Where do atheists think they get rights from?

Todays question comes from Lee who asks….

Name: lee
Message: Hello,

I have a religious/political question I’ve been wondering about the atheistic point of how on. The Declaration of Independence says, “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.–“, so in America, our rights are not then granted to us from the government but by God.

My question is, who does an atheist feel gives them their rights? Also, if athists don’t believe people where created equally, but evolved, doesn’t evolution directly teach that  things are getting at least physically better and therefore one generation would be better than another generation. What makes people equal in the eyes of an atheist?

Ps, I’m not trying to cause an argument or disrespect, I just don’t understand and can’t find an answer on Google. I really am interest to know who do artists think gives people their rights and where does equality come from?

Wow Lee. You’ve got some great questions there. Thanks for asking them.

First things first. There is no such thing as an “atheist world view” anymore then there is a world view based upon not believing in elves. It’s kind of hard to base a world view on something that you don’t believe in. I’m sure there’s lots of things that you don’t believe in and you wouldn’t subscribe a world view to any of them. Same thing with atheism. The only thing one atheist has to have in common with another atheist is a lack of belief in a god or gods. That’s it. Anything else an atheist believes about the world is their belief alone.

Now to answer your question about the Declaration of Independence, as I understand it, the architects of the declaration were careful to leave out any reference to “god”. Hence the word “creator” which can mean whatever you want it to. It can mean a god, or it can mean the earth, or the universe, or anything else that you would consider to have created you. Austine Cline, a long time writer for About.com said it best when he said…

what little is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence is only barely compatible with Christianity, the religion most people have in mind when making the above argument. The Declaration refers to “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” and “Divine Providence.” These are all terms used in the sort of deism which was common among many of those responsible for the American Revolution as well as the philosophers upon whom they relied for support. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, was himself a deist who was opposed to many traditional Christian doctrines, in particular beliefs about the supernatural.

One common misuse of the Declaration of Independence is to argue that it states that our rights come from God and, therefore, there are no legitimate interpretations of the rights in the Constitution that would be contrary to God. The first problem is that the Declaration of Independence refers to a “Creator” and not the Christian “God” meant by people making the argument. The second problem is that the “rights” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — none of which are “rights” discussed in the Constitution.

Let’s also keep in mind that the Declaration of Independence. is not a legal document which is designed to give or take away our rights. Read Austins article and you’ll get a better understanding.

So then, who, if not a god, does an atheist believe gives them rights? I obviously can’t speak for all atheists, but as for my own opinion I would say it’s the same group that gives all of us rights, namely society and by extension, the government. As I understand it’s the social contract which we use to extend our rights to each other. Hence why rights in one part of the world aren’t the same as in other parts. Society defines your rights based upon it’s culture and morality at the time. The USA was unique at the time of it’s creation because it wanted to get away from the idea of an autocracy given power by religion. So instead of rights given by religion, it focused on rights given by the people. This is the heart of democracy, that it’s the people who have the real power and that it is their right to exercise that power.

Now lastly, your question about evolution. I think you may have a misunderstanding of what evolution is. Evolution is simply about adaptation to an environment. Somethings evolve and end up becoming stagnant, somethings evolve and continue on. As Sasha said in her comment to the article “Does evolution say that it’s okay to bully“..

Science is descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s a method to tell us what the world around us is like, not to tell us how we should behave.

So to think that because some atheists believe in evolution means that they don’t think that everyone is equal, is a non sequitur, meaning one doesn’t necessarily follow the other. Besides, equality isn’t about your physical state. We all share the same rights even though some people may be smarter or stronger or weaker or dumber. These rights are given by society equally so that we all start in the same spot and so that one person can’t proclaim dominance over another.

Well I hope that helped. As always Lee, feel free to let us know what you think by replying in the comment section below. Thanks again for the great questions.

28 thoughts on “Where do atheists think they get rights from?”

  1. Thank you for your response, especially in a non-argumentative manner. I appreciate you taking the time to answer the question and not just getting “offended” by it. It was very interesting to know what your point of view is, even if I disagree with it (Isn’t it nice to have a logical conversation instead of a debate?).

