Sunday, August 16, 2015

How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Last week’s blog addressed the conflict between individual rights and the collective obligations all people have for one another.  Fundamentalist religions and secular authoritarian regimes resolve that conflict by eliminating individual rights with a religious or political ideal and imposing oppressive laws.  So it was with Cotton Mather’s 17thcentury Puritans in New England, with Communists in the 20thcentury, and with today’s radical Islamists like ISIS and al-Qaeda.

            Roger Cohen has asked: What leads young European Muslims in the thousands to give up lives in France, Britain or Germany, enlist in …the Islamic State, and dedicate themselves to the unlikely aim of establishing a caliphate backed by digital propaganda?  Cohen acknowledges that we don’t know the answer why the violent rejection of modernity and the extreme, literalist interpretation of certain teachings of Sunni Islam have “…proved of unquenchable appeal.”  He suggests one reason may be that the freedoms of libertarian democracies have all but eliminated traditional moral boundaries, allowing people to do what they want without concern for others.

            Absolute freedom is anarchy, but the absence of freedom is tyranny.  The challenge for libertarian democracies is to balance individual rights with providing for the common good.  Religion can help the process by providing the moral standards of legitimacy that balance individual freedom with collective obligations to provide for the common good, but fundamentalist religions distort the process with sacred ideals and laws that eliminate freedom. 

            Secularism is an antidote for religious fundamentalism.  It does not exclude religion from politics, but prohibits government from favoring any religion to protect libertarian human rights.    Secularism considers advances in knowledge and reason in shaping standards of legitimacy that balance religious ideals with the secular ideals of politics.  Human rights are critically important, but they only define what government cannot do, not what government can or should do to provide for the common good.  That is the province of democratic politics and religion.

            Fundamental human rights begin with the freedoms of religion and speech, and they are defined and protected as universal human rights under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  Economic and social needs are also treated as human rights under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); but government benefits cannot be universally enforced as rights since they depend on a nation’s capability to provide them.  As a result government benefits must remain a national political responsibility.

            The U.S. is a party to the ICCPR (signed in 1977 and ratified in 1992), but not to the ICESCR.  Most Islamic nations in the Middle East and Africa embrace Islamic law, or shari’a, and have an Islamic version of human rights law that subjects human rights to shari’a.  The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam of 1990 condones apostasy and blasphemy laws that deny the freedoms of religion and speech, and shari’a condones discrimination against women and religious minorities.  Islamic scholars have debated issues of justice and human rights in Islam, but there is no consensus on providing libertarian human rights or eliminating discrimination against women and non-Muslims, so shari’a reigns supreme over libertarian human rights.

            Unlike Muslims in Islamic cultures, those in libertarian democracies have come to appreciate the freedoms of religion and speech and equal treatment of women and religious minorities.  Those progressive Muslims have not lost their religion, they have only secularized it—much like their Jewish and Christian neighbors.  They consider politics and law the province of man, not God, and know that if government is controlled by any religion there can be no freedom of religion or speech.  The secularization of religion thus allows the fundamental freedoms that are at the heart of libertarian democracies, but that are missing in Islamic cultures.

            Secularism acknowledges advances in knowledge and reason as sources of truth, while religious fundamentalism rejects any advances in knowledge or reason that challenges the truth of God’s will as revealed in its holy scripture—the Hebrew Bible for Jews, the Christian Bible for Christians, and the Qur’an for Muslims.  Such a conflict came to a head in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee, where the teaching of evolution challenged the Biblical creation story.  And the issue is not resolved; Christian fundamentalists continue to promote the teaching of Biblical creationism along with scientific evolution in public schools. 

            In their search for truth, progressive believers use inductive reasoning to accept advances in knowledge and reason, but also use deductive reasoning to retain belief in ancient mystical truths such as eternal life that remain beyond knowledge and reason.  By way of contrast, fundamentalists rely entirely on the unyielding truths of their ancient holy scriptures.
            Religions are expected to grow worldwide even as they shrink in libertarian democracies, and secularism is necessary to enable Islam to embrace the freedoms of religion and speech that are necessary for Muslims to debunk the demagoguery of ISIS.  While the excesses of liberty can be a license for immorality, liberty in law is essential to enable reason and truth to prevail over religious demagoguery.  That is why religious fundamentalists are a minority among believers in the U.S., while they are majority in Islamic cultures that have no freedom of religion or speech.  Secularism can provide the needed balance between libertarian human rights and the moral imperative to provide for the common good.  It is expressed in the greatest commandment to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself—even one’s unbelieving neighbors.

