- Beholden: Religion, Global Health, and Human Rights by Susan R. Holman
It is not often that the disciplines of religion and public health intersect in academic works. However, keenly aware of the issues faced by both human rights organizations and faith-based groups when they regularly tackle global health problems, Susan Holman accomplishes just this feat. Addressing the interplay of religion and health, and specifically concerned with parts of the developing world, Holman’s latest book Beholden: Religion, Global Health, and Human Rights, seeks a multidisciplinary approach to the subject of global health. Frequently, global health efforts are shaped by two distinct philosophies: one that is based on human rights and one based on religious or humanitarian grounds, which can be driven by a host of motivations, including personal belief, charity, philanthropy, missional duty, and mercy. At times, these two widely divergent philosophies exist in tension that may undermine the common aims of those involved.
This idea is examined in-depth in Beholden, which seeks to confront such philosophical tensions by offering new multidisciplinary perspectives on global health. Holman views this multidisciplinary approach—integrating religion and culture with human rights and social justice—as essential to the work of global health in an era of ever-increasing world-wide contact, commerce, and communication. Holman uses the art of story-telling to weave her ideas through the six chapters. While not a “how-to” guide for field-based philanthropy, Holman centers on the two major groups working to improve global health: faith-based groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), both of which often focus on health and human rights simultaneously. She challenges her readers to think about the ways in which these two groups interact on issues of global health.
Holman argues that both faith-based groups and NGOs are needed in order to improve global health. However, each falls short in its attempt to solve today’s global health problems. Human rights groups often fail to perceive the vital role of religious faith in communities, and they fear their faith-based counterparts will focus too much on proselytizing. Conversely, faith-based groups may be prone to a self-serving ethos that places the focus not on the people that are receiving aid, but rather themselves. They also may tend to have an unspoken fear of “human rights” language. Hence, each group is suspicious of the other, though they would benefit by having deep understandings of the other.
For religious groups, understanding economic, social, and cultural rights may lead to more effective engagement. For NGOs, understanding that religious views are part of [End Page 923] the fabric of communities and that these views are often inseparable from the identity of the individual would be helpful. Rather than continuing to foster the suspicion that each side has towards the other, such multidisciplinary dialogue would allow for more meaningful conversations toward integrated efforts for global health. Holman’s aim in this is to show both groups that they need not be afraid to use one another’s language as they work together toward common ideals of improving global health.
The major strength of this book is that it approaches a topic that is often untouched in global health care efforts: the interplay of religion with global health issues. Holman’s work is important for academics serious about religious dialogue in global health. The book could be a useful text for graduate students keen to learn more about the roles of religion and human rights in the global health context. Even for the non-specialist, Beholden is within reach and may well be of interest. It would be beneficial reading for both religious and non-religious groups in order to engage one another in meaningful dialogue toward the goal of integrated multidisciplinary efforts for global health. [End Page 924]
THE REVIEWER is a PhD student at the Center for Healthcare Ethics, Duquesne University.