    1. Our motto is “No bashing, just understanding. “. I’m glad that you got something from my answer even though you might not agree with all of it. I hope you will come by again if you have more questions or just stop in from time to time and join in on the conversation.

  2. One thing that one could do, Lee, is to look a bit outside the US.
    Outside of the US, there are a number of Western countries whose citizens’ rights are enshrined in their constitutions and the basis of those rights isn’t “the creator”.
    Unless we are saying that the rest of the free world enjoys less human rights than the US, I think one cannot argue that since the US bill of rights mentions the creator, the rights must come from the creator.

    The German and Swiss constitutions for e.g. refer to human dignity as paramount and do not state why it is paramount. As an interesting aside – the Swiss constitution received a major overhaul by the way and the new one was established in 1999!

    Now India is not really a shining example of human rights enforcement (more due to lack of political will & corruption than due to the intent of the constitution of India). But since I received most of my education in India, though I live and work outside of India currently, I’d like to mention the words to the preamble of the Indian constitution for e.g. These are drilled into the minds of primary school going kids all over India just to make them know that the architects of the Indian constitution kept religion out of it and tried to make it secular.
    The preamble goes: “We the people of India having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure all its citizens:
    JUSTICE, social, economic and political;
    LIBERTY, of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
    EQUALITY , of status and opportunity; and to promote among them all;
    FRATERNITY, assuring the dignity of individual the unity and integrity of nation;
    In our constituent assembly, this twenty-sixth day of November, 1949, do hereby adopt, enact and give ourselves this constitution.”

    Notice the stress on “We the people”. It’s like Rick says – societies all over the world decide their citizens’ inalienable rights.
    No reference is made to god or gods here (and not just because, as we used to joke in India in school, that they probably could not figure out which god to refer to 🙂 ).

  3. I think Rohit makes an excellent point (and the original response was excellent as well). But one of the things that confuses me about religion is the exclusivity of it coupled with supreme authority that it claims. This comes into play here.

    So religions A,B,C,D,E,F,G all exist. You were brought up believing religion B, which specifically teachers that if you aren’t following religion B, then you are WRONG and you will suffer for it! Or at least not get the divine rewards promised to devout religon B-ers. So this immediately raises the question, why is B correct and A,C,D,E,F,G incorrect? If they all say they are correct. and make pretty damned similar claims and have similar stories, why B?

    Anyways, my point is to piggyback off of what Rohit said. If you believe your rights come from the god of religion B. Then how do you explain that other people, in nations that do not acknowledge religion B, have rights as well? I suppose the “cop out” answer would be that everybody’s rights are given by god of B whether they know it or not ey? But disregarding that unfalsifiable claim (aside from the obvious examples where people ‘rights’ are ignored and trampled on), how can one nation receive rights from god of B, while other nations that have very similar rights exist, and these nations do not acknowledge god of B? Or instead acknowledge gods of A,C,D,E,F or G?

    It’s mostly a rhetorical question, but you can answer if you wish. I personally don’t understand what you think of…say Japan– if you believe that America gets it’s rights from a god. Do they not have rights there? Are their rights fake?

    1. I guess a different way to word the same question is this: From an atheists point of view, is there such a thing as intrinsic rights of a human that should be a right apart from law? Is there rights a human “deserves” even if their law doesn’t give it to them….from an atheist point of view. And if so, from where is that right derived?

      1. It depends on the atheist you ask I suppose.

        From a generic point of view, “rights” are a human concept. If humans didn’t exist, there’d be no such thing as “rights”. Rights are derived from the culture or society doing the defining. Even in today’s modern world the rights in America are not necessarily the rights in Indonesia or the Brazilian rain forest.

        Most of the atheists I know are Americans, and grew up under the Constitution of the United States. So they very much feel that there is a certain set of rights that all people should have. And this should not surprise anyone, because obviously those rights would extend to everyone, atheists included, and who wouldn’t want the rights that they are accustomed to?

        Even in America there is not always a consensus on rights though. Half the country thinks marriage availability should extend to gay couples. The other half doesn’t.

        Rights are a fluid and constantly evolving thing, and differ from place to place and time period to time period. There is no reason to think they extend from one source or are absolute in any sense of the word. Rights are a human creation, defined and determined by humans. That’s where they come from.

