God’s Right: A Rebuttal and Post Script Elaboration Of My Last Article
By David Metcalfe
October 21, 2017
Credence in Criticism: Fighting Fallacies to Enhance Engagement
I typically get about one response for every 20 people who read this blog, whether it be through email, instant messaging, or even phone calls. Basically, I have devoted Monday evenings to this task, sometimes until late hours into the night. I could just send them all one sentence answers, but I love their desire to learn, and it has done wonders for my own learning as well. While I do enjoy getting messages like “David, oh my gosh, I loved your article, you’re amazing!”, what I really love is a sincere critical thinker. I want people to think, “Hmm..I read something that contradicts what he wrote”, or “It looks like one of his logical steps is missing something”. Compliments are my sugar, but critical thinking is my protein. Something about it has substance that gets my mind really going. Knowing that my thought has inspired continued thought in the minds of others is what makes me keep writing. I told myself when I first started this blog, “If I don’t have at least one person intellectually engage this content with me, I will stop writing it”. I have been blessed with many amazing criticisms, and I am thankful for that.
Now, it takes a degree of discernment as to what is a sincere and valid criticism, versus what is merely people trying to denigrate me, or tragically misunderstanding the content. Sometimes I want to be nice, but I just have to call out bullshit. In general though, the response from my last article was amazing. Never have I had so many people message me with sincere and rational thought than this last week. I loved it.
At least 20 people ended by saying, “I really want to hear your thoughts on why the Bible actually does promote human rights”. Muwahaha! You people fell right into my trap. I was originally going to give a full response in that article, but then I realized my criticisms were already so lengthy, I may have to cut some to fit in the response. And then it hit me: I’ll leave it a cliff hanger! That’s the whole point of “Overthinking With Dave”: getting people to think. Did you ever notice how criminals often get very muscular, very quickly when they go to prison? The fear of being physically attacked by other inmates not only mentally motivates them, but actually creates a physiological response that can increase muscle growth (Buckaloo, et al 2009). I believe it’s the same thing for the mind. Being intellectually attacked creates a fight or flight response. Some people probably read a little bit, felt uncomfortable, and exited the article, never to be read again. But I’ll bet most of you instantly began thinking, “Oh no, what do I think about this? What is my defense to these criticisms?”. Many of you were probably hoping that I would resolve it at the end, but instead, I gave a very limited response. My hope was to direct you to think for yourself towards finding real answers to the misunderstandings that critics of Christianity so often jump onto. And judging by your responses, many of you did just that.
Aristotle, the great philosopher, once said, “The mark of an educated mind is the ability to entertain an idea without accepting it.” Well, my friends, you have been entertained. This article is not entertaining in that sense, as my last one was, but it is sincere, and hopefully entertaining in the other sense of the word.
Of course, I don’t claim to have all of the answers. These are merely the thoughts that I have gotten to thus far, and if I am really as good of thinker as I hope to be someday, these thoughts will change. Although I identify as Christian, I really do love atheism. I think it might be the greatest intellectual accomplishment that human reason has ever generated on its own. Sure, I think that Christianity is a superior worldview, but that’s only because it had a lot of help along the way from an external source, or what Christians would call “divine revelation”.
Alright, I will now proceed to destroy my own article from last week:
Human Rights Hoax: Answering Awkward Assumptions
In my last article, after criticising the Bible at length, I mentioned that I actually am a Christian, and began criticizing secular moral philosophy instead. Here’s what I wrote:
“It’s important to take into account that [The Declaration of Independence] says ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights’. They didn’t write this because they felt a need to pander to a Christian audience or something, but rather because being made in the image of God was a foundational concept of ‘natural rights’. If God doesn’t exist, and the material world is the only thing that’s real, humans are, at their core, nothing more than a bunch of atoms that happened to be connected in a certain way. If these atoms were to be scattered in a new composition, what’s to say which composition is superior? Death and life are on equal terms, and life ultimately holds no innate value. Any value that we make for humans would be a social construct. As we know with African slavery, prohibition of alcohol, or even “beehive” haircuts, social constructs come and go based on the whim of the people. There is nothing that keeps them there no matter what, and if you’ll remember, the definition of ‘unalienable’ is that they cannot be taken away. Atheism provides no framework for the possibility of unalienable rights.” (Metcalfe, 2017).
