The best books on human rights that focus on religion, including some things you’d rather not know

Why am I passionate about this?

Between us, we’ve been in the interreligious relations business for a combined 50 years. We started working together when Jerry was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State under President Barack Obama. In 2015, we were both invited by Prince Ghazi of Jordan to join other interreligious leaders to advance a UN resolution defining and taking a stand against religicide. That resolution never made it to the Security Council. But we joined forces to sound the alarm about religicide. We wrote our book in the hope of inspiring an international campaign to end this killing in the name of God – or being killed because of your God.   


I wrote...

Religicide: Confronting the Roots of Anti-Religious Violence

By Georgette F. Bennett Ph.D., Jerry White,

Book cover of Religicide: Confronting the Roots of Anti-Religious Violence

What is my book about?

In Religicide: Confronting the Roots of Anti-Religious Violence Georgette Bennett and Jerry White name this insidious strand of violence and propose a global initiative and policies to identify, respond, and prevent it. Religicide has an evil kinship with human rights atrocities such as the Armenian genocide, Holocaust, “ethnic cleansing” campaign in Bosnia, slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda, and the U.S.’s efforts to wipe out Indigenous Americans. 

Our book reveals how systematic attempts to eradicate a religion and its followers goes far beyond genocide. Absent a name, appropriate laws, and methods for dealing with religicide, it continues unabated and unprosecuted. Today, its perpetrators are getting away with murder against the Yazidis, Uyghurs, Rohingya, Tibetan Buddhists, and others. Our book sets out to change that.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence

Georgette F. Bennett Ph.D. Why did I love this book?

One of the most popular historians of religion, this book examines each of the great religions over time and reveals the context for the warrior traditions that emerged in them. One of her key insights is that every religious movement is rooted in the fear…"that modern society is out to destroy not only their faith but also themselves and their entire way of life.… When people fear annihilation, their horizons tend to shrink and they can lash out violently.”

By Karen Armstrong,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Fields of Blood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It is the most persistent myth of our time: religion is the cause of all violence. But history suggests otherwise. Karen Armstrong, former Roman Catholic nun and one of our foremost scholars of religion, speaks out to disprove the link between religion and bloodshed.

* Religion is as old as humanity: Fields of Blood goes back to the Stone Age hunter-gatherers and traces religion through the centuries, from medieval crusaders to modern-day jihadists.

* The West today has a warped concept of religion: we regard faith as a personal and private matter, but for most of history faith has informed…


Book cover of East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity

Georgette F. Bennett Ph.D. Why did I love this book?

This book relates the suspenseful and twisted path through which two of the world’s worst human rights abuses finally came to be recognized following World War II and the Holocaust. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer who lost dozens of family members in the Holocaust, led the campaign for genocide to be recognized as a crime under international law. The banner for crimes against humanity was carried by Hersch Lauterpacht. Although both men lobbied the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal to recognize the particular form of human rights that they espoused, they never actually met. But Sands makes it clear that genocide and crimes against humanity are based on fundamentally different, and at times, opposed concepts of human rights. One is focused on the rights of individuals and the other on the rights of entire groups. Sands’ book is one of the best analyses of the complexities of remaking international law, one of the issues with which my co-author and I grapple in our own book.

By Philippe Sands,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked East West Street as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE BRITISH BOOK AWARDS NON-FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR 2017

SUNDAY TIMES TOP 10 BESTSELLER

When he receives an invitation to deliver a lecture in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, international lawyer Philippe Sands begins a journey on the trail of his family's secret history. In doing so, he uncovers an astonishing series of coincidences that lead him halfway across the world, to the origins of international law at the Nuremberg trial. Interweaving the stories of the two Nuremberg prosecutors (Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin) who invented the crimes or genocide and crimes against humanity, the Nazi governor responsible for…


Book cover of Religion and Violence, Religion and Peace

Georgette F. Bennett Ph.D. Why did I love this book?

Ever since I’ve been engaged in interreligious and peacebuilding work, I’ve struggled with the question of whether religion is the cause of violence or its solution. This book on proceedings of an Auschwitz conference in Poland does a deep dive into religion being both a cause and victim of violence. It examines where religious violence fits into other forms of violence as well as the roots of peace in various religious traditions. Its nuanced and revealing essays were an enormous help to me in formulating my own thinking and helped educate me in the roots of international human rights law. Not being a historian myself, the essays gave me a grounding in events about which I had only superficial knowledge. I personally know and have worked with a number of the contributors. As such, I can vouch for their authority and the esteem in which they are held.

By Joseph H. Ehrenkranz (editor), David L. Coppola (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Religion and Violence, Religion and Peace as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based on papers presented at a 1998 conference held in Auschwitz and sponsored by the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University, this volume focuses on the role that religion plays in cultivating peace or promoting violence. Contributors include Amira Shamma Abdin, Anthony J. Cernera, David L. Coppola, Georges Cottier, OP, Cahal B. Cardinal Daly, Rabbi Joseph H. Ehrenkranz, Archbishop Jeremiasz, William H. Cardinal Keeler, Franciszek Cardinal Macharski, Martin Marty, Elisabeth Maxwell, Samuel Pisar, David Rosen, and Rene-Samuel Sirat.


Book cover of Peacemakers in Action: Volume 2: Profiles in Religious Peacebuilding

Georgette F. Bennett Ph.D. Why did I love this book?

With all that has been written about religion as a cause of violence, here are two volumes of case studies about how religion is used by individuals on the ground to stop violence. The case studies feature the heroic individuals in the Peacemakers in Action Network of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. They operate in conflict zones around the world and this book reveals the methods and techniques they use to transform conflicts. I founded Tanenbaum in 1992 and this signature program was inspired and guided by the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

By Joyce S. Dubensky (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Peacemakers in Action as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Every day, men and women risk their lives to stop violence in religiously charged conflicts around the world. You may not know their names - but you should. Peacemakers in Action, Volume 2 provides a window into the triumphs, risks, failures, and lessons learned of eight remarkable, religiously motivated peacemakers including: * A Methodist bishop in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who confronts armed warlords on his front lawn * A Christian who travels to Syria to coordinate medical aid and rebuild postwar communities * A Muslim woman, not knowing how Kabul's imams will react, arrives to train them…


Book cover of Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence

Georgette F. Bennett Ph.D. Why did I love this book?

The late Rabbi Sacks served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. This was one of the last books he wrote before his death. He makes the case that religion is not only the cause of violence but also part of the solution to violence. In each chapter, he deeply analyzes a different religious text and evinces eye-opening interpretations. Perhaps most prescient are his notions of “altruistic evil” and “pathological dualism.” Pathological dualism operates in three ways: first, it dehumanizes and demonizes your enemies; second, it portrays the perpetrator as the victim; and third, it leads the perpetrator to commit altruistic evil—killing others as a perceived favor to humanity. As Sacks so movingly asserts, “When religion turns men into murderers, God weeps.”

By Jonathan Sacks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Not in God's Name as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Despite predictions of continuing secularisation, the twenty-first century has witnessed a surge of religious extremism and violence in the name of God.

In this powerful and timely book, Jonathan Sacks explores the roots of violence and its relationship to religion, focusing on the historic tensions between the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Drawing on arguments from evolutionary psychology, game theory, history, philosophy, ethics and theology, Sacks shows how a tendency to violence can subvert even the most compassionate of religions. Through a close reading of key biblical texts at the heart of the Abrahamic faiths, Sacks then challenges…


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Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…


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