Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Feb/09

25

Human Rights and Faith

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Here’s a good thumb-sucker piece, courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily, about the connection between human rights and religious belief. In there somewhere is a version of the “midwife” argument — i.e. that whether or not religious faith was necessary to the emergence of concepts like human rights, and whether or not such concepts can survive in the absence of faith, are two independent issues. The author of the piece thinks yes, and yes. Me: maybe, and yes.

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13 comments

  • Ivan Karamazov · February 25, 2009 at 11:08 am

    Bradlaugh says Me: maybe, and yes.

    I’d tend to agree, but yet wonder about what attributes a human has to possess, in order to embrace human rights in the absence of faith?

    Nearly anyone can “understand” the concept “we’re all God’s children”, but if there be no God, do you perhaps have to have beyond some threshold value of cognitive ability, in order to see and abide by the “for the good of us all” underpinning of godless human rights?

  • Grant Canyon · February 25, 2009 at 11:25 am

    I think the questions are reversed, and should properly be framed, “How did the concept of human rights ever arise in a context where religious belief was still rampant?” and “How much further will the concept go as religious belief dissipates?”

    Let’s face it, it wasn’t secularists putting witches, infidels, heretics and Canaanites to death and it isn’t atheists today performing ritual genital mutilation on children, preventing women from living full lives, oppressing homosexual people and killing or oppressing people over their opinions about religion.

  • Caledonian · February 25, 2009 at 11:39 am

    “it isn’t atheists today performing ritual genital mutilation on children”

    Not true, unfortunately, even if we limit ourselves to ritualized mutilation.

    “preventing women from living full lives, oppressing homosexual people”

    Also not true, sadly.

    “oppressing people over their opinions about religion.”

    Alas, also false. Well, not so much at this particular moment, but quite a lot of the 20th century was dominated by an atheistic empire that oppressed quite a lot of people’s opinions about contrary religions.

    Most of the people committing horrible acts aren’t atheists, because most people aren’t atheists. I could perhaps buy that rational atheists are less likely to do those horrible things, but there are plenty of atheists (rational or otherwise) who do them as well.

  • Grant Canyon · February 25, 2009 at 11:56 am

    My point, however poorly written in haste, is that historically and in the present, the connection between religion and human rights abuses has been as much the first causing the second as preventing it.

    I should have written:
    “Let’s face it, it wasn’t secularists putting witches, infidels, heretics and Canaanites to death and today you will find religious people all over the world performing ritual genital mutilation on children, preventing women from living full lives, oppressing homosexual people and killing or oppressing people over their opinions about religion, all because their religion tells them to do so.”

  • Ploni Almoni · February 25, 2009 at 11:56 am

    Rather, modern secularism is a religious worldview, with its own narrative of testing and redemption, and shares the vulnerabilities of such views. The news that secularists also live in glass houses has implications for ongoing stone-throwing operations.

    Hear, hear! I’d like to think of my comments to Secular Right as my own very modest contribution to these stone-throwing operations. Let’s lob a few your way.

    Stone One. What is it with these mystical entities called “human rights?” Its only to be expected from The Nation, but I’m a little surprised that Mr. Derbyshire, who seems to have some paleo leanings, would let that sort of nonsense on stilts saunter by without comment. I mean, that’s what half the review was about. Taylor’s book is still waiting on my to-read list, so I can only guess that it was the reviewer and not Taylor who retrojected this modern Christian invention called “human rights” back in time. Anyway, aren’t there any secular folks around here on the right who see “human rights” as a bad thing?

    Stone Two. Well, the reviewer is at least willing to mention Nietzsche, which is a lot more than I’ve seen here. The reviewer doesn’t actually engage Nietzsche’s thought, of course – we can’t have that! – but he at least acknowledges it as a criticism of his own save-the-world secularist thought. The score so far: The Nation one, Secular Right zero.

    Stone Three. Like certain contributors here, the reviewer glibly dismisses the idea that people are unable to sustain their commitment to “human rights” without a belief in God. He presents himself as a counterexample. But the jury is still out on that one. The people who make that claim (I’m not one of those) usually argue that the engine of society is still running on fumes of Christianity, and when the fuel of Christianity is all burnt up, all hell will break loose. Whatever the merits or lack thereof to that claim, it can’t be falsified yet.

    Stone Four. Deciding to believe in “human rights” may be no less arbitrary than deciding to believe in God, but it’s a much thinner and weaker entity to put your metaphysical faith in. You could also decide to believe in a metaphysical right to a smoke-free environment, if you want (assuming that’s not already part of your “human rights”). My point is that if you want to be parsimonious in your metaphysics, it’s probably best to believe in sturdy entities like God which can support more weight, and which are therefore more resistant to challenges from rival metaphysics (Islam, paganism, etc.). Because these challenges will occur, whether or not you happy secularized-Christian freethinkers want to consider it.

