Though currently on sabbatical at the University of Zürich, Richard Amesbury teaches religious and philosophical ethics at the Claremont School of Theology, where he is involved in establishing a new School of Ethics, Politics, and Society. He is the author of Morality and Social Criticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and Faith and Human Rights (Fortress, 2008), as well as  numerous articles. His interests reach across many themes and fields in which the concept of “religion” is constructed and mobilized, from human rights law to civil religion to the New Atheism.

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NS: Your essay at Killing the Buddha for the 30th anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination was a welcome relief from the recent onslaught of news about less inspiring behavior among Catholic clergy. What provoked you to write it?

RA: This year’s anniversary of Romero’s assassination by a right-wing death squad on March 24, 1980, is an especially significant event in El Salvador. Recently, a native-born archbishop replaced his conservative, foreign-born predecessor; an FMLN candidate was elected to the presidency, breaking a 20-year grip by the rightist ARENA party; and the government announced plans to investigate Romero’s assassination and to try those involved. At the same time, El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America and is reeling under recent neoliberal economic reforms, which have only widened the chasm between the impoverished majority and a wealthy, globalized elite. Thirty years after his death, Romero is, sadly, not irrelevant.

El Salvador’s history is closely linked with that of the United States in ways that tend to be inconsistent with the myths we tell about ourselves in this country. The result is a willful forgetfulness that has implications for U.S. policy toward Latin America and beyond. But if you visit the Parque Cuscatlán in San Salvador, you will find a “Monument to Memory and Truth,” engraved with the names of tens of thousands of Salvadorans who died in the 12-year civil war. It’s important to keep that historical memory alive, however uncomfortable it might be to acknowledge.

NS: Rather than the liberation theology of Romero’s time and place, religious communities worldwide have recently turned to another way of speaking for the downtrodden: promoting the adoption of an international framework for human rights. How do you understand the consequences of this trend?

RA: The phrase “human rights” refers both to a moral ideal and to a regime of positive law. Both ideas are important, but they exist in some tension. On the one hand, the idea of universal human rights is meant to limit the will of the majority, but of course as soon as the idea is translated from a moral aspiration into a legal framework, it is necessarily subjected to the political process—e.g., ratification by states—which in democracies is majoritarian. The legal regime is necessary to give the idea bite, but it also domesticates the more radical intuitions that bubble up in those situations in which claims about human dignity arise. Religious communities have rightly been concerned with questions having to do with human dignity; but there is a danger, it seems to me, in sacralizing human rights as law. Because human rights law is heavily dependent on states for enforcement, governments manipulate the discourse of human rights for their own purposes, as we saw in the case of the Bush administration’s justifications for invading and occupying Iraq. Human rights law is also inadequate at present for regulating non-state actors like multi-national corporations. In addition, it remains decidedly Western in its assumptions, and its production is largely driven by elites. Speaking for the downtrodden is obviously better than speaking for the privileged, but not as good as allowing the downtrodden to speak for themselves.

NS:  And that is what liberation theology, for instance, sought to do. Can the language of human rights really allow the downtrodden to speak?

RA:  I think so. In Un Día en la Vida (One Day of Life), a novel by the Salvadoran writer Manlio Argueta, which appeared the same year Romero was killed, and in which the Archbishop makes a cameo appearance, the narrator, a campesina, says, “[O]nce we learned about the existence of rights we also learned not to bow our heads when the bosses scold us. We learned to look them in the face.” At its best, the discourse of human rights empowers otherwise powerless people to see themselves, not as helpless victims who must depend on the generosity and goodwill of the powerful, but as dignified persons.

NS: What do you make of inter-religious declarations of human rights, like the 2008 Faith in Human Rights Statement and the 1998 Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World’s Religions? Or even Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion? What prospects do they have?