In the first week of June, when I was living in Alberta, I sat down with the President of “The Society of Edmonton Atheists” at a “Tim Horton’s” restaurant in south west Edmonton. After discussing various topics at length (mostly about how annoyed we are at Christians), I asked her about where she gets her concept of human rights from. She explained that it was on the basis of equality. Essentially, if humans assume that we are all equal, we won’t mistreat each other. I totally agreed with her on that. What I had trouble with, however, was this “assumption” she was talking about. What reason do we have to assume that humans are of equal value? In fact, why assume humans have any value at all? If we are nothing more than a bunch of atoms that happen to be composed in a certain way, how are we more valuable than an inanimate object, like a rock, or a chair?
She admitted that there isn’t really a foundation for it, but since we are in the situation that we’re in (being in society and needing to get along with each other), we basically need to make up that we have rights so that society can function and humans can benefit from that. I love when atheists say that, because then I get to ask, “So, if the ultimate goal is the betterment of humanity, and equality is merely a means by which to achieve that goal, then what if a certain society benefited more from inequality?”. The typical examples I’ll toss out are how majority of people in southern United States benefited from African slavery, or how majority of Germans benefited from stealing from the Jews and exploiting them for cheap labor.
I sipped the remainder of my Iced Capp as I listened to her struggle through an explanation. It got to a certain point where she was back pedaling and stuttering so much, I started to feel sorry for her. I interrupted her, “Oh, don’t worry about it, some of the greatest thinkers in the world are still trying to figure it out. I was just curious what your thoughts were”. A sigh of relief washed over her. It was odd to see the immense difference in her posture from being confident, well-spoken, and at ease when we were criticizing the Christian church, to her being timid, awkward, and notably nervous when we were discussing the basis of morality. I empathize with her, because I had many of those moments myself when I was atheist. If you asked me about Christianity, I had a field day going off on all my criticisms. But if you said, “Do you really believe that we are just a bunch of atoms with no soul, and no ultimate purpose?” or “Why should we act moral towards each other?”, I wasn’t quite so confident. Criticizing other views is easy. Constructing and defending a view of your own is very difficult.
Many agnostics are weighing out Christianity and atheism as two viable options. Although criticizing atheism does nothing to support Christianity, it does force people to consider the fact that Christianity may offer things that atheism does not. One of those things, in my opinion, is human rights.
Understanding The “Right Philosophy” To Women’s Suffrage
If you read my last article, you’ll remember I mentioned that women got the right to vote in 1920, despite the fact that the Declaration of Independence guaranteed equal rights to all of its citizen’s way back in 1776. This abhorrent dissonance, which lasted 144 years, is critical to understanding some major concepts of what it means to have rights.
1) The first concept is the distinction between natural and legal rights. I don’t believe that any woman actually gained rights in 1920. I believe that women merely claimed a right that they already had. As human beings, women have always had the same rights that men have had. The problem was that these rights were not adequately recognized by the government. Natural rights cannot be given to or taken from anyone. It is not within a government’s ability to grant these. The government’s role is merely to try to apply legal rights that fit in accordance with the natural rights of people. If legal rights defined natural rights, then a government could treat people however they wanted, and it would be morally acceptable. In 1940 Germany, it was legal to murder a Jewish person, but that didn’t make it right. Natural rights need to define legal rights in order to protect the sanctity of human life and prevent tyranny.
2) The second concept is that rights are an expression of value. Natural rights exist primarily to protect things. When the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence states that all humans have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it isn’t giving people those rights, it’s merely offering a legal protection for rights that they already have.
