Human Rights: Invented by Humans?

I recently had a great conversation with some non-Christian friends about the nature of human rights. We spent a good deal of time considering this notion that human beings have inherent rights, dignity, and worth, and ought to be treated a particular way. In the midst of our conversation I encouraged them think about how they could rationally believe in human rights if their unbelieving secular worldview were true to reality.

I shared about how I as a Christian understand the notion that humans have a inherent dignity and worth that is real and true regardless of human opinion is something that makes sense in my worldview. As a Christian, I learn that God created us in His image (Gen 1:26-27), and this creating and setting apart from the rest of creation leaves us with a sacredness, a dignity, a worth that we ought to protect and fight for. This is a fact I understand to be true to reality and the way things really are regardless of human opinion. In this way, I would argue along with Andy Bannister that human rights are not invented by humans, but are rather discovered (see https://www.premierchristianity.com/Past-Issues/2018/December-2018/Who-created-human-rights-and-why-it-s-a-problem-for-atheists). (Technically, dignity and worth of humans is a truth that God has revealed to us through the Scriptures, and our inherent dignity and worth is a worth is gifted to us from God, not something we have apart from Him.)

I asked our members to consider the fact that if naturalism is true (a worldview which holds there is no God and that humans are the products of impersonal time and chance, the accidents of evolution), then we have a real problem believing in the existence of human rights. How could the concept and assertion that all humans have dignity and worth regardless of human opinion ever come about in an godless reality where there is no higher power or mind above humans? Would we not be left with this fact: human rights—as much as we like or value them—are either based on religious superstitious myths or they are the arbitrary convictions of humans who have invented them? Basically, we are left with this uncomfortable fact: human rights—or the persuasion that humans have dignity and worth that is real apart from human opinion—is ultimately an INVENTION of humans.

A real implication of this naturalistic worldview is that humans are not worth more, but actually less. As humans we define how much is the value of a bag of flour or carton of milk and other products. This is something we all see to be rationale and acceptable. But if the concept that ‘humans have inherent worth’ is merely a human valuation, then humans find their ultimate value in the eyes of other humans. This means that our worth is defined by what other people think. Yet this is a scary reality if lived out: I would never want my value or the value someone in my family to be contingent on the fickle and often crooked views of other humans, who when drunk with power or nationalism or mysticism may revalue what humans are worth.

At this point in our conversation there was a discomfort felt by those present in the group who wanted to argue that the concept behind human rights is a human invention. I brought up this up, and some agreed that if we concede that the idea of assigning some kind of special worth to humans is just a human invention, then it is not true to how we actually live or approach humans.

The fact of the matter is this: We don’t live as though human rights, or justice, or love, or beauty are in the end are just human inventions, we believe and live as though they tap into some kind of reality that transcends humanity. And I think this impulse is right, because the conviction behind human rights (that humans have inherent dignity and worth) is part of reality. It is the way God set things up, and it is beautiful and glorious.

Christian, husband of Rach, Church Planter,musician,
  1. Dan Tsouloufis Reply

    Great post Tom! It reminds me of what G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The Declaration of Independence bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man.”

    • Tom Schmidt Reply

      good quote Dan

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