November 13, 2013

Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences
Minutes of the CAAS 1431th Meeting
Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at the Whitney Center
Lecture by Anat Biletsky, Schweitzer Professor of Philosophy at Quinnipiac
Is Religion an Obstacle to Human Rights?
The 1431st meeting of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences was held on Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at the Whitney Center, 200 Leeder Hill Drive in Hamden, Connecticut. Some 60 members and their guests enjoyed wine at 5p.m. and attended the lecture at 5.30 and some 50 stayed for dinner at 6.45p.m.
The CAAS President, Dr. Gregory Tignor opened the evening session with the sad news of the death of Birgitta Johnson. Birgitta had served the Academy in many ways, as Secretary and temporary Treasurer and always elegantly and efficiently. Her legacy will live on. She will be sorely missed. Dr. Tignor requested a moment of silence. He then asked that the members present purchase Academy pins in remembrance of Birgitta and also to sign condolence cards, which will be sent to her family.
Dr. Hans Bergmann, Dean of Quinnipiac University and a Vice President of CAAS, introduced the speaker for the evening, Anat Biletsky, the Schweitzer Professor of Philosophy at Quinnipiac. He said that Dr. Biletsky was an ardent promoter of Human Rights all over the world and had received a myriad of acclamations and awards. The title of Professor Biletsky’s talk was, “Is Religion an Obstacle to Human Rights?”  Putting Democracy, Human Rights and Religion together, said Dr. Biletsky, allows for the effect that these three concepts have on each other and on society to be considered and discussed. She said that there had been much disagreement amongst philosophers about this and over the years the idea had become more tentative. Nevertheless she wanted to explore this idea with the audience.  Defining human rights as a right by virtue of being human she posed the question where do these rights come from-from the secular or from the religious? The religious position is that the essence of morality is God-given. Having been created by God we are sacred human beings and as such deserve human rights. However there is no philosophical reason to accept this position. The secular position is more convoluted and states that humans have a right to be free simply because they are human. So what difference does it make which position one takes? This depends on what one thinks is the source of moral authority or the source of morality.  Is it God or the human being himself?  The secular argument is that human rights are not a commandment from God but rather a product of human dignity. It is postulated that there is no meaning to human rights if they are under divine commandment. So how does this connect with Democracy? Democracy is defined both procedurally and substantively. Procedurally it is achieved by free and fair elections. Substantively it is the quality that due process gives to freedom. International human rights law states that everyone has a right to live in a democracy. Does that mean human rights are mandatory for democracy? The United Nations Commission states that democracy has to have respect for human rights and freedom. From this Professor Biletzki concluded that democracy must be divorced from religion. Egypt and the Arab Spring in general, she said, are good illustrations of this thesis. There was an uprising against the authoritarian government of President Mubarak. This in turn led to the ouster of the President followed by a democratic election. The election however produced a religious mode of government that in its turn became authoritarian and disrespectful of human rights. Was this a true democracy because it was procedural rather than substantive? Liberal thinkers are now split down the middle. One side favors the overturn of this purely procedural democracy while the other side maintains the legitimacy of the democratic government. The fact that this government is fundamentally Muslim and therefore fundamentally substantively undemocratic because of its religious base, makes the situation problematic and confusing. Dr. Belitzky hastened to add that there are secular fascists also! She ended on a conciliatory note recognizing the wonder of religion and super human agents, quoting Kant and his veneration of the “starry heavens above and the moral law within me.”
The discussion following the lecture focused on the distinction between democracy and religion. Dr. Belitzky postulated that the Jewish State was an oxymoron because democracies cannot be exclusionary. She considered nationalism and religion equally exclusive and therefore equally non-democratic and antithetical to human rights. 
Respectfully submitted by Margot Kohorn