Rights and Religions

Religions have long played a prominent and critical role in struggles around the world for dignity, freedom and social justice. Many of the most significant and positive struggles have been led by people such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Shirin Ebadi and Aung San Suu Kyi whose deep religious beliefs helped shape the vision and the strategy and tactics of their movements. The front lines of these struggles are often disproportionately composed of believers who attribute their inspiration, commitment and willingness to endure suffering to their religion. Even self-professed secular activists often describe their experiences of struggle in what can be characterized as religious terms.

At the same time, often overshadowing positive contributions, religious figures and interpretations have frequently been at the forefront of horrific and massive violations of human rights. Religion is used to encourage or justify attacks, often violent, on women and religious, national, and sexual minorities, or to defend unjust economic structures and abusive powers. Those seeking change of oppressive systems are frequently accused of, if not punished for, disrespecting what is sacred. In these far from unusual cases many social justice activists find religion more of an enemy than an ally. Also, movements that need and want to mobilize increasingly diverse communities face the challenge of religion dividing, and aggravating conflicts between, people of different or no faith traditions.

At a time when political, economic, and social systems are breaking down, inequality, injustice, conflict, and repression are on the rise, and social justice advocates are increasingly and necessarily grappling with the power of religion for good and bad, we believe the need to look critically as the role of religion and the new forms it is taking in social movements is of great importance.

The Kairos Center is working to meet that need through a set of critical in-depth comparative studies researching the impact of religions on social movements and related efforts in different parts of the world. Both the research process itself and the materials it produces will be used to stimulate and support ongoing public discussions and strategic dialogues on the experiences and best practices of combating religion as an obstacle to, and enhancing it as a force for advancing rights and the common good.

The Kairos Center is currently working with global partners and the International Network on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net) to identify possible subjects and partners such as the Moral Mondays Movement in the U.S., the South Africa Shackdwellers movement, Musawah: the movement for Equality in the Muslim family, and movements in India, Scotland, Brazil, Niger, and the Philippines.