I don’t personally have much for material possessions. It’s funny how university and unpaid internships have that effect. My most valuable possession, by far, is my cell phone. It costs like $600 or something crazy. What’s even crazier, is that I didn’t even have a case on it for the first year I had it. Isn’t that stupid of me? I finally came to my senses and bought a case for it a month ago. The reason I should protect it is because it has value. If it was only worth $5, I would never have bought a $30 case for it. Protection is the rational response to the threat of destruction to something valuable.
It’s fairly obvious, based on the horrible injustices that have been committed throughout history, that humans are under threat of destruction from their government. Just like the threat of my valuable cell phone smashing on the ground compelled me to get a case for it, so too did the threat of the government mistreating people compel the Founding Fathers to grant legal protection to its citizens. It’s all centered around the assumption that humans have value; that humans are worth protecting. Animals, although given some rights, are not considered as valuable as humans, and therefore do not receive the same protection. That’s why it is much more legally and morally acceptable to run over a dog than a human. When women were allowed to vote in 1920, it was not only an assertion of their rights, but an assertion of their value.
3) The third concept is the necessity of agency as a basis of human rights. Why is it that giving women the ability to vote gave them value? What if the government had given them money, or a new car? Would that have affirmed their value, and the ensuing rights that result from value, just as well as giving them the right to vote? The simple answer, of course, is “no, it wouldn’t”. But why is that?
James Griffin is getting old now; he’s 84. He taught moral philosophy at Oxford University until 2000. 8 years later, he wrote an amazing book on concepts of legal and moral philosophy called “On Human Rights” (Griffin, 2008). In it, he argues that human rights are based on having agency i.e. the ability to make decisions for one’s self. This ability to have agency is critical to understanding why it is so important for a nation to have freedom. Never do we find a society that upholds human rights to life that does not uphold their agency. That is why dictatorships inevitably end up killing innocent people. Now, agency does not always result in upholding the right to life, so it doesn’t work as well the other way, but generally, the two go hand in hand.
Not only does giving agency affirm the rights of an individual, but it does so proportionally, based on the amount given. If women had asked for the right to vote, and the government instead gave them the right to choose what color of socks to wear, it would not have had the same impact. Since the choice of deciding your government is way more consequential than the choice to wear green socks, so too is the amount of value given as a result of granting more important agency.
The Oft-Ignored Necessity of Building Block Basics
At this point, you might be saying, “Ok, that’s great, David, but what I’m really wondering is: how does all this relate to the Bible?”. Geez, don’t rush me, I’m getting to that. It’s like pre-medical students who complain about learning cell biology. I’m like, “you guys realize that the body is made up of cells, right?”. There are just some things you need to know in order to build off of it and into something greater.
You might not currently realize how valuable the building blocks are, but if you understand that last section, it will do wonders for your understanding of humanity and morality. And what is the Bible? Oh yeah, it’s a story about humanity and morality. One of the reasons that many pastors are so ignorant is because they go straight into theology without first understanding the foundational concepts below and within them. In that same month that I visited with the President of the “Society of Edmonton Atheists”, I also met with many Christian pastors, and pretended to be agnostic. I would go through the Bible and explain to them why it failed to affirm human rights. Many of the things I said to them were similar to the things I wrote in my last article, and let me tell you, I wrecked them. Since Christianity has such far reaching implications into moral philosophy, understanding it is critical to creating a justification for believing it.
But don’t worry, you don’t have to be weirdly obsessed with moral philosophy, like myself, in order to know why the Bible affirms human rights. If you can understand this sentence, you are ready for the next section:
“Fundamental human rights are inherent due to the value of every human being, they cannot be taken away by any social construct, and they are affirmed through the ability to make choices for ourselves.”
Receiving Real Rights and Transcending Trivialities
Alright, so human rights basically require agency, value, and that they be inherent within every human. I will take the remainder of this article to draw upon these three concepts to explain why the existence of God, the death of Jesus, and the words written in the Bible all serve to give a justification for why humans have rights. Three of the most foundational of these rights, in my opinion, are that of equality, justice, and freedom, so in order for the Bible to affirm human rights, it at least needs to satisfy these three in a practical way.
