Saturday, January 17, 2009

The danger of God-given rights.

One of the arguments I hear from some well-meaning classical liberals or libertarians is that there is some good from claiming that individual rights are grants from God. The argument goes that if God is the author of individual rights then no one can advocate the violation of rights: to do so would be against the will of God. Christians who take this position assume that only evil, godless people would be inclined to violate the will of God and thus violate rights.

I find the whole argument flawed. Not even the religious are going to be more inclined to respecting the life, liberty or property of others as a result of this doctrine. If anything, this argument gives them the premise they need to justify a wholesale attack on the classical liberal theory of rights. Allow me to explain how and why this happens.

If some deity is the author of human rights then this god defines what is a right or what is not a right. There is no such thing as an objective morality with theism. All morality is contingent on the whims of the supernatural being called god who often changes his mind as to what is, or isn’t, the moral thing to do.

If you challenge a Christian theist, about the genocide that Jehovah ordered the Hebrews to inflict in the Old Testament, he will often respond this way: “Killing is only murder when it goes against God’s command. If God commands you kill then to not kill would be a sin.”

If rights are the creation of a deity then that deity may change those rights according to his own wishes. In the Old Testament the religious were allowed several wives, not so in the New Testament. Old Testament Hebrews were supposedly under “Law” while New Testament Christians are under “Grace”.

Consider the punishments that God demands in the Old Testament for victimless crimes like fornication or homosexuality. In both cases he demanded that believers kill the sinners in question. Similarly, he ordered the execution of those who didn’t keep the Sabbath day and disobedient children. Jehovah made Bill O’Reilly look like a bleeding-heart liberal.

The God of Islam is no better than Jehovah. As for Jesus of the New Testament we can see precisely how ready those who worship him are to violate the rights of others in name of God.

The problem with a god as the originator of rights is that all these gods are deathly silent about what these rights are or aren’t. Christians will argue we find God’s view of human rights in the Bible. That is the book that never once condemned the enslaving of human beings. The God of the Old Testament actually went so far as to demand enslaving others and even recommended that the Hebrew warriors keep the young virgins for their own sexual pleasures at one point. Does God condemn slavery, condone slavery or demand it?

Christians accepted slavery as moral for most of the history of that religion. Only after the Age of Enlightenment did they start to debate as to whether it was allowed or not. And only after a very long period of such debate did the majority of believers consider slavery wrong. The most vociferous voices in the American South defending slavery were Christian ministers.

The Bible itself is often very unclear or even contradictory about what it teaches. The existence of thousands of Christian sects battling over just such interpretations makes this obvious. The lack of clarity in Scripture is clear from the multitude of Christians all believing the other sects are either wrong or in deep heresy.

Catholics attempt to skirt around issues of hermeneutics by appealing to authority instead. The Catholic Church replaces differing interpretations with an authoritarian doctrine. The Bible means what the church leadership tells you it means. This, of course, directly applies to issues of human rights.

The Catholic Church did not feel it was violating human rights when it consigned heretics or “witches” to the flames. Today it may be less inclined to do so, though it is impossible to tell for sure whether this is due to a change in belief. or a lack of political power. History seems to show that the moral position of Catholic “authorities” have changed with the times.

That both hermeneutics and authority have evolved over time indicates they are of human origin not divine. A god would not need shifting moral positions. He wouldn’t “learn from his mistakes” as he would allegedly be incapable of committing any.

The final source for godly morality, after revelation and authority is individual inspiration. In this God, instead of simply writing a book, speaks directly to individuals as to what is, or isn’t, moral. Or, if they are Biblically inclined he tells them how he wants them to interpret his word.

Yet again their is a multitude of voices all claiming competing and contradictory inspiration. The Mormon Church claimed direct revelations from God who, in the past demanded polygamy and then later condemned it. Of course, some Mormon sects disagree and claim God still reveals to them the necessity of plural marriage. The Mormons had revelations condemning blacks and then, only after the Civil Rights movement, had a convenient revelation accepting the "Sons of Ham" into the priesthood.

Individual revelations are as fickle and dangerous as Scripture or authority. Individuals, who most of us consider demented, commit crimes in the name of God. A killer may say that God ordered him to kill. Precisely how do we dispute that in a Christian culture? In the past the God of the Bible clearly did order executions. We can’t argue these demented individuals are acting contrary to the nature of the Christian deity. If anything, their killing is more in line with the history of god then the more passive views of the deity held today.

In the end we are left with this God not saying anything of substance at all. It isn’t as if he writes a detailed outline of individual rights in the heavens . No such description is available anywhere. Certainly “revelation” in the form of holy books has proven useless, as already discussed.

Without this deity standing before us and speaking to us clearly, what we are ultimately left with is individuals who claim, or pretend, that they are speaking on God’s behalf.

At best the theologically inclined may argue that puts God-given rights in the same category as rights deduced by reason since the latter are also open to interpretation and debate.

But I would argue that theologically-derived rights are still worse than reason-derived rights. No one pretends that reason is infallible. There is always room for error. There is an inherent humility present in rights theory deduced through reason because we recognize it is a human activity prone to error. A divine being, allegedly lacking such a tendency, is not humble but infallible.

It is often for this reason that people wish to invoke God on behalf of their argument. They feel that using God to support their argument means there is no rebuttal. God trumps all arguments. That these individuals mean different things, and that none of them actually know what such a being wants, is immaterial. Libertarians who want to invoke God on behalf of rights tend to think that ends the discussion. If God says it then there is nothing left to argue.

The fallibility of human reason means that we ought to interpret rights as broadly as is logically possible. If we must err we ought to err on the side of human freedom and autonomy. In addition, the more drastic the action we wish to take against others the more humble we need to be. For instance the justification for having a system of parking tickets is substantially lower than what is needed to justify the state executing people.

Not so with the infallible word of God. There was little reluctance to burn heretics at the stake in Christian history. And, while secular-minded rights theorists debate endlessly as to the limitations of rights, fundamentalist Christians are assured that they speak for God. Libertarians can debate whether the state ought to recognize marriages at all and thus recognize gay relationships. The fundamentalists have no such debate. They know precisely what God says. As the absorb Biblical fundamentalism their skepticism in their intellectual humility diminishes. As this happens any hesitancy to impose force on others diminishes.

Even when they debate issues of hermeneutics they are often convinced the dissenters are merely heretics. Each side tends to be convinced they speak for God and when God is on your side there is little reason for humility or doubt.

The tendency toward self-doubt is inherent in human reasoning. It is absent in divine revelation.

Secular rights theory is inherently anthropocentric. When we debate rights we are asking what rights humans have as humans. Theologically-derived rights theory is quite different. It doesn’t place the well being of humanity at the center of its theory at all. God occupies the center and his will, not human well-being, is the criteria by which all things are judged. The purpose of such a rights theory is obedience not individual fulfillment.

Theological rights theories thus have a tendency toward authoritarianism. They must emphasize obedience over individual well-being. It is obedience to a higher power that is the core of all God-given rights theory. And, once again, since the deity is not standing here issuing orders it is those who claim to be his representatives who are demanding the obedience.

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