Dignity and Human Rights Education

Exploring Ultimate Worth in a Post-Secular World

by Robert A. Bowie (Author)
Monographs X, 304 Pages
Series: Religion, Education and Values, Volume 11


This book addresses the question of human rights education in a world that is witnessing a resurgence of religion in public life, and a continuation of religion across much of the globe, long after secularization theories predicted its decline. Promoting a universal vision of human rights while acknowledging religious diversity is a challenge for schools. This book starts with the basic premise that human rights are grounded in a belief in the dignity and ultimate worth of the human person. Drawing on key philosophical and theological sources for understanding dignity, it builds a vision of human rights and religious education that seeks to square the impossible circle of universal human rights education in a religiously diverse world.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • A study in dignity, human rights and education
  • Motivation and inspiration
  • Dignity and the UN vision
  • The three questions
  • Researching theological and philosophical sources
  • Concept analysis and development
  • General limitations
  • Part I
  • Introduction to Part I
  • Chapter 1: Human rights education and religion
  • Human rights education
  • Diminishing roles of religion in HRE
  • (i) Religion as a challenge for HRE
  • (ii) Human rights education as the auditor of religion
  • (iii) HRE in place of religion
  • Critical issues for a human rights centred education
  • (i) Rights do not exist
  • (ii) Rights have a natural basis
  • (iii) Rights are not the only important moral ideas
  • (iv) The object of human rights and human development
  • (v) Legalistic approaches to human rights and effective pedagogy
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 2: Post-secular human rights education
  • The post-secular frame
  • Education in the post-secular age
  • Enduring roles for religion in HRE
  • (i) Human rights education grounded in religion
  • (ii) Recognition of religion in HRE
  • (iii) Religion interconnected with HRE
  • (iv) Religious groups supporting effective HRE
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 3: Human rights in the English curriculum
  • The aims of the curriculum and moral education
  • Religious education
  • (i) Religion and human rights
  • (ii) Human rights in the RE curricula
  • (iii) Diverse approaches to human rights in RE
  • Citizenship education
  • Religion, plurality and dialogue
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 4: The primacy of dignity
  • Dignity and the cultural milieu of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • An undefined foundation
  • An unsatisfactory ambiguity
  • (i) It undermines the existence of human rights
  • (ii) A concept that is polemical, rather than substantial
  • (iii) An unclear concept cannot be put to good use
  • (iv) A vague idea does not provide a robust defence against moral atrocities
  • (v) An inappropriately religious idea
  • (vi) Alternatives are better
  • Enduring qualities
  • (i) A mysterious concept captures the mysterious nature of human life
  • (ii) Dignity is a point of consensus for many
  • (iii) Dignity is a recognizable phenomenon
  • (iv) Dignity is a powerful restraint on dehumanization
  • (v) Human dignity is a complex idea and alternatives are not necessarily better
  • (vi) Dignity is a useful construct for further exploration
  • The primacy of dignity
  • Conclusion
  • Part II
  • Introduction to Part II
  • Chapter 5: Cicero
  • Cicero, dignity and the dignity of man
  • Interpreting Cicero
  • Contemporary critical responses to Cicero
  • (i) Human excellence is an inadequate moral foundation
  • (ii) Cosmic designations are undermined by contemporary science
  • (iii) Social recognition is an unreliable measure of human dignity
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 6: Christianity
  • Christian sources
  • Critical tensions
  • (i) Religion has been hostile towards human rights
  • (ii) Biblical notions of dignity are hard to apply
  • (iii) Theology is an inappropriate resource for secular discussions
  • (iv) The Christian idea is incompatible with that mentioned in the UDHR
  • (v) Some doctrines seem to conflict with dignity
  • Responses
  • (i) Dignity and human life as gifts from God are difficult to separate
  • (ii) Human rights inevitably contain tensions between individuals and community
  • (iii) Religious texts help people reflect on deep intuitions
  • (iv) The lack of a clear biblical definition allows a degree of mystery in the concept
  • (v) Secular conceptions of dignity are unintelligible
  • (vi) Theological ideas of dignity reveal multidimensionality
  • (vii) Universality and the Christian notion of dignity
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 7: Kant
  • Kant and Dignity
  • Critical perspectives of Kant
  • (i) An outmoded view of humanity
  • (ii) A narrow idea of dignity
  • (iii) Kant retains a less egalitarian conception of dignity
  • (iv) Kant has decontextualized dignity and left it weak
  • In support of Kant
  • (i) Kant provides an intrinsic justification for human dignity
  • (ii) The possibilities of infinity
  • Conclusion
  • Part III
  • Introduction to Part III
  • Chapter 8: Dignity in human rights education
  • Inherent and attributive worth
  • (i) In the theological and philosophical sources
  • (ii) In human rights education
  • Inherent worth and the flourishing person
  • (i) The developing, whole, multidimensional person
  • (ii) The link between innate worth and human flourishing
  • (iii) The human and the divine, the individual and humanity
  • Critical observations and discussion
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 9: Exclusive and inclusive approaches to dignity
  • Exclusive and incompatibilistic approaches to dignity
  • (i) Christian exclusivism
  • (ii) Liberal exclusivism
  • (iii) Common features and further arguments
  • Critical considerations of exclusivism
  • (i) Simplified notions of dignity mask plurality within, as well as between, traditional sources
  • (ii) The historical development reveals the necessity to move beyond an exclusively Christian conceptualization
  • (iii) Dialogue is an essential feature in the exploration of dignity
  • Inclusivistic and compatibilistic approaches
  • Educational imperatives
  • (i) The self-reflective project
  • (ii) The project of transcultural learning
  • (iii) Reflexivity between the educational imperatives
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 10: Recontextualizing human rights education
  • Five proposals for a recontextualized HRE
  • Proposal 1: A belief in the inherent worth of the human person
  • Proposal 2: Recasting HRE as a two-fold enquiry into the dignity of the human person
  • Proposal 3: Understanding the ongoing search as a reflection on experience and narrative
  • Proposal 4: HRE should consider itself part of the enquiry into what it is to live a life in which a person may flourish
  • Proposal 5: Taking seriously the aim of friendship and understanding between different religious (and other) groups
  • Ethos and curriculum
  • Learners as theologian-philosophers
  • Conclusion
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Appendix
  • Index
  • Series index

