Scientists, those to whom society has passed the responsibility for knowing, have an increasingly difficult time defining humans as opposed to other animals. Still, we know a person when we see one. That’s when the crucial ethical issues arise: how should we treat others? Two unrelated articles about human rights recently came across my virtual desk: one about Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and another about how religious rights sometimes/often hamper human rights. There’s so much to sort out here, and I’m not even one of those that society deems fit to do such sorting. Well, I am human, so perhaps I can give it a shot anyway. In an article in Friday’s The Guardian, Deborah Orr points out that for progress in human rights to move forward, rights for the freedom of religion have to take second place. Clearly she’s onto something because, historically, one of the greatest enemies of human rights has been religion. Labeling suffering as virtue, it’s relatively simple for religions to suggest that the lot of the oppressed is to bear suffering so that the faith can continue untainted. After all, those religions with an afterlife, in any case, declare that it all gets sorted in the hereafter.
Orr makes a very good point: we are all human, but we may not all share religion. Isn’t the need of the whole greater than even the need of the many? Utilitarianism would declare it so. So would common sense. (Science warns us not to trust common sense, however.) Some of the harshest violators of human rights continue to be religious traditions. Others are heathens, pagans, infidels, heretics, beasts—take your choice—and therefore displeasing to some divine being, generally male and either hetero- or asexual. Oh, and he’s from the Middle East, ethnically. Over on PhotoBlip.com, a piece about Beauty and the Beast makes the point that Gaston, the strapping, über-masculine antagonist of Belle’s provincial town, is frightening because the people so easily follow him. He whips the crowd into a frenzy because, as a thoughtless but handsome (and ripped) figure, people naturally do what he tells them to. He is a dangerous, selfish bully, and many politicians have learned their tactics from him. Belle, a bookish girl, is considered odd and in need of domesticating. The beast is deformed and in need of killing.
These two stories, from very different sources, point in the same direction: tolerance is the only humane response to a complex world where lots of different types of people live. Still, the problem isn’t wholly a religious one. Human rights insist that all people have access to the basic necessities of life, and, ideally, the possibility of flourishing into what they desire to be. Some, however, desire to dominate. With or without religious backing, this Gaston-esque drive to bully is all too real since might does seem to make right, and even some political darlings get their way by being bullies. One of the most poignant points that religion has ever made is that you can identify the divine by its willingness to lay down power and identify with the weak. We are seldom presented with that side of the gospel truth, for there is a paradox at the heart of it, and people want clear answers, not puzzles. Even science, however, when pushed far enough must answer with a paradox. Is light a wave or a particle? Some religions would say that light is a gift of the divine.