  4. Actually, the author has it backwards. Rights dictate the laws in the United States. Not the other way around. As mentioned in the Declaration, those rights consist of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” upon which our laws (the Constitution) are codified. These codified laws, written by men and placed in the Bill of Rights, as well as other laws, are an attempt to preserve those rights. That was the point the Founding Fathers had in mind.

    The author writes about this but does not fully comprehend the meaning when he said, “Hence why rights in one part of the world aren’t the same as in other parts.” He is inadvertently speaking about the codified “rights” written by men, based on men’s ideology, rather than the “divinely given” rights.

    The argument given by the author means he could move to China, have his current rights revoked, and be perfectly accepting of those rights allowed, or disallowed, in China because that’s simply how their society is. He does not have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He would only have the right to what the “man in charge says” he has, and he better like it.

    1. The concept of natural rights come from enlightenment philosophers. I’ve always wondered how Christians could believe that they come from the Christian God given that roughly 1700 years of Christian history passed before anyone came up with the concept. It seems hard to argue that it’s biblical if devout Christians couldn’t find it in the bible for all that time.

      Do we have rights? Well, i think we have rights in the sense that we have the rights that society/ government/ etc agrees that we have and grants to us. There are also rights in the sense that there are rights that we *should* have (and that society/ government/ etc *should* grant to us). The founding fathers (like the enlightement philosophers) talked about “rights” as if they had some sort of etherial existence all on their own, which I don’t think they have. They’re not real things. They’re just concepts that appeal to our sense of fairness and mutual best interest.

      The rights that society/ government grants to us changes drastically depending on which society we’re in/ government we’re under. The rights that we think we *should* have is more consistent however.

      1. I agree with Sasha. If divinely given rights existed then we would have some evidence that

        (i) a sense of morality existed outside of a complex nervous system (such as the human brain)
        (ii) those who claim to have special access to the ‘divine’ would also be those far more prepared to grant those rights to their fellow humans.

        The first point is blindingly obvious. There is no evidence that moral values exist outside of a human brain (although possibly a form of proto-morality exists in some primate species).

        The second point is also obvious, as Sasha pointed out by referencing the Enlightenment. Christians have historically had real difficulty with the concept that all human beings are created equal. The Papal Bulls of 1455 and 1493 specifically state that non-Europeans are inferior to Europeans. The founding documents of the Southern Baptist and Presbyterian churches likewise. The Church of England was, for about a decade, the largest slave owning organisation in the world. In the 20th century opposition to rescinding anti-miscegenation laws in the USA where led predominantly by Christian organisations; they were also the primary opposition to women’s suffrage in most European countries. I could go on.

        Even today, the difficulties theists have with the concept of equality can be observed (e.g., sexual orientation), but also in thought experiments such as the ‘trolley problems’. This one’s from Judith Jarvis Thomson:

        A passenger on a trolley is told by the driver that the brakes have failed. The driver then drops dead from shock. The passenger is left with this dilemma: on the track ahead are 5 people who cannot escape in time. But there is a spur leading to the right and one person is on that spur. He also could not escape in time. Either way, no harm will come to the passenger. Does the passenger deliberately turn the trolley rightward or do nothing and carry on going forward?

        Atheists tend to answer that they would turn the trolley to the right; deliberately killing one person being a more moral act than allowing the accidental killing of five. Christians with a strong deontological sense of morality tend to answer the opposite. Statistically, they tend toward allowing the accidental death of five people rather than have the deliberate death of one on their conscience.

        It’s not a real-life scenario, of course, but it gives some insight into differing attitudes toward equal rights to life according to religious outlook. The utilitarian-leaning atheists would seem to have a better sense of human equality and right to life (favouring 5 equal people vs 1 equal person) than those theists with a deontological bent to their morality who not only put their own perceived welfare before that of others (favouring 1 person who hasn’t sinned vs. five less equal people) but also placed obedience to god’s commands before any human right to life (favouring 1 lucky person to 5 less equal people).

        When I put this quandary to a devout Muslim he too said he would go straight ahead on the grounds that no human beings have any rights at all – our lives belong to Allah, not us.

