If God Were a Human Rights Activist
Boaventura de Sousa Santos



We live in a time dominated by the power of the idea of individual autonomy, an autonomy that is to be exercised in a planetary marketplace constituted by a myriad of local, national, and global markets in which potentially all dimensions of individual and social life are traded according to their price-tagged value. According to this idea, society consists of supposedly self-made individuals whose life chances depend almost entirely on themselves, for better or for worse. These life chances are determined by life choices to be exercised through infinite options of exit (to use Albert Hirschman’s well-known concept) within the planetary marketplace. The only unavailable option is the exit from the planetary marketplace. This idea is an ideology to the extent that it underwrites, manifests, and reinforces the dominant power relations in our societies. It operates as a kind of normative apolitics: normative because people are asked, if not forced, to be autonomous—only to be utterly abandoned if their failures are seen as the result of ineptitude in the exercise of their autonomy; apolitical because the immense power of this idea consists in promoting an idea of power as immensely fragmented, as disseminated in a virtually infinite web of interactions among individuals competing for scarce resources and rewards in the marketplace. Individual autonomy is thus understood as personal engagement with a ready-made, unchangeable world. The asocial or even antisocial being thus constituted is the homo sociologicus of global monopoly capitalism—or neoliberalism, as it is usually called—a much-expanded version of the homo economicus. Disseminated by proselytizers who believe that their mission is to announce the new way of being human, this ideology prevails all over the world, even though the impact of its penetration varies widely from region to region. It is the ideological form of a poststate, postsocial, extremely concentrated structural power through which the 1 percent global elite rules the 99 percent impoverished world population. As an ideology, its strength resides in its performative value, not in its truth content. Actually, the promise/imposition of autonomy is doubly treacherous. First, because no one in society depends solely on him- or herself for anything other than elementary tasks (and even this is a matter of dispute). Second, because there is no autonomy without conditions of autonomy, and the latter are distributed unequally in society; moreover, in an era of neoliberal economics and politics, the individuals that are most pressed to be autonomous are precisely those most deprived of the conditions that would enable them to be so. The outcomes resulting from policies founded on this ideology are disturbing. We live in a time when the most appalling social injustices and most unjust human suffering no longer seem to generate the moral indignation and the political will necessary both to combat them effectively and to create a more just and fair society. Under such circumstances, it seems evident that we cannot afford to waste any genuine social experience of indignation that is capable of strengthening the organization and the determination of all those who have not given up the struggle for a more just society.

Counteracting the ideology of possessive individualistic autonomy, two main normative politics seem to be in place: human rights and political theologies. Although they are unequally present in the different regions of the globe, they both operate globally. No matter how far back one traces its ancestry, the fact is that human rights entered national and international agendas as a decisive grammar of human dignity only in the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time we were also witnessing the emergence of another normative politics, political theologies, understood as theologies that challenge the separation between the public and private spheres and that demand a role for religion in the public sphere. According to them, human dignity consists in carrying out the will of God, a mandate that cannot be restricted to the private sphere.

These two normative politics could not be farther apart. Human rights are individualistic, secular, culturally Western-centric, and state-centric, in the sense of either controlling the state or taking advantage of it. Political theologies, on the other hand, are communitarian and antisecular, may be either Western or fiercely anti-Western, and are largely hostile to the state.1 As I show in this book, these general characterizations do not account for the internal diversity of either human rights or political theologies. On the basis of the complexity that emerges from such diversity, I pursue a kind of intercultural translation between these two normative politics, seeking translational zones of contact that will yield new or renewed energies for radical, progressive social transformation.

I proceed by identifying the major challenges that the rise of political theologies at the beginning of the twenty-first century poses to human rights. I then select, within a broad landscape of theological analysis, the types of reflections and practices that might contribute to expand and deepen the canon of human rights politics. With this purpose in mind, I make distinctions from which significant consequences are drawn: on the one side, distinctions among different types of political theologies (such as pluralist versus fundamentalist, traditionalist versus progressive); on the other, distinctions between two contrasting discourses and practices of human rights politics (such as hegemonic versus counterhegemonic). I end the book by arguing that pluralist and progressive theologies may be a source of radical energy toward counterhegemonic human rights struggles.

This analytical and political trajectory is not the product of a disinterested inquiry aiming only to generate still one more vanguard theory. While actively participating in the World Social Forum (Santos, 2006b) I have often observed how activists fighting for socioeconomic, historical, sexual, racial, cultural, and postcolonial justice would frequently base their activism and their claims on Christian, Islamic, Judaic, Hindu, Buddhist, and indigenous religious beliefs and spiritualities. In a sense, such stances bear witness to a political intersubjectivity that seems to have deserted conventional, secular critical thinking and political action; that is, the combination of creative effervescence and intense and passionate energy, on the one side, with a pluralistic, open-ended, and nonviolent conception of struggle, on the other. My aim in writing this book is to account for and strengthen such struggles, and last but not least to give sense to my participation in them.


1. The historicity of the opposition between the foundations of human rights and religion is more complex than what this polarization may suggest. With different arguments, Hans Joas (2013) also claims that the antireligious Enlightenment is not the only source of modern human rights and that the preconditions for human rights include the belief in the sacredness of every person and in what such belief entails.