Human Rights & God


Jon Rowe

Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

Related Post Roulette

54 Responses

  1. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I think first we need to define what are universal human rights and what they are connected to.

    There is still a big number of people who seem to think that the rights of liberal democracy are connected to property rights or that property rights are the most important of all rights.

    I’m not so sure of this. Property rights are important but I don’t think they are the most important of all rights and placing the existence of rights into the ownership of property creates a system of haves and have-nots. Do renters have less 4th Amendment rights than home owners under this regime?

    I’d rather see rights connected to the person and without any kind of deity involved. Rights connected to the person become universal because we all have personhood.

    The concept of God is not great for this equation because we live in a very different world than the world of 1776. We are more diverse. More homogeneous and Americans are much more likely to know people who were never raised in Western concept of religion. If we need a western (read Christian) concept of God to secure the rights of liberal democracy, do Hindus and Buddhists have fewer rights? Muslims? Jews? Agnostics?

    Whose Christianity controls? Militant right-wing fundamentalists? Quakers? Country club Episcopalians?Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      The concept of God is not great for this equation because we live in a very different world than the world of 1776. We are more diverse

      We are in a different world, but imo for a substantially different reason. The world of 1776 was diverse, but there was a combo of humongous blind spots and deliberate action to eschew that diversity, even (especially) among those believing is a universality of humankind.

      You can create a workable Jeffersonian agrarian Republic without slavery and with univeral sufferage (including women). You’re going to get a lot fewer rich plantation owners (which is a good thing), and maybe you’re overall GDP is going to take a hit (but again, it’s because you’re skewing the economic stats with slave labor), but your gini coefficient will go way way down. (or up, whichever direction is more equal, I forget)

      But you can’t do all that with industrialization also in the picture.Report

  2. Avatar Reformed Republican says:

    Do renters have less 4th Amendment rights than home owners under this regime?

    I am not a scholar on the matter, but my understanding is that basing rights on property rights is not intended to mean that rights are only given to property owners. Instead, it is based on the idea that 1) we own ourselves, and 2) we have the right to choose what to do with our property. A renter still owns himself, so he still has the right to free speech, free association, etc.

    Basing rights on property rights also helps with some of the conflicts of rights. Yes, a person has the right to free speech, but that does not grant them a right to come onto my property and insult me.

    Regarding how a god fits into the question, I think it is important to base rights on something other than the existence of a deity. If human rights do not require a deity, they should still apply even if a deity exists. On the other hand, if rights depend on the existence of a deity (or the right deity), they fall apart if that deity does not exist. If there is a god, his character is not determined by rather or not he is the type of god that is compatible with human rights.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Reformed Republican says:

      The question was meant to be more rhetorical at the notion of basing rights on a certain concept. I was taking things to a logical conclusion.

      I do think property rights are important but I don’t think they are primary and superior. Civil Rights is an area where I think property rights should be secondary because my belief is that a free and democratic society needs to provide all citizens with the right of full participation in economic and civil life. So if someone can claim “property rights” to discriminate against another on the basis of religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, creed, ethnicity, etc., then it is a problem.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    And I do believe that belief in God as guarantor of said rights provides a firm basis for them, arguably a firmer basis than non-theistic or atheistic philosophy can.

    One thing to watch out for is the whole “avoiding the odious conclusion” thing.Report

    • Avatar Don Zeko in reply to Jaybird says:

      It’s odious, but it it’s true then it’s true. I’d love to have a philosopher come in and prove me wrong, but I’ve never been convinced that a non-question-begging case for any kind of human morality exists, much less individual rights. The trouble is that saying that the existence of (a certain kind of) God solves this problem doesn’t get you out of it at all, because the fact that God would be convenient or make us feel better is not proof that he exists.Report

  4. Avatar Joe Sal says:

    This is well written, and I think it makes its case. I will offer some contrary points in possible conflict with the position.

    1.) My first point is that the position doesn’t matter. That the rights delivered or denied by the liberal democracy God would look no different in a social objectivity sense, than the atheist forms of social objectivity.

    2.) Unalienable rights (assuming there were such a thing) would only ever survive as an individual construct. That construct would not be subject to alteration from a bible, a religion, or a God fashioned in accordance to liberal democracy.

