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What Has Christianity To Do With Human Rights?

Ross Douthat:

[T]he core of my argument [is] that much of contemporary secular liberalism depends on assertions that are potent and widely persuasive only because most Westerners are still deeply influenced by Christian premises about the nature and destiny of man. Sanchez, in his conclusion, suggests that this argument has an “odd circularity” to it:

The notion seems to be that someone not (yet) convinced of Christian doctrine would have strong reasons—strong humanistic reasons—to hope for a world in which human dignity and individual rights are respected. But then why aren’t these reasons enough to do the job on their own? If Christian doctrine is true, then external considerations are irrelevant to the truth of whatever normative beliefs it supports. If it is false, and our moral beliefs are unsustainable without this false premise, then we should be glad to be rid of false and unjustifiable beliefs. If we think it would be awful to discard those beliefs, then that awfulnessis sufficient reason to hang onto them without any religious scaffolding.

But the whole point is that I don’t think that many humanists actually do have strong reasons for their hopes regarding human dignity and human rights. I think that they have prejudices and assumptions and biases, handed down as an inheritance from two millennia of Christian culture, which retain a certain amount of force even though given purely materialistic  premises about mankind and the universe they don’t actually make much sense at all.

I don’t think that’s any kind of answer. Okay, so humanists don’t have strong reasons for their faith in human rights. Do Christians have strong reasons for believing in Christianity? Strong in the terms Douthat is talking about here? If you already think that Christianity “makes sense” – that is to say, is persuasive on its own terms – then you don’t need to have a conversation about whether believing in it is pragmatically necessary for society; you already believe it. If you don’t already think Christianity makes sense, then why is it pragmatically necessary to believe in Christianity in order to believe in human rights and human dignity? Why can’t you just believe in those things directly? That’s Sanchez’s question, and Douthat’s answer – that humanists don’t have strong reasons for their beliefs – is a non-sequitur. If there are no good humanistic reasons for believing in human rights, then there are no good humanistic reasons for believing in Christianity in order to believe in human rights either. And therefore there are no good humanistic reasons for believing in Christianity. In which case Sanchez is right.

If these beliefs – belief in human rights, and belief that God redeemed the world from sin by incarnating Himself as a human being and allowing Himself to be crucified – both require leaps of faith, then what is the ground for deeming one more persuasive than the other? Presumably, the ground is something other than reason – it’s aesthetic, or psychological, or something. Among other things, the latter belief, being a myth, tells a story. But the point isn’t that without Christian premises you can’t believe in human rights – because those premises are just as ungrounded as direct belief in human rights. It’s that believing in random premises is less convincing to people than believing in myths, in stories, because that’s how human psychology works.

Add one more layer, in which you, the philosopher, admit that, yes, Christianity is just a myth, that nihilism is “true” but that society requires believing something other than this awful truth, and you’ve got the Straussian defense of traditional religion. I can see Douthat doesn’t want to go here, but what other destination can he have making the kind of argument he’s making?

But more to the point: when did Aquinas or Augustine talk about human rights? I seem to recall that rights, as we understand them today, were an invention of the Enlightenment. Notwithstanding Douthat’s argument that Locke’s views “depended on certain theological premises,” what he was arguing against in the Second Treatise was the patriarchal model of government that traditional Christians would have recognized as normative and that the Catholic Church endorsed well into the 20th century. If he was making a Christian argument, so was Filmer, which only proves that the argument was playing out within a Christian civilization – which we already knew as a matter of historical fact. Looking from the outside, it looks very much to me like Christianity has appropriated these concepts – promulgated as often by materialists and deists as they were by theists – and reestablished them on Christian foundations. Which, for all I know, may make them more secure – on some level, I agree with the Straussian defense of traditional religion. But getting the intellectual genealogy right is kind of important.

Around the Muslim world today, there is a great deal of debate about whether Islam is compatible with democracy and human rights, and if so how that compatibility should be construed. A Christian doctrine that says, “in the long term, you can’t believe in democracy and human rights unless you accept Christianity” is, effectively, arguing that Islam is not compatible with these ideas – that they are the nose of the Christian camel under the tent. A Christian doctrine that says, in an Eisenhower-esque vein, “in the long term, you can’t believe in democracy and human rights unless you believe in religion, and I don’t care what it is” winds up, effectively, endorsing at least some other religions as at least “sort of true.” Which I think any orthodox Christian would find highly problematic. By contrast, saying, “the ideas of democracy and human rights emerged from the Christian world, but they are not necessarily dependent on Christian premises, and are pragmatically useful outside of that context” leaves open the possibility that they could be re-founded on other religious principles. Which would seem to me to be a good pragmatic reason for making such an argument, in addition to its being historically more correct than the idea of posthumously baptizing ancient and medieval Christians as Lockean liberals.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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