Catholic Vancouver March 5, 2018

Faith debate: does Christianity or secular humanism give better foundation for human rights?

By Agnieszka Ruck

Andy Bannister, Director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity, and Ian Bushfield, the executive director of the B.C. Humanist Association. (Photos submitted)

Is Christianity or secular humanism a better foundation for human rights? That was the question at Westside Church Feb. 28 in a hosted conversation between a Christian and a secular humanist.

In setting up the discussion, Westside Church said: “Women's rights, LGBTQ rights, right to life of the unborn – there is no shortage of causes vying for our attention. Underlying all such causes is the concept of human rights. Which worldview provides a better foundation for it – Christianity or secular humanism?”

The B.C. Catholic asked Christian Andy Bannister and secular humanist Ian Bushfield for summaries of their arguments, and this is what they had to say.

Andy Bannister

Director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity

Being British, I have a naturally mischievous streak and one of the things I occasionally enjoy is poking students with the sharpened end of a question. I will draw a large circle on the whiteboard and say something like: “This circle represents the entire set of genomes of every living thing on planet Earth. Everything is here, from whales to whelks, bacteria to bats, hippopotami to humans. Now, raise your hand if you do not believe in human rights.”

Rarely will a hand go up. “Excellent!” say I, taking my pen and drawing a second, much smaller circle, within the bigger circle.

“Now those of you who believe in human rights are saying anybody who lives inside your smaller circle, whose genome is ‘human,’ enjoys a special set of rights that inhabitants of the bigger circle do not.” Rarely will anyone protest.

“So along comes a white supremacist, and he draws a much tinier circle within your small circle and says, ‘Only those who are white and European enjoy full rights.’ You have drawn a circle, and he has drawn a circle. So tell me: why is your circle acceptable, but his is not?”

Throughout history, there have been many occasions where attempts have been made to narrow the circle, to exclude certain groups from the community of human rights. How do we navigate through these choppy waters?

There are only three choices. The first is to conclude that human rights do not exist. We live in a culture that is increasingly scientific, where that which is “true” is determined by what we can test or prove in the laboratory. On such a view, there is no conceivable experiment of physics, chemistry, or biology that could prove human rights. We may know which part of the human genome codes for hemoglobin, but which codes for inherent dignity?

If you cannot stomach that degree of reductionism, you could take Michael Ruse’s route and conclude rights, ethics, and morals are merely a useful fiction, a trick played on us by evolution. A moment’s thought reveals this to be highly problematic: on this view, there is nothing actually wrong with murder, rape, or racism — rather our disquiet about them is purely a function of our desire to successfully reproduce and raise young. (There’s also the uncomfortable corollary that if rape or racism could be shown to aid survival and reproduction, presumably they become the ‘right’ thing to do).

The second route is to acknowledge that human rights exist, but we cannot explain them. One simply has to take them as a given. Perhaps the Human Rights Fairy magically appears, immediately after a baby is born, waves her sparkly wand, and poof! This may sound like a caricature, but it is effectively the position most people in the West have adopted. They believe passionately in the idea of human rights, but have not the foggiest idea how to ground them.

The third option is to consider where those who first articulated the idea of human rights grounded them. One of the earliest thinkers to speak of rights was Jesuit priest Francisco Suarez, whose 1610 essay On the Laws argued human beings have rights because they have been endowed with them by their Creator. If human beings are God’s special creation (not mere collections of atoms, lumbering biological robots blindly following their DNA’s instructions to reproduce), that gives an excellent grounding for human rights.

I leave my students with this thought. If you wish to have human rights, if you want to be able to say that racism, or sexism, or any other injustice is wrong, you need to bring God back into the discussion. As G. K. Chesterton once remarked, human beings are equal in the way that pennies are alike: we may be different (some pennies are bright, others are dull, some are old, some are new) but all are equally valuable because each bears the image of the King.

Ian Bushfield

Executive director of the B.C. Humanist Association

I’m not a philosopher, historian or theologian. My background is in physics and I work in non-profit, so I don’t claim to be an expert on these questions. That said, I think of myself as an honest seeker of the truth and I engage with human rights issues on a daily basis in my work with the B.C. Humanists.

Personally, I think about the (very recent) advent of human rights as an evolving and emergent property of our social interactions. It is not given from on high or even from the state but depends deeply on our commitment and engagement in democratic processes. Human rights don’t exist for a person stranded on a desert island.

As the first human tribes spread across the world from Africa, simultaneous experimental societies happened in the petri dish that is planet Earth. Societies whose members flourished had some basic rules that stopped them from collapsing. Through this gradual process, we see some consistent “best practices of morality” arise including principles of treating one another with respect and decency.

This approach is consistent with the fact that for most of human history, including the period of time when Christianity was the dominant religious worldview in Europe, much of Africa and across the Americas, subjugation and oppression were the norm. Most human societies have operated (and continue to operate) with legal and social hierarchies where some people are deemed better or more important than others.

Eventually, through this evolutionary process, we managed to develop our modern idea that all people should be treated equally. As this has been developed over really just the past couple decades, human beings came together and produced Universal Declaration on Human Rights, our various Human Rights Acts and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This evolutionary approach also means the discussion isn’t finished. In the past 20 years, we’ve extended legal human rights protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Canadians. Canadian senators further banned discrimination based on DNA based on the risks posed by new genetic testing techniques.

On the other hand, appeals to a higher power don’t ultimately answer the pragmatic dilemmas played out in Human Rights Tribunals across Canada today. No holy book gave us the prescription to add genetics or gender identity to the Human Rights Act. Religious texts are silent on how to balance competing rights. Rather, we settle these debates by collecting evidence, listening to competing testimonies and talking it out.

Ultimately, some will say there’s an element of faith in my support for human rights, in the same way that the theist has faith in their God-given rights. Having not felt the presence of a higher power nor seen convincing evidence for one, I find it takes one fewer assumption to have faith in humanity than in a god.

What I think we all agree on, whether or not we believe in God, is the urgent need for a vigilant defence of human rights.