Close Friends or Wary Acquaintances: A Lesson Plan about the Relationship of Religion and Human Rights

Following my school trip in March with 20 students to Yaowawit School in southern Thailand, I have become more interested in teaching a World Religions course.  In the future I hope to offer such a course that offers not only study in Hong Kong, but also includes a service and spiritual practice component at Yaowawit school. 

The entry below shares one lesson plan I have for the World Religions course that I will teach next fall at HKIS.  I hope I will be able to engage students in the relevance of such study to contemporary society and their own personal life quest. 


This fall I will be teaching a World Religions course for the first time in fifteen years.  Having taught social conscience courses for some years and completed research with students in this area, I have some understanding of what works well for students in facilitating development of their social conscience in the high school classroom.  For example, students want to study dramatic contemporary events (e.g., the NATO intervention in Libya; the Darfur genocide) and to ask big questions about these events (e.g., what is the role of the international community in stopping imminent and preventable human tragedies?).

The research on social conscience suggests that students want to study materials that are not only relevant to today, but also have broader moral and philosophical implications.  We oftentimes refer to this exploratory process as coming to understand one’s worldview, the lenses of beliefs and values through which one perceives and evaluates the world.

I would like to apply these same principles to teaching World Religions this fall. With this in mind, this blog entry will take a recent lecture I attended, select its most salient points, and arrange these ideas in such a way that students can start the class with a relevant, debatable topic that will also ask them consider some important larger philosophical questions.  In so doing, I hope it will motivate them to develop their own worldview about the role of religion in modern society, including the relevance of these materials to their own personal beliefs and practices.

Lecture by Professor John Witte, Jr.

On June 24, 2011 Professor John Witte, Jr. of Emory University presented a lecture at the University of Hong Kong entitled, “The Challenges of Religion and Human Rights in a Post-Modern Secular Age.”  Professor Witte has been nominated for teacher of the year award at his university ten times.  His brilliant delivery as well as his skilled responses to questions following his lecture lent support for these nominations.  Before summarizing his remarks below, I want to acknowledge and thank Dr. Witte for the ideas presented in his lecture.

Rather than present his conclusions, however, I would like to present his arguments for students to research and debate.

General Question: What should be the relationship of religion and human rights in the 21st century?

Four Positions:

1)   Human Rights does not need religion:

  • The purpose of religion is private piety and comfort, not public debate or social change.
  • Religious teachings around the world have a mixed or even poor record with respect to human rights.  For example, the caste system in India has denied equality for Indian people for millennia.
  • Religious bodies and those who claim to be religious have violated the basic human rights of millions of people in the past.  Many of these same abuses continue to the present day.
  • In particular, the Christian tradition in Europe failed to prevent the most devastating event in modern history, World War II.  The modern human rights movement, which emerged in the mid-1940’s, was born out of the failure of traditional religion to stop the horrors of this era.
  • Human rights is its own secular system of thought that has included pertinent moral values of traditional religions, while stripping away the abuses, inequalities and illusions that have accumulated within these traditions.
  • Religions can’t agree on many basic beliefs and teachings; the appeal of human rights law is that it is secular and rational, and thus can be more easily agreed upon by diverse groups of people.

2)   Human Rights does need religion:

  • The basic rights to assemble, speak, travel, vote, etc, all originate from the right to determine one’s own set of beliefs, which for most people historically means freedom of religion.  To dismiss the perspectives of religious groups means that human rights advocates have cut themselves off from the roots of these basic rights.  These roots oftentimes can be found in religious traditions that predate the modern human rights movement by hundreds or even thousands of years.
  • Without religion, human rights become infinitely expandable. In other words, modern human rights focuses primarily on rights and say little about duties. By contrast, in most religious traditions rights and duties are well-balanced.
  • Human rights emerges out of Western beliefs.  If human rights advocates do not draw upon other cultures, which are primarily religious in nature, human rights will be dominated by Western secular ideas that do not take into account, nor properly represent people from non-Western cultures.
  • Without religion, government is expected to do too much.  On the contrary, religious organizations can and often do play a vital role in cultivating human rights.  Religious groups are also better motivators of moral behavior than governments are.
  • The human rights movement has no narratives to ground their beliefs.  For example, it could be argued that it is easier to inspire the value of self-sacrifice through the Christian tradition’s story of Jesus’ death and resurrection than a secular government’s call to sacrifice oneself for one’s country.
  • Ultimately, secular beliefs cannot persuasively answer the question why people should be given human rights.  In contrast, religion roots loving and respecting others in the reality of God, truth about the cosmos, or the sanctity of divinely inspired teachings.  Human rights is not an entire belief system and could benefit from being associated with religious traditions that provide a far more comprehensive and compelling explanation for human existence.