Attaining Actual Affirmation of Agency
Man, I am on it today with the alliteration. Anyway, you’ll remember in the last article, I had a section called “Choosing To Be Smart”. It was this concept of how freedom of choice and intelligence actually work together, and need one another in order to really flourish. But here’s the thing: I absolutely undersold the value of free choice. If it was limited to helping people be a bit smarter, it wouldn’t be something worth fighting for, let alone dying for, as so many American soldiers have done for us throughout history. As I stated previously, the freedom for women to be able to choose their elected officials was directly related to affirming their value as human beings. In addition, the amount of value given is proportional to the importance of the choice.
What’s very interesting to me, is the concept of choice offered by the gospel. If you’ll recall from my previous article, I stated why most people’s view of the gospel does not allow for freedom of choice. However, I think I have one that does. It’s that you have the choice as to whether you want to engage in honest, rational thought about whether Christianity is true. Since acceptance or rejection of the gospel is what determines your ultimate destiny, it is the most important decision that you could possibly make. So important, in fact, that all other decisions seem meaningless in comparison. If heaven and hell are infinite, then no decision that you make during your finite time on earth would actually have any importance other than the ones that affect your eternal destiny.
If women getting the right to choose their government gave them value, how much more value would they get if they could choose their eternal destiny?
I stated in my previous article that Paul’s writings never affirm social equality, since Galatians 3:28 is referring to spiritual matters, not social matters. Some people might think that, if they don’t understand the relationship between natural and legal rights. Legal rights are a social construct that stem from the transcendent, innate qualities of natural rights. Just for a review, here’s what the verse says,
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28
What Paul is referring to here is the natural right that we have been given through the offer of being able to choose our ultimate destiny. This concept is developed further in his second letter to the Corinthian church:
“And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.” 2 Corinthians 5:15,16
The ability for us to choose this infinitely important decision is what defines our value. Just like how it wouldn’t change a woman’s value to vote for a different person, or not vote at all, the actual decision doesn’t affect the value affirmation. The point is about having the decision, and having the freedom to do what you want with it.
What Paul does constantly throughout scripture is define what this decision is, and the implications of it. He makes it very clear that it transcends any concept of race, gender, religion, social status, etc. It is a value affirmation extended to all people. And if you’ll recall, the implementation of legal rights come as a result of natural rights, which come as a result of inherent value, which comes as a result of agency. Therefore, Paul granting a universal concept of value from agency creates a concept of natural rights that affirms the inherent value of all people, and since legal rights stem from natural rights, Paul actually is affirming social equality. Paul affirmed a woman’s right to vote long before the Declaration of Independence in 1776, let alone 1920.
Are There Still Sexist Setbacks in Scripture?
In my last article, I wrote about how the beginning of the Bible is horrible for woman’s rights. Eve is merely an afterthought, she curses humanity, and God states that “he will rule over you”. Only thing is, nothing here is actually sexist.
“Merely an afterthought”: The Bible says that man was alone, and that he needed woman. Women were created because man is insufficient on their own. When Moses uses the term “helper” it doesn’t seem like it means that she is a slave to him, but more like someone that he needs, since he is insufficient on his own. Would you say that someone who helps handicapped people is a slave to them? Far from it, woman’s existence is affirmed as necessary and extremely beneficial to humanity.
“She curses humanity”: Who cares, all of humanity got cursed. It’s not like only women got punished and men got out of it, or something. The punishment applied equally to all people.
“He will rule over you”: Ever notice the context in which this is said? It’s literally in a chapter called “The Fall”. In no way is any of it a prescription on how to live, but rather a description on the bad things that are going to happen. And yeah, God was right about man ruling over woman, as history, and even current society, continue to display abhorrent misogyny.
