Human Rights without God?

by David Glass

Recent political debates in Ireland, Great Britain and Northern Ireland have focused on how and when human rights should be protected? But what are human rights? And can we truly have rights in the absence of God?

There’s been a lot of talk about human rights lately. Many moral and legal debates are framed in terms of such rights. In the Irish referendum on same-sex marriage, proponents claimed that marriage is a human right that should be available to everyone irrespective of their sexual orientation, while opponents instead asserted the right of children to be brought up by a mother and a father. In the Asher’s bakery case in Northern Ireland, the right of the owners to manifest their religious beliefs was pitted against the right of the customer not to be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation. Human rights have also been in the news as a result of the British government’s plan to repeal the Human Rights Act and to replace it with a Bill of Rights.

What are human rights and where do they come from? On a recent radio discussion on the BBC the panellists seemed to agree that human rights are social inventions, values constructed from a collective wisdom. One person commented that rights have come to be regarded as inviolable and universal values about how we ought to treat each other, but that in fact they are invented by society. There are serious problems with this view, however. In his book Religion in Public Life: Must Faith Be Privatized (Oxford University Press, 2007), the philosopher Roger Trigg points out that:

The motivating idea is that the rights are unqualified. They do not exist only forcitizens of countries which are signatories to the Covenant, or which approved the original declaration. (p. 71)

The point is that it is very difficult to take human rights seriously and at the same time claim that they are social constructs. The whole point is that human rights are supposed to apply to all human beings and so are universal. Consider the right to a free trial. The idea is that such a right applies to everyone – even to people in countries which don’t recognize this right and deny it to some of their citizens. Yet if human rights are merely the result of agreements, why should they apply to countries which haven’t agreed to them?

Trigg states a much more plausible view that ‘States do not create rights, but acknowledge them’ (p. 71). Just as scientists don’t create facts about the world but discover them, so states don’t create rights but acknowledge rights that already exist. And just as the refusal of some scientists to accept certain facts doesn’t mean there are no such facts, so the refusal of some countries to acknowledge human rights does not mean that there are no such rights or that they are invented…


Human Rights without God? – Saints and Sceptics