Atheism and human rights

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A monument to the Captive Nations stands at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C.

In the past 100 years, governments under the banner of atheistic communism have caused the death of somewhere between 40,472,000 and 259,432,000 human lives.[1] See: Atheism and communism

Daniel Philpott, professor of political science and peace studies at Notre Dame

See also: Christianity and human rights and Atheism and human worth

Daniel Philpott, Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies and Director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame wrote:

At least three ingredients are critical to the validity of human rights. First, human rights require universal moral norms, since they are claims that every human makes upon every other human being. No person, non-state group, or political regime may torture another person or deliberately take the life of a civilian, for instance. These claims must be true for everyone, or they are not human rights.

The second ingredient is human dignity—the inestimable worth of each and every person. It is because human beings have this worth that they can justifiably demand that certain kinds of actions never be performed against them.

The third ingredient, which philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff describes brilliantly in his book, Justice, is what might be called the “trump card” status of human rights. To say that a person has a right is to say that her claim cannot be overridden by simply balancing it against a competing basket of goods. Even if governments can realize great gains in war by targeting civilians or torturing suspects, they must refrain from these actions if they are respectful of human rights...

What traditions of thought, then, assert universal norms, human dignity, and trump card status? Religions holding that God revealed certain commandments to be binding on everyone, essential for human flourishing and dignity, and admitting little room for violation or exception are strong candidates.

Theologians and philosophers in these traditions have derived a right to life from the commandment to not murder, a right to property from the commandment to not steal, and so on. In these religions, the ingredients for human rights are cemented in an eternal and unchanging being who takes an interest in every person...

It is no accident, therefore, that historically, most of the great articulators of human (or natural) rights have been theists: the early Christian fathers; medieval canon lawyers; the Spanish scholastics; Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant; Woodrow Wilson; most of the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Jacques Maritain; and contemporary Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers like John Finnis, David Novak, and Abdullahi An-Na’im.

Likewise, most of the great deniers of human and natural rights have been atheists: the philosophers David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, Friedrich Nietzsche; Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin; and the postmodernist pioneers, Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty.

Just ask history’s most influential thinkers: God and human rights really do go together.[2]

Premiere Christianity website on atheism and human rights

See: Who created human rights? (and why it's a problem for atheists)

The atheist philosopher Peter Singer defends the practice of bestiality (as well as abortion, infanticide and euthanasia).[3] See also: Abortion and atheism and Atheism and infanticide and Atheism and bestiality

Despite holding these immoral views, Princeton University rewarded him with a bioethics chair.[4]

The website Premier Christianity features a 2018 article by Andy Bannister which states:

It is 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations. Following his Big Conversation debate with [atheist] Peter Singer, Andy Bannister says the document still poses a significant problem for atheists...

Free and equal

We’re passionate about human rights, we award Nobel Prizes for them, but a fairly basic question is often overlooked. These rights, this dignity that human beings are claimed to have—where is it located? What is its basis, its foundation? In short, however noble the UDHR may sound, is it true?

These are trickier questions to answer than you might imagine, and the options are limited. Perhaps one might suggest that human rights just are; they just exist. This was the route taken by the secular human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell whom I once debated on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? show. Tatchell is passionate about human rights, but when I pressed him on why we have them, he basically said they exist because they exist. This is hugely problematic, not just because it’s a circular argument, but because the racist can use the same rationale—they can claim to be superior to other races and[,] when we ask why, reply: 'I am because I am.'...

Invented or discovered?

But what if ethics, human rights and human dignity aren’t made up? One of the brilliant insights that the world leaders, philosophers and theologians who crafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had was the assumption that human rights and dignity aren’t invented but discovered. During our conversation, Singer actually admitted this, remarking that he increasingly thinks that moral values and duties exist independently of us, in a 'similar way to mathematical truths existing'.

That’s a massive step for an atheist like Singer to take, for it means that as well as physical things (atoms, particles, tables, chairs, chocolate éclairs etc[.]) you also have invisible, non-physical entities floating around, principles such as 'love your neighbour'. For somebody like Singer, who believes human beings are the unpurposed product of time plus chance plus natural selection, this looks remarkably peculiar...

Where are we going

As the conversation with Singer shows, if you ultimately believe that the universe is just atoms in motion, that there is nothing intrinsically valuable about human beings, and if some humans have more value than others, because the metric you use to measure ‘worth’ or ‘personhood’ assigns them a greater score, then you have a problem.

But by stark, beautiful contrast, if the Christian story is true, then we were made with a purpose. We were made for something. Indeed, made for someone. We were made to discover God’s love, to love God in return, and to love our neighbour. If Christianity is true, love is the supreme ethic—that’s what it means to be human[,] and it gives a value, a purpose, a direction to human life—and a basis not just for human rights but also for our duties to one another.

This is why atheists face such a sharp dilemma. Only if the Christian story is true do humans have dignity and worth. And only on that basis can you talk meaningfully about rights and about responsibilities. Who created human rights? The one who created humans.[5]

The Gospel Coalition commentary on atheism and human rights

See also: Atheism and morality

In her review of the book Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can't Deliver by Christian Smith, Rebecca McLaughlin of The Gospel Coalition wrote:

When it comes to morality, contemporary atheists are making an ambitious play. In their bold new secular world, atheists assure us, a commitment to universal human rights and equality, and sacrificial love to the poor and oppressed, will flow from secular beliefs.