We can see that Moses’ writings were not actually sexist, but what about Paul’s? You’ll recall that I created an air tight case for why Paul is sexist in my last article when I cited this verse from his first letter to Timothy:
“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing- if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety.” 1 Timothy 2:11-15
I said that there were three possible responses: 1) Paul didn’t write it, 2) It was to a specific church, so it doesn’t matter, or 3) Other writings show that Paul was not sexist.
I crushed all three of them, as they are the only three I have ever heard from people. However, I personally have a fourth option: 4) Paul didn’t give a shit.
When I was seven years old, I got a “GameBoy Advance” for my birthday. It was the greatest thing in the world, and I loved Mario Kart so much. One time, my mom was driving me and my brother to the dentist’s office, and I was playing it in the backseat of the car. My brother wanted to play, but I didn’t want him to, so he tried to grab it from me. In the midst of the fight for it, my mom stopped the car, grabbed the “GameBoy”, and threw it in the glove compartment. “If you can’t get along, no one gets to play it.”
I was aghast. Here I was, peacefully playing by myself, and since my stupid brother tried to take it from me, I was now getting punished. But here’s the thing: my mom didn’t really give a shit. She had bigger things to worry about, like the heavy traffic, or the fact that we were going to the dentist and she hadn’t the coverage or the money to cover the cost if we needed something important done. In the grand scheme of things, I’m glad my mom got rid of the distraction of the silly “GameBoy” fight, and got us to the dentist’s office to fix our teeth.
Many people think of Paul as a wise leader, counseling the Church to serve God and love one another. Yeah, about half the time. The other half of the time he is basically a stressed-out mom with kids who won’t stop fighting in the back seat. “I swear to God, you stupid Corinthians, I will turn this church around right now if you don’t quit it this instant!” -probably an actual quote from Paul.
In 1 Corinthians 11, the church was arguing about who gets to wear hats and who doesn’t. Paul did not have time for that shit. He was just like, “Alright, women wear hats and men don’t wear hats. Moving on.” In Timothy’s church, everyone was arguing, and the women, being uneducated in that culture, were yelling out random, dumb things and causing a disruption. He just took the “GameBoy” from them, and was like, “Alright, no more speaking for you guys right now.”
The other day I went to “Panda Express” for the first time. I had no clue how the menu worked. I was like, “What the heck? There’s so many options. I just want to eat lunch and get back to work.” So I just ordered the most basic thing on the menu: the classic box with rice and chicken. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite thing that I could get there, but I just needed something to eat. When something is complicated, and we don’t really care about it, we tend to go towards the default option.
Paul doesn’t like slavery, the government, or misogyny, but he’s like, “Eh, who gives a shit?”. In the grand scheme of things, in light of eternity, these things were not of vital importance, and to get very adamant about dismantling them would have distracted people from the main point, as well as made things even harder for Christians, who were already being persecuted horribly throughout the Roman Empire. Just like me at “Panda Express” ordering the default option, Paul’s default option is simply to go along with culture. One of the important aspects of interpreting the Bible is understanding the context in which things were written so that we can understand which things are prescriptive, which things are descriptive, and which things are culturally relative.
The idea that women shouldn’t be able to have leadership positions in the church goes against every fundamental concept of human rights that the Bible so adamantly supports. It is an absolutely stupid, hateful, and damaging idea that has restricted the rights of women for centuries. The American legal system is far beyond the antiquated and discriminatory position of many modern churches. Women were given the right to vote because we recognized their natural rights gave them a claim to value, and that their value needed to be expressed through the practical application of legal rights. The foundation for these natural rights is found in the Bible, and it clearly extends to all people. How could any church be so stupid as to rob women of the fundamental right to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the way she is best suited? And it’s someone who is gifted and wanting to serve the Lord, no less! Can anyone really make a reasonable justification to rob talented, good-hearted young women from achieving their potential in serving others? If so, I have yet to hear one.
“Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God”
-Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Susan B. Anthony, and umm..Paul?
I first saw this quote when I was reading about Susan B. Anthony. She was instrumental in the women’s suffrage movement in 19th century United States. Then, when I looked up the quote, I saw it had been attributed to tons of people. Although probably none of them originated it, they certainly lived their lives in accordance with that idea. On that same basis, I think we can also attribute that to the life of Paul.