3)   Religion does not need human rights:

  • Human rights teaches about liberty and equality, which would challenge and undermine the authority and hierarchy of religions.
  • Human rights emphasizes pluralism, which can lead to relativism, while religions generally stress orthodoxy and uniformity.
  • Human rights advocate freedom of speech, while many traditional religions expect people to submit to God and religious authorities.
  • The secular nature of the human rights movement questions the basic necessity of religion and introduces doubt about fundamental religious teachings.  The fear is that secular ideas will consume people’s beliefs about God, the afterlife, and basic beliefs of right and wrong.
  • Governments and other non-religious bodies might dismantle the organizational or governance structures of religious authorities.

4)   Religion does need human rights:

  • Religion is losing its relevance to many people, so by using the language and concepts of human rights, it will strengthen its appeal to modern people.  Religions can be seen as the supporter and protector of human rights.
  • Using the language of human rights will help correct past abuses by religious organizations and guard against future violation of these norms.
  • Some visionary religious thinkers who were not in the mainstream of their traditions can now be reinterpreted, be given a greater role, and be recognized that they were years or even centuries ahead of their time.  For example, although the Christian church has been male-dominated throughout most of its history, Jesus in the Gospels demonstrates a high regard for women.

Lesson Plans Using these Materials

Day 1         Introduction of class and activity

  1. Explain the purpose of the World Religions class (as discussed in the introduction above)
  2. Starter questions:    a)    Do you think the human rights movement or the world’s religions will be a greater force for good in the 21st century?    b)   Which do you find to be a better source of meaning and motivation for your life, human rights or religion?  Set the topic of the activity: the class will debate the relationship of human rights and religion in the 21st century.
  3. Break class into four groups and assign them one of the four positions above.  (Alternatively, students could choose a position, but a fallback plan needs to be in place to make sure all four positions are adequately represented.)
  4. Students use class time to research specific historical and contemporary examples as support for their positions.  (Preparing a bank of supplementary materials for student usage about various religious groups and human rights organizations would be a valuable additional resource for the class.)
  5. Explain that the class will do a shared inquiry the next period.  (Alternatively, they could choose to present a structured debate with each student presenting a speech in support of their team’s position.)

Day 2         Shared Inquiry

  1. Arrange the chairs in an inner circle and outer circle.
  2. Position groups (1) and (2) in the inner circle and groups (3) and (4) in the outer circle.
  3. Groups (1) and (2) discuss their positions for a set amount of time (10-15 minutes are common time limits).  Groups (3) and (4) evaluate them according to the rubric below (which was shared with me by my HKIS colleague, Betsy Lewis-Moreno).
  4. Shared Inquiry Rubric: A student . . .
    • showed initiative by asking others for clarification and moving the conversation forward by asking insightful questions
    • cited evidence from research and previous discussions to support points
    • made logical and insightful comments
    • made connections among ideas from other speakers and personal experiences
    • listened to others without interrupting or dominating the discussion
  5. Switch seats and repeat activity for groups (3) and (4).
  6. Evaluation: teachers can also use the rubric to assign a discussion grade for students.  Further evaluation: Students could write a reflection or a position paper in which they shared what they had learned about the relationship of religion and human rights.
  7. Additional Discussion: Following the two shared inquiries, key statements from Professor Witte’s lecture could be shared, or his conclusions could be revealed and discussed with students.


It is hoped that this activity will engage students in the complex relationship between religion and human rights, a topic it is assumed that students will care about.  Framing the discussion around understanding one’s worldview should set an exploratory tone for the class.

Starting the class in this way is reminiscent of the beginning of Huston Smith’s book, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief (2001).  In chapter one, Smith argues that traditional cultures gave humanity the gift of metaphysics and worldview; modernity presented humans with a scientific view of nature that has provided sufficient food and shelter for millions; and post-modernity has enabled people to recognize and to attempt to solve problems of social injustice.  Smith believes that, in terms of understanding and articulating the role of humanity in the cosmos, the traditional worldview possesses an unparalleled explanatory power in human history.  It is hoped that through using intellectual resources such as Professor Witte’s lecture or Smith’s writings that we can share the wealth of spiritual traditions, both ancient and modern, with our students.

Note: Professor Witte has written or edited nine books on the relationship of Christian teachings with law and society.  To learn more about his books and the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, please visit this website:


About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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