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I would like to thank the staff at Peter Lang for their encouragement in turning my thesis into a book. I am indebted to a number of colleagues who helped me in the development of my ideas, in particular Professor James Arthur and Professor Liam Gearon who encouraged me in the earlier phases of my research. I am grateful for the time Revd. Dr Jeremy Law and Dr Mike Radford gave in detailed feedback on my writing and in discussion about my ideas. I would also like to thank Professor Julian Stern and Professor Jim Conroy who specifically helped me to develop my thinking around dialogue and persons. I am indebted to them all for their scrutiny of my ideas, critical support, encouragement and feedback. I would also like to thank my wife, Becky, and children, Harry and Martha, for their loving support and tolerance.

Needless to say, any mistakes or errors in this work are my own.

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A study in dignity, human rights and education

There is a hope that international human rights will bring together different nations under a common moral vision, a perspective for all, irrespective of religious or non-religious worldview. This hope is beset with problems and challenges but out of that hope, human rights education (HRE) has become a pedagogical force advancing a universal culture of rights. Part of that culture aims to encourage friendship between people of different religious and philosophical traditions, an aim that seems unlikely to succeed in a world where identity is increasingly, sometimes violently, associated with fundamentally differing philosophical and religious accounts of the nature and worth of a human being. Human rights are regularly cast in arguments and debates as standing in opposition to religion. Two polar arguments articulate the depth of the crisis: on the one hand, human rights are part of a secularizing vision of the modern West to replace the backward, religiously grounded, exclusivistic and morally corrupt past; on the other, human rights are a deviation from God’s law – a human, and therefore sin-centred response. Both arguments profess an irreconcilability of visions. This tension or even crisis for human rights is also one for HRE. For plural and diverse societies, moral education in schools must address this context. How can schools avoid taking sides? What should be expected from schools of a religious character where they exist, such as in England?

