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Religion's overreach a threat to rights for all

Published:Sunday | March 18, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Daniel Thwaites, in a column titled 'The Christian root of human rights' (Gleaner, March 13, 2012), offers an interesting, but somewhat flawed critique of my presentation at a recently held Public Law forum at the Norman Manley Law School.

To start, it might be useful to set down a few contextual markers. The overall framework for my presentation was the continuum between secularism and theocracy, in which I sought to locate Jamaica's legal and constitutional order. My overarching thesis was that the closer a state is to the secular end of the continuum, the more likely it is to expand individual freedoms rather than contract them.

On the other hand, the closer a state is to the theocratic end of the continuum, the more likely it is to restrict, rather than expand, personal freedoms.

In this regard, I contend that the recently enacted Charter of Rights (together with other legal developments) has shifted Jamaica closer to the theocratic end of the continuum, with a corresponding contraction of rights and freedoms.

Now, while it is true that I did say that religion is inherently totalitarian, and, therefore, hostile to the rights and freedoms of the individual, it was said with particular reference to the Charter of Rights, something that Mr Thwaites omitted to mention in his column. I made no "sweeping charges" against Christianity.

Instead, I established that Christian doctrine now enjoys a privileged status in the charter that it did not previously enjoy in the Bill of Rights. This is reflected, for example, in the fact that (a) sexual offences (including buggery) are now insulated from constitutional challenge; (b) there is no constitutional protection for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender (there is only protection for discrimination on the narrow ground of 'sex' as defined as a man or a woman); and (c) marriage (or 'quasi-marriage') is now defined in hetero-normative terms, and, like sexual offences, insulated from constitutional challenge.

All of these features of the new Charter of Rights came about largely at the behest of the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship and its coalition of like-minded religionists.

chauvinistic christianity

In my presentation, I noted that while Parliament had acceded to demands to enshrine religious doctrine in the charter, it had declined to include more 'secular' demands, such as the inclusion of language and disability as grounds of (unconstitutional) discrimination.

Against this background, I reject Mr Thwaites' distinction between "chauvinistic" and "humble" Christianity. To the extent that it holds itself as superior to all other faiths, Christianity is inherently chauvinistic, whether practised by Bible-thumpers or by quiet women in the back pews.

Chauvinism, in my view, is inherently part of any faith, whether Christian or not. The 'chauvinism' of religion is amply demonstrated in the charter to the extent that it now subjects all fundamental rights and freedoms to the prescriptions of religious (in our context, Christian) doctrine.

My 'target', as Mr Thwaites puts it, is not the "religiosity" of a Santorum or a Mullings, per se. My target is anything that stands between people and their enjoyment of all their fundamental rights and freedoms, whether they are believers or not. I contend that freedom of religion, when framed in Dominionist Christian terms, is 'freedom' to impose religion; to establish it as a constitutional Grundnorm from which all other rights spring, and to which all other rights are subject.

I also reject Mr Thwaites' claim that "historically, humanism is a fruit of the Christian tree". Protagoras, an ancient Greek philosopher who lived around the 5th century BCE, deserves the credit for being one of the first philosophers to consider humanism as a value system. Protagoras (like other 'humanist' Greek philosophers like Epicurus) obviously preceded the emergence of Christianity by many centuries.

More fundamentally, Christianity is NOT the source of human rights as we know and understand them today. The idea of human beings as bearers of rights was a product of the Enlightenment project, a project aimed at converting people from subjects to citizens, and the rule of (divine) kings into the rule of law.

humanism's true roots

Mr Thwaites dismisses humanism as a source of human rights, embracing the notion that some "transcendent Being" or "sense of the sacred" is necessary to constrain human beings from otherwise treating their fellow human beings with contempt or disrespect.

The clear implication of Mr Thwaites' position is that religion is inseparable from morality, and that the absence of religion connotes the absence of morality. If Mr Thwaites is correct on this, does his "sense of the sacred" embrace biblically endorsed practices like slavery, genocide, sex trafficking and misogyny? In this regard, I am reminded of Steven Weinberg's famous quote: "With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

Mr Thwaites' belief that it is "too much work" to expect humanity to comport itself morally without divine guidance provokes a couple of observations. First, it seems that he ignores the fact that being human simply implies capacity for ethical conduct; it is no guarantee of it. That's why in modern secular democracies we have laws to govern us, not religion.

Second, Mr Thwaites' rather dim view of humanity seems to plays into the Christian doctrine that humans are fundamentally flawed, in need of being saved by some superhuman, supernatural deity. Based on modest achievements like the rule of law and universal human rights, I suspect that secularism has more than demonstrated the capacity of humans to design and operate their own moral systems without help from the divine realm.

arrogance of religion

In keeping with his theistic view of morality, Mr Thwaites considers that the helpless may stand a better chance of getting a hot cup of tea from Father Ho Lung or Father Ramkissoon than "from cloistered academics or any high-minded human rights organisation". That may be so. However, it may be that some of these cloistered and high-minded types have been focused on trying to eliminate the very conditions that contribute to this helplessness. I need not remind Mr Thwaites that the Bible suggests that the "helpless" should wait for their reward when they die.

Mr Thwaites counsels me to avoid enraging believers, but to "enlist their help and support by pointing to the parts of the Christian message and tradition that is of solid service to the 'rights agenda'". Implicit in Mr Thwaites' counsel is the notion that:

(a) religion occupies a place of privilege, particularly when that religion is the dominant belief;

(b) that that place of privilege provides immunity from criticism; or that any criticism directed at the religion should be framed not from the perspective of the critic, but from the perspective and sensibilities of the believer. With respect, I find that this represents the arrogance of religion or the religious-minded that certainly points to the "chauvinism" that Mr Thwaites himself finds problematic. My aim in my work is not cultivating popularity among believers, but of confronting threats to human rights and freedoms - without apology or deference to anybody.

Hilaire Sobers is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to and