*** DEBUG END ***

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.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)