Where do rights come from?November 6, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
In a post entitled “Can Atheism Be Justified?” Donald Sensing writes:
If atheists are true to their own creed, they must admit that the entire concept of human rights crumbles to dust according to that same creed. Dawkins, Wilson et. al. have no “right” to denounce religion, they just have the ability or power to do so. If persons are not “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” (in the words of a famous Enlightenment rationalist), then “rights” is nothing but a flatus vocis. The concept of rights then really means nothing but “who wins.” So by their lights, atheists are able to speak out (in America, anyway, not in Saudi Arabia) and attempt to persuade others only because the rest of us let them.
According to Sensing, the only way rights can exist is if they are bestowed by a superior being. This is the same sort of argument as the idea that morality can only be dictated by God, but with an interesting twist. We’re not talking here about right vs. wrong, we’re talking about having rights (i.e. being legitimately entitled to something) as opposed to merely having your way because you have the power to impose your own will on others. Sensing thinks that with this argument, he has backed atheists into a corner: either they must admit the existence of “transcendence” (as in the supernatural), or they must admit that they have no right to criticize religion, or to disbelieve in God, or to do virtually anything.
Can anyone refute this argument without an appeal to transcendence? I think not. The reason America’s religious people don’t denounce their creeds… is that we (Jews and Christians, anyway) really do believe there is a God who is not only a God of mercy and compassion but also of moral law and judgement.
So, regarding rationality for any system of beliefs, how does atheism have a superior claim, except in the minds of its adherents? Any “rational” system of law or morals that atheists may devise may be rebutted by an equally rational system that countermands it.
As for me, I affirm the rights of atheists to be the same rights as mine because, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time. The hand of force may destroy but cannot disjoin them.”
As usual, we will be applying the principle that truth is consistent with itself. We do not need to appeal to any transcendent principle to test whether Sensing’s argument is valid, we just need to check it for self-consistency. We’ll start by asking “What gives God the right to dictate what rights men will and will not have?”
According to Sensing, one cannot have rights unless they are bestowed by a superior being. Let’s assume for the moment that God exists. By definition, God is supposed to be the ultimate Being, and therefore God cannot possess any rights, since there is no superior being to bestow them upon Him. God has no right to tell us what we should or should not do, He merely has what Sensing calls “the ability or power to do so.”
Thus, God might allegedly have the ability to condemn us for things He regards as “sin,” but it is not possible that He could have the right to do so. God’s judgements are necessarily unjust, because He has no right to make them, and is merely imposing them because He’s the biggest bully in the cosmos. By Sensing’s definition of “rights,” God is rather a reprehensible person.
Of course, you could rebut this argument by saying, “Wait a minute! You’re proceeding on the basis of a false assumption. God does have the right to dictate morals and bestow rights upon men. It’s inherent in His divine nature that He has the right to rule over us.” That’s a reasonable objection, but it’s based on admitting that it’s false to assume that rights must bestowed by a superior being. In other words, in order to claim that God possesses certain inherent rights by virtue of His nature alone, you must admit the principle that it’s possible for rights to be inherent in a person’s nature, without needing to be bestowed by some superior being.
If this is true, then Sensing’s assumption that men cannot have inherent human rights is a false assumption. You do not need to appeal to the transcendent as the only possible source for rights if those rights are inherent in the persons themselves.
Sensing is partially correct about the connection between rights and abilities, however. People are only able to exercise those rights which are recognized and respected by others. Gays, for example, have an inherent right to marry, but in 3/5ths of the United States they are being denied their rights by the Christian majority. Being entitled to a certain right is not the same as actually possessing it.
That’s a subtle distinction, but think of it in terms of someone stealing your car. In one sense, the car is still your possession (i.e. you are still the rightful owner), but in another sense it is no longer in your possession (since someone stole it and you can’t find it or use it now). In the same way, the rights we are entitled to can be stolen from us, just like the right to marry was stolen from gays by Christians in California and elsewhere.
Someone might ask, “Where do these rights come from, then, or where do they exist?” They are inherent in our nature as a social, intelligent species. Imagine, for a moment, that we were not social, that each human lived as a solitary, uncooperative agent, living from day-to-day, finding food, avoiding enemies, keeping warm and dry and so on. No home, because the housing industry requires cooperation. No clothes, because the clothing industry requires cooperation. No groceries, no farm goods, no job, no doctor, no retirement plan.
We’d be animals, in the most negative sense of the word. Our lives are better, vastly better, because of our ability to cooperate as a society that benefits its participants. A harmonious and beneficial society, however, requires its members to observe certain limits, or face the loss of the benefits. Those limits are not arbitrary: when individuals work together as a group, some behaviors have beneficial consequences, and some have harmful consequences. We don’t get to arbitrarily choose which behaviors are going to produce which results; the behaviors themselves dictate whether or not the consequences will benefit or harm the members as a whole.
This is where “rights” come from. Human rights are simply a way of recognizing and respecting the limits that we must submit to in order to obtain the maximum benefit from our participation in society. If we violate those limits, we incur a cost that society as a whole will have to pay. When we oppress minorities (like gays for instance), we think we’re only making them suffer, but in fact we are causing ourselves deep and lasting harm.
Atheists do have a right to criticize the shallow, superstitious, and bigoted things that believers say, because a self-correcting society is a healthy society. When we’re misled, when we’re wrong, when we’re suffering from self-inflicted handicaps and illnesses, it’s beneficial to diagnose and address the source of our maladies. In order to be self-correcting and self-healing, however, we need the right to free speech. It may be unpleasant at times, but we need to respect the right people have to speak their minds, a right that is inherent in how a healthy society works.
We don’t need God to tell us what our rights are, which is just as well, since He does not show up to dictate any, even if He had the right to do so. (Not to mention the fact that the Bible portrays Him as recognizing such “rights” as the right to own slaves, to beat them, and to sell your daughter into sexual slavery!) We’re much better off letting reality dictate what our rights are, and not letting ourselves be enslaved by a bunch of people who believe they have the right to persecute gays just because some sock-puppet deity doesn’t approve of their existence!
So in answer to the title question: yes, atheism can be justified without appealing to any transcendent (and strangely unobservable) superior being. And (unlike God) our rights come from reality itself, and not from the self-serving imaginations of men.