Monday, April 09, 2007

Are Human Rights a Christian Concept?

Arguably no. And they ought not be thought of as such.

This is the opposite of what Joseph Bottum argues in this post that "[h]uman rights are born from Christian ideas...." America's Founders did argue human rights have metaphysical origins. And if tying human rights to theistic or metaphysical premises helps make them "unalienable" -- a conversation stopper -- doing X,Y, and X (slavery, genocide, lopping people's hands off) are wrong every where every time -- I see no harm. Indeed, I think these wrong everywhere, every time. However, I'm not sure if the metaphysic is provable.

Though human rights, as originally conceived, have theistic and metaphysical premises, they are hardly Christian or Biblical. As Allan Bloom put it in The Closing of the American Mind:

[Enlightenment] provides the structure for the key term of liberal democracy, the most successful and useful political notion of our world: rights. Government exists to protect the product of men's labor, their property, and therewith life and liberty. The notion that man possesses inalienable natural rights, that they belong to him as an individual prior, both in time and in sanctity, to any civil society, and that civil societies exist for and acquire their legitimacy from ensuring those rights, is an invention of modern philosophy. Rights...are new in modernity, not a part of the common-sense language of politics or of classical political philosophy. Hobbes initiated the notion of rights, and it was given its greatest respectability by Locke. p. 165

Though, note, just because the notion of human rights is a-Biblical doesn't mean these are necessarily anti-Biblical. Indeed, certain understandings of human rights are entirely compatible with various orthodox and unorthodox understandings of Christianity. This is where the Enlightenment notion of rights affects Biblical hermeneutics. Certain passages of the Bible, read in isolation, support the notion human rights -- everyone being equal in God's eyes, etc. But others blatantly contradict such notion. As Sam Harris recently put it:

Books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Exodus and First and Second Kings and Second Samuel -- half of the kings and prophets of Israel would be taken to The Hague and prosecuted for crimes against humanity if these events took place in our own time.

Or, as Larry Arnhart put it:

The case of slavery and "universalism" illustrates the problem....[M]any religious traditions have allowed slavery, and the Bible never condemns slavery or calls for its abolition. On the contrary, in the American debate over slavery, Christian defenders of slavery were able to cite specific biblical passages in both the Old Testament and the New Testament supporting slavery. Opponents of slavery had to argue that general doctrines such as the creation of human beings in God's image implicitly denied the justice of slavery. But they could never cite any specific passage of the Bible for their position. Here's a clear case of where the moral teaching of the Bible depends on our coming to it with a prior moral understanding that we then read into the Bible.

Moreover, the "universalism" of the Bible is in doubt. I don't see a universal morality in the Old Testament. Moses ordering the slaughter of the innocent Mideanite women and children, for example, manifests a xenophobia that runs through much of the Old Testament.

Now, of course, the New Testament does seem more inclined to a universal humanitarianism. But the Book of Revelation teaches that at the end of history the saints will destroy the Antichrist and the unbelievers in bloody battle. The bloodiness of this vision has been dramatized throughout the history of Christianity. (See, for example, Tim LaHaye's popular LEFT BEHIND novels.)

....And, of course, there is a continuing controversy over whether the Christian churches in Europe did enough to oppose Hitler. The German Lutheran Church was inclined to interpret the 13th Chapter of Romans as dictating obedience to the authorities. Martin Luther himself was brutal in his expression of anti-Semitism. How would Holloway explain cases like this? Would he say that the true doctrines of biblical religion always require universal love, and therefore any behavior by a biblical believer that violates universal love is based on a misinterpretation of biblical doctrine?

