Human Rights and the Question of Secularization and Re-Sacralization
Marius Timmann Mjaaland
Whereas Samuel Moyn has argued that human rights represent the last utopia, sociologist Hans Joas suggests that the modern history of human rights represents a critical alternative to the common theory of secularization understood as disenchantment (Weber). In Joas’s reading, the political and social emphasis on human rights contributes to a sacralization of the person, not only understood as utopia, but also as societal ideal. Following Durkheim, Joas understands the sacred within the society as the continuous process of refashioning the ideal society within the real society. Although acknowledging Joas’s critique of Weber, the author is more critical of his idealization of universal human rights and his affirmative genealogy of this ideal running back to the so-called Axial Age. Mjaaland argues that the normative and formative functions of human rights are better served by a suspicious genealogy of morals, taking also the problematic aspects of human rights policy into account, including its dependence on new forms of violence and cruelty. He concludes that a more modest and pragmatic understanding of human rights may therefore strengthen rather than weaken their authority and future influence.