In my last article, I talked about how Paul wrote in Romans 13 that we are to be subject to the governing authorities, and not rebel against them. I said that Paul is supporting tyrannical governments, but once again, there’s one problem with that: he’s not.
In fact, Paul was the ultimate rebel. He was raised Jewish, and was under the Jewish law where he grew up. Then as he traveled to other areas later on, he was under the Roman law. He adamantly rebelled against both of those. He ended up in jail multiple times, and was eventually martyred. Most sources from that time believe he was decapitated in Rome (McDowell, 2016). There’s no way he would believe that you shouldn’t ever rebel, and then proceed to live a life of rebellion!
Paul simply didn’t want the Roman church to do anything to put themselves in a worse position with the government than the one they were already in. They were being tortured, murdered, put in Gladiator battles, etc. They weren’t allowed to hold certain jobs, and life in general was very tough. Just by being a Christian, you were rebelling so much that they wanted to kill you for it. Christians were robbed of their fundamental right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on the basis of their religion. Since they were already rebelling so much, Paul absolutely did not want to give the Romans any reason to make it worse, and he was fearful that Christians would become violent or commit acts of terrorism.
Could Paul have written it a little more nuanced? Sure. But he was dealing with morons. The churches in Rome and Corinth were especially dumb sometimes. I myself rage at them when I’m reading the Bible at certain parts. There was some guy having sex with his mom in the church of Corinth at one point, and everyone thought it was fine…? (1 Corinthians 5) What is wrong with these people? Anyway, Paul had to freaking spell it out for them. He just made a general rule. I imagine the dialogue went something like this:
Paul: “Alright guys, don’t be terrorists please.”
Church member in Rome: “Is it still ok if we light the coliseum on fire?”
Paul: “Ummm…what? No, obviously not.”
Other Church member in Rome: “We’re still on for the assassination of the Emperor though, right?”
Paul: “For crying out loud! Alright, no rebelling against anyone, ever, for any of you.”
Church member in Rome: “But you rebel against authority sometimes!”
Paul: “(Sigh) Never mind what I do. Just focus on not sleeping with your moms for now, and try to live out the gospel of Jesus.”
Church member in Rome: “Hey, that incest thing was Corinth, don’t try to pin that on us!”
Paul: “Ok, ok, settle down you guys, I’m late for my debate with the Epicureans.”
I was having too much fun writing that dialogue…what was I talking about again? Oh yeah, so basically the Bible doesn’t actually teach that rebellion is always wrong. As a general rule though, even if a government isn’t that good, following a mediocre government is better than having none at all. And obviously, the authority of God would always take precedence over the authority of man, if the two should ever conflict. The inspiring stories of people like Paul, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Jefferson show us that resistance to tyranny really is obedience to God when we have good motives, and affirm the value of people in all that we do.
Old News: Understanding Aspirational vs Achieved Morality
In my previous article, I said that the Old Testament is an absolute shit show. I talked about how Israel committed genocide against the Canaanites, and suggested that not only was it evil, but also that it was a result of the racist attitudes imparted to them by God. I mentioned that all of the arguments to justify it are absolute garbage, and proceeded to destroy the one half-decent one. Once again, I have my own view on it, and it’s actually somewhat common among Christian thinkers throughout history.
The Old Testament is just that: it’s old. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that “the old has gone, and the new has come!”. He’s referring, of course, to what happens to your life when you accept Jesus. But we can also think of this in the broader sense of humanity. Humanity is very corrupt. I rarely come across someone who will disagree with that fact. Knowing anything about human history is going to disturb you so much you won’t have any choice but to believe that humans are basic shit. Just this week I read about North Korean concentration camps, torture practices in 16th century England, and the prevalence of gang rape in American prisons. This is the kind of shit we are dealing with when we talk about humanity.