Many evangelicals and Catholics today genuinely believe that slavery violates God's law. Great. They do so, in interpreting Biblical texts, precisely by "argu[ing] that general doctrines such as the creation of human beings in God's image implicitly denied the justice of slavery." One reason why Christian Reconstructionism is seen as such a fringe movement is its beliefs -- that we need to impose Old Testament death penalties and abolish religious rights for non-Christians (the OT says stone to death immediately those who encourage you to worship "false gods") -- violate liberal democratic sensibilities. However, if we go back to pre-Enlightenment times, what the Christian Reconstructionist "nuts" of today desire is not all that different from laws on the books in say Puritan Massachusetts. Further, their fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible is just as sound as that of the more mainstream evangelicals who would recognize the rights of non-Christians to worship and no longer want to execute homosexuals. The main difference being the latter's theology meets the baseline requirements for living in a modern liberal democratic society; the former's do not. As Francis Fukuyama once put it, "we are all liberal democrats now." "We" meaning those on the Left or the Right who have any kind of political credibility. Cross certain lines outside of modern liberal democratic ideological borders -- as the Reconstructionists do -- and you are rightly written off as a kook and probably asked to leave the Republican Party for the inaptly named "Constitution Party." Robertson and Falwell live their political lives straddling that line, in my opinion.

And if the Bible can be read as consistent with liberal democracy/unalienable rights, so too can the Koran. Indeed, the Koran, like the Bible is monotheistic and hence human rights would tie to Islamic metaphysics. Those who are reflexively anti-Islam may point out the bloodthirsty texts (and modern day practices) of Islam. In response, the Bible has just as many barbaric passages. And indeed, many of today's worst violations committed by Islamic fundamentalists trace directly to texts in the same Old Testament in which Jews and Christians believe.

Further, since human rights are "universal," (in principle, knowable by man as man from the use of his reason) it's not a good idea to try to tie them to any one religious movement. If they ought be tied to any religious notion, we ought, like our key Founders and the Freemasons who so influenced them, tie human rights to a syncretic universalist theology, or a generic monotheism, where the concept of "God" reads so broadly as to even include polytheism or belief in the impersonal forces of Nature. As Thomas Paine described Freemasonry, it "transcends the bounds of Christian and Western civilization; it includes the Moslem, the Hindoo, the Buddhist, and the Jew." Though, Freemasonry required (and still does I believe) that one not be an atheist.

Finally, entirely atheistic philosophical premises for universal recognition of human rights also ought be supported. The universality of human rights are so important that the arguments for it cannot be drawn from too many sources. This is something that the originators human rights and America's Founders may not have been too keen with. But modern philosophy has progressed a great deal since that time. And thinkers from James Q. Wilson, to Larry Arnhart to Daniel Dennett have put forth convincing notions of human rights based on an evolutionary account of Darwinian human nature.


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Jim Babka said...

Jon, I'm not real keen about relying on the likes of Sam Harris to explain why Christianity cannot be a source of human rights. I also wish I had the time to deconstruct your post in a more detailed fashion.

I don't, so I'll make this one simple point.

Genesis 1 says that we're made in God's image. This simple idea receives elaboration in Genesis 9. It returns again in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Then Paul tells Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother -- a very, very revolutionary idea.

Humanity has evolved and developed, much like children. This pattern emerges in both scripture and history. No culture, previous to the Hebrew culture, taught this idea of man being in God's image -- that humans have that level of value. The fact that in Biblical times it was still not practiced ideally does not invalidate the principle. But we have grown up and we've come a long way (though it would be foolish to believe we're done).

Anti-slavery leagues in the 1800s and the civil rights movement of the 1900s, both believed in this concept of human dignity, frequently basing their appeals on it. That others quoted Scripture to justify enslavement neither invalidates their inspiration nor validates the bad interpretation used to advance a cause that is so clearly opposed to love or reason.

Indeed, our Founders were Theistic Rationalists. You've proven that many times over. But it's also true that something more than perusal of and "proof-texting" of Scriptures is required in order to understand the Bible.

I say that because, sometimes, we fail to understand that, in so many ways, both we and our Founders, are like fish. We swim in an ocean of Theistic thought and we don't even realize we're wet. We live in a post-Christian milieu. So many of our values are, almost silently, informed by a pro-Christian theology, even if they are not our professed beliefs.

Human rights, which have come a long way from human sacrifice, slavery, witch hunts, and discrimination, have evolved, as God intended, to a state of near-sanctity, liberty, due process, and protection of minorities. And, from the Christian team, only some Reconstructionists and the most simple-minded of Fundamentalists would regret that. Again, it should be pointed out, that we have a long way to go. But nearly all of the rest of western Christianity has embraced these ideals. And many of those Christians have even helped pave the way for these magnificent ideals.