I have often asked myself why human beings have any rights at all. I always come to the conclusion that human rights, human freedoms, and human dignity have their deepest roots somewhere outside the perceptible world. These values . . . make sense only in the perspective of the infinite and the eternal. – Václav Havel, Former Czech President
When man is reduced to a mere animal—when the force of one’s worldview logic demotes humans to mere biological machines—morality and human rights die and power is all that remains. This has happened with every communist regime, and happens with all governments as they get increasing secular. It cannot be otherwise. – Greg Koukl, The Story of Reality
It’s exceedingly difficult to see how we move from a valueless series of causes and effects from the big bang onward, finally arriving at valuable, morally responsible, rights-bearing human beings. If we’re just material beings produced by a material universe, then objective value or goodness (not to mention consciousness or reasoning powers or beauty or personhood) can’t be accounted for. – Paul Copan, Passionate Conviction
It is impossible to develop a secular account of human dignity adequate for grounding human rights. – Prof. Nicholas Wolterstorf, Yale University
Many years ago I took a sequence of college philosophy classes from a likeable atheist. I found the ethics course most interesting. Every time it came to the question of why the professor believed something to be right or wrong, he could say only that it “seemed” to him to be best, it “seemed” to him to help the most people. In other words, it always boiled down to his personal preference. Thirty of us sat in that ethics class, all with our own personal preferences, many fluxing with the current of popular culture…
Choosing moral behaviors because they make you feel happy can make sense, in a Bertrand Russell/Sam Harris sort of way, but what if it makes you feel happy to torture animals or kill Jews or steal from your employer?
“You misunderstand,” someone says. “We atheists do not base our morality on personal preferences, but on the judgments of society as a whole, on what benefits the most people.” But how does this help the argument? What if in our class of thirty students, sixteen of us really wanted to kill the professor? Would that be good? Or what if the majority of an entire nation thought it best to liquidate one portion of that population—would that be good?…
Nor does it help to claim the authority of some group of “elites” who supposedly have a finer moral sense. History teaches us that elite groups tend to call good whatever it is they’re inclined to do.
If there is no God who created us for an eternal purpose, and no God who will judge us; if there is no God who has revealed his standards and no God who informs our consciences—then surely any morality we forge on our own will ultimately amount to a mirror image of our own subjective opinions that will change with the times.
To say that the Holocaust or child abuse is wrong is a moral judgment. But such a judgment has no meaning without a standard to measure it against. Why are the Holocaust and child abuse wrong? Because they involve suffering? Because other people have said they are wrong? Feeling it or saying it doesn’t make it so…
We have only one basis for good moral judgments: the existence of objective standards based on unchanging reference points outside ourselves. Personal opinion falls far short.
After all, Nazis and rapists have their opinions too.
René Girard [was] a French philosopher and anthropologist whose brilliant career culminated in a position at Stanford University. Girard became fascinated with the fact that in modern times a “marginalized” person assumes a moral authority . . . Girard noted that a cavalcade of liberation movements—abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, animal rights, gay rights, women’s rights, minority rights, human rights—had gathered speed in the 20th century.
The trend mystified Girard because he found nothing comparable in his reading of ancient literature. Victors, not the marginalized, wrote history, and the myths from Babylon, Greece, and elsewhere celebrated strong heroes, not pitiable victims. In his further research, Girard traced the phenomenon back to the historical figure of Jesus. It struck Girard that Jesus’ story cuts against the grain of every heroic story from its time. Indeed, Jesus chose poverty and disgrace, spent his infancy as a refugee, lived in a minority race under a harsh regime, and died as a prisoner. From the very beginning Jesus took the side of the underdog: the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the “marginalized.” His crucifixion, Girard concluded, introduced a new plot to history: the victim becomes the hero by being a victim. To the consternation of his secular colleagues, Girard converted to Christianity.
When Jesus died as an innocent victim, it introduced what one of Girard’s disciples has called “the most sweeping historical revolution in the world, namely, the emergence of an empathy for victims.” Today the victim occupies the moral high ground everywhere in the Western world: consider how the media portray the plight of AIDS orphans in Africa or Tibetan refugees or uprooted Palestinians. Girard contends that Jesus’ life and death brought forth a new stream in history, one that undermines injustice. It may take centuries for that stream to erode a hard bank of oppression, as it did with slavery, but the stream of liberation flows on.
Sometimes Jesus followers join the stream, and sometimes they stand on the bank and watch. Yet over time the gospel works its liberating effect. (You can see the contrast clearly in societies that have experienced little Christian influence.) Women, minorities, the disabled, human rights activists—all these draw their moral force from the power of the gospel unleashed at the cross, when God took the side of the victim. In a great irony, the “politically correct” movement defending these rights often positions itself as an enemy of Christianity, when in fact the gospel has contributed the very underpinnings that make possible such a movement. And those who condemn the church for its episodes of violence, slavery, sexism, and racism do so by gospel principles.
According to Jean-Paul Sartre . . . the basic philosophic question is that something is there, rather than that nothing is there. The first basic answer is that everything that exists has come out of absolutely nothing. In other words, you begin with nothing. Now, to hold this view, it must be absolutely nothing. It must be what I call nothing-nothing. It cannot be nothing-something or something-nothing. If one is going to accept this answer, it must be nothing-nothing, which means there must be no energy, no mass, no motion, and no personality.
My description of nothing-nothing runs like this. Suppose we had a very black blackboard that had never been used. On this blackboard we drew a circle, and inside that circle there was every- thing that was—and there was nothing within the circle. Then we erase the circle. This is nothing-nothing. You must not let anybody say he is giving an answer beginning with nothing and then really begin with something: energy, mass, motion, or personality. That would be something, and something is not nothing.
The truth is, I have never heard this argument sustained, for it is unthinkable that all that now is has come out of utter nothing.
–Francis Schaeffer, He Is There and He Is Not Silent
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? …Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies.
“The most consequential life in human history was lived 21 centuries ago in the eastern portion of the Roman Empire by a person who never traveled 100 miles from his birthplace, never held public office, never write a book, and died… in his early 30s.”
“It was reserved for Christianity to present to the world an ideal character, which through all the changes of eighteen centuries has inspired the hearts of men with an impassioned love; has shown itself capable of acting on all ages, nations, temperaments, and conditions; has been not only the highest pattern of virtue but the strongest incentive to its practice; and has exerted so deep an influence that it may be truly said that the simple record of three short years of active life has done more to regenerate and to soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and all the exhortations of moralists.”
–W. E. H. Lecky (1838-1903),
History of European Morals