Writing for The Week last Friday, Matt K. Lewis discussed what he considers the “troubling implications of believing our rights don’t come from God.” He says he’s “astounded” that people don’t believe our rights come from God or that people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” as indicated in the Declaration of Independence.
But, it is not just astounding, in Lewis’ view; it’s worrying.
Rejection of this foundational principle of God-given law would inexorably lead someone to come to vastly different conclusions about any number of things compared to someone like me who embraces this premise. When liberals and conservatives differ over whether or not the state has the right to usurp this or that right, dig deep enough, and you will often find the root of the disagreement lies here.
The state is not particularly moral or special or better than people. The state is people. If they don’t have some larger, higher moral code that guides them, then assumptions about what constitutes the “good” are, at least to some degree, arbitrary. Absent an immutable standard, why wouldn’t the law of the jungle rule? In nature, predators prey on the weak. Can we honestly convince ourselves that people are better than that? Some are, sure. But many are not.
The issue, of course, with claims of “God-given” law is that they are no more than that — claims. As soon as you start asking “which God?” or “what rights?” you are going to get answers as wildly divergent and interpretations as arbitrary as the differences Lewis finds so troubling.
Remember: the man who drafted that same Declaration of Independence that Lewis cites owned slaves, as did the document’s other signatories and supporters. Whatever unalienable rights they felt they were granted by a Creator, they clearly did not apply quite as broadly as one might guess by the use of terms like “all men.”
And the trend hasn’t changed. The “right to life” means entirely different things and extends to entirely different groups, depending on who you talk to; so, too, the right to “equal protection” under the law, the right to free speech, etc. Speaking specifically to Christianity, many of the rights we hold quasi-sacred today are either not mentioned in or directly contradicted by the Bible; and while Lewis would probably contend that they are in some way derived from, inspired by, or otherwise divined from that source, the process is far from clear or universally accepted. Even within Christianity.
In practical terms, then, a God-given set of rights is fairly useless since there is no clear and incontrovertible evidence to establish which God, which rights, and for whom; and there are no measurable penalties for disregarding those rights. In other words, there is no certain way to tell what the rights are and if they’re being violated.
Even among traditionally like-minded people, there is nothing like conformity on these issues. Believers aren’t even able to agree on those immutable rights — not today, not across religions, not within the same religions, and not throughout history.
So if a God somewhere has indeed granted a set of rights, they would be of little actual use since He has chosen to convey knowledge of them in such a muddled fashion as to consistently bring into conflict even his most ardent followers. No doubt for some mysterious reason of his own.
Ultimately, we are still left to figure out which rights should exist — either for a good, defensible reason, or because we accept that a deity commanded it, and so we do not question further. A clear set of rules might simplify the process, but we just don’t have it.
Which brings me to what I see as the real issue with assuming our rights are given by God. Aside from the fact that, in the simplest terms, they’re not — human beings, not gods, write our laws — it’s a lazy approach toward lawmaking that both shields a person from the responsibility of the law he’s supporting (“It’s not that I hate gays, but God says…”) and stunts examination of the proposal (“It doesn’t matter what you say, because the Bible is very clear that…”).
Lewis worries that the law of the jungle will rule if it was left up to us, but it is to avoid that result that we create (and revise) laws, grant rights, and restrict behavior. Sometimes, those laws — religious or secular — are better than others. Hopefully, we learn from the bad ones and improve the rest. The fact that we have, in general, moved away from slavery, stoning rape victims who didn’t cry out loudly enough, executing disrespectful children, etc. as the God of the Bible suggested (presumably, as some reflection of whatever “immutable standard” He represents) indicates that we are capable of moving toward a fairer system of justice.
But shutting the conversation down with “because God” isn’t going to help that process. On the contrary, that’s the sort of thing that stagnates human progress and keeps us killing witches for century upon century… because God, and His constant and just law, tells us to! (Until we decide it doesn’t and, in fact, never did, and those witch burning people were just fallible humans messing up God’s constant and just law…)
That a clear and absolute moral code, a “because God” trump card, might simplify questions of human morality doesn’t mean it exists. And short of very, very good evidence of its existence, there is no reason to embrace it — and every reason to avoid it.
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