Responsibilities to Rights

Dr.  Rachael  Kohn*

Brisbane, December 23, 2014 (Alochonaa): What’s the quickest way to clear a room? Announce to everyone that you’ve got the Ebola virus. The other way is to say you’re a religious believer or a new age practitioner. In both cases the treatment is the same, quickly isolate the subject, and work toward eradication.

We know why Ebola has that effect on people today, and it’s perfectly sensible. People have a healthy fear of dying. But why does religion make so many people run for cover? As it happens, they also have a fear of dying.

Now that is a very open statement, isn’t it? Do they have a fear of dying to their ego in the face of an all powerful God and tradition? That would be the psychologist’s answer. Do they have a fear of killing off their intellect, because to believe is to accept something that is outside the usual scientific rules of evidence? That would be the atheist’s answer. Do they have a fear of being caught in lethal warfare? That would be the view of many people today who are worried about groups like ISIL, Al Queda, Jama Islamia, Al Shabaab, Hamaas, Boko Haram and other extremist groups that in the name of Islam are bent on killing innocent civilians, who don’t share their views.

These are the most prevalent reasons why people today are practically allergic to religion. There are other reasons too, ones that got more airtime before the acute dangers posed by the spread of terrorism turned our attention to bombs in the streets and knife attacks of our police officers. For example, many of the strides in civil rights, gender equality and individual freedom, as well as child protection, have been made in the teeth of religious opposition and specifically because of brutal practices carried out in religious communities. In some cultural and sectarian expressions of religion, women and children are subject to male authority in ways that over-ride and nullify the forms of gender equality and child protection that they are given under our secular state and federal laws.

It is difficult but necessary to police these civic and criminal violations – such as underage marriage, polygamous marriage, forced marriage, child enslavement, shunning, preventing parents from seeing their children and vice versa, incarceration, female genital mutilation, refusal of medical attention, refusal of police protection in violent marriages, confiscation of personal property, and even honour killing – all these occur in this country, be they in mainstream religious communities or sects and cults.

Had enough bad news? Wait, there’s more. Child sexual abuse in religious settings has remained hidden for so long precisely because the sacred authority bestowed on religion has shielded it from the normal scrutiny and the full force of our nation’s laws. That is, until recently, when the Royal Commission into sexual abuse in institutions was initiated in November 2013. The loss of face and public shaming has prompted religions, both large and small, to go to great lengths to deny or downplay the existence of such odious crimes within their ranks.

So, for all these reasons, religious belief has been a particularly unpleasant condition to admit to.


And yet…we can’t leave it there. Imagine the equivalent conclusion drawn in the field of health. In light of all the human diseases and lethal conditions that attack the human body, should we declare ‘health’ to be an impossibility and the human species all but dead? If we take into account all the misinformed medical care and outright quackery that went – and still goes – under the rubric of therapeutic treatment, should we give up on medicine altogether? That would ignore the tremendous leaps and bounds that medicine has achieved in little more than a century, as well as health knowledge, such as nutrition, which keeps us alive.

I am inclined to compare religion and health, and say good religion exists precisely because it is an effective antidote to the many ways in which human beings fall prey and fall victim to vile and violent urges. And although there are bad examples of it, which I have already mentioned, religion nonetheless is the best hope we have for a better world.

Before I explain why I think that way, let me first put my cards on the table. I do not believe that the world will ever be a harmonious place, and that all we need is to find the right amount or type of knowledge to enable perfect relations with one another. Nor do I believe that it is only a matter of time when God will swoop down on to this seemingly forsaken planet and restore it to a primordial Garden of Eden. I am neither an arch rationalist nor a radical messianist.

Therefore, I wanly smiled upon reading an earnest blog by Benedict Coleridge in the Catholic online magazine, Eureka Street, recently. He argued against ‘mere tolerance of religious difference’ and called for a thoroughgoing full-on life-long education program about all the different religions so that we could become sufficiently sensitive, appreciative, and understanding of all the ways that they challenge us, and thereby learn to ‘get over it’. To that end I hope he’s been listening to The Spirit of Things on RN, which has been doing that for 17 years!

