Research Topics, Part 2: Humanitarianism and Religion

Beside Humanitarianism and Intervention (see Fabian’s post on 18/04/2013), another central research topic is religion and humanitarianism. Among the different threads, which have made up modern humanitarianism since the eighteenth century, religion was and still is one of the strongest.

Although humanitarian reform entailed strong secular concerns, it was by no means a purely secular phenomenon but rather closely linked to and supplemented by religious developments.This argument has recently been made forcefully with regard to the genealogy of human rights by Hans Joas in The Sacredness of the Person. A New Genealogy of Human Rights (Engl. transl., Washington, DC, Georgetown University Press, 2013). Religious motivations also drove many if not most of the reformers who sought to make the world a better place and made many others turn toward worldly service in medical practice, child education, or other areas of philanthropy. Religious morality has left a strong imprint well beyond the nineteenth-century world.

Michael Barnett and Janice Gross Stein have recently edited a volume on Sacred Aid. Faith and Humanitarianims (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). They contend that during the twentieth century secular concens came to dominate so much so that by the 1970s religious inspiration had become marginal to humanitarian movements. However, since the 1980s religious humanitarianism saw a revival and seems today an equal to secular reformers and humaniarian practioners. This may seem true on the surface, but Jeffrey Cox has recently not only emphasized missionary organisations as the first and for a long time dominant actors of humanitarian engagement in early twentieth century Britain, but also differentiated their representation, by highlighting women as central actors and nominal Christians as an active group of humanitarians, who are often neglected in research (‘From the Empire of Christ to the Third World. Religion and the Experience of Empire in the Twentieth Century,’ in Britain’s Experience of Empire in the Twentieth Century, ed. Andrew Thompson, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). He concluded that Christian piety later in the century increasingly took a secular form and used a secular rhetoric but did not lose its religious core which only became invisible in a “religion of ethical practice” or the “religion of everyday life”.

So, the question of the longevity and impact of religion on humanitarianism still needs further discussion and research. Last year’s conference at the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz discussed the role of religion in humanitarianism by focusing on the dimensions of Empire. The conference was organised by Harald Fischer-Tiné, Johannes Paulmann and Alexandra Przyrembel. The goal of the international and interdisciplinary gathering was to discuss the globalisation of religious humanitarianism in the context of its entanglement with European colonial powers on the one hand and the colonies on the other. With its main focus on missionary societies, missionary orders and philanthropic organisations that pursued religious and more broadly humanitarian aims, the task was to analyse the longevity, ambiguity and malleability of religious arguments for state and non-state humanitarian assistance well into the twentieth century. For a more detailed account see Esther Möller‘s and my report on http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/tagungsberichte/id=4794. One of the questions that came up in conclusion has been how apparently secularised European humanitarianism and relief was received by people in Africa, Asia and America who were adhering more stronly perhaps to religious values and thinking. Following Cox’s arguement, though, the clash may not have been so stark. It remains to be discussed, I think, how humanitarianism as a malleable mode of speaking presented ways of establishing linkages between the imperial, global post-colonial, and the local levels of interaction. Religious threads, visible or not, may well have provided an essential element.