So we have this human race that totally sucks, and it’s in the barbaric civilization of the ancient Middle East. Things are not going to go well, inevitably, for human rights. However, God has given humanity an opportunity at redemption through Jesus Christ. However, in the meantime, He needs to make sure that the people can make it to that point. It’s kind of like in “I Am Legend”, how Will Smith doesn’t want to kill any zombies, since they are humans and there’s a chance of them getting a cure, but at the same time, he needs to protect himself. I think that the ancient Middle East was a bunch of zombies trying to kill each other, and Israel was the only one with the cure to possibly save them.
What Israel had during that time was an aspirational morality. They aspired to be better, but humanity sucks so much, they weren’t actually able to achieve morality. Depravity is innate within humans, so how do we ever actually achieve morality? Well, that’s the whole concept of Jesus. He said that we are to die to ourselves and be born again (John 3). Sure, humans are innately depraved, and you can aspire to be better all you want, but if who you are is still corrupted, you’ll never actually achieve true goodness. That’s where the Christian idea of metaphorically dying to yourself and being raised to new life in Jesus comes from.
Yes, Israel was sometimes racist, practiced polygamy, killed innocent people, etc., but they are not meant to be the example of how to live. The reason they are in the Bible at all is to show the depravity of human existence without Jesus.
God’s Right: Basis Beyond Agency and Into The Bible
If you are reading this critically, you hopefully noticed that I did not yet offer an actual basis for human rights as being from God and the death of Jesus. I have thus far explained what they are, why atheism cannot give them, and how the gospel provides a unique opportunity for agency as a method of value affirmation. But we need to go beyond mere agency. Although that is one aspect of value affirmation, it fails to give a complete picture. Islam, for example, offers a similar choice of whether to follow Allah. Does that mean Islam affirms human rights just as much as Christianity? Short answer is “no, it doesn’t”. Here’s why Christianity is able to uniquely satisfy all of the necessary requirements for value affirmation, and the ensuing rights that come as a result of that value:
The first comes from Genesis 1:27; it states that God has created mankind in his image, both male and female. It affirms this concept that all of humanity has been created by God and of God. This is where the writers of the Declaration of Independence got their idea that we are “endowed by our Creator” with natural rights.
The second value affirmation comes from the death of Jesus in exchange for the sins of the world. It’s simple economics that the value of a certain thing is whatever people are willing to pay for it. The idea in Christianity is that God values humanity so much that He paid the greatest price He possibly could to save us (John 3:16).
Every once and a while I come across someone who I think is really awesome. Abdu Murray was a lawyer for several years, and when I heard him speak at the Human Rights Summit in Winnipeg, Manitoba, I thought to myself, “Holy crap, I want to give a speech like that someday.” Malcolm Gladwell is quite possibly the greatest journalist of our time. His articles are amazing. When I first read his article on “Football and Dog Fights”, I thought to myself, “I want to write like that someday.” While preparing to write this article, I had the privilege of being introduced to the work of James Nickel. His resume is insane. Basically, he has taught at several major Law Schools and prestigious universities. He has published more than sixty articles in philosophy and law journals, including the Yale Journal of International Law. He wrote an amazing entry on human rights in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It receives over 7,000 hits per year, and is held in high esteem among top lawyers and professors. And let me tell you, holy crap it’s good.
Now, I do not claim to know more than James Nickel about law, philosophy, or much of anything really. He has proven himself to be one of the world’s leading experts on the philosophy of human rights, and I am a 22-year-old who has been studying morality for just over a year. I have a lot to learn from people like James Nickel. While I agree with the sentiments that he expresses in his entry in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I did catch what I think is a contradiction, and possibly a failure to account for an additional variable. Here is an excerpt from his section on “How Do Human Rights Exist?”:
“One way that a normative status could be inherent in humans is by being God-given. The U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) claims that people are “endowed by their Creator” with natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. On this view, God, the supreme lawmaker, enacted some basic human rights.