        It’s not surprising to many of us, from both an historical and an experimental perspective, that human beings suffer more if you consider that humans have no right to make determinations of rights, only god does.

  5. Humans would seem to me to be incapable of granting unalienable rights. The rights expressed within our constitution are profound and difficult to define or apply in a general sense. Each INDIVIDUAL must define the terms and then execute according to their own definition. This is in itself viewed as threatening to other INDIVIDUALS. We by our most basic nature need to prevent alternate versions based on other peoples pursuits that seem to threaten our own. Here is the limiting factor that I see. The need for thinking outside of what our limited view will allow for brings us to the realm of spiritual concepts. While it may, in a fleshly sense seem like a good plan to prop up ones own reality in favor of all others in reality it is very damaging.

    1. Brad, isn’t this always going to be the case, an existential situation we cannot escape from and so have no choice but to deal with? There is no evidence that the notion of human rights has been revealed or ‘discovered’ and plenty of evidence that the notion has developed over millennia via human thought and empathy.

      What you seem to be arguing for are human rights based on some form of theocratic dictatorship. Problem is, that’s all been tried before (and still is – just look at ISIS, they’ve got plenty to say on the subject of human rights and they REALLY, REALLY believe in god). meanwhile, for the past couple of hundred years many communities have been growing out of it toward a more secular, tolerant, inclusive and consensual, reality-based idea of human rights.

      Brad, I wonder, can you give us some examples of these universally accepted inalienable human rights that you speak of, that have always been recognised, equally strongly, by all those (of all religious persuasions) who are not atheists? Could you also tell us how these human rights first became known to the human beings who claim that they exist?

      The burden of proof is on you. You need to present some cogent evidence and argumentation if you want people to consider your notion that there exist ‘objective’ human rights with a wholly supernatural origin.

  6. I think the burden of proof is on you as well. If men do not have inalienable rights which no man can remove from them, then to whose standard do we govern? People need to be free to become what wish wish as long as they are not harming others or their property. If human standards are the basis then its “survival of the fittest”. A person can make others subject their version of reality. In doing so everyone is hurt because contributions are never realized. We will never agree, neither you nor I can scientifically prove anything regarding God. It is a matter of faith and perspective. There are natural reasons and there are supernatural reasons for things… I choose to believe that I am not capable of understanding certain things and science cannot explain everything.

    1. “I think the burden of proof is on you as well”

      This comment demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what atheism is and is not. Atheism is not a structured school of philosophy or theology. Atheism is no more than an individual’s lack of belief in any god(s). Some atheists are wealthy capitalist libertarians who own many material goods and pursue a hedonistic lifestyle, others are Buddhist monks who live an ascetic lifestyle and own no more than the clothes they wear. Atheism provides no basis for musical notation, or algebra or atomic theory. So why expect atheism to provide a unitary basis for human rights? It’s not logical.

      You’re committing the logical fallacy of the ‘allegation of the neglected onus’: you’re attempting to discredit atheism by claiming that it cannot solve a problem that it doesn’t even address.

      Of course, theism, in itself, doesn’t provide any basis at all for human rights. But some theists, like you, explicitly make the claim that it does. Therefore the burden of proof rests on theists like yourself who present the claim that a belief in god(s) is necessary to provide a basis for a concept of ‘objective’ human rights. In order to do so, at a very minimum you would need to

      (i) Provide some examples of human rights that are so obvious to the human mind (in a manner akin to say, basic arithmetic) that they have been incorporated in every human society and;
      (ii) Provide some evidence that it would have been impossible to have obtained such concepts of human rights by any other means than theistic revelation (i.e., not by means or process of logic or empathy or rationalisation etc).

      “If human standards are the basis then its “survival of the fittest”.”

      I’m not too sure what you mean by this and suspect a misguided dig at biological evolutionary theory, though I might be wrong.

      Are you referring to political-cultural notions of ‘survival of the fittest’, such as are traditionally used to defend free market, capitalist economic systems or biological notions of ‘survival of the fittest’, which are used to retrospectively identify which allele frequencies within a species’ genome have survived environmental exigencies over time?

