No human rights without God

Contributors to this openGlobalRights series on faith and human rights disagree whether religion is good or bad for human rights. American commentators Larry Cox and Jack Snyder, for example, note the historic contributions of religious leaders and groups to expanding human rights. Pakistani sociologist Nida Kirmani, however, reminds us that religion often leads to exclusion and persecution.

Both sides are right.  Over the long durée, the religious have brutally violated, sacrificed their lives for, advocated, rejected, upheld, and withheld the human rights of vulnerable human beings.

But what if we shift the question from religion’s influence on human rights, to God’s influence on human rights?  More specifically, is God necessary for human rights?  My argument is not that only believers may advocate for human rights; the human rights community, which has become secularized over recent decades, contains scores of people who do not believe in God but who have nonetheless devoted themselves, sometimes to the point of giving their lives, to human rights.

If the question, however, is why there are human rights in the first place, then I argue indeed for God’s indispensability.


At least three ingredients are critical to the validity of human rights.  First, human rights require universal moral norms, since they are claims that every human makes upon every other human being.  No person, non-state group, or political regime may torture another person or deliberately take the life of a civilian, for instance.  These claims must be true for everyone, or they are not human rights.

The second ingredient is human dignity – the inestimable worth of each and every person.  It is because human beings have this worth that they can justifiably demand that certain kinds of actions never be performed against them.

The third ingredient, which philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff describes brilliantly in his book, Justice, is what might be called the “trump card” status of human rights.  To say that a person has a right is to say that her claim cannot be overridden by simply balancing it against a competing basket of goods.  Even if governments can realize great gains in war by targeting civilians or torturing suspects, they must refrain from these actions if they are respectful of human rights.

Not all human rights are absolute, of course; in fact, only a few core rights are. Torture is never justified, for example, but claims for religious freedom cannot justify rituals of child sacrifice, to take an obvious example.  Yet even when rights are not absolute, there is a strong presumption against overriding them.  Human rights, even when they are not “core” rights such as the right to life, trump most other claims, most of the time.

What systems of principles or traditions of thought contain and ground these three ingredients? We can easily rule out postmodernism, all forms of relativism, and traditions bound to particular cultures. All lack the crucial characteristic of universality.

We can also rule out philosophical traditions such as utilitarianism, and most forms of consequentialism, which lack the “trump card” ingredient. Utilitarianism, for example, commends actions that maximize “utility,” or happiness.  Declaring in advance of the utility calculation that certain kinds of actions are ruled out, precisely as rights claimants do, violates utilitarianism’s basic method.  Utilitarianism’s founder, Jeremy Bentham, acknowledged as much when he quipped that rights are “nonsense on stilts.”

Nor does the realist tradition in international relations favor human rights.  Realists have long been skeptical of human rights claims, regarding them as masks for the power and interests of states. Realists also do not support the pursuit of rights when they conflict with the national interest, defined in terms of power and security.  Thus while realists may ascribe universality to the laws they believe govern state behavior, they reject universally binding norms, along with human rights’ trump card status.

What traditions of thought, then, assert universal norms, human dignity, and trump card status? Religions holding that God revealed certain commandments to be binding on everyone, essential for human flourishing and dignity, and admitting little room for violation or exception are strong candidates.

Theologians and philosophers in these traditions have derived a right to life from the commandment to not murder, a right to property from the commandment to not steal, and so on.  In these religions, the ingredients for human rights are cemented in an eternal and unchanging being who takes an interest in every person.

Not all religions posit a single God, to be sure.  Hindus differ over God and gods, while Buddhists generally do not believe in God.  In these faiths, as Arvind Sharma notes in openGlobalRights, human rights find their grounding insofar as they can offer a transcendent basis for universal norms, human dignity, and the trumping value of rights.

The biggest challenge to my argument may be the claim that reason can make the case for human rights without reference to God.  “Common morality” views in the western tradition hold that universal norms – and in many versions of these views, universal rights – can be known through reason.  As the philosopher Alan Donagan argued in his 1977 book, The Theory of Morality, the West hosts two strands of common morality – a natural law strand dating back to Thomas Aquinas and a strand dating back to Kant.  Several non-western traditions also entail a teaching about what the great writer C.S. Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, called the tao – natural law or a closely related version of universal, rationally accessible morality.  Most of these versions of universal morality rationally articulate and defend the three ingredients needed for human rights.

The question, however, is whether these arguments rooted in reason can achieve validity without God.  In fact, the most influential articulators of common morality views did not divorce their views from God.  In the Thomist strand, for example, natural law is viewed as a participation in the “eternal logos” – that is, God.  Kant, similarly, thought God was necessary for morality, though in a different sense than Thomists do.

There are good reasons why reason and God have gone together in arguments for human rights.  In accounting for the validity of universal norms, the basis of dignity, and the trump card status of rights claims, articulators of reason-based arguments usually point to certain features of human beings that give them unique value among animals: their rationality, their free will, their capacity for moral knowledge, their capacity to realize basic goods like knowledge, and their capacity for transcendent reflection.

But where do such capacities originate?  And what sustains them?  Were the universe a closed system made up only of material causes, it would be difficult to argue that these uniquely human capacities are real and have value.  Persons would be little more than sophisticated biological contraptions of synapses.  In such a world, the capacities that ground human rights and human dignity would turn out to be illusory.

But if the universe contains human capacities that are not reducible to the material, then the origins of these capacities must likewise be something other than material. God emerges as a likely candidate.

Reason, then, may well ground human rights, but it does not supplant God in doing so. Without God, the capacities that are uniquely human and uniquely worthy of respect have no real justification. They are nothing more than biological hardwiring. Any sense humans have of being special, and worthy of respect and dignity, is little more than false consciousness. Without God, reason offers no clear and compelling argument for respecting human dignity above all else.

It is no accident, therefore, that historically, most of the great articulators of human (or natural) rights have been theists: the early Christian fathers; medieval canon lawyers; the Spanish scholastics; Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant; Woodrow Wilson; most of the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Jacques Maritain; and contemporary Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers like John Finnis, David Novak, and Abdullahi An-Na’im.

Likewise, most of the great deniers of human and natural rights have been atheists: the philosophers David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, Friedrich Nietzsche; Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin; and the postmodernist pioneers, Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty.

Just ask history’s most influential thinkers: God and human rights really do go together.