Does Human Rights Need God?

Does Human Rights Need God?

Does Human Rights Need God?

Does Human Rights Need God?


When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted in 1945, French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain observed, "We agree on these rights, providing we are not asked why. With the 'why,' the dispute begins." The world since then has continued to agree to disagree, fearing that an open discussion of the divergent rationales for human rights would undermine the consensus of the Declaration. Is it possible, however, that current failures to protect human rights may stem from this tacit agreement to avoid addressing the underpinnings of human rights?

This consequential volume presents leading scholars, activists, and officials from four continents who dare to discuss the "why" behind human rights. Appraising the current situation from diverse religious perspectives -- Jewish, Protestant, Orthodox, Muslim, Confucian, and secular humanist -- the contributors openly address the question whether God is a necessary part of human rights. Despite their widely varying commitments and approaches, the authors affirm that an investigation into the "why" of human rights need not devolve into irreconcilable conflict.


In the wake of the horrors of World War II, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1945. The UDHR declared to the world community that there are universal standards of human treatment. It also explicitly guaranteed for all citizens of its signatories protection of a bundle of specific rights. Many consider this event the beginning of a new era marking human rights as the philosophy, language, and politics of our time.

Given the pervasiveness of human rights talk in our contemporary society, one might be tempted to conclude that the world has finally reached undisputed consensus on human rights. Despite widespread agreement that there is a set of rights owed to us as human beings, however, there is still wide disagreement about which rights are contained in this set, as well as who should enforce them and how they should be enforced. These disagreements are particularly fierce across national and regional boundaries. The stark reality is that human rights abuses continue to occur, all around the world. Accounts of abuse of Iraqi prisoners, murder and torture of street children in Brazil, kidnapping and forced prostitution of women in Thailand, and genocide in the Democratic Republic of Congo are just a few recent examples of the atrocities that mark our modern failures to enforce human rights.

How can we make sense of the fact that, in the last twenty years, even as international recognition of human rights has permeated our discourse, in practice human rights abuses are far too often a reality? Perhaps one way to gain purchase on this apparent paradox is to consider not what the UDHR sought to accomplish, but what it failed to address. UDHR had a limited goal, to articulate the specific human rights that member states could agree upon. The limited nature of this project is reflected in French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain’s comment on the debates preceding its drafting: “We agree . . .

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