    Also just an added facet of the discussion is that all the priors in the piece and it appears in the position brought forward, derive from the ‘Order First’ of the two freedoms problem.

    Interesting stuff Jon, keep up the good work.Report

  5. Avatar Kolohe says:

    To use the absurdest of examples, Cthulhu is hardly a liberal democrat

    Great, you’ve just given Dinesh D’souza a launching pad for his next book.Report

  6. Avatar pillsy says:

    I’ve never really seen how God helps the case of universal rights in any real way.

    I mean, as an atheist you can always say, “Well, look, you gotta start somewhere, and I think you should obey this moral precept.”[1] If someone asks why, well, you probably don’t have a terribly compelling answer,

    But if you say that you should do these things because God says so, it’s not clear that’s a better answer. Why should I care what God thinks or says? Soon I have to make a bunch of other assumptions about God [2], and I’m not sure any of them ultimately give a more compelling answer to the underlying question of “why”.

    [1] Whether it’s the Golden Rule, utilitarianism, or whatever.

    [2] For instance, “Obey God’s laws or He will damn you to Hell,” says some pretty specific things about God!Report

  7. Avatar CJColucci says:

    It is damned inconvenient to live in a society where robbing, raping, and killing are common and unpunished, and it would be damned inconvenient whether there is a god or not. It is damned inconvenient to live in a society that does not recognize certain limits on the powers of others, like governments or our employers or our neighbors, over us — “rights” is as good a name as any for this idea — and it would be damned inconvenient whether there is a god or not. Whether a big, powerful being wants us not to rob, rape, and kill and wants us to recognize certain rights in others, and will kick our asses if we don’t would give us a strong practical reason to do what this being wants, but this being could be God or Galactus or Superman — or even the cops, if there are enough of them. The big, powerful being doesn’t add anything to the analysis.Report

  8. Avatar dragonfrog says:

    I’m surprised nobody has mentioned France yet – the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 was as far as I know the first modern rights charter. Lafayette collaborated closely with Jefferson in its drafting, and it is pretty much the document that fleshes out the rights alluded to in the Declaration of Independence.

    And it’s totally secular. God doesn’t appear in it anywhere, except indirectly by way of the right to freedom of opinion including religious opinion.

    Personally I believe that the emergence of France’s Declaration at that time of radical secularization – just a few years before the dechristianization campaign began in earnest – was not a coincidence at all.

    If anything, I think that, not only is God fully unnecessary as a foundation to properly founding a nation’s stucture on human rights, but that God has been one of the major obstacles to doing so. That there’s only room for God or universal human rights as a nation’s foundation – one needs to be ripped out by the roots for the other to be firmly placed there.

    If God is at the foundation, with the framework of rights built on top – then when God twitches a shoulder, the rights on top have to break and crumble. If the rights hold even when those authorized to speak on God’s behalf insist they are making God uncomfortable, digging into His throat here and twisting cramping His legs there – well then, God has been reduced to an inanimate rock. That’s not a God, it’s the corpse of one.Report

    • Avatar Maribou in reply to dragonfrog says:

      @dragonfrog I see what you are getting at but doesn’t the real conflict arise from “those authorized to speak on God’s behalf” and not God per se? I mean, there are plenty of religions that don’t authorize someone to speak on God’s behalf about what other people are authorized to do…. they’re rare, but they exist, particularly in the modern era.Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Maribou says:

        Suuure, I guess. I mean, I personally don’t believe in a god that is more than the concepts in the heads of people who happen to believe in a god so it’s going to be hard for me to draw a clear bright line there.

        Is there a realistic way to keep those who consider themselves authorized to speak on God’s behalf, from constant attempts to institute theocratic incursions great or small into one’s rights-based framework – other than to keep God out of the whole thing in the first place?

        “This is a [religious] nation – see, it says so right in [foundational document]! Therefore the only sensible way to interpret [general right] is as [right to do only the things [religion] allows].”

        Happens again and again, in country upon country, from the leaders of religion upon religion. It’s a lot harder to think of an instance where religious authorities have lobbied a government to respect the country’s legal rights framework, even unto permitting acts prohibited in their own sacred texts.Report

        • Avatar Maribou in reply to dragonfrog says:

          Ahhhhhhhh, I dunno. Not lobbied a government, but given the number of religious leaders who have put themselves bodily on the line in political protests for human rights over the past 100 years, despite the whole “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar” prohibition that’s been used by other religious leaders to try to keep them from doing so.