      Obviously you can’t use the biological definition of ‘survival of the fittest’ as the basis for human rights. There’s simply no fit. You could use the political-cultural definition, of course, but where is the evidence that this is actually done? The European Convention of Human Rights is probably the most comprehensive and respected document of its type. It’s explicitly secular (though it champions religious freedom), can only be adopted via democratic process, and is purposely designed to run counter to any political-cultural concept of ‘survival of the fittest’.

      So your comment is demonstrably wrong; if human standards are the basis for human rights (and what other standards could there possibly be?) they are not always based on ‘survival of the fittest’. In fact, I can think of no human rights legislation in the past century at least, ideologically based on anything vaguely like the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’; and there is unlikely to be any in the foreseeable future. Can you give us any examples?

      “There are natural reasons and there are supernatural reasons for things”

      I observe plenty of evidence for natural reasons (or causes) – but I, wonder, can you provide us with any examples of phenomena which could only ever have a supernatural reason for their existence?

      “… I choose to believe that I am not capable of understanding certain things and science cannot explain everything.”

      Then it might surprise you to know that you would be in agreement with me and the vast majority of scientists. The difference between us is that you are filling gaps in knowledge with beliefs that feel good (or right) for you, while science actively seeks whatever is out there in a careful and methodical manner. We both of us might not like what we find, but hey, the universe has no obligation to accord with any of our beliefs.

  7. “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” This closing line from the Declaration of Independence seems to contradict the Deist viewpoint that is referenced in the opening answer by Austin Cline. As I understand it, Deists believe in one Supreme God or Creator who endowed the world at creation with self-sustaining and self-acting powers and then abandoned it to the operation of these powers acting as second causes. If they believed “the Creator” does not intervene in human affairs then why would they have a “firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence” From what I have read, the idea of Divine Providence is the belief that God intervenes in the lives of man. I just take issue with the idea that the Declaration of Independence was written from a completely Deistic viewpoint. If it was, then they mistakenly added the Theistic idea that God would protect them. This might be irrelevant to the whole conversation but I wanted to get other points of view about this. Thanks.

    1. Jimmy, I agree with your reading of the text (and understanding of the definitions). It’s written with a theist mind frame.

      But I don’t think that necessarily adds support to the view that the document was written by theists. Payne, Washington and Jefferson’s wider writings, for example, surely cannot be construed as theistic. The guys who signed the document were first and foremost (representative) politicians, attempting a real stab at democracy and so writing the document for a whole population. So they had to prepare a document that was acceptable to the wider mood and opinion of the day and deistic notions would certainly have been unacceptable to the majority of the population.

      But the more important point is this: whatever they actually intended for the document to mean, does not hide the fact that such ‘divinely-ordained human rights’ were solidly interpreted by a theistic population for the next two centuries, in varying degrees, to apply to only European-sourced heterosexual males. In the developed countries, at least, enhancements in the reliability and inclusivity of human rights have only ever occurred alongside a steady decline in the notion of ‘protection of divine Providence’.

  8. To your last point, the Declaration of Independence was a milestone of human rights written by European-sourced men, and by your own admission did not occur amongst a steady decline in the notion of Protection of Divine Providence, but occurred during a time when the majority believed in Divine Providence. African-Americans were given the right to vote by the 14th amendment which was passed by European sourced men, after a war that was fought by a majority of European sourced men, and supported by a European sourced President and sparked by the actions of a European sourced abolitionist at Harper’s Ferry. Women were granted the right to vote by a majority of European sourced men. And perhaps the greatest advancement of human rights in our time was led by a great man of African decent who also happened to be a Reverend. I don’t think Dr. King would agree with the notion that
    “enhancements in the reliability and inclusivity of human rights have only ever occurred alongside a steady decline in the notion of ‘protection of divine Providence’.”

  9. “perhaps the greatest advancement of human rights in our time was led by a great man of African decent who also happened to be a Reverend”

    That’s a very parochial claim. Surely you don’t think that the rest of the world took a lead from the USA in the 1950s–60s? It was the opposite – as far as human rights goes, some elements within the USA were trying to catch up with the rest of the developed world. The reason that Europe has no equivalent of Rosa Parks or Little Rock, Arkansas or Loving vs. Virginia is because secular-minded European countries didn’t have comparable anti-human rights legislation and forced racial segregation that needed to be overturned (all of which were based on so-called Christian morality; read for example, Judge Leon Bazile’s decision in the original 1959 Loving case where he stated in no uncertain and lengthy, terms, that the law banning interracial marriage was necessary for the USA to be considered a Christian country).

