The genesis of human rights
Can we be good without God?
JUSTINE TOH: It took a long time to get to where we are today – to this deep-rooted assumption that people matter. All people, regardless of status, regardless of capacity.
Of course, you don’t have to believe in God in order to treat people this way. And naturally, everyone loves their own grandma. But what about the person who has no one?
For a long time, the worth of those on the margins – the child with a disability, the person with dementia – has been safeguarded by this notion that there’s something divine about even the most broken or powerless person.
There’s something really beautiful about that, about showing care and respect to someone who hasn’t done anything to “earn” it, who isn’t successful or powerful by the world’s standards, who might not even know you’re there.
NICK SPENCER: It’s always worth attending to the way in which we engage with those who are at the periphery or perhaps the weakest point of our society, those who are not able to defend themselves or articulate their own worth.
JUSTINE TOH: The 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche spooked Western culture by accurately describing what Christianity had contributed to it – and what the world without it would (according to him, should) look like.
ACTOR (FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE): Christianity has taken the side of everything weak, base, ill-constituted. Christianity is called the religion of compassion. One loses force when one has compassion. Compassion, on the whole, thwarts the law of evolution, which is the law of selection. It preserves that which is ripe for destruction; it defends life’s disinherited and condemned. In every noble morality it counts as weakness. Nothing in our unhealthy modernity is more unhealthy than Christian compassion.
JUSTINE TOH: We shrink from Nietzsche’s conclusions; rightly, I think. But history tells us that reaction isn’t guaranteed.
NICHOLAS WOLTERSTORFF: It seems to me where the difficulty arises for such a secular account, is when we acknowledge that people who are not capable of rational agency, when we acknowledge that such people still have rights and that we’ve still got obligations towards them, since they’re not capable of rational agency. So, I think it’s the marginal human beings, the truly marginal – those who are in a long-term coma, those who are suffering from Alzheimer’s, the infant who was severely impaired from birth and so forth – it’s those marginal human beings who I think constitute the great challenge.
ROWAN WILLIAMS: I do believe personally it’s quite difficult to sustain the kind of absolute doctrine of human rights in the long run unless there is some notion that human beings relate to something more than just other human beings’ desires and opinions. The religious perspective says every human being relates from the word go to another order, another reality which is the divine, the sacred. Everyone is so to speak plugged into that network. Whatever a society may do, whatever an individual may think, that relationship with the depth of reality is there. Now, it may or may not be true that you can carry on pragmatically believing in human rights without that but it’s a very, very robust anchorage for human rights, if you do think that. And I’m not too optimistic about it surviving indefinitely without something like that.