the issue we began to shed our initial scepticism in this regard and began to identify examples from each religion which can help enlarge the scope of human rights—as envisaged in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of December 10, 1948. The following examples might serve to substantiate this claim.
(1) Hinduism. Article 3 of the Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to life. Those familiar with Hinduism know that the traditional Hindu blessing alludes not just to life but longevity (āyuṣmān bhava) as well. Should then not longevity be added to the right to life, thereby securing the right for human beings against life-threatening pollution and a host of other factors?
(2) Buddhism. Section 1 of Article 17 confers on “everyone the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.” In the Buddhist Saṅgha, however, property is not merely held in association with others but is held by it as an association and its just use is also enjoined. The existing Article could certainly benefit from the Buddhist example.
(3) Confucianism. In Confucian China, a doctor was paid inversely in relation to the number of patients treated, for the physician’s function was envisaged as keeping people in good health. Article 25, which accords to everyone the right to adequate health, could benefit from this insight.
(4) Taoism. Article 16 identifies the nuclear family as virtually the basic social unit but Taoism, as well as African religions, place much more emphasis on the community. The recognition of community rights thus becomes important.
(5) Judaism. Under the Law of Return passed by the Israeli Parliament in 1950, every Jew is automatically granted Israeli citizenship upon entering Israel, a crucial provision if the widespread persecution of the Jews is kept in mind. Article 14 of the Declaration, which only grants the right to asylum from prosecution, thus suffers by comparison.
(6) Christianity. Certain forms of Christianity practice institutionalized monasticism. Article 24 accords to everyone the right to rest and leisure form one’s work but not the right to retire from such work itself, which is upheld by the monastic orders not only of Christianity but other religions as well.
(7) Islam. Under Islamic Law compelling need is a mitigating factor in determining punishment, as in the case of theft. This brings with it the realization that the Articles of the Declaration of Human Rights should not be read in an isolated way. Thus Islam teaches us that Article 17—the right to own property—must be read with Article 25—which confers the right to an adequate standard of living.
Thus virtually every major religion has some insight to offer in the manner in which human rights are understood. If it is recognized that in their own day religions were great humanizing influences, that Christianity condoned slavery to avert a greater evil of genocide for instance, then we will be able to take a more positive view of religion as positive resources for human rights. Do I not destroy an enemy, Abraham Lincoln is believed to have said, when I make him a friend.