          People are just people, bad people will use whatever means they have to try and wrest power, God or no God (cf Mao cf Stalin); good people will use whatever means they have to try and resist corrupt power even if that means using a position of religious leadership to do so (cf liberation theology in Latin America and MLK and other pastors in the Civil Rights Movement).Report

          • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Maribou says:

            Protests for human rights not prohibited by their god, sure. They’ll fight for those rights currently endorsed by their theology, and try to undermine those rights whose enjoyment is currently forbidden by their theology.

            Not so many Church leaders at Stonewall, or defending Morgentaler.Report

            • Avatar Maribou in reply to dragonfrog says:

              Metropolitan Community Church in New York was founded in 1972 specifically on the grounds of gay rights to clergy (and they got a lot of shit). not stonewall but pretty close.

              The Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion was founded in 1967 specifically to help women get safe access to abortion (this was before Roe v. Wade).

              Those aren’t your specific examples, but surely they’re close enough? I never said it was common. I don’t think *brave* goodness, particularly the altruistic sort, is all that common anywhere.

              I’m not defending the institution of the church. I’m saying the *institution* is the problem, not people with some low level of religious authority.

              I’m also saying that in the absence of the institutionalized church, it’s possible (not necessary) for bad people to step into those same roles and exploit those same gaps whether they wield a banner of faith or not.Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to Maribou says:


        I’m with @dragonfrog here, in the absence of a god showing up to issue instructions personally, I’m not sure how one could separate a religion from its human adherents even in theory.Report

        • Avatar Maribou in reply to James K says:

          @james-k A religion and/or a large branch of a religion can have no interest in telling people who aren’t adherents how to live. It can have little interest in telling people who ARE adherents how to live in a Thou Must way vs a “these things generally help, so you may want to try them” way. It can lack people who have a special right to tell others what to do.

          They’re rare, but they exist. We rarely think about them not just because they’re rare, but because they don’t tend to go hand in hand with what we think of as Important Nations.

          Were such a religion to be institutionalized, it would no doubt turn into one of the ones that thinks it needs to tell people what to do a lot more than I want it to … but when non-religious credos get institutionalized (as with non-theoretical communism) they ALSO tend to turn into the sort of thing that thinks it needs to tell people what to do a lot more than I want it to… because they get seized upon by people who like that sort of thing and figure out how to exploit it for their own gain.

          So I find it more useful to blame the people who claim to be authorized to exert absolute moral judgment on their fellow humans for whatever reason, than to blame God.

          I mean, there’s plenty to blame whichever version of God *FOR*, I just think this one is a people thing.

          Were I a full atheist I think I would be even less interested in blaming god rather than blaming people, because why waste energy on worrying about God as a special case, then?

          I wasn’t arguing with the general drift of the argument, I just disagree with the metaphor. I mean, if some nutty nabob in power is using a prod to run elephants over your crops, it doesn’t really matter if he says the elephants are worshipping God or not, it matters that who the heck thought it was okay to give the dude a prod and perhaps we should take it away from him.

          Metaphorically speaking.

          (And I apologize if the above isn’t especiallly sensical, I don’t often try to speak about my big-picture opinions about religion.)Report

          • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Maribou says:

            A religion and/or a large branch of a religion can have no interest in telling people who aren’t adherents how to live.

            Like Judaism, which has low expectations for the rest of you. Basically, if you can refrain from tearing pieces off living animals, that’s close enough.Report

          • Avatar James K in reply to Maribou says:


            Ah, I see. You were thinking of the god-worshipper distinction, while I was thinking of the religion-worshipper distinction. As an atheist, I don’t think about the former much since I don’t believe one half of the dichotomy exists.Report

            • Avatar Maribou in reply to James K says:

              @james-k Perhaps to some degree, but I was also thinking of the person-ideology distinction. Some people want power by any means, some people find themselves on the side of the underdog every time. What sort of ideology the former cling to (religious or otherwise) doesn’t strike me as the problem… and the people who swing in the wind (or to be more kind, are more moderate) would do so regardless of whether or not the ideology in question was religious.

