HUMAN RIGHTS & RELIGION: An Argument with Michael Perry

By Callahan, Sidney | Commonweal, November 17, 2000 | Go to article overview

HUMAN RIGHTS & RELIGION: An Argument with Michael Perry


Callahan, Sidney, Commonweal


Now that the campaign season is over, we can get down to serious arguments over the role of religion in American politics. Some sea change seems to have taken place--beyond the use of religious rhetoric to win votes. Dogmatic secularists sound more tentative as they reiterate the received faith that religious belief has no place in public policy debates. I even find myself newly convinced that people who are religious should raise their voices in the public square. Until lately I had been more or less brainwashed by the secular elite to feel that the faithful should keep their convictions to themselves. But why should secularists effectively establish the religion of no-religion, and declare off limits the deepest moral commitments of the faithful?

Yet some proponents of the validity of religious argument in public life go too far. At the moment I am engrossed in the books of legal scholar Michael J. Perry, a thinker I credit with helping me change my mind about the correctness of resolutely secular public discourse. I enthusiastically agree with most of Perry's positions in The Idea of Human Rights (Oxford University Press, 1998), but balk at his assertion that the idea of human rights is "ineliminably religious." Ineliminably? Perry is not claiming that those without a transcendent religious faith won't defend human rights in practice, or that they will be personally immoral. But he contends that those without faith will not possess an intellectual foundation sufficiently grounded to sustain a commitment to the inviolability of individual human lives. When push comes to shove, Perry argues, those without a transcendent religious belief in the benevolent meaning of the universe will wilt under utilitarian pressure and fail to justify and protect human rights as inalienable and inviolate. Only a commitment to sacred reality can maintain the sacredness of human life.

Perry makes his argument sound convincing by quoting reams of the rantings and ravings of Friedrich Nietzsche as he asserts the nonexistence of morality and the hypocrisy of religion. OK, so dogmatic atheists and nihilists could never defend the inviolable value of human life, since everything is meaningless. In a moral void, might might as well make right since only the triumph of the will exists.

But most secular unbelievers we know are not dogmatic atheists or nihilists. The elites that make up current intellectual establishments are agnostics, unconvinced that the Alpha and Omega sustains all being. A typical expression of skepticism, which I found recently in an issue of Free Inquiry, has Quentin Smith asserting that "the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing."

This may sound like a case of invincible nihilism. But note that Smith bases his doubt on an affirmation of reason, as in "reasonable belief." I would contend that any skeptic who affirms the reality and meaningful authority of reason can defend the moral reality that undergirds the existence of human rights. …

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