Motivation and inspiration

I was a secondary-age pupil attending a Roman Catholic state-funded comprehensive school in 1980s North London. I went to church at one of the largest Catholic congregations in the country. Both school and church ← 1 | 2 → were attended by people from across the range of ethnic communities that comprised the local Roman Catholic populations at that time (Irish, Italian, Indian, Greek, Polish and so on). I encountered human rights in Religious Education (RE) classes, through the study of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC). I also encountered it in the homilies (sermons) in church through the language of the dignity of the human person. I later came to understand, through my study and faith formation at university, that this rested at the core of Catholic moral and social teaching. As much as I experienced early education within a monoreligious faith community, I was presented with an interpretation of the world with a correlation between a human rights vision and a Catholic worldview.

However, today there seem to be increasingly vociferous messages which cast an essential incompatibility between religion and human rights. This incompatibility causes profound questions for school systems and moral education to address. Can schools of a religious character be tolerated? How should children be educated in human rights? What account of the world, in terms of human rights and religion, should be promoted, if any, by our schools?

This message of incompatibility contrasts with my interpretation of my early educational experiences and Christian formation and that is partly the reason for my doctoral research which led to this book. My interest in this study is not dispassionate and I do not claim to be neutral. I am a practising Christian and have worked in Catholic schools and an Anglican university as a religious educator and teacher educator. No doubt my interest in seeking to articulate an integrative solution to the modern challenge of essential incompatibility is in part fuelled by a desire to validate the interpretation of my early experience in life. However, I believe that in the texts I discuss and interweave, there are strong enough reasons to challenge the narratives of incompatibility with a realization, interpretation or recontextualization, that the borders between these views are porous, and that there is a basis for a more integrated human rights Christian vision for education. At the very least I believe my conclusions give reason to interrupt the secular/religious binary that lies beneath some education debates. ← 2 | 3 →

This is a study of texts from philosophy, theology and education. I hope I justify my choices of texts in the body of the work itself, although clearly, on a topic such as dignity, there are probably countless possible sources that could be explored. However, a more general question might be made about the justification of using philosophy and theology in approaching education. Surely the study of education is the reserve of the social sciences? I do not hold to that conclusion. The argument that pedagogy or any educational survey and study, take place in a moral vacuum to be scrutinized by researchers who can evaluate their findings divorced from any commitment to system of reasoning, with no prior explicit ‘valuations’ of any kind, is one I find untenable. This book does not work through this argument as that would be a study in its own right. Suffice to say, I presuppose that within or beneath all education endeavours, there exist some valuations, some accounts of what might be termed ‘moral anthropology’ of the purpose and nature of education and the human being. This moral anthropology may be explicit or implicit, acknowledged or unrecognized but it is ever-present.

In a book that discusses conceptual theorization and awareness of HRE and dignity, I am concerned with interpretations because I do not hold to the view that texts are accessed ‘directly’ without the influence of filtering processes. A range of factors, including language, culture, philosophy, and psychology to name but a few, intervene when meaning is made. One interpretation of particular interest to me is the idea that human rights are a product or tool of secularization. This I seek to question at a time that has the rise of religion in public life, and the emergence of what some call a post-secular context.