              Insofar as I am, intellectually, more atheist than anything else (which I really is very very different from an unqualified strong atheism), I’m really not as interested (in this context) in whether a particular ideology claims to be a religion or not, whether it lays claim to God or gods or not, as I am in what adherents as particular individuals *do* in relationship to other human beings (and to a lesser degree to each other) in terms of forcing them to do stuff or claiming they ought to have the right to such force. I’m not an absolutist in the direction of no force behind an ideology, obviously, or I’d be a pacifist, but the historical individuals that have crossed my personal line for where that’s too much are not all religious.

              The really tl;dr version of what I’m saying is probably

              “Institutionalizing any ideology can be dangerous, whether it thinks it has purchase on some god or not.”

              Or perhaps:

              The problem is not with a particular operating system, it’s with the exploits. We live in a Microsoft-heavy world, so it’s easy to blame Microsoft for viruses because those are the most convenient exploits for hackers to use; but if we instead lived in a Mac-heavy world, I suspect we’d be blaming Apple just as hard.

              Jeez, it took me a long time to distill my thoughts down to a relatively obvious claim, huh?Report

              • Avatar Zac Black in reply to Maribou says:

                Yeah, I think you guys are some degree both arguing different parts of a larger meta-problem: that insofar as ideology plus power is a problem, it’s because both ideology and power are problems. Ideology because it causes epistemological rigidity, and power for all the obvious reasons that power over others can be bad. It’s just that dragonfrog and James seem to be arguing the “ideology is bad because it can and will try to gain power” and you’re arguing “power is the problem, ideology is irrelevant” and you’re both right simultaneously even though that would seem to be contradictory.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James K says:

          I’m not sure how one could separate a religion from its human adherents even in theory.

          Plato kinda touches on this, from time to time.Report

    • Avatar Jon Rowe in reply to dragonfrog says:

      “Therefore the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen: …”

      There were actually a lot of Protestant Christians — some of them orthodox to the point of being evangelical — who supported the French Revolution and thought it to be “Christian.”Report

      • Avatar Joe Sal in reply to Jon Rowe says:

        “under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen”

        Ha, is it fair to note that these rights of man were quickly/soon circumvented by Robespierre and absolute power and a form of martial law deployed?

        (social constructs exchange power mechanisms fluidly in times of desperation or need)Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Jon Rowe says:

        Yeah, I guess it’s not totally godless. It’s quite noncommital as to whose god, I suspect partly so you’re forced to read the words as the words, not in light of a particular religious interpretation.

        Probably they couldn’t quite get away with being explicitly godless. But if they got too godly, the rights document itself would be undermined by the fact that any particular god then available, as documented, had a pretty rights-hostile world view.Report

        • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to dragonfrog says:

          The preamble also uses the word “sacred” in reference to all of the rights about to be enunciated – as in “natural, inalienable, and sacred.” The final article, number 17, also refers specifically to the right of property as “sacred.”Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to dragonfrog says:

      dragonfrog: If anything, I think that, not only is God fully unnecessary as a foundation to properly founding a nation’s stucture on human rights, but that God has been one of the major obstacles to doing so. That there’s only room for God or universal human rights as a nation’s foundation – one needs to be ripped out by the roots for the other to be firmly placed there.

      I dunno it’s not like everyone lived happily ever after in liberal tolerant secular democracy starting in 1790.

      Religion in pre-Revolution France was of course a very different thing than in colonial British North America. The French Catholic Church was its own very powerful institution, rivalling the State in some aspects, (but almost always allied with it), rife with corruption in both political and eccelsiatic practice, and not even fully answerable to Rome at the time.

      One of the first links in the chain of events that would be 25 years of French history was when the parish priests broke ranks with the 2nd estate clerical leadership and cast their lot with the 3rd estate – but then the decisive link thereafter was then when those that took over the revolution attempted a deliberate and violent purge of those same type of priests (and nuns)Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Kolohe says:

        I certainly wouldn’t assert that France during the Terror, or indeed at any time during the first or second republic or empire, was a shining beacon of carefully weighed human rights jurisprudence.

        But. I think it is no coincidence that one of the first attempts to build a state on a foundation of human rights, happened right around the same time as the attempt, in all its gory excesses, to remove religion from that foundational place.Report

        • Avatar Kolohe in reply to dragonfrog says:

          But the other one was the USA – which was also flawed, but in mostly very different ways.Report

          • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Kolohe says:

            It’s true – there was only the one strongly secular country available at the time, that I know of anyway, so the first two modern rights documents would have had a hard time both coming from a secular country.

