Religion, Human Rights, and
The Role and Limits of a Secular Rationale
The claim that human rights language is “secular” has aroused a strong reaction in scholarly, philosophical, and theological circles. In particular, the fact that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and subsequent human rights documents exclude religious warrants as a basis for justification is thought to raise at least three serious problems.
One problem is whether it is even possible to justify human rights apart from religious belief. The positions of four authors represented in this book illustrate the conviction that secular warrants for human rights finally fail, and that religious justifications are required. In Justice: Rights and Wrongs,1 Nicholas Wolterstorff supports the moral potency of rights language in general, and human rights language in particular, by advancing a theological argument as the only satisfactory basis for “inherent rights,” as he calls them. He contends that rights language, including human rights, assures vital protection against arbitrary abuse, resting on a conviction of the irreducible, equal worth of every human being. Secular theories, like those of Ronald Dworkin, Alan Gewirth, or John Rawls, do not succeed in supporting a notion of equal inherent human worth, nor is there much likelihood that other such theories can ever do so. The only plausible alternative, in his view, is a theistic conviction, namely, that the God of Hebrew and Christian Scriptures “bestows worth” on all human beings “equally and permanently.”
Michael Perry provides another version of a religious justification of human rights.2 His claim is that key human rights terms like “the inherent dignity” of “all members of the human family” necessarily presuppose a religious or sacred ground, and therefore that “the idea of human rights is ineliminably religious.” While Perry does not share Wolterstorff’ s belief in one preferred theological position, he does agree that “there is, finally, no intelligible secular version of … human rights.” Consequently, determining the grounds of human rights “is, finally [and unavoidably], a theological project.”
David Novak takes a comparable position from the perspective of Judaism.3 Concentrating on “the question of the religious foundation of human rights,” Novak argues that “the task of the religious believer—Jewish, Christian, or Muslim—is to provide a better foundation for the [human rights] claims of the secular realm where the vast majority of… citizens profess religious belief and, indeed, see their very allegiance to that secular realm as itself being religious.”