Religious and International Norms Today

By: Daniel Philpott

September 30, 2015

Religion and World Order

Over centuries, religion, like a glacier, carved out prominent contours of the international order like norms of sovereignty and human rights. After the ice of religion melted, these contours have remained hard and resilient in their “strikingly secular” form. Even three outbursts of religion over the past century have not succeeded in changing the persistent secular character of international grundnorms, Tom Banchoff argues.

I much agree with Banchoff. As I argued in my 2001 book, Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations, the Protestant Reformation did much to create the sovereign states system and Christianity deserves great credit for originating human rights, although these norms are far less explicitly associated with religion than they once were. 

To make the discussion livelier, though, I would like to argue that the international order is not as secular as Banchoff contends. Secular has many meanings and what Banchoff means here, I think, is that the norms contain no explicit reference to God or to religious authority. But the fact that norms do not reference religion does not mean that they are irreligious. Consider, for instance, the injunction, “do not kill.” The words make no reference to God, yet when placed on a stone tablet in the hands of Moses on Sinai, they are very much the commandment of God. 

In like manner, while norms of sovereignty and human rights are articulated in secular language in the UN Charter or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—and are not directly revealed by God, supervised by a church, or tethered to a single religion—we should not conclude too quickly that these norms are not religious. These norms, for instance, may well derive their robustness from being the subjects of an “overlapping consensus” of major world religions who endorse them out of their doctrines and tenets. Conversely, when religions withdraw their assent from these norms, they become contested and weakened. 

Can the dependence of norms on religion be demonstrated? Such dependence appears most vivid during those liminal times when the norms undergo revision or strain. 

In Mary Ann Glendon’s book, A World Made New, she showed that religious voices were crucial for the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Similarly, the founding of European federalism in 1950 was crafted by Catholic statesmen who wished to transcend the sovereign state system and recover the moral unity of Christendom. 

Religion is behind the fracture of norms as well. Nowhere is this more true than for the human right of religious freedom, which appears in Article 18 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights. Representatives of the Muslim world weakened the norm greatly when they endorsed a highly truncated version of it in their Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights of 1981 and Cairo Declaration of 1990. Today, some three quarters of regimes in Muslim-majority countries place high levels of restriction on religious freedom, while anti-religious communist regimes in North Korea and China and a Hindu nationalist government in India hobble the norm even further. The Pew Forum estimates that some 76 percent of the world’s population lives under a regime that strongly restricts religious freedom. 

Religious freedom is not the only norm that depends on a consensus of world religions. Conflict over abortion and sexuality between, on the one hand, human rights organizations and feminist groups that have become highly secularized over the past few decades, and, on the other hand, world religions, especially Catholicism and Islam, have made the right to life hotly contested and given rise to disputes over women’s rights. 

So, the array of religious beliefs that underlies international norms—the content of the beliefs, the size of the populations holding them, conflicts between religious beliefs or between religious and secular beliefs—matters a great deal to the establishment, robustness and sustainability of these norms.

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