    But no-one here is saying that men of European descent living in the USA or Reverends (or even Mahatma Gandhi) can’t support or fight for human rights. They can and often do. They surely have the same capacity for empathy and reason as anyone else. But you can’t help but notice that whenever human rights related legislation is going to be amended to include some group that has previously been denied those rights, the most strident opposition always seems to come from the theistically minded. That was certainly the case in the southern states in the 50 and 60s. And look at same-sex marriage today: another obvious human rights issue where secular-minded Europe has undoubtedly taken the lead. Again, the only real opposition has come from theists.

  10. “European countries didn’t have comparable anti-human rights legislation and forced racial segregation.” Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Communist Eastern Europe, Imperialist Great Britain. Secular Europe is no Utopian society my friend. We all have our problems. And what about the violent opposition to same-sex marriage in France. It may come from far right “theists” but you see nothing of the sort in America right now. I live in conservative West Virginia and this past week all 55 counties issued same-sex marriage licenses and I haven’t seen one person protesting in the street or one person inciting violence. Pastors and Church leaders will still speak out against it, but they have that right in America as long as it doesn’t incite violence or break any other laws. You have some good points in your post, by the way, I just think you have omitted some of the glaring human rights violations of secular Europe.

    1. “Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Communist Eastern Europe, Imperialist Great Britain. Secular Europe is no Utopian society my friend.”

      I never claimed that secular Europe is a utopia. I was, in reply to you, specifically comparing attitudes to human rights in Europe and the USA in the 1950–60s and today. With the exception of the eastern bloc nations (none of whom had then signed up for the European Convention on Human Rights) those societies you listed no longer existed. And Nazi Germany and fascist Italy were hardly secular societies. Nor was another one you missed out, fascist Spain. Nazi Germany was certainly no friend to atheism and Italy and Spain were socially and politically dominated by the Catholic church. They all became more egalitarian societies as the influence of the church declined.

      “what about the violent opposition to same-sex marriage in France”

      France is the country which has made public political protest a regular art form. One or two comparatively small scale demonstrations (100,000 people) from far right church groups, in one city, hardly rated a mention in the news here. No doubt Fox News drooled over it though! You should experience Paris (or Marseille) coming to a complete standstill with a million+ protestors when the government suggests cutting health or education budgets. There was nothing vaguely comparable in size or passion in opposition to same sex marriage.

      “this past week all 55 counties issued same-sex marriage licenses”

      Herein lies the difference. European same sex marriage legislation has had majority public support and the legislation was passed through different parliaments, usually with cross-party support and, in a number of cases, by record majorities (e.g., in Scotland 85% of members voted in favour, in England and Wales 70%). The Virginia legislature has never passed similar legislation; instead, it has approved by a large majority laws banning same sex marriage. The only reason Virginia now has same sex marriage is to comply with federal court decisions. They didn’t choose to have it, mirroring many places in the USA.

      I don’t think many Americans truly appreciate the extent of the decline of religiosity in Europe in the past 50 years. In the country I live in, 80% of churches are either empty or converted to other use. Only 4% of the population regularly attends church. It’s not usual to have a church wedding, only 1 in 3 marriage ceremonies are religious in any way at all and this shows a steady decline year on year. A post-Christian society for sure. I’ve been to the USA on several occasions, for business and pleasure and it’s a completely different ballgame. The everyday influence of religion on social attitudes is much stronger. The USA is an outlier among developed countries in too many ways (look at attitudes to economics, creationism, socialised medicine, medical research protocols, Europe vs the USA). Using it as a barometer for any moral or socio-political issue is specious.