            France – radically secularizing itself right at that time

            USA – less secular than France, but way more than most other countries in the world at the time.

            Two of the least godly countries in the world at the time, produced the first two modern rights documents. I don’t think this supports very well the idea that modern rights documents need gods as their foundation. I think if anything it supports that there is some maximum god pressure that rights documents can tolerate – they only emerge when the god pressure is below that threshold.Report

    • Avatar pillsy in reply to dragonfrog says:

      The Constitution and Bill of Rights are also entirely secular documents. I think it’s meaningful when the Founders actually attempted to codify what it would take to create a nation that would respect and defend our rights, they left God out of it.Report

  9. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Good piece, Jon. For my own part I will confess that I believe the statement

    society needs God to have [insert human rights or any other thing you think is morally good here]

    is similar to the statement

    society will continue to have [insert lack of human rights or any other thing you think is morally wrong here] until it gets rid of believing in God

    in that both need to happen in an entirely conceptual sphere. Observation of the real world suggests that people don’t work quite as simply and neatly as all that.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      My problem with invoking God in this way is the inability to create a bright line between MLK invoking God to defend the brotherhood of people of all colors and Confederates invoking God to defend slavery. God is not a purely positive concept.Report

      • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Do you hate it when both teams’ players motion to thank God for their basehit?Report

      • Avatar J_A in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        The identification of God and (capital G) the Good, is a fairly recent development, rooted probably in Platonism, but not fully fleshed out until the Counterreformation and the Enlightenment.

        Initially, God was identified with Power. God(s) was/were prayed to to propiciate Him/Her to protect us from the threats of natural and human enemies. Give Huitzilopochtli enough sacrifices of warriors, virgins, treasure, and first fruits, and he will make the Aztec armies prosper, and protect the Aztec from famine and sickness. The Platonic Form of Good is nowhere to be seen. No one thought of Huitzilopochtli as good. They thought of Him as Powerful.

        Only when people understood that vaccines were better than masses at protecting children from smallpox, and that no amount of virgins sacrificed would protect an Aztec warrior from a bullet, our concept of God as a source of Power was replaced with a God further removed from the world. And the God of the Philosophers was born, up there, amidst Platonic Forms.

        tl/dr: No, civil rights don’t come from God. We changed our concept of God after we invented civil rights.Report

  10. Avatar PD Shaw says:

    re slavery, I think the linked piece has things backwards. Slavery was a universal institution existing in many cultures around the world, though in different forms, and slavery was always assumed to be as part of the human condition as war and marriage. Religion frequently had a role in providing humane limitations on slavery, though tradition and civil codes could perform this role as well.

    There is not a significant opposition to slavery in the world until the second half of the 18th century, pretty much starting not coincidentally with the American Revolution, but mot notably fomented by Quakers. There were a lot of threads that made up the movement, but abolition ultimately required the strong support of evangelical Christians, postmillennialists preparing the earth to welcome the return of Jesus Christ. As Frederick Douglass argued, its not a question of getting non-slaveowners to oppose slavery, it was to get them to do something about it.

    Perhaps all of the great moral undertakings have been resolved and we won’t need Americans to stick out their neck for anyone again, and we can allow material advantage to direct us to the promised land.Report

  11. Avatar George Turner says:

    These questions only trouble us because our country isn’t led by the Great Sun of Life, the invincible and triumphant general who descended from Heaven, Kim Jung Un. He guarantees the rights of his people against all enemies, and is the incarnation of great leadership. Basing morality and law on an invisible and perhaps imaginary god is senseless when you have a divine supreme leader who can say exactly what is just and what is good, and who always makes the best decisions. But woe to those who disobey or disrespect his wisdom, for they will suffer the severest punishments.Report

  12. Avatar Will H. says:

    And I do believe that belief in God as guarantor of said rights provides a firm basis for them, arguably a firmer basis than non-theistic or atheistic philosophy can.

    That’s the crux of the matter.
    Issues of pure reason, and the susceptibility of reason to persuasion.
    The immutable vs. the transitory.

    Oddly enough, planning out a paper comparing pagan worship of Odin with corresponding elements in Gurdjieff and Kierkegaard.Report