On the “religion” of human rights

Samuel Moyn weighs the potential of human rights as a replacement for Christianity.



Samuel Moyn weighs the potential of human rights as a replacement for Christianity.


More than me, there are a lot of people who have seen human rights as a new religion. In a way, I’ve argued that they can never measure up to what religion and the Christian religion has. For one thing, human rights are not trying to be a religion, at least officially. In fact they say, whatever else you believe, human rights are going to be some minimal standards that everyone has to believe in and for which everyone, no matter what else they believe – Christian, non-Christian, secular, religious – has to take some responsibility. However, from the beginning, we’ve also seen that human rights can sometimes function to displace religion. They become the content of a new creed. And once they’re adopted, people may leave their old, larger belief systems behind.

I mentioned in an earlier answer that there are also some accoutrements to human rights that have seemed Christian to some observers. The earliest NGO for human rights of any note, Amnesty International, wasn’t just founded by a Christian convert, it involved lighting candles. It involved, if you like, praying for the victims and martyrs of history. Amazingly, that man, Peter Benenson, who founded Amnesty, in a private letter said, “I’m doing this not for the victims. Martyrs are supposed to suffer. That’s their fate. Instead I’m doing it for people whose beliefs are being tested and who need something to embrace as a new faith.” So a new form, if you like, of Christianity.

But the worry, if this is the way we think about human rights, is that human rights aren’t doing very well as a new religion. They don’t know – their defenders don’t know how to gain a mass following in the way that from the beginning Paul and his successors converted swathes of territory and huge numbers of people. They don’t seem to have mass appeal through vernacularising their ideas in the way that Christians have learnt to translate their texts into every language and to find a grassroots appeal, in part by local outreach, which human rights activists have rarely done.

And so the question is, what can human rights activists learn? Christians have had 2,000 years to globalise, and they’ve finally in the last 50 years become a religion of the Global South, by and large. Human rights activists have had only a few decades. And so the question is, can human rights activists learn from the sheer success of Christianity, and other religions like Islam, in spreading their beliefs and their practices?