      But my point is that, if human rights really are divinely-ordained, you’d expect, on the world stage, modern Europe to be either particularly bad at it, or for attitudes to human rights here to constantly waver according to whoever was in power. But we get the opposite effect, a marked decline in traditional beliefs in god accompanied by a steady change in attitudes to more social inclusiveness and egalitarian values that later impact on other societies around the world. Not a utopia by any stretch (but compare say, public health and education stats Europe vs USA). It’s just human beings figuring out, using empathy and reason, how best to organise our societies and morals for the benefit of as many as possible. On the whole doing a much better job than we ever did before. The concept of divinely ordained human rights isn’t necessary to achieve this. Like I said before, given a choice between someone’s interpretation of unchangeable divinely ordained human rights and the flexible modern secular European Convention, I know which one makes me feel more comfortable.

  11. I was wrong to tie Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to “secular” Europe, but these regimes did occur in Europe and ended a mere decade before the civil rights events in America began taking place. And I concede that you never said that Secular Europe was a utopia.
    But I take issue with the statement that you made about how Europe became more egalitarian. “They all (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy)became more egalitarian societies as the influence of the church declined.” Are you really claiming that Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy went away in Europe because the influence of church declined? Did the United States contribute at all to ending the vile human rights violations that were rampant in Europe less than 80 years ago? Neither majority secular Europe or majority theist America has a monopoly on advancing human rights. Conversely neither has a monopoly on human rights abuses. I guess we both live in glass houses.

    1. “Are you really claiming that Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy went away in Europe because the influence of church declined?”

      No, I’m not suggesting that, you are reading too much into what I’m saying. You can trace the path of the concept of universal human rights to it’s initial roots in the European Enlightenment. If you look at times beforehand, the notion of universal human rights simply didn’t exist in Europe, although you can make a good argument that Buddhism had taught the concept from it’s beginning in about 500BC. In 1400s Europe, for example, there was little of the plurality we see in Christianity today. The Catholic church (and to a much lesser extent the Orthodox church) was Christianity. This was an era when the Jesuits in Spain and Portugal actually convened international conferences to discuss whether or not non-Europeans were fully human and had souls. Two Papal Bulls (1455 and 1493) had said they weren’t, which is why (topically for the US this week) the church were able to blatantly ignore and even encourage the mass atrocities and genocide committed by Columbus, who makes Hitler look like a puppy. Secular and deistic Enlightenment thinkers in tandem with the newer, smaller fringe Christian groups such as Unitarians and Quakers planted the first seeds of universal human rights in Europe. The mainstream churches were having none of it – they relentlessly persecuted these fringe Christian groups partly because they spoke out so strongly against slavery. The Anglican church was once the world’s largest slave owning organisation and the founding documents of the Southern Baptist and Presbyterian churches in the USA both specifically deny that all human beings are born equal and state that slavery has a scriptural basis. The 20th century saw a dramatic loss of power for all churches across Europe to the situation we are in today, where only Romania has the same percentage of theistic believers as, say, any of the major Islamic countries (and just look at their human rights records). In the greater scheme of things, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were relatively short-lived blips on the timeline, neither lasting more than 13 years, Spain longer, though more friendly toward their neighbours. The ex-communist states now show wide disparity in belief; atheism is virtually unknown in Romania but is by far the majority in the Czech Republic, for example. But across the board, the decline in Christianity in Europe within the past century has been prolific. It has really picked up pace in the past 50-60 years and it is this period that has coincided with legislation, at least within the EU, for the greatest advances in universal human rights the world has ever seen.

      “Neither majority secular Europe or majority theist America has a monopoly on advancing human rights.”

      Of course. Yet there are people who claim that you can’t even have a concept of universal human rights without access to (usually one type of Christian) divine inspiration. It’s just wrong. No matter what belief system (or none) it’s an existential issue that we are dealing with. I have Christian friends who are embarrassed by the fascist attitudes of some Christians (and likewise for Muslims, a good friend of mine lives in ISIS controlled Mosul, he’s keeping a low profile because although he’s a devout Muslim, he doesn’t go to a mosque and has attitudes toward human rights that wouldn’t be at all out of place in secular Europe). Similarly, I know plenty of atheists who don’t give a fig for human rights. I agree with you, there are glass houses on both sides. It sounds to me like we might agree on many of the same goals, but we might have very different ideas (and understandings) on how to achieve them.