RA: Although declarations of this kind purport to provide human rights with religious support, their latent function is often to construct the category of “religion” in such a way as to discourage critical analysis. I don’t for a minute mean to imply that this is what their drafters and signatories intend. Rather, it is the effect of three important rhetorical distinctions that such declarations often make—between religion and secularity, between the “world religions” and various lesser traditions, and between “genuine” religion and what is done “in religion’s name” for ostensibly non-religious purposes. The net effect of these distinctions is to place the potential for violence outside the boundaries of what is allowed to count as “true religion,” which is de-politicized and essentialized.

NS: It seems like we’re reliving lessons learned over the last 50 years in the study of religion, as scholars have tended to move away from thinking of the “sacred” as irreducible and sui generis, as Mircea Eliade and his followers held. How can scholars play a constructive role in critiquing this emerging discourse?

RA: That’s right. The most important point is that “religion” is a normative, not a purely descriptive, term. Nothing comes labeled as a “religion.” The boundaries are drawn in different places for different reasons. Scholars, clergy, government bureaucrats, and other cultural elites have played a role in shaping the discourse of “religion,” but there are many other stakeholders in the language. Claims by elites—or anyone else, for that matter—to “represent” religions should not be accepted uncritically. The proper role of a religion scholar, as I conceive it, is not the objectifying posture of a disinterested “expert,” but the engaged stance of a reflective interlocutor, a participant in the discourse one is seeking to understand.

NS: Can we really expect human rights to be universalized when different cultures can interpret them so variously? For example, how can the Western value of free expression be reconciled with the call among Muslim countries to ban the “defamation” of religion?

RA: Not very easily, I suspect, although it’s important to note that the disagreement is intra-cultural, and not simply inter-cultural. For a number of years now, as you say, the U.N. Human Rights Council has annually adopted non-binding declarations against the “defamation of religions.” Likewise, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World’s Religions claims that “[e]veryone has the right not to have one’s religion denigrated in the media or academia.” Part of what is striking about these efforts is that they employ abstract, universalizing language to express what are, in fact, highly contextual concerns. For example, the U.N. declarations against defamation are now couched in terms of “religion,” whereas they originally referred only to Islam. Insofar as one allegedly universal right is pitted against another, the debate over blasphemy differs from the earlier “Asian values” debate, which was framed as a clash between universality and particularity. Since discourse about “religion” is inherently normative, these efforts to protect religion as such beg the question of whose definition of “religion” is going to be assumed, though in reality the answer is obvious. Given that the enforcement of human rights law invariably falls to states, these declarations in effect empower governments to determine what counts as genuine “religion,” which puts religious minorities at a decided disadvantage.

NS: Some of the most forthright critics of religion lately are the New Atheists. In what ways do you see them as genuinely new?

RA: Whereas earlier forms of atheism opposed themselves to belief in God, or to Christianity, today’s atheism seems to be new partly in that it defines itself over against religion as such. Indeed, a central claim of the New Atheism is that the various religions are so many strains of the same epidemic. In its antipathy toward religion, the New Atheism has something in common—perhaps surprisingly—with conservative evangelical Christianity, which tends to reject the label of “religion.” Both movements are reacting, not only to each other, but also against an organizational matrix implicit in the structuring of much of our civic life as a nation, from which they perceive themselves to have been excluded—namely, the formation of “religion,” understood quasi-pluralistically.

NS: How does the particular context of the United States enter the equation? Even among British-born New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the battleground seems to be very much on this side of the Atlantic.

RA: The United States is a secular state, but “America” is arguably a religious nation. In other words, collective identity is often construed religiously. Perhaps the more familiar version of this imaginary is the one broadcast by the Christian Right, but theirs is, in fact, a relatively recent construction and not one widely endorsed by cultural elites. Though it projects itself backwards onto history, the contemporary narrative of “Christian America” is largely a nativist reaction to an alternative way of thinking about American identity, which began to take shape in the years following World War II. During this period, the phrase “Judeo-Christian” came into vogue, as previously excluded groups—notably Catholics and Jews—succeeded in finding space under the sacred canopy—a process that went hand-in-hand with the extension of the racial category of “whiteness” to include additional ethnic groups. Over the past sixty years or so, the American civic imaginary has expanded to include an even wider range of permissible religious options—roughly, the “world religions”—while maintaining a conceptual link between God and nation. Increasingly, American exceptionalism announces itself in the language of religious freedom and pluralism.