Dignity is central to human rights and HRE. It is a concept of multiple meanings within secular and religious discourses. Conceptual clarity, therefore, has a role in making sense of the human rights educational endeavour. It helps in the challenge of finding a common language in human rights as terms that are interpreted through narratives that give different nuances and notions. It reveals an implicit weakness in the expression of idealized concepts as values, without accompanying narratives or situations to provide an interpretative frame. How we make sense of central ideas when they are differently interpreted through differing narratives and contexts, matters. ← 3 | 4 → The response in this book is to undertake an analysis of the foundational concept of dignity and the meaning-giving narratives that contributed to the concept’s development. Dignity is often mentioned but seldom explained, in HRE literature. This book identifies key elements within dignity that are interrelated and form a framework: inherent worth, human flourishing and societal recognition. This framework sheds light on the concept and how it functions both as a foundation and an inspiration for human rights. The book demonstrates and advocates taking an inclusive approach to this conceptual framework to allow for two crucial ingredients in a plural and diverse society: it includes the possibility that different meaning-giving narratives may be held, while asserting a common ethical understanding of rights based on dignity. It suggests that it is possible to translate the concept of dignity into different narratives whilst retaining conceptual coherence, and therefore that international human rights education may be possible as an embedded project within particular narratives, rather than as an externally imposed replacement educational vision. There can be a Christian human rights vision and account of education. This of course means something both for Christianity, and perhaps religion more widely, as well as human rights – in terms of the possibility of finding commonalities working with and through religion, rather than seeking to supplant or replace it.

The case laid out argues that the concept of dignity is a foundation for a particular pedagogical approach that advances a commitment to the inherent worth of the human person. The approach consists of two reflexive elements: a self-reflective enquiry into the faiths and philosophies of the individual learners and a dialogue with and for others.

The intention of the work is to try to avoid the colonial mistakes of earlier human rights movements in part through the identification of an explicit role of religious education in HRE. This is to safeguard against a uniform approach to ethics education that is desensitized to context and/or posited as a clumsy replacement for meaning-giving narratives that are culturally embedded. The book proposes a recontextualized form of HRE that is theologically and religiously literate, to guide policy and practice. The proposal acknowledges the overlap between educational movement and theological thought, and makes specific reference to contributions from contemporary Christian and Catholic thinking. ← 4 | 5 →

The book aims to motivate further research to carry forward the HRE proposal and develop new thinking about an education that enters into a relationship with religious traditions – a post-secular education – rather than one that seeks to describe and define educational understanding in language separated from religious narratives.

Dignity and the UN vision

The United Nations vision of universal human rights begin with a single simple proposition – that all human beings have high moral significance. This belief in the worthiness of humans, in their dignity, is the great foundation for the human rights edifice, but, as a belief, it is an unfounded foundation, in that it is not reasoned through, justified, or demonstrated but simply proclaimed. It is a commitment to an idea, on which human rights stand, and from which they flow. The boldness of this proclamation has more in keeping with some sacred revelation of an eternal doctrine, than a legal or political agreement. For all their association with legal technicalities, and some philosophical traditions, there remains a moral mysticism at the heart of human rights. The belief in dignity, expressed without justification or definition in UN declarations, conventions and statements make human rights an act of faith, whether this be a pragmatic basic operating assumption or a source of inspiration. Human rights promote this underlying idea that humans are worthy (have dignity) alongside the particular notions of rights themselves. These things that are promoted in education are conveyed in a particular language that is interpreted into narratives of meaning and contexts.

Dignity is a mysterious term which carries a compelling moral inference in everyday speech as well as political and legal discourse. It has the power to challenge and condemn, and yet at the same time is the measure of a person’s integrity and character. It is both a refuge, a binding obligation and a measure. There is a danger in trying to define too tightly a concept which seems to carry the burden of the weight of the moral worth of people. It is used in differing ways, not all of which offer a compelling basis ← 5 | 6 → for human rights. Dignity may be interpreted in terms of social standing, moral propriety or comportment and is applied to positions of authority, human beings and sometimes non-human animals. For the human rights educator some definitions or interpretations come up wanting as insufficient grounding for human rights. A better understanding of dignity is needed than status symbol or moral purity, if it is truly the centre-piece of humanity as conceived in the human rights vision.


X, 304
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (September)
Human rights Dignity Religious education Post-secular
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. X, 304 pp., 1 fig.

Biographical notes

Robert A. Bowie (Author)

Bob Bowie is Principal Lecturer in Education at Canterbury Christ Church University. He is a National Teaching Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and Chair of the Association of University Lecturers in Religion and Education. He teaches education and ethics, religion and human rights, and carries out research in religious, Christian and human rights education.


Title: Dignity and Human Rights Education
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312 pages