Sectarianism is not for Human Rights (Full Post)

(Originally posted on South African Secular Society’s blog)
The vision of any secular society, is to see reason and rationality as the cornerstone of human life, with the aim of uplifting and creating a positive environment for every person to thrive. Being secular means, keeping religious motives and explanations out of the general operations of human life. Secular nations require evidence based systems to validate and implement laws and social practice, rather than simply accept and rely on “divine inspiration”… or the interpretation of religious scriptures. This is the stark difference between sectarian institutions and organisations, and how secular nations aim to function.

This difference has polarised the public by creating the false perspective that it is a religion versus non-believer issue. The truth is that secular has nothing to do with a person or group’s religious beliefs, secular only defines that there is a logical and provable reason why a law or social practice is put in place. Secular doesn’t mean we can’t take from the religious either – we can and do – but then those things, what ever they are, must have a rational and universally accepted explanation.

Sectarian institutions use their particular religions and religious interpretations as a base for morality, ethics and societal values, and wish to force those into law and practice of the societies they operate in. Nations often implement and create laws that are counter (or in direct opposition) to the religious values and morality of sectarian institutions. Even when those laws do not affect the chosen life styles of the members of those religions, sectarian institutions often respond, if only to reinforce themselves as “the moral authority”, by condemning the laws and the people who benefit from those laws. This is particularly visible when the laws embrace or promote Gender Rights which override religious norms.

Gender Equality, men and women’s rights, rights pertaining to procreation and sexual activity has become one of the most public areas of contention between secular, sectarian and religious groups. The arguments sectarian institutions raise against the advancement of implementing particular rights is often driven by religious texts, all of which are ancient and often written at a time when society was still primitive, sexist and not progressive or adaptive to new social and scientific developments. Though some religious institutions (churches) have been open to adapting their interpretation to be more accepting of globally recognised human rights and ever changing societal norms, many do so under a veil of religious judgement. This is an improvement over the many other religious institutions that have not adapted to “new” social paradigms, and continue to enforce old worldviews on their members through doctrine and official church procedure.

In South Africa, the deepening polar views of sectarian and religious groups on gender rights and gender issues, has resulted in a vocal outcry of “religious persecution”. There is enough complexity surrounding human rights in practice, even without bringing religion or sectarian views into the fray. But the issue becomes increasingly divisive as more sectarian institutions take a stance in support of protecting their views and practices.

Sectarian institutions promote themselves as “defenders of the faith”, often using cases involving religious followers, particularly Christians, to provocatively demonstrate how religious values and the rights of religious people are being overridden by the law, and force contrary “life styles” and “life choices” to be injected into religious practice. This misguidedly places secular as a juxtaposition to religion, and shifts the focus away from seeking workable solutions on implementing human rights as a benefit for all. Though the majority of South African based, sectarian institutions are Christian, they should not be mistaken as fighting for a unified “Christian ideal”. Many of them have specific agendas, aimed at promoting their own denomination’s goals. This becomes especially clear, when many other religious groups and institutions have become accepting of progressive social developments and new societal norms, adapting their doctrine and posture to be more accommodating to practices previously seen as “unacceptable”.

Over the next two months, we’ll be exploring how sectarian views influence the practice and implementation of Human Rights, with a focus on:

  • Family
  • Gender Rights and Gender Equality
  • Sexuality in a modern society

This subject is intricately woven with religion, and we must clarify that as a secular organisation, we are not against religion nor are we anti-religious. In exploring this important topic, we’d like to show how sectarian institutions create problems in achieving the goal of Human Rights in practice, rather than contribute to a more stable and balanced society. We are aware of many religious institutions that have adapted to modern society and have become champions of Human Rights, Gender Equality and accepting of progressive sexuality in our society. We hope to bring a balanced perspective of this, including these religious institutions as examples of how we can all work together towards goals for the common good.

We invite you to take part in this conversation.


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