    Anyway, those were just a few stones at hand that I thought I’d throw at you glass-house dwellers. More to come some other time. Enjoy!

  • Paul · February 26, 2009 at 3:52 am

    Ploni,

    Are you telling me that I should believe in God, without any evidence, because the world would be a better place if I believed in God?

    Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse?

    Let’s figure out whether God exists before deciding how he/she/it plays into the question human rights. I would hate for the foundation of human rights and morality to be a figment of our imagination, but right now that appears to be the case.

    The absence of belief in a deity is NOT a religion. If it is, then I don’t believe in atheism either.

  • Anthony · February 26, 2009 at 10:41 am

    The basis of human rights is pretty straightforward … you have a society, you want it to work well for human flourishing, so you establish certain rights for its members, supported through law.

    Most people’s rhetoric about human rights is different than this, but I don’t think it needs more basis than practical, mutual self-interest, deliberated upon in a relatively public way.

    The conflict comes when certain people don’t think there’s a problem with something, while others do. For example, with SSM the elites in the U.S. by and large think it will be a societal good, and so support it as a right. The logic isn’t “this is a right -> allow it in law” but rather “this is a societal good (or not a harm) -> call it a right -> allow it in law”.

  • Grant Canyon · February 26, 2009 at 10:54 am

    “The conflict comes when certain people don’t think there’s a problem with something, while others do. For example, with SSM the elites in the U.S. by and large think it will be a societal good, and so support it as a right. The logic isn’t ‘this is a right -> allow it in law’ but rather ‘this is a societal good (or not a harm) -> call it a right -> allow it in law’.”

    Assuming that by “SSM” you are referring to same-sex marriage, I don’t believe that your reasoning is true. I believe that most people who support the rights of homosexuals to marry do so on the basis that they are entitled to the right of equal protection under the law and the fact that marriage has been held to be a fundamental right. So the reasoning is more akin to the first, of the two you presented.

  • Anthony · February 26, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Grant, that’s how it might be implemented, and correctly reflects the rhetoric of many people. My experience talking with these people (where I live it *is* legal), however, is that they simply don’t see any harm in it, and on the contrary see a tangible good for a small but significant portion of the population – regardless of “equal protection” clauses in your Constitution. Where I live, the legal arguments aren’t the same, but the underlying sentiment is similar (this underlying sentiment is the reason why it has recently become legal in Canada, Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, and Norway).

  • Grant Canyon · February 26, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Anthony,

    My American provincialism strikes again!

    In that case, it sounds like they are verbalizing a counter-argument to the perceived objection to same sex marriage. Interesting.

  • Gotchaye · February 26, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Nietzsche’s brilliant and all, but I think the only point he raises that’s particularly damaging to the quasi-positivist atheistic thought you see here and elsewhere is about the value of truth. We use certain language because it’s convenient for expressing a point, but I doubt that many here would claim that human rights are metaphysically valid – one of the only metaphysical claims that most are willing to make is that metaphysics is bunk. If I were guessing, I’d say that most here are something like expressivists deep down.

  • Philip · March 1, 2009 at 2:14 am

    On the first point, I don’t think he’s asking whether religious faith was ‘necessary’ for the emergence of human rights, but rather whether, as a matter of historical record, religious faith was what caused people to come up with the idea of human rights. I would argue that the evidence points in the direction of a ‘yes’ on that question Two anecdotes spring to mind: (1) Wilberforce’s evangelical Christian beliefs and their influence on his opposition to the slave trade, and (2) the contribution of Christianity to the founding of such ideas as equality before the law. The answer to this purely factual question does not of course say that religious belief was necessary, rather that factually speaking the causal link was religious. Things could have developed in another secular way, it’s just that they didn’t. (A good read on the subject of the evolution of ethical beliefs is Alasdair MacIntyre’s ‘Short History of Ethics’.)

    On the second point (can concepts such as human rights survive in the absence of religious faith?) the writer says ‘yes,’ invoking what he calls ‘Naked Strong Evaluation’. But it’s also worth noting that he admits that his argument is not necessarily conclusive. Instead his point seems to be that it is at least as good as the religious faith argument. This may be so, but the religious argument is better at explaining the binding nature of moral statements such as human rights. It provides a basis for people to argue that moral codes of conduct should be binding for people in varied and different situations, rather than being simply instrumental, eg, they make society function better. None of this is to say that either argument wins out, however. But that is the merit of this essay: in the end he concludes that we must take the explanation that most satisfies our individual inner needs for explanation; for some this will be religious, and for others it won’t.

  • kurt9 · March 5, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Those who argue that religious belief is necessary for individual freedom would make their arguments more compelling if they were to stop using religion as an excuse to limit people’s freedom and autonomy.

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