Atheism, however, has always been “otherized”—thanks, in part, to the rhetoric of the Cold War—as the opposite of what America represents. Like “socialism,” the term is still capable of evoking a shudder. Against this backdrop, the New Atheism can be seen in a new light—as yet another political movement for inclusion on the part of a socially excluded minority. Atheism—as distinct from religious indifference—is an identity, and the New Atheism is, among other things, a form of identity politics.

NS: Are atheists really an oppressed—or even excluded—minority in the United States? They tend to be well-educated and affluent, for example.

RA: Declaring oneself an atheist does seem to put one at a political disadvantage. Anecdotes abound to the effect that it is virtually impossible for an uncloseted atheist to get elected to public office in the United States, and researchers at the University of Minnesota found recently that that their respondents ranked atheists first in terms of groups that do “not at all agree with my vision of American society,” followed somewhat distantly by Muslims, sexual minorities, conservative Christians, and recent immigrants.

NS: And, like some of those groups, they’ve come to take on some of the trappings of American denominationalism.

RA: Yes. One way that excluded groups have historically achieved inclusion in the American nation is by refashioning themselves in vaguely Protestant form, and there is evidence of this kind of mimesis in the case of atheism too. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! And there have already been some successes. In his inaugural address, President Obama pronounced America a “nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” and in January, The New York Times reported that Mayor Bloomberg had invited atheists to his annual interfaith breakfast.

Yet, it is as of now unclear what it might mean to begin thinking of atheism as a religion, since it is largely against atheism that “religion” has been defined. If atheism succeeds in achieving acceptance as another “world religion,” this will have the paradoxical effect of undermining the distinction between religion and its contrast case, which may in turn undo the “religious” basis of national identity. Alternatively, it could result in a sharpening of the boundary between atheism and secularized indifference to religion, or in a reassertion of narrower, sectarian visions.

NS: In a forthcoming essay on the historical roots of atheism, you suggest that, “ironically, the most serious damage was done not by those who denied God’s existence but by those who tried to defend it.” How have the religious contributed to the rise of this more strident atheism?

RA: Today’s New Atheism presents itself as a scientific movement. In The God Delusion, for instance, Richard Dawkins claims that “‘the God Hypothesis’ is a scientific hypothesis about the universe.” He might be criticized for presuming to pronounce on philosophical questions outside the jurisdiction of the natural sciences, except that many apologists for belief in God have offered precisely the same interpretation. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, deistic thinkers sought to free belief in God from its role in worship and religious life. This had the result of shifting the meaning and conditions of belief, the effect of which was to bring God within the purview of the emerging natural sciences, pitting theology against science in a conflict of rival explanatory theories within a common discursive space. Perhaps even more significant, though, are matters of a moral sort. The conditions that gave rise to early-modern atheism included, importantly, the wars of religion that had ravaged Europe. Similarly, today’s New Atheism seems animated in large part by revulsion at religious violence. What is perhaps inadequately acknowledged, however, is that many of the same mechanisms that conspire to produce “religious violence” operate in “secular” contexts as well.

NS: Is there something that, above all, ties together your interests in international relations and philosophy of religion?

RA: I’m interested in the significance of borders—the lines we draw between in-groups and out-groups. The concept of “religion,” like that of the nation, represents an attempt to articulate a collective “we,” in opposition to perceived alterity. In the United States—though not only here—these two ideas have reinforced and shaped each other in interesting and problematic ways. Yet, because they can be imagined differently, for different purposes, religions and nations are also sites of ongoing conflict, whose boundaries are always subject to renegotiation. The goal of a social critic, as I see it, is not to eliminate exclusions—these are inevitable—but to render the operations of power visible and contestable. The moral ideal of human rights is important to this task because it reminds us that every construction of collective identity is ultimately contingent and in tension with our common humanity.