In the Enlightenment natural law tradition, we can discern what rights we have by reason alone.
In popular conservative discourse, but also in popular libertarian discourse, you’ll often see it asserted that one must be religious to defend rights because our rights are “God‐given,” that our rights are justified because human beings are special among God’s creatures. In this view, “godless communists” and other illiberal atheists disrespect people’s rights because of their atheism.
Make no mistake: Whether any gods exist or not, there is no necessary connection between belief in a higher power and belief in rights.
This idea that rights‐based ethics are at their core religious, and that atheists can only be moral nihilists, or possibly utilitarians, is pure nonsense, and transparent nonsense at that. Yet it persists. Part of the blame for this must fall on attempts by religious authorities to paint the godless as morally depraved. (For a description of one such attempt, see George H. Smith’s column about the idea of “practical atheists.”) Part of the blame also must fall on unreflective popular atheists who lapse so deeply into naive scientism that they say all philosophy, ethics included, is bunk or worse. We can do better.
The Concepts of “Good” and “Evil” are Independent of Any Gods
The intellectual tools to do better have existed for thousands of years; at least as far back as ancient Greece. In the Euthyphro, Plato examines the nature of piety through a discussion between Socrates and a fellow Athenian. Socrates poses the following question:
Is that which is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods? (Euthyphro, 10a, trans. Harold North Fowler)
Crucially, the question is interesting not only as it applies to piety, but also to goodness. Do good things win divine favor because the god or gods, having excellent or even perfect moral judgement, recognize those things as meeting some external standard of goodness? Or is it simply the case that whatever a god or gods favors is “good” by virtue of having divine approval?
In the former case, divine beings are something like extremely competent moral experts. But there is no reason that an atheist couldn’t talk about right and wrong, or even be a moral expert herself, any more than there would be any reason she couldn’t play basketball well if she didn’t believe that Steph Curry existed. Steph Curry is extremely good at playing basketball, but being good at playing basketball isn’t defined by reference to Steph Curry–there are external standards we point to to justify saying that he’s good at basketball, like how many shots he makes and how often his team wins. Our atheist could be wrong about Steph Curry not existing, and she might benefit by coming to believe Steph Curry existed and then consulting his expertise as a spectacular basketball player, but there is nothing logically preventing her from being a good basketball player while remaining ignorant of Steph Curry. Likewise, if she is wrong about gods existing, and those gods are moral experts, then she might benefit from divine moral instruction–but she could become a moral expert even while remaining an atheist, and she could certainly, at a bare minimum, coherently discuss questions of good and evil.
The second prong of the Euthyphro question, that goodness just means having the favor of some god or gods, won’t convince an atheist or prove attractive to a believer. If something is good just because some god or another says so, why should anyone care? If all we mean by “good” is “having divine approval,” that seems arbitrary in a very problematic way. It doesn’t give me any motivation–except perhaps fear of punishment–to care about a god’s opinion. If I’m an atheist, I won’t fear punishment from a god I don’t believe in. If I’m religious, the “because [my god] says so” position just makes my god out to be a controlling bully rather than a being with moral authority.
When religious people claim that the gods they worship are good, the most charitable interpretation is that this is not an exercise in mere redundancy. They’re positing something about the gods in question. They’re comparing the gods to an external standard of goodness.
Natural Law Is Accessible by Man’s Reason Alone
That people have rights is an important part of the natural law approach to ethics shared by many Enlightenment liberals, including America’s founding fathers. While many thinkers have attributed our rights to divine favor, a core feature of the natural law paradigm is that revealed truths–truths we learn through the word of god–are also, at least in theory, knowable through man’s reason. The discovery of the natural law was seen as a parallel project to the discovery of the laws of nature in the physical sciences.
So when Thomas Jefferson wrote that “[all men] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” this should not be read, as some mistakenly do, to say that human rights require any gods, nor to exclude a secular, rational justification for ethics. The same Jefferson who wrote those words in the Declaration of Independence also wrote, in a letter to his nephew Peter Carr, “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”
The Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, intellectual grandfather of the American Revolution, wrote extensively on the relationship between man’s reason and divine revelation.
Besides those we have hitherto mentioned, there is one sort of propositions that challenge the highest degree of our assent, upon bare testimony, whether the thing proposed agree or disagree with common experience, and the ordinary course of things, or no. The reason whereof is, because the testimony is of such an one as cannot deceive nor be deceived: and that is of God himself. (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV, Ch. XVI, §14)
For Locke, God is an infallible witness. We should accept revelation as true because of God’s status as an expert at discerning the truth. But that doesn’t mean God’s revelation of the truth makes the revealed claims true, only that God’s testimony to the truth is exceptionally reliable.
In cases where man’s reason dictates one truth to him, but (purported) revelation another, Locke says reason will often prevail–because our belief in the divine origin of revelation is often less sure than our belief in some other fact about the world. In the following passage, Locke uses our belief that two different objects cannot be in the same place at the same time as an example of a fact that a purported revelation couldn’t persuade us to stop believing. Rather, we’d be forced to conclude that such a revelation was not actually genuine:
For, since no evidence of our faculties, by which we receive such revelations, can exceed, if equal, the certainty of our intuitive knowledge, we can never receive for a truth anything that is directly contrary to our clear and distinct knowledge; v.g. the ideas of one body and one place do so clearly agree, and the mind has so evident a perception of their agreement, that we can never assent to a proposition that affirms the same body to be in two distant places at once, however it should pretend to the authority of a divine revelation: since the evidence, first, that we deceive not ourselves, in ascribing it to God; secondly, that we understand it right; can never be so great as the evidence of our own intuitive knowledge, whereby we discern it impossible for the same body to be in two places at once. And therefore no proposition can be received for divine revelation, or obtain the assent due to all such, if it be contradictory to our clear intuitive knowledge. Because this would be to subvert the principles and foundations of all knowledge, evidence, and assent whatsoever: and there would be left no difference between truth and falsehood, no measures of credible and incredible in the world, if doubtful propositions shall take place before self‐evident; and what we certainly know give way to what we may possibly be mistaken in. In propositions therefore contrary to the clear perception of the agreement or disagreement of any of our ideas, it will be in vain to urge them as matters of faith. They cannot move our assent under that or any other title whatsoever. (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV, Ch. XVIII, §5)
The upshot of all this is that if there are moral facts, a god might tell us about them, but–at least following from the Lockean position I’ve sketched here–no god makes those moral facts true.
I believe that my fellow humans and I are born to certain rights. People who agree with me do our position a disservice by highlighting exclusively religious arguments for rights and disregarding non‐religious ones. People who disagree with me about rights are attacking a strawman when they assert that rights are religious fictions. Disproving the existence of any and all gods wouldn’t thereby disprove the existence of rights. And merely asserting that our rights “come from God” is a poor defense of them.
At least in the Enlightenment natural law tradition, it is wholly coherent to talk about good and evil, and about rights, without putting those arguments on religious footing. Not only is it possible to talk about ethics separately from religion, doing so has practical advantages, even for fervent believers. Ethical arguments based on religious faith will convince only one’s coreligionists. Conversely, arguments that take no position on religious questions can potentially convince anyone. The ability to build an ethical community larger than a single religious community is invaluable, especially in a pluralist society. Even if one accepts the word of god as settling a given ethical question, non‐religious arguments are still valuable for people who don’t accept the same religious premises.