For example, Smith quotes Columbia professor Phillip Kitcher’s claim that atheism compels us to become “responsive to the desires of the entire human population” and to work toward the “provision of equal opportunities for worthwhile lives for all” (14). With equivalent daring, New Atheist author Sam Harris asserts that being good without God entails promoting “happiness for the greatest number of people” and “maximiz[ing] personal and collective well-being for all humanity” (15).

But, as Smith points out, none of the atheist moralists he quotes gives convincing reasons for the universal scope of our obligations toward other humans.

Like a careful archeologist, Smith brushes the rhetorical sand off common arguments (social contract appeals, utilitarian arguments, and so on), explaining how each fails to deliver the robust moral framework that atheists promise. Sure, their arguments may motivate people out of the scrimmage of sheer self-interest to care about “a limited set of people who matter to them” (18). But they don’t come close to the end zone of universal human rights. We can imagine quite different moral conclusions from atheist starting points. Indeed, we’ve seen them play out multiple times in the last century.

To be sure, many modern Westerners take universal benevolence and human rights to be self-evident moral truths. But, as Smith reminds us, these aren’t free-standing moral facts, ready to be discovered like scientific laws. Rather, they are historically contingent beliefs growing out of Judeo-Christian tradition. Someone who “believes in a naturalistic cosmos,” he acknowledges, “is perfectly entitled to believe in and act to promote universal benevolence and human rights, but only as an arbitrary, subjective, personal preference—not as a rational, compelling, universally binding fact and obligation”...[6]

Atheism and its failure to ground human rights

Andrew Wilson in his essay entitled Can Atheism Ground Human Rights? indicated:

Can atheism provide the grounds for believing in universal benevolence and human rights? Well: no, says Christian Smith in his excellent Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can't Deliver. In a nuanced, fair, scholarly and readable argument, Smith makes no attempt to establish whether naturalist atheism is true or false, but simply to establish that if it is true, there is no warrant for believing in a number of things that (most) atheists affirm. Thus:
A naturalistic universe is one that consists of energy and matter and other natural entities, such as vacuums, operating in a closed system in time and space, in which no transcendent, supernatural, divine being or superhuman power exists as creator, sustainer, guide or judge. Such a universe has come to exist by chance - not by design or providence but by purposeless natural forces and processes. There is no inherent, ultimate meaning or purpose. Any meaning or purpose that exists for humans in a naturalistic universe is constructed by and for humans themselves. When the natural forces of entropy eventually extinguish the human race - if some natural or humanmade disaster does not do so sooner - there will be no memory or meaning, just as none existed before human consciousness evolved.

If that is the nature of reality, then what grounds are there for believing in universal benevolence and human rights? There do not seem to be any:

To begin with, let us first observe that a naturalistic universe does not seem to offer any moral guidance at all ... Organisms do tend to “want” to survive. But on evolutionary grounds per se we cannot say that it was morally good or bad that the dinosaurs lived or died, for instance. It just happened.[7]

Pastor Nick Cady on atheism and human rights violations

Stand To Reason: Atheism and universal human rights

Atheist Steven Pinker vs. theist Nick Spencer: Can atheists believe in human rights?

New Atheist Richard Dawkins does not believe men have unalienable rights

Kyle Butt, M.Div. of Apologetics Press writes:

Should a living organism be given special status simply based on the fact that the organism is human? The answer to such an inquiry is immediately clear to most people. Certainly humans have special rights that animals do not have. It would be morally detestable to eat a human, regardless of the intelligence or abilities of that human, simply because the subject is human. On the other hand, it would certainly be morally acceptable to eat a cow, regardless of the breed or the assumed intelligence of the subject.

The framers of the Declaration of Independence understood the special place that humans hold. They penned the famous words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (emp. added). Notice that the Declaration framers believed that humans had certain rights that were “self-evident.” In fact, the framers simply recorded an idea that had been understood by humanity for millennia.

The theory of evolution, however, militates against the self-evident idea that humans should be given any special, moral treatment based solely on their humanness. In fact, modern atheistic evolutionists like Richard Dawkins do not believe that humans should be viewed as any more worthy of special, moral treatment than animals. In a discussion about how a human embryo should be treated, Dawkins wrote: “The granting of uniquely special rights to cells of the species Homo sapiens is hard to reconcile with the fact of evolution.... The humanness of an embryo’s cells cannot confer upon it any absolutely discontinuous moral status” (Dawkins, 2006, p. 300, italics in orig.). Dawkins further argued that there is no “absolute” distinction between humans and animals. He reasoned that just because an organism is human does not mean that we should give it any favored status. According to Dawkins, an organism ought to be preserved based on the level of suffering it may have the capacity to feel, or the amount of intelligence it possesses, but not based on the fact that it is a human.[8]

Atheism and human rights violations

See also


  1. Multiple references:
  2. Philpott, Daniel, Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, (May 28, 2014). "No human rights without God" Open Global Rights
  3. The Dangerous Mind by Joe Carter, First Things
  4. Who created human rights? (and why it's a problem for atheists)
  5. When Atheism Is Intellectually Weak by Rebecca McLaughlin
  6. Can Atheism Ground Human Rights? by Andrew Wilson,
  7. Dawkins Does Not Believe “Men” Have Unalienable Rights by Kyle Butt, M.Div., Apologetics Press website