Notes and References to Resources:     

Previous blogs on related topics are: Religion and Reason, December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty, March 29, 2015; A Fundamental Problem with Religion, May 3, 2015; The Future of Religion: In Decline and Growing, June 7, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, June 14, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015. 

Roger Cohen has asked why the propaganda of ISIS trumps the freedom of libertarian democracies for many young Muslims.  See

On religion and secularism, Alan Wolfe has argued “…religion’s priority of belief and secularism’s commitment to individual rights are not in opposition; rather they complement each other.”  He believes that secular values are essential to the survival of religion in the modern era.  See
Ken Gibson has stated that Islam is not the problem.  Islamism is.  “Secularism, the separation of politics and religion, is the only force that can deliver a peaceful accommodation [of politics and religion].”  And Gibson concludes, Extremism is religion’s enemy.  Secularism is its ally. See

On how the U.S. has promoted democracy, human rights and the rule of law in its foreign policy, see generally, Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium, chapter 4 in the Resources.  On the differing opinions of Islamic scholars on justice and human rights, see Religion, Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a, Democracy and Human Rights at pages 10-17 in the Resources.  On the separation of church and state from a Christian and Muslim perspective, see Church and state: conflicting concepts of sovereignty in The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: the Heart of Legitimacy at page 57 in the Resources. 

Craig Stern has explained why libertarian or negative human rightsunder the ICCPR are enforceable, while economic entitlements or positive human rights under the ICESCR are not, and why the latter can corrupt the former as part of the rule of law.  See Craig A. Stern, Human Rights and the Rule of Law—the Choice for East Africa, SSRN, March 6, 2015, at  On democracy, human rights and fundamentalism, and differing views of Islamic scholars, see Barnes, Religion, Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a,Democracy and Human Rights at pages 2-18.  Mark R. Amstutz  has noted “The limited consensus on human rights doctrines, coupled with the ever-expanding list of rights, has had a deleterious effect on the moral foundations and priority of international human rights claims.” And that human rights provide “…norms that if not fulfilled by a state can undermine its international legitimacy.” Amstutz, International Ethics: Concepts, Theories and Cases in Global Politics, Third Edition, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008, pp 97-99.  

Articles 18, 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) provide for the freedom of religion and free expression, and Articles 18, 19 and 20 of the ICCPR make those rights a matter of international law.  The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam of 1990 has no provisions comparable to Articles 18, 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the ICCPR, but following a Preamble that asserts the primacy of Shari’a in defining human rights, Article 11 provides in part: Human beings are born free, and no one has the right to enslave, humiliate, oppress or exploit them, and there can be no subjugation but to God the Most-High….  Article 18 provides in part: Everyone shall have the right to live in security for himself, his religion, his dependents, his honour and his property….  Article 22 provides: (a) Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah.  (b) Everyone shall have the right to advocate what is right, and propagate what is good, and warn against what is wrong and evil according to the norms of Islamic Shari’ah. (c) Information is a vital necessity to society.  It may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities and the dignity of Prophets, undermine moral and ethical values or disintegrate, corrupt or harm society or weaken its faith. (d) It is not permitted to arouse nationalistic or doctrinal hatred or to do anything that may be an incitement to any form of racial discrimination.  Article 24 provides specifically what the Preamble implies: All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’ah.  Article 25 provides: The Islamic Shari’ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification to any of the articles of this Declaration.

The Scopes Monkey Trial was an American legal case in 1925 in which a substitute high school teacher, John Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee's Butler Act, which made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school.  Scopes was unsure whether he had ever actually taught evolution, but he purposely incriminated himself so that the case could have a defendant.  Scopes was found guilty and fined $100 (equivalent to $1,345 in 2015), but the verdict was overturned on a technicality. The trial served its purpose of drawing intense national publicity. William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate, argued for the prosecution, while Clarence Darrow, the famed defense attorney, spoke for Scopes. The trial publicized the Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy, which set Modernists [Secularists], who said evolution was not inconsistent with religion, against Fundamentalists, who said the word of God as revealed in the Bible took priority over all human knowledge. The case was thus seen as both a theological contest and a trial on whether modern science regarding the creation–evolution controversy should be taught in schools. See

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