Atheism and Universal Human Rights

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 05/22/2012

The purpose of this post is merely to provide clarity rather than to argue for the theist position (see all of STR for those arguments). The consequences of an idea do not necessarily prove that idea to be true or false, but we had better be clear about precisely what’s at stake.

What implications in the area of human rights follow from atheism? I noticed that some comments left on two recent posts were helpful in clarifying this aspect of the atheist worldview, so I compiled the separate ideas in an order that creates one argument. (I have tried to retain the original meaning of each excerpt in its context. Ellipses denote an excerpt from a new comment.)

Intrinsic [human] value? Is that value without a valuer? Why should I believe in that?... You uphold universal human rights, not me.... [E]ven if historically everyone thought that rights were grounded in God, unless they had good reasons for thinking so, I have no need to follow in their tradition. Don’t you agree that, usually, if we don’t have a good reason for thinking that X is true, we should withhold belief in X?

[Y]ou appear to take for granted that special sense of [intrinsic human] value you talked about earlier, and which I mentioned before I do not recognize.... Why should we grant that all human life has this special value?... I do not agree that anyone belonging to the human “kind” have such special value that they ought to be granted the right to life.

It seems like rights are usually granted by groups of people.... I understand “rights” to be freedoms and/or privileges granted to or won by [insert qualification here] beings. So I’m not able to make sense of rights apart from the granting or winning thereof. Since _______ cannot win for himself his rights, they must be granted to him. But we are under no evident obligation to do him this great favor.... I don’t think there are such things as “unalienable” rights. In my opinion, Jefferson got that bit wrong.

Since I’m trying to get to the heart of the principle being espoused, I’ve removed the specifics in the third paragraph because they’re irrelevant. The specifics that could be filled into those blanks while applying this understanding of rights to law are numerous and interchangeable, depending on the preferences of the people in power.

Here is the logic:

  1. There is no God in which to ground intrinsic human value and the resulting universal human rights.
  2. Therefore there is no such thing as intrinsic human value or universal human rights (including the right to keep one’s life).
  3. Instead, rights are given by a group of people in power to individual humans who are able to win those rights by meeting the qualifications set by that group.
  4. If any human is not able to win those rights by meeting those qualifications, the group is under no obligation to grant those rights to that human.
  5. Therefore there are no such things as “unalienable” rights.

Are you concerned? Perhaps not if you’re confident you’re in the “in-group.” But who has any guarantees under this principle? Once we ground rights in the will of the people in power, there is nothing to constrain their preferences to what you consider to be a reasonable line between valuable human beings and non-valuable human beings.

Again, the fact that the adoption of this understanding of rights can, has, and will lead to atrocities doesn’t prove it isn’t accurate (though I don’t think we can just dismiss our moral intuition against what logically follows from it). However, it should be a cause of concern to both theists and atheists,* and I hope it will be yet another motivation for you to vigorously argue for the truth in the public square.


*While the line of reasoning above is what I usually hear from atheists, Wesley J. Smith argues it’s possible for atheists to support universal human value, as long they change their view of the second half of #3 (how we recognize the value of a human being):

Happily, human exceptionalism does not require belief in a transcendent God, or indeed, spiritual allusions of any kind if we understand that what matters morally is not the capacities of the individual—which, after all, are transitory—but our intrinsic natures as human beings—which are innate.

In other words, if an atheist accepts the idea that rights are not won individually, but instead are equally shared by all human beings because our shared human nature makes us all the kind of being that is worthy of protection, then the concept of universal human rights can be preserved.

I haven’t yet met an atheist who would agree to this, but perhaps the two halves of #3 could be separated and the second half rejected. The major difference would remain—rights would still be in the hands of men rather than unalienable, but at least for the time being, there would be no grounds by which men could justify excluding some human beings from the protected human family.