Yet, I am under no illusion about the power of knowledge alone. I want to say to young Ben that all the knowledge in the world isn’t worth a fig if your own compassionate instinct, human to human, is not turned on and exercised. This can, and does happen without tertiary education and voluminous reading and – – hard to believe – without listening to the Spirit of Things each week. Too many academics and auto-didacts spend their lives writing essays about the theological and cultural differences between and within religions without managing to grasp that people often act out of much simpler motives and thought processes.

Philosophers and theologians may influence the ‘chattering classes’, over a very long time, but they could not always be relied on to save the world from imminent destruction. Indeed, occasionally joining forces with conspiracy theoriesthey did the opposite: philosophers incited crowds to send the clergy to the scaffold in Revolutionary France, to send millions of Jewish civilians to the gas chambers in Nazi Europe, and sentenced millions of peasants to their death by starvation in Moaist China and in the Soviet Union’s Ukraine. During the Inquisition, church theologians sent all classes of people, who they deemed heretics and Devil worshippers, to death by burning, and other horrific tortures. In our day, atheist philosophers have once again taken up the attack on religion in the public square, whenever they can. Thankfully it hasn’t come to blows, yet.

I have spent a lifetime learning, appreciating, analysing and articulating the beliefs and practices, the history and organisation of religions; I’ve taught in universities on three continents and broadcast programs across Australia and internationally through the internet but it hasn’t prevented me from being a target of hate mail. Nor has the knowledge that I have gleaned of different traditions always resulted in my benign acceptance of them. In some cases, it produced the opposite, because there are religious beliefs and practices, which are repugnant to me and which have questionable if not completely unacceptable individual and social consequences.

Perfect knowledge producing a perfect result may be a rationalist’s dream, but it is a non sequitur; it doesn’t always follow that what you understand you accept. Nor that acceptance is contingent on understanding.

What I do believe is that religion can inculcate an attitude of mind that avoids conflict in the first place. Anyone in interfaith circles has witnessed the intrinsic understanding that religious people have for one another as ‘people of faith’ for whom the divine and transcendent dimension of life is accepted as a reality. Also religious values enable and encourage us to support social and political systems that are inadequate on their own.

Western democracies today are highly secularised and appear self-sufficient. Key institutions, like government, education and the judiciary, avoid reference to religion and yet maintain, as best as possible, some of its salient values, such as the sanctity of all human life, the necessity to look after the poor and disabled, and the observance of the rule of law. At democracy’s apex has been the guarantee of freedom – freedom of individuals to live where and how and with whom they wish, to pursue any line of legally permissible work that interests them, and to follow their religion with impunity.

This is a great achievement, but it has a cost. Take, for example, freedoms that are guaranteed. It has become commonplace to press for them as if by right, and to demonstrate loudly, and to strike regularly, whenever they are perceived to be curtailed. This can result in quite extreme situations, such as when a right to work is defended in the face of bad work practice, by producing a certificate for ‘chronic lateness syndrome’ from a psychiatrist.

One of the zaniest bids for freedom fought in the criminal courts, occurred when Dan White murdered San Francisco city supervisor and homosexual Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone. The infamous ‘Twinkie defence’ alleged that the culprit’s depression caused a change of diet to the sugary snack Twinkies, which unbalanced him and caused him to commit murder. He got the reduced sentence for manslaughter.

Although this bizarre attempt to exculpate a murderer has become somewhat exaggerated in its frequent retelling, it stands for the way in which modern day secularism, aided and abetted by the legal system, offloads personal responsibility and guilt and is quick to blame someone or something else for human moral failings. Diet is to blame instead of wilful demonization of a homosexual. How could it be otherwise in a system that downplays the moral responsibilities, originating in religion, that make rights possible in the first place? It should be remembered that rights are secondary and are only the result of responsibilities, which are primary.

The secular emphasis on ‘rights’ is completely counter to what religion teaches. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it in his book To Heal a Fractured World, the ethics of responsibility found in the Ten Commandments do not comprise a list of rights, but a series of commands. For example, ‘Thou shalt not murder’ produces the right to life, ‘Thou shalt not steal’ produces a right to property, and so on. Religion requires the individual to act righteously and in a self limiting way, it does not oblige the individual to be a passive recipient of rights.

