The Body in Question   /   Summer 2015   /    Essays

The Great Subversion: The Scandalous Origins of Human Rights

Ronald Osborn

When British comedian Stephen Fry declared in a January 2015 interview on Irish television that if God exists, he is “utterly evil, capricious, and monstrous,” his remarks drew headline attention in newspapers and nearly four million views on YouTube within less than a week of the video’s posting.1 Fry was repeating an argument with a very long history, extending back through David Hume to the Epicureans of ancient Greece and Rome (at least according to the Christian apologist Lactantius, writing in the fourth century).2 He was also echoing sentiments that may be found in one form or another in any number of recent books and articles, both scholarly and popular, whose authors declare that religious beliefs are at best unnecessary and at worst antithetical to humanistic values, human rights, or even morality in general.

In a 2011 article in the New York Times titled “The Sacred and the Humane,” for example, Israeli philosopher and human rights activist Anat Biletzki wrote, “There is no philosophically robust reason to accept the claim that human dignity originates with God.”3 If anything, Biletzki argued, belief in God is a threat to humanistic values and to concepts of human dignity. Religion should not even be admitted “as a legitimate player in the human rights game,” she wrote, since those concerned with defending rights out of a sense of religious duty are not concerned with rights but only with a kind of slavish obedience to the arbitrary commands of the deity.

Other non-religious thinkers, however, have called into question the philosophical coherence and long-term viability of secular humanism and accompanying rights ideals in the wake of the “death of God.” According to British political scientist Stephen Hopgood, “The ground of human rights is crumbling beneath us,” both in theory and in practice: “The world in which global rules were assumed to be secular, universal and nonnegotiable rested on the presumption of a deep worldwide consensus about human rights—but this consensus is illusory.”4 What is more, Hopgood argues in The Endtimes of Human Rights, notions of inviolable human dignity, rights, and equality as universal norms must now be unmasked as a historically contingent and metaphysically dubious inheritance of Christianity:

It is only as a strategy for coping with what Nietzsche called “the death of God” in the West that we can begin to understand the real social function of humanitarianism and human rights in the twentieth century…. [The International Committee of the Red Cross] was, I argue, the first international human rights organization. It was a secular church of the international. The laws it wrote and the humanitarian activism it undertook were grounded by a culture of transcendent moral sentiment with strong Christian components. At the heart of this was the suffering innocent, a secular version of Christ. In other words, bourgeois Europeans responded to the erosion of religious authority by creating authority of their own from the cultural resources that lay scattered around them. And they then globalized it via the infrastructure that the imperial civilizing project bequeathed to them.5

Hopgood’s bracing critique of rights talk and his call for a less lofty, more pragmatic dispensation forces us to face the implications of the loss of theological anthropology for concepts of human equality and dignity. Can we have a rationally coherent, morally compelling, and historically sustainable discourse as well as a practice of humanistic values and human rights absent a “thick” metaphysical or religious framework, such as the one provided in the Western tradition for some two millennia by Judeo-Christian sources?

Put another way, the question “Can we be good without God?” does not strike nearly deep enough. The urgent question is: Will we still be good to the stranger in our midst, or good in the same ways, once we have fully grasped the contestable character of humanism and once we have utterly abandoned the essentially religious idea that every person is made, in the enigmatic language of Scripture, in the image of God? It is a question that even committed atheists, for the sake of good atheism, should find worthy of consideration.

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