Why Religion Is Better Than Secular Ethics for Human Rights

07/23/2011 09:08 pm ET | Updated Sep 22, 2011

Anat Biletzki, past chairperson of the Israeli human rights organization B'tselem, recently suggested in the NYT blog ("The Sacred and the Humane") that "religion, even when indirectly in the service of human rights, is not really working for human rights." Given B'tselem's long history of working with organizations like Rabbis for Human Rights, I find her argument puzzling, and as a religious human rights advocate myself, I philosophically disagree with Biletzki.

Biletzki argued that there is a profound difference in the way that the secular and the religious approach the source of authority for human rights, and that, ultimately, the person of faith's defense of human rights is inferior to that of the secular person's. She believes that the source of authority for the secular person is, "her claim to reason, her proclivity to emotion, and her capacity for compassion ... leaving us open to discussion, disagreement, and questioning," whereas the authority for the religious person is God's commandment. What she concludes is that there is no real "human right" under God's commandment because if God commands us to renounce human rights, then that is required. As she says, "Had God's angel failed to call out -- "Abraham! Abraham!" -- Abraham would have slain Isaac."

Can it be true that religious people are a sort of automation for God's whim? Would a religious person abandon his or her conscience to ignore the pain of human beings should God command it?

While I can't speak for all faiths, the answer is clearly, "No." Within Jewish tradition there are clear precedents of arguing with God. Contrasting the account of Abraham's blind obedience that Biletzki references, there is another story in Genesis 18, where we find Abraham arguing with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, demanding of God: "Will not the Judge of the earth do justly?" In the Torah portion that Jews read just last week, Parshat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10 - 30:1), we learn about five young women, who challenged an inheritance law in the Torah. God admitted the justice of their claim and changed the law. In the Jewish tradition, starting in the Torah, there is a strong current of approbation for the faithful Jew who challenges God.

If religion doesn't make us automata, does the secular world offer a better basis for morality and "true" human rights? Philosophers in the field of ethics have not been terribly successful at pinning down a rational basis for ethical behavior. Secular morality hasn't any more to do with reason -- and perhaps less -- than those of the religious person. Each and every one of us lives in a society that determines our feelings of what is "natural," "right" and "rational." These cultural biases are difficult to examine because they are like water to a fish -- so ubiquitous and so pervasive, we simply do not notice them. Are the norms of one's society,which are so deeply embedded within us that they feel "natural," a compass toward what is right and good?

Religion offers us a place to stand and examine the cultures in which we live. When we live and breathe the ways of our faith, it gives us a compass by which to measure societal norms as separate from ourselves. In contrast, examining the beliefs of one's society without chalking them up to what is "natural" is like trying to rebuild a boat while it is sailing. Perhaps that is why it was people of faith who led the fight for universal suffrage in the U.S., why Gandhi is revered for his nonviolent revolt against the British in India, and why the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is a hero to people of all colors throughout the world for his stand to unionize African-Americans and support their fight for dignity and civil rights. Certainly, in the west, the struggles for equality and dignity are deeply rooted in the Abrahamic traditions of law and justice. Would our societies be places in which the fight for human rights was possible if we did not have a tradition of thousands of years asking, "Will not the Judge of the earth do justly?"

Finally, if God commanded (for example) a faithful Jew to do something immoral, would that person do so? If, in general, the Judge of the earth does do justly, then if a command seems unjust, we must think deeply about whether the command is actually immoral. If we conclude that it is, then we must also ask if we have misunderstood it. And indeed, we find that the history of Jewish law, is not just the text as written in the scrolls of the Torah, but rather is a development of a body of law that responds to history via those scrolls, constantly asking: Is this right? Is this just?

Religious practice is based on the assumption that God desires the just and the good. Thus, suggesting that the religious are bound to do whatever God says even if God commands us to do something immoral makes no sense. It is, as the philosophers say, a counterfactual. Given that we are humans prone to mistakes, we may err in our understanding of what is just, but such a command cannot exist. I hope it is not too presumptuous to suggest that this may be true for other faiths, as well. My faith tradition commands us, over and over, that we must be holy because God is holy, that we must do justly because God is just, and that we are obligated to provide for the poor, lift up the weak and free the bound. Is that not a basis to speak about human rights?

Far more powerful than choosing to guard human rights, the religious have an obligation to protect them.