As this is an interfaith summit, which brings together religion and the economy, let me also mention that in the Jewish tradition, the great 12th Century philosopher, known as Maimonides, reflected on how the Jewish law of charity, or tzedakah, while important, does not mean that one should be lax about receiving charity. Quite the contrary, being dependent on the community was to be avoided as much as possible. Maimonides said:

A person should always exert himself and endure hardship rather than throw himself, as a dependent, on the community. The sages taught ‘Make your Sabbath a weekday sooner than become dependent.’…Outstanding scholars worked as hewers of wood, carriers of beams, drawers of garden water, iron workers, blacksmiths, rather than ask anything of the community and rather than accept any proffered gratuity… [MM: Mishneh Torah, Mattenot Ani’im 10:17-18, in Sacks 2005: 184]


Religion holds individuals to account for their deeds not because it wishes to enslave them, but because as precious and vital parts of creation, their every thought, every gesture, and every action counts as a reflection of God in whose image they are made.

In this world-view, human beings are co-creators, responsible for their actions and therefore of their fate. Their fate is not written in the stars, but on the contrary, it is made with all their heart, with all their mind, and with all their strength.

Let me move sideways for a moment to the context of education and a discussion that Martin Seligman included in his book Flourish. From a biological point of view, it could be said that our success is genetically pre- determined. Recently, the performance of mentally healthy boys and girls in school was compared, with two key characteristics measured: IQ and self- discipline. Guess which one had the most profound effect on how well one did? Boys tended to be a bit smarter, but regardless of whether their IQs were higher than the girls’, they had less self discipline than the girls had, and it was girls who did better every time. Girls succeeded, where boys often succumbed to boredom, failure and a downward spiral.

Religion builds self-discipline, because it expects higher standards of behaviour, such as self-denial, regard for authority, repetition, seriousness, and the ability to relate to others and serve their needs. In other words, the self-discipline required by religion builds character, which studies in education have shown, is the key to doing well in school, and beyond.

Incidentally, religious belief and practice has also been shown to contribute to a longer and healthier life.

Most significantly for society at large, is the significant role that religion plays in reducing crime. A major review of all the literature that examined the relationship between religiosity and crime in America, showed that 90% of the studies, ie, 247 of the 272 from 1944 to 2010, indicate an inverse relationship between religion and crime. Byron R Johnson found that even in the poorest inner city neighbourhoods, where a disproportionate number of kids end up in prison, religious involvement was effective in preventing that outcome, hence the title of his book More God Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How it could Matter More (2011).

But does all religion encourage these characteristics? Maybe not, but it is within the context of a religious community that such qualities are more likely to be cultivated. Not solely in places of worship, which after all is only a small part of religious life, but in the benevolent associations, community organisations and youth missions that they run.

You can argue that such social service organisations can exist outside of a religious context, funded by taxpayers or run as private commercial businesses, but you will not find many people volunteering their services for them. It is primarily in the religious communal context that individuals, out of personal responsibility and a sense of obligation to a higher order, willingly care for their communities.

Personal responsibility is an extension of a relationship to God or a divine being that involves two aspects: repentance and forgiveness. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues convincingly that ‘the penitential culture’, which emerged out of the Bible, inculcates the personal responsibility for sin, which, when acknowledged and repented, earns forgiveness. After repentance the way is open to a new beginning, a new impetus to do good. Compared to the Greek oracle, which predicted what will happen, the Biblical prophet warned of what might happen. In the latter case, you have it within yourself to put right. It does not result in a ‘blame culture’ of hapless victims, asking ‘Why did this happen to me?’ but a liberating one that asks ‘What then shall I do?’

When we remember that each and every individual possesses the human dignity of a person made in the image of God, then we change from being a mere object buffeted by forces to a subject in a divine relationship.

Religious philosopher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, put it like this

Man is born as an object, dies like an object, but possesses the ability to live like a subject, like a creator, an innovator, who can impress his own individual seal upon his life and can extricate himself from a mechanical type of existence …. Man’s task in the world, according to Judaism, is to transform fate into destiny; a passive existence into an active existence, [it is to transform] an existence of compulsion, perplexity and muteness into an existence replete with a powerful will, with resourcefulness, daring and imagination.

Is it any surprise then that the science of human social behaviour, which became known as sociology, was originally founded on religious insights.

German Protestant, Max Weber, the father of sociology, wrote a book 110 years ago, which drew together many of the themes I’ve mentioned so far.
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was the single most illuminating study of how Protestants, particularly Calvinists, held beliefs about work, personal salvation and the common good that forged an outlook, dictated a work practice, and established a series of social reforms that gave rise to free market capitalism.

