Today, on the radio, I heard a Christian say, “When an atheist claims he has certain rights, he is absconding the argument of the Christian, because rights can only come from God. Without God, no one has any rights.”
I understand where this person is coming from. He knows that if humans attempted to provide rights to their fellow humans, they would fall short. He wants there to be an absolute set of inviolable rights that apply to all of humankind. But here’s the problem. Suppose such a list of rights dictated by God actually exists. How do we humans determine what they are? After all, God did not carve them into the face of the Earth for all to see. So, how do we discover them? A Christian would say, “God has given them to us in the Bible.” But a Muslim would say, “God has written them in the Koran.” People of other religions would have equally diverse responses. Who gets to decide for everyone else what the true set of rights are?
As you can see, it is problematic discovering the true God-given rights of man when we can’t even agree who the true God is. In addition, people who believe in the same God can’t agree on what their God’s list of rights consists of. Further, even if two people agree on a right, they may not agree on how to implement that right in the real world.
Look at the US Constitution. Even though our Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, our founders found it necessary to include a Bill of Rights in the Constitution. Why was that necessary if we already had unalienable rights? Well, I believe it was because they knew there would be disagreement over what those unalienable rights were and thus needed to be defined in some way in our founding document so there would be less confusion.
Another issue is that of enforcement. If humans have rights, then it seems reasonable for there to be some sort of punishment for those that violate those rights. We humans recognize that without those punishments, we essentially don’t have any rights, for evil men could run roughshod over good men without retribution. We can state all we want that we have rights, but that will not stop a bad guy with a fist, or a knife, or a gun.
It’s this enforcement issue that makes me question whether our rights come from God. As we all know, God does not find it necessary to exact justice on those that violate others rights. But without that side of the rights coin, the other side fails. Rights mean nothing if a violator of them sees no retribution. It’s like a blind man being told that his eyes are reacting to light just fine. It does him no good if the optic nerve is damaged.
So, why would God give us rights, then do nothing to protect them? Perhaps he just wants to see us flounder about figuring it all out ourselves. The problem is that men are not omniscient. Even with the best intentions, we fail. We sometimes convict people of crimes they did not commit. We sometimes set free the worst among us. Just think of how much better it would be if God—assuming he is a good God—made the decisions about who should be punished and who should not. And I’m not talking about punishment in the next life. That does no good for all the subsequent victims of crimes after the initial one. In fact, if indeed God is omniscient, he could actually prevent all crimes before they are committed. How cool would that be? Kind of like those officers in the movie “Minority Report,” but with a perfect knowledge of the future rather than a murky one.
It seems to me that even if God does have a list of rights that all humans possess, he has left it to us to figure them out for ourselves. We must decide what those rights are, write them down for all to see, get a general agreement on their correctness, and then enforce them by punishing those who violate them. But as we can see by looking at the world around us, there is no agreement across the globe on what rights we have. That is one reason we are divided up into countries with differing sets of laws that define differing sets of rights for its citizens. Also, some countries like the USA are further divided into states, counties, and cities that each define our rights. It seems that’s the best we can do in the absence of God doing it for us.