Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Bases For Human Rights

Ed at Dispatches has some interesting commentary regarding the relative strengths of theistic and atheistic systems of human rights. Quoth Ed, quoting Tamanaha:

Taken on its own terms, it seems evident that, in the end, his religious believer is in the same position as a non-believer. Consider again the Nazi interlocutor. Perry's Christian will resist the Nazi by asserting that the Jew is equally one of God's children and possesses inherent human dignity. The Nazi can respond: "Your religion is a false religion. My religion, the true religion, disvalues Jews." Or the completely skeptical Nazi can say: "God is a fiction, so your religious beliefs are empty."

At this juncture, Perry's religious believer in human rights is indistinguishable from a non-religious person committed to human rights: both are confronted by someone who rejects entirely their particular (religious or non-religious) belief system. Perry admits this openly: the "religious position" "is vulnerable to disbelief by the Nazi....What position isn't?"

But if that's the case, then why do religious beliefs provide a superior foundation for human rights?

Exactly right. As I've always said, the argument from morality is not an argument for the existence of God, it's an argument for why God should exist; if he doesn't, then it leaves theists in exactly the same boat to which they assign atheists.

It appears to me that both Ed and Tamanaha are overlooking a substantive difference between the theist and the atheist: the theist can argue absolute truth whereas the atheist cannot.

I've written about this before, but it seems like an argument worth restating. The theist always has recourse to God; the theist's position is supportable within the theist's own belief system. But the atheist has no such fallback position; when pressed on the issue ey're forced to admit that they're just making shit up. Per Tamanaha we have our theist, our atheist, and our Nazi (sounds like the setup to a joke, doesn't it?); let's illustrate the difference by way of a hypothetical conversation:

T: All humans have dignity.
A: What he said.
N: Bullshit.

T: No, really, God says so.
A: Well, actually I say so, but it amounts to the same thing.
N: I don't believe in God, and why should I care what you say?

T: It doesn't matter whether you believe in God or not.
A: Ummm... good question.

Obviously I'm being a little tongue-in-cheek here, but that's the essence of the argument. Within the theist's belief system "God says so" is a sufficient justification in itself. But the atheist, by denying the existence of god(s) and/or the supernatural, implicitly acknowledges that norms are a human creation. What can the atheist say when the Nazi asks "Why are your norms superior to mine?"? The atheist's belief system provides em with no truth test, no way to judge whether one set of norms is superior to another. Ey can wave eir hands and say things like "minimizes human suffering", but the Nazi is perfectly justified in responding "so what?".

So the atheist and the theist are actually in different boats: the theist can unequivocally assert that eir position is correct, but the atheist cannot.

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