Where some religious groups saw wealth as a danger to one’s spiritual condition, Calvinists viewed the accumulation of wealth, through hard work, as a divine sign of their favoured position in God’s eyes, and their future salvation. This theology virtually guaranteed that people would work hard, and, rather than become debauched by their riches, would invest their wealth and double and triple it, exactly in accordance with the parable of the talents found in the Gospel of Matthew 25:14-30, where the servants who invested the coins that their master gave them were rewarded, and the one who did not was cast into the outer darkness.

Unlike Catholicism in which one was baptised as a baby, most Protestant sects required a voluntary acceptance of the faith at maturity, and thus in Protestant America, the very principle of individual volition became a prized characteristic of the culture. Individualism, risk taking, self-responsibility and self-reliance were of great importance. Very much like the words I quoted of Joseph Soloveitchek: a powerful will, with resourcefulness, daring and imagination.

At times, the Protestant role in capitalism could be quite surprising. The 16th Century Puritan sect, the Religious Society of Friends, called the Quakers, were known for their ascetic living, their simple dress and their avoidance of the frills and adornments that were fashionable among the merchant class. When the Quakers introduced the radical concept of ‘the fixed price’ against the idea of prices negotiated for every individual customer, they believed it would promote honesty and eliminate greed while also reflect their belief that all people were equal before God. The result was double sided: that clientele trusted the Quakers to treat them fairly and also that accurate bookkeeping and forecasting was significantly enhanced, which was exactly the ingredients that grows business. Not surprisingly, the Quakers were among the first bankers, establishing Barclays and Lloyds, and also opening the first bank in Australia (Tasmania).

However, what was once achieved by dint of religious belief and a moral imperative would turn into its opposite. As Max Weber predicted, the spiritual engine of modern western society would be leeched out and, in time, forgotten. Modern bureaucratic society would race on like a wheel fallen off the cart, and humanity caught in its spokes would continue mechanically going round and round in a disenchanted world. Weber’s metaphor actually was ‘the iron cage’ of bureaucracy where people were reduced to arch rationalists whom he described as “ ….specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart.”

Religion has provided the foundation and blue print of our Western societies, just as it has in other parts of the world. Australia is a case in point. To read the history of settlement, the churches’ role in developing and designing its

education, its mores, its institutions, its laws and government is essentially and in details a religious story. But in the secular West people have forgotten that. The young don’t even suspect it. Western riches and an open democratic and relatively harmonious society are consequences of a Biblically inspired work ethic and a moral engine that made it obligatory to work hard, accumulate wealth and distribute, as fairly as possible, the fruits of our labour so that no one is unjustly oppressed. We need to recapture the spiritual impetus of the good society, and shift our culture’s preoccupation with rights owed to that of responsibilities accepted, from which rights flow. Australia and other Western societies have become destinations for people fleeing failed states. Now more than ever we need to remind ourselves and our newer citizens of just what made this country great for a large majority of its population and reassert its core values for those whom it has yet to lift up.

I would like to thank Dr. Brian Adams and his team of the Centre for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue, at Griffith University, who have organised this conference. I know it will afford us many opportunities to deepen our knowledge of the unique social, economic and religious challenges that are faced in different regions around the globe. And hopefully, also enable us to make new friends and associations with people eager to learn more about what makes Australia a good place to call home.

* Dr. Rachael Kohn is Producer and Presenter of ABC’s The Spirit of Things on Radio National. She was the producer and presenter of The Religion Report and Religion Today, and won 3 gold medals for Encounter documentaries. She also co-produced and presented two series for Compass on ABC TV, Buddha Realms East and West (2 parts) and The Dead Sea Scrolls (2 parts). She has written for The Financial Review and is the author of The New Believers: Re -imagining God (Harper Collins 2004) and Curious Obsessions in the History of Science and Spirituality ABC Books 2007) and numerous chapters and articles on religious history and contemporary religious practice. Dr. Kohn was a lecturer in Religious Studies at Canadian, British and Australian universities, including at the University of Sydney from 1987-1992.

* *This was a key note speech at the opening session of the 2014 G20 Interfaith Summit organized by Griffith University’s Center for Interfaith and Cultural Dialogue.   Published following a mutual understanding between Alochonaa and Center for Interfaith and Cultural Dialogue. A  video of the speech is available here. 

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

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