If God Were a Human Rights Activist
Boaventura de Sousa Santos



Boaventura de Sousa Santos's If God Were a Human Rights Activist is a tour de force of the moral and intellectual imagination. In both the creativity of its several key lines of argument, and in the way historical, political, and cultural lines of evidence are parsed, interrogated, and, finally, synthesized in bold and even startling ways, the book breaks new ground and points the way toward the possibility of alternative practices anchored in what Santos calls “relational” grammars of human dignity.

In this wide-ranging critique and emergent reconstruction of human rights, Santos develops a mode of engagement that goes beyond mere inter-disciplinarity. Although his study is deeply rooted in the tradition of academic writing, the questions he takes up, and the framework he reveals for answering them, suggest an ecology that ranges beyond the walls of the academy, across the lines that divide the Global North from the Global South, and against centuries of oppression based on forms of what Santos describes as “cognitive injustice.” Paradoxically, one of these forms of cognitive injustice has been what he calls the “conventional” understanding and practice of human rights, particularly after the end of the Cold War. Although, as he argues, human rights orthodoxy has not taken hold everywhere with the same force or in the same way (one thinks of China and the United States as key outliers), nevertheless, the conventional account is shaping the contemporary world on its way to hegemony. (“Conventional,” as Santos uses it here, is meant to mark the moment in history in which human rights are, as he puts it, “less than hegemonic and more than dominant” in the often coercive role it plays in societies around the world.)

In Santos’s analysis, conventional human rights shape consequential forms of action in the contemporary world on the basis of four illusions. For Santos, the critical task is to deconstruct these illusions so that the productive and even potentially emancipatory core of human rights can be repurposed as an epistemological and ethical resource within struggles of liberation and cognitive self-determination. First, according to Santos, the discourse of human rights suggests its own inevitability despite its actual historical contingency, even after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was promulgated in 1948 as a fait accompli. If it is true, as the human rights scholar and anthropologist Richard A. Wilson has argued, that human rights have become the “archetypal language of democratic transition” (2001: 1), then for Santos it is important to acknowledge that this was the result of a string of idiosyncratic and nonessential events in history, politics, and the global economy; in other words, it could have been (and it might be in the future) otherwise. Second, the rise of human rights, again, particularly after the end of the Cold War (and, even more, after the end of the post–Cold War) has been accompanied by a wide-ranging elision of alternative visions of justice, particularly those associated with religious and nationalist ideologies. Nevertheless, if human rights have become dominant, Santos argues, this position should not be taken as a reflection of its inherent superiority. Third, like other universalisms in history, human rights are infused with an abstractness that obscures all of the important contexts that make it meaningful, concrete, and contradictory in actual social practice. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Santos draws our attention to the illusion that conventional human rights are monolithic when in fact even dominant understandings and practices of human rights contain a diversity of conceptual emphasis, historical emergence, and cultural resonance.

For Santos, the empirical fact of human rights pluralism holds the key to the synthesis he develops in If God Were a Human Rights Activist. It allows him to use a practical and grounded hermeneutics to reveal the ways in which a more heterodox, that is, actual, account of human rights shares overlapping claims about human dignity with important strains of religious doctrine. As he argues, the hermeneutic engagement with dominant contemporary world religions—which represent, for Santos, the clearest alternatives to human rights—shows them to be a surprising potential “source of radical energy toward counterhegemonic human rights struggles.”

At a moment in history in which, as he puts it, “the most appalling social injustices and unjust human suffering no longer seem to generate . . . moral indignation,” what is urgently needed is the willingness to subject our most hallowed grammars of human dignity to careful and creative scrutiny, for, as Santos convincingly shows us, these have more often than not often failed to translate into enduring practices of resistance for the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized populations. If God Were a Human Rights Activist is precisely such an urgent and necessary reappraisal.

Series Editor Mark Goodale