Spirit of the Age: Can our rights be universal?

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"WE HOLD these truths to be self-evident." So said the founding fathers of the United States in their declaration of independence. Those were the days. In this age of uncertainty, what is there left which is self-evident to us? This is the epoch of post-modernism, when the quest for a universal narrative is over, and each of us must tell a different story. More than that, our relativist consensus judges each of them to be of equal validity. Tolerance of one another is as much as we can hope for.

But perhaps there is something more. Earlier this week a group of scholars from the three Abrahamic religions got together to consider the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next month. They were concerned to highlight the fact that in all three traditions - Jewish, Christian and Muslim - there is a clear basis of support for the declaration. In the process, a more interesting question arose.

Are all self-evident truths merely statements of faith - or can they be arrived at by reason? There were those, like Ian Markham, a Christian professor of "theology and public life", who insisted that secular human rights are merely religious statements in disguise. The American fathers went on to explain that their idea of what was self-evident was drawn from the belief that "all men... are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights". In the same way, Markham insisted, modern secularist statements are drawn from a culture whose assumptions are inherently theistic. Religion, as the Jewish scholar Edward Kessler told the seminar, is at the root of human rights.

Hollow laughs all round, then, from those who suffered at the hands of the Inquisition or its modern-day equivalents: the Taliban, the zealots of Zionism or the Christians who murder doctors engaged in abortion. Those like Markham are unperturbed. Yes, throughout history, people have violated human rights in the name of religion - but in doing so they betrayed the tradition they purported to uphold.

The irony is that the secular West has made the language of rights central to its social discourse, while undermining any possible justification of such language. "If ultimately humans are nothing more than complex bundles of atoms emerging from a blind and irrational process and facing extinction when we die," Markham told the meeting of the Interfaith Foundation, "then it is difficult to see how we can affirm the inherent dignity of people."

This is not a picture those in the tradition of John Locke, Thomas Paine or the French Revolution theorists would accept. Yet it was an Enlightenment thinker, Jeremy Bentham, who insisted there are "no such things as natural rights, no such things as rights anterior to the establishment of government, no such things as natural rights [as] opposed to legal [ones]. Natural rights [are]... nonsense upon stilts."

If that is true, rights are purely empirical and probably local to each culture. So how - in a post-modern world - can we justify any claim that is universal and objective? Saying that the law ought to be linked with the moral codes of the community is not much help; the Nazis had significant support from the German national community for the killing of Jews, homosexuals and gypsies.

In the end, said Dr Elizabeth Vallance of the Interfaith Foundation's committee, you cannot justify basic principles; you just choose them. I was unconvinced, for we don't choose starting from a blank sheet. We are born into a culture; we learn its morality; we inherit frameworks within which to exercise our reason. And, if our culture's old formula, which embedded rights in law and responsibilities in religion, has broken down with the growth of secularisation, where does that leave us?

Yet there was a challenge even to the basis of this exchange. The Human Rights Declaration is billed as "universal", said the Muslim academic Dr Zaki Badawi; but the US baseball championship is described as a World Series, though only Americans play in it. For many, "universal" is just a cloak for the values of the affluent West. For the homeless or starving, freedom of speech or assembly mean little. And, though the Muslim feminist Dr Sula Taji-Farouki conceded that Muslim countries are among the worst abusers of human rights, Islam's communalism and strong sense of social responsibility could also be a check on the abuses that flow from individualism.

It was wrong, said another Islamic scholar, that no Hindu, Muslim or Sikh was involved in drawing up the 1948 declaration. Yet if Muslims feel affronted by that, it does not automatically invalidate what the declaration says. After all, gravity isn't Western just because it was Newton who discovered it. So why do Muslims embrace Western science so easily and yet not other aspects of modernity?

Modernity is a double-edged sword, said the academic Dr Iftikhar Malik. It boasts of tolerance, yet minorities were better tolerated in Moorish Spain and the Ottoman Empire than in modern Europe. Modernity brought us the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing and a particularly brutish kind of nationalism. And are the Western signatories to the Declaration any less hypocritical? Since signing, the French have killed 1.5 million Algerians, and the Americans countless Vietnamese. And yet modernity has brought us together, said Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, "but for modernity, we wouldn't even be talking to each other."

Religions, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, have a lot to learn from secular society. But religions - which are collective by nature where the human rights declaration is individualistic - clearly have something to say about the roots of secularism. The seminar ended, but the debate continues.