Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Universal Declaration?

There was an interesting piece on P Z’s blog this week about the development by scholars of a new Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration is claimed to be complementary to the UN’s Universal Declaration of human rights (UDHR) but contains a number of important differences. The Islamic version for instance changes the declaration of equality of rights for all people to equality of dignity and obligations, and limits rights to those given within the shari'ah. PZ was characteristically outraged, saying that the Islamic version is ‘nothing but an open attempt to protect the privilege of religion to violate human rights in the name of imaginary gods’.

The drafting of a competing deceleration isn’t that surprising when you consider the origins of the UDHR which was really an attempt to enshrine values developed within the Christian tradition and depict them as universal, a fact noted by the author. In 1948, as he completed the original draft, the Canadian law professor John Humphrey went home and noted in his diary that what had been achieved was ‘something like the Christian morality without the tommyrot’ by which he meant all the unnecessary accretions of prayer and miracles and faith and sacraments and chapels. This is recognised by the Iranians, who refuse to ratify it because they see it as "a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition", which could not be implemented by Muslims without trespassing the Islamic law. Many have noted that the universalism of the declaration is primarily based on the teachings of Christianity, a religion which from the start promulgated its message as one for the whole world. In "A Time of Transition," the philosopher Jürgen Habermas writes:

For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love

In particular, the premise of the UNDHR is that all human lives have equal dignity and worth. This is not, however, the teaching of all the world's cultures and religions and certainly wasn’t much in evidence in the three decades before the declaration was drafted. As a result the deceleration is seen by other societies as a threatening ‘mission statement’ which undermines their culture.

How much do liberal values and the idea of human rights owe to Christianity?, after all when you read someone like Aquinus you find very little about them. Instead Aquinus is preoccupied with the duties of a leader, the good that he can achieve and the things he can do to make his people more virtuous. With the Reformation came a great shift in thinking and the gradual development of liberal democracy as an alternative structure of governance. The rationale for this process was the fracturing of Christendom and the breakup of the religious unity of Western Europe. This new situation of religious pluralism was the cause of too much war and social discontent to be bearable. The alternative was the new idea of a political structure based on a schedule of natural human rights, a polity based not on doing what you can to make people good but the inviolability of human beings who are created in the image of God.

The common narrative is that the idea of natural rights was born from the atomistic individualism of the enlightenment or late medieval nominalists such as William of Ockham. This narrative has been decisively refuted. Historians such as Tierney gone further and have traced these ideals all the way back to Rufinus and Ricardus, to Huguccio and Alanus, and to their "obscure glosses" of the twelfth century. These writers based their ideals on the concept of the Imago Dei and the belief that people, as creatures of nature and God, should live their lives and organize their society on the basis of rules and precepts laid down by nature or God. As Tierney has shown, 11th century church Canon lawyers were regularly using the concept of natural rights almost three centuries before the nominalists. Some would argue that these ideals can be traced back as far as the church fathers. To give one example, in 388 and 389, John Chrysostom, preached seven sermons on the parable of Lazerous. In one of these sermons, he preached that the extra shoes in the closet of the wealthy person belong to the poor person who has no shoes and that this poor person doesn't have to be good, all he has to be is a person in need. He then used the analogy that just as a harbormaster has to allow the pirates into the harbour when the storm comes up, so also the poor person who has the claim on the shoes does not have to demonstrate that they are virtuous. It is clear from the literature that the idea of natural rights was a presence in western thought long before it was put to new use in the reformation and enlightenment. Instead Tierney has shown that the idea of natural rights grew up in a religious culture that supplanted rational argumentation about human nature with a faith in which humans were seen as children of a caring God, that is the distinctly Christian circumstances of the High and Late Middle Ages.

Once adopted, the idea of natural rights could have been placed in a secular context. This did not happen. One of the most influential exponents of this idea was John Locke who saturated his writings with Christian references and was heavily influenced by Richard Hooker, the Anglican theologian. Locke justifies the principle of equality this way:

‘The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our's.’

Locke’s ideals found their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights’. By contrast the US bill of rights contains no theological language and prevents the establishment of religion. However, state constitutions of the same period give the rationale for this free exercise of religion. All of them except for New York’s constitution (which mutters something about wicked priests), state that everyone has a natural duty to worship god and an inalienable right to do so in a way that suits their own conscience. The ideal of toleration therefore derived from religious dissent, that is to say from a type of religion rather than an attack on religion. So even secularism which really goes all the way back to Jesus’ statement ‘render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s’ which was developed by St Augustine, can be seen as a development from western religion not from the attack on it.

Despite his hostility to Christianity, Paine understood that such concepts as the dignity of man and human rights depended on man's special place in God's creation. Indeed the Jacobins of the French Revolution imprisoned Paine after he warned them that their atheism would undercut the basis of their declaration of human rights. Having written ‘The Age of Reason’ Paine wrote that "the people of France were running headlong into atheism and I had the work translated into their own language, to stop them in that career, and fix them to the first article . . . of every man's creed who has any creed at all – I believe in God" (emphasis Paine's).

This was to be the high point of the natural rights concept; which was derided as ‘nonsense on stilts’ by Jeremy Benthem. Under the onslaught of legal positivism, cultural relativism, and Marxism, the idea of natural rights was abandoned by most jurists and philosophers. Then came the aftermath of World War II and a great revival of the ideal of universal human rights, driven, in part, by the fact that the Nazis at Nuremberg used legal positivist principles and cultural relativism in their defence proceedings. For a time at least simple-minded cultural relativism seemed inadequate in face of the crimes of the Nazi regime and it was in this atmosphere the UDHR was drafted.

One of the oddities of the current wave of new atheism is a fundamental error in not studying how we have acquired the concepts and categories we use, how they emerged and developed in the western tradition. This mirrors the tendency of new atheists to erase or play down the significant contribution from religion to the development of western science. Trace the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to their origins and study their development and you’ll find that they were largely developed within the mental landscape of Judeo-Christianity and find their legitimacy in PZ Meyer's ‘imaginary God’. This was fully recognised in the 19th century by atheist thinkers like Nietzsche; today's crop of logical positivists seem to be in collective denial.

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Jason Lau said...

May I ask, who wrote this article? Because it sounds A LOT like a lecture by Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff available for free over at Some of your phrasing is even identical, with terms like "the atomistic individualism of the enlightenment". Hardly coincidental....

Ignorance said...

Andrew Brown has written a nice satire on the subject:

Of course it has been widely misinterpreted, so he had to elaborate in the comments to set things straight:


'The point Andrew seems to be making is that it is "progressive, human-rights friendly" regimes that tend to make things worse rather than better. Regarding human rights, they are a manmade thing, often used to promote a social or political agenda.'

No. The point I was making was that demanding ev-id-ence for the things that people have faith in ends up proving that everything valuable is an illusion."