Rights plausibly attributed to divine decree must be very general and abstract (life, liberty, etc.) so that they can apply to thousands of years of human history, not just to recent centuries. But contemporary human rights are specific and many of them presuppose contemporary institutions (e.g., the right to a fair trial and the right to education). Even if people are born with God-given natural rights, we need to explain how to get from those general and abstract rights to the specific rights found in contemporary declarations and treaties.
Attributing human rights to God’s commands may give them a secure status at the metaphysical level, but in a very diverse world it does not make them practically secure. Billions of people do not believe in the God of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. If people do not believe in God, or in the sort of god that prescribes rights, then if you want to base human rights on theological beliefs you must persuade these people of a rights-supporting theological view. This is likely to be even harder than persuading them of human rights. Legal enactment at the national and international levels provides a far more secure status for practical purposes.” (Nickel, 2017).
First paragraph: Yup! I totally agree!
Second paragraph: Yes, we do need a way of getting from natural (God-given) rights to legal (socially constructed) rights. In fact, we already have a way of doing that, and have done it for centuries. Essentially every person has a metaphysical idea of why they should act moral towards each other, and we have been putting those into practice in society throughout history. The arguments around slavery, civil rights, and even now with LGBT rights, all center around application of metaphysical concepts such as love and equality.
Third paragraph: Basically, if people don’t understand where rights come from, we should just pretend they come from something else? I don’t agree that we would necessarily need to persuade people of a theological basis of human rights in order to implement them that way. His last sentence is somewhat contradictory to what he says just 2 paragraphs prior, when he states that:
“If human rights exist only because of enactment, their availability is contingent on domestic and international political developments. Many people have looked for a way to support the idea that human rights have roots that are deeper and less subject to human decisions than legal enactment.”
Yes, exactly! See, if a government decided that black people are less valuable than white people, you have nothing to justify that as being morally wrong. Legal rights need to come from natural rights, and those natural rights need to come from God.
I love the opening lyrics to “Welcome To The Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance. It says:
“When I was a young boy
My father took me into the city
To see a marching band
He said, “Son, when you grow up
Would you be the savior of the broken
The beaten and the damned?”
He said, “Will you defeat them
Your demons, and all the non-believers
The plans that they have made?”
“Because one day I’ll leave you
A phantom to lead you in the summer
To join the black parade.” (Welcome To The Black Parade, 2006)
You can listen to the song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pInrJ72eeUU
One of the great gifts of art, poetry, and music is the subjectivity of meaning that they lend to each person. I remember the first time I heard this song, and the meaning it imparted to me in that moment. I feel like God leads us into seeing the brokenness of the world, and asks us, “Would you be the savior of the broken, the beaten, and the damned?”
Proverbs 31:8,9 says “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and the needy.”
I believe that God wanted me to know about concentration camps in North Korea, torture practices of 16th century England, and gang rape in American prisons. I believe that God wants me to be weirdly obsessed with studying human rights so that He can use me to fight for and uphold the rights of the powerless and the destitute.
I am incredibly thankful for being created by God, and for the death and resurrection of Jesus so that I can claim value for myself and others. Throughout my life, my views and opinions will undoubtedly change. But one thing I am sure of, is that I want to live a life that affirms the value of every human being, and to convince others to do the same.
Buckaloo, B., Krug, K., Nelson, K. (2009). Exercise and the Low-Security Inmate. The Prison Journal. 89(3), p. 328-343. DOI: 10.1177/0032885509339508
Griffin, J. (2008). On human rights. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press
McDowell, S. (2016). The Fate of the Apostles. pp. 67–70. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=dIm1CwAAQBAJ&pg=PA67#v=onepage&q&f=false
Metcalfe, D. (2017). How Christianity teaches people to be a bunch of racist, sexist, anti-intellectual bigots. Overthinking With Dave. Retrieved from https://wordpress.com/view/overthinkingwithdave.wordpress.com
Nickel, J. (2017). Human Rights. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rights-human/
Welcome To The Black Parade. (2006). My Chemical Romance. Lyrics retrieved from https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/mychemicalromance/welcometotheblackparade.html