      1. This discussion has gone afield from the original question posed.
        The Declaration of Independence is not a legal document but a statement of belief that the signers agreed on and that rose from the thinking of people who had been been witness to oppression from governments deriving their authority from religion among other worldly things. These people were also influenced by writings coming out of the renaissance and the enlightenment. They went to great lengths not to use the word “God” precisely because it could be used to misconstrue their intentions to be a reference to a particular religion. That was not their intent. Nevertheless, they did agree that there was a supernatural “Creator” from which derived our inalienable rights.
        Now Christians have freely interpreted “creator” to refer to their God. All those of other faiths have also been free to interpret “creator” in the way that they felt right. However, one or another’s interpretation of “creator” has not changed the meaning of the word from what the signers intended.
        The atheist viewpoint, as I understand it here, is that the rights of people derive from society and government instead of a creator. That viewpoint is counter to the intentions of the signers of the Declaration. The fact that most countries around the world define the derivation of human rights to be from society and government is precisely what has made and currently makes the USA different and the shining city on the hill that many around the world admire.
        It is the statement of belief, that the Declaration is, that means precisely that no human entity or force can rightfully claim power over those rights. By precedent that makes all the laws enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and those passed, judged and executed by our legislative bodies, courts and political administrations to also be dependent on the concept of inalienable rights derived from the creator.
        That being said, the atheist viewpoint expressed here is at odds with the foundational documents of the USA, and hence the subsequent legal and social contract that remains the basis of our current society. It seems possible to me that an atheist might interpret “creator” to be whatever force he thinks is responsible for creation as we know it and thereby remain philosophically faithful to the intents of the signers of the Declaration. But to say that human rights are derived from society / government is antithetical to that document and the statement of belief and intent that it represents.

  12. “The atheist viewpoint, as I understand it here, is that the rights of people derive from society and government instead of a creator.”

    1) There is no atheist viewpoint. Atheism is not an ideology. It is decision to reject a belief in God/god/gods.

    2) One of the people commenting said that “the rights of the people derive from society and government instead of a creator.” This is the opinion of the commenter not of Atheists everyhere.

    3) Anyone who decides that unalienable rights exist and that they are not the gift of a creator, has many other sources that they can come from other than society or the government. The point of calling them unalienable was to prevent any entity (the individual, another individual, the government, the church, society) from claiming a right to violate those rights. One could say they come from human nature because human beings are best able to reach their full potential and highest level of well being when those rights are unalienable. Since none of us have a definitive handbook/manual to the universe, that might be the most honest answer.

  13. If the government is the source of rights, then the government can take them away. And furthermore, discrimination against atheists has a utilitarian basis, namely, that a man who does not believe he will ever be called to account for the secrets of his heart cannot be trusted, since there is no way to know a man’s character perfectly. Now, atheists are not the only group against whom this accusation can be levied, for it also applies to Universalists, Christians who presume themselves already saints, and anyone else who believes in a god who makes no moral judgments. If society determines that atheists are a threat to the good order of society because they do not believe in Judgment Day, on what basis do you assert that atheists should not be shunned, imprisoned or even killed for being atheists? Only if rights exist independent of society and its government can you say that the persecution of atheists, even unto death, is wrong. I assert that hypocrisy inherently a greater threat to the Church and society than irreligion, so it is better to tolerate open unbelief than to incentivise false conversion, and that it is an offense to the dignity of man to attempt to compel him to do what his conscience forbids, but whence cometh your judgment?

  14. In America, the rights of the people are guaranteed under the Constitution of the United States (along with the constitution that their state has). Obviously that document is a piece of paper, but it is deemed a very important piece of paper, and it is the “source” of the rights in the USA.

    I find it nonsensical to make a statement that someone who does not believe in god creatures cannot be trusted. You trust atheists everyday while you go about your business. They are all around you, even if you don’t know who is and who isn’t a believer. They drive on the roads next to you, shop at stores next to you, and share the same parks and bathrooms and restaurants as you. To make a blanket assertion that nonbelievers cannot be trusted is a baseless, factless claim. Being a believer doesn’t guarantee a higher standard of behavior and ethics. Please take your hyperbole away and make more honest comments regarding your neighbors and townsmen…

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