Book review: Religion and the Inculturation of Human Rights in Ghana

Review of  (Bloomsbury Advances in Religious Studies), London: Bloomsbury, 2013, 284 + ix pp., 9781441199478, £58.50 (hard cover). Published in Journal of Religion in Africa 45/3-4, 346-347.

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With his book , Atiemo has made an important contribution to current debates on religion and human rights, and on human rights in Africa. Based on original fieldwork in three traditional areas (La, Anlo and Gomoa) and two major cities (Accra and Kumasi) in Southern Ghana, this study explores the ways that local religio-cultural traditions in Ghanaian societies might, or already do contribute to the global framework of human rights and to the embedding of this framework in the Ghanaian context. This is a timely and important study as it addresses two problems that have emerged with the globalisation and growing recognition of human rights as a major ethical and legal framework: first, the criticism of human rights as a product and reflection of Western norms and values imposed on other parts of the world, and second—and relatedly—the criticism of human rights as a secular ideology insensitive to the deeply religious nature of the organisation of communities and societies in Africa and elsewhere.

Taking up Gerrie ter Haar’s call for an ‘inculturation of human rights in Africa’, Atiemo, who is a senior lecturer in the Study of Religions department at the University of Ghana, employs the concept of inculturation as a hermeneutical model. Although this term has its origins in African Christian theological discourse, in this study ‘religion’ is not limited to Christianity and neither is the disciplinary character of the book strictly theological. Defining inculturation as ‘the process of encounter between the universal and local that eventually results in the activation and redevelopment of local elements, which share some affinity with the universal ones, in such a way that both the local and the universal are mutually transformed’ (p. 6), Atiemo argues that human rights are ‘dream values’ of which the ‘imperfect seeds’ (p. 37) can be found in all societies and cultures including Ghanaian religio-cultural traditions.

The book opens with an introduction (chapter 1), followed by a number of general chapters discussing relevant questions. In chapter 2 on religion and human rights, Atiemo argues that for human rights to be inculturated in Ghana they must be embedded in religious frameworks. Chapter 3 focuses on inculturating human rights and deals with a key problem in global discussions on human rights, the problem of cultural relativism. Atiemo argues that the model of inculturation is most appropriate in dealing with this problem since it pursues a non-relativist approach to human rights. The notion of a common ‘Ghanaian culture’, which underlies the model of inculturation, is explored in chapter 4. It offers an account of the historical processes of national identity construction in Ghana. Chapter 5 then seeks to locate religion in postcolonial Ghana in relation to public discourse, the nation-state, and politics, and examines religion’s role in and contribution to society in terms of ‘spiritual capital’. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 form the part of the book in which Atiemo actually implements his model and examines the possibilities, challenges, and outcomes of an inculturation of human rights in Ghana.

The chapters present a systematic and critical analysis of the above-mentioned ‘imperfect seeds’. The focus here is respectively on indigenous ideas of human dignity and rights in traditional Ghana (chapter 6), the fruition and possibilities of human rights in contemporary Ghana (chapter 7), and the translation of human rights as a secular idea in Ghana’s religious worldview (chapter 8). Aware of the criticism of inculturation theology by African feminist theologians for its uncritical embrace of ‘African culture’, Atiemo certainly does not present a naive or romanticised account of Ghanaian religio-cultural traditions and their convergence with modern human rights discourse. He critically identifies and discusses issues such as witchcraft accusation, widowhood rites, and the distribution of political power that demonstrate violations of human dignity and rights in precolonial as well as contemporary Ghana. Yet through his hermeneutics of inculturation he also identifies Ghanaian beliefs and practices, inspired by indigenous religion and traditional culture as well as Christianity, which he shows are fruitful for a local appropriation of global human-rights discourse. How this inculturation then affects and indeed transforms global human rights, as suggested in the above-quoted definition, becomes less clear in the book. Perhaps this is because Atiemo adopts the idea of human rights as a normative and universal framework relatively uncritically. It is remarkable, for example, that Makau Mutua’s 2002 book is not even mentioned. A more in-depth analysis of human rights controversies in contemporary Ghana, such as around the issue of homosexuality, could have provided more critical insight into the conflicts and tensions between local and global (i.e., Western) perceptions of human dignity and rights. Thus the significance of this book is primarily—and importantly so—in its robust account of how human rights can be embedded in the Ghanaian context and related to Ghanaian religio-cultural traditions, which has profound implications for politics and social policy not only in Ghana but more broadly in Africa and other parts of the majority world.

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