Religion and human rights: Enemies or allies?

Blavatnik School of Government and Zoom
University of Oxford members only
This event is free - register below to attend
October 2022
Lecture and discussion

While religion and human rights often seem to clash, in this lecture and discussion Professor John Witte Jr will argue that religion and human rights ultimately need each other. 

On the one hand, human rights norms need religions to bolster them. While there is value in declaring human rights ideals of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” or “life, liberty, and property,” these abstract ideals of a good life and a good society depend on the visions and values of religious communities to give them content, coherence, and concrete manifestation. Religions may also provide some of the essential meanings and measures of shame and regret, restraint and respect, responsibility and restitution that a human rights regime presupposes. Religions must thus be seen as indispensable allies in the modern struggle for human rights. 

On the other hand, religion needs human rights for its own protection. While religious believers and groups might quietly accept the current protections of a modern human rights regime—the guarantees of liberty of conscience, freedom of exercise, religious non-discrimination and self-determination, and more—a passive acquiescence in a secular scheme of human rights ultimately will not prove effective. And failure to press unique religious rights claims will eventually leave many religious beliefs, practices, and communities too vulnerable to political dynamics of liberalism and anti-liberalism. Religious communities must reclaim their own voices within the human rights discourse, and reclaim the resources internal to their traditions to engage and affirm human rights. 

This event will be moderated by Dr Marietta van der Tol.

About the speakers

John WitteJohn Witte, Jr, J.D. (Harvard); Dr. Theol. h.c. (Heidelberg), is Woodruff University Professor, McDonald Distinguished Professor, and Director of the Law and Religion Center at Emory University. A leading scholar of legal history, human rights, family law, and law & religion, he has delivered 350 public lectures worldwide and published 300 articles and 45 books, in 15 languages. Recent monographs include: The Western Case for Monogamy over Polygamy (Cambridge, 2015), Church, State, and Family (Cambridge 2019), The Blessings of Liberty (Cambridge, 2021), Faith, Freedom, and Family (Mohr Siebeck, 2021), and Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment (Oxford, 2022). For more information, see

Marietta van der TolMarietta van der Tol joined the Blavatnik School of Government in the summer of 2020 as a postdoctoral fellow. She is part of the Alfred Landecker Programme and teaches on the Foundations course of the Blavatnik School's Master of Public Policy. She leads the international networking collaboration ‘Religion, ethnicity and politics in German, Dutch and Anglo-American contexts: nationalism and the future of democracy’, as well as the Cambridge-based project ‘Protestant political thought: religion, state, nation’.

Her research interests include the relationship between religion, politics and society, and the role that political imaginaries play in the formation of law and public policy with regard to religious minorities in Europe. Her doctoral thesis, ‘Politics of religious diversity: toleration, religious freedom and visibility of religion in public space’ (Cambridge), explored expressions of tolerance and intolerance in contemporary constitutional law and politics in France, Germany and the Netherlands.