Rights need religion

27 May 2016

THE Queen’s Speech last week men­tioned proposals to scrap the 1998 Human Rights Act and replace it with a Bill of Rights. Those in favour of this have long argued that incorporating the European Con­vention on Human Rights into British domestic law has led to an exaggerated concern for the “rights” of undesirables.

Lord Lester QC, a formidable critic of the proposals, claimed on TV that human rights were “innate”. This view is widely upheld both in Europe and in the US. It insists that humans have inalienable rights by virtue of the fact that they are human. Few would disagree; but, in fact, human rights often create con­un­drums for liberal demo­cracies.

This is because it is possible for a majority to vote for legislation that infringes the rights of others, par­ticularly minorities and those who are unpopular or unrepre­sented. Utili­tar­ian arguments can easily be brought forward to suppress the rights of others who are thought to be too wicked, too dangerous, or too expensive to protect.

In practice, it is almost impos­sible to defend the idea of universal human rights without some view of humanity which is ultimately derived from theology. If human beings are created in God’s image, then every human being is worthy of respect and dignity.

But a secular perspective alone struggles with this. After all, humans are animals. What makes their rights more defensible than those of dogs, cats, insects, and croco­diles? Animal-rights activists unsurprisingly exploit this vulner­­ability to promote their agenda. With­out a notion of the image of God in humanity, or some equi­valent notion derived from a trans­cendent source, innate human rights become no more than a form of human self-assertion. And it is easily eroded.

In recent debates about, for example, assisted dying, secular pro­ponents have attacked religious objectors on the grounds that they are trying to impose their views on those who do not accept them. The implication is that be­­lievers have no right to influence the argument.

And yet secularists are still obliged to appeal to the wishes of the majority. Supposing a majority decided that some human lives were more valuable than others; that it was legitimate to end the lives of those with, for example, gross dis­­abilities because they were in some way “less” than fully human?

“Innate” rights can be easily chipped away so as to become ulti­mately meaningless, unless they are grounded in something that trans­cends human choice, convenience, and prejudice. In reality, human rights require the coming together of secular and religious viewpoints. If the religious voice is suppressed, we might find ourselves on a path that leads away from human rights and opens the door to some terrible human wrongs.

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