Do human rights exist?

An article by the same name was posted by Andrew Brown in the Guardian’s Comment is Free on Wednesday, 20th October, 2010.  I will admit that it stumped me at first as he did not make it clear if it was satire or not but the general comparison of human rights with antiquated religion goes far beyond the obtuse and into the fatuous. What it did do is make me think about what could have possessed him to write it.  He is suggesting that because, like religious scripture, the ideas of fundamental and agreed constitutions, declarations of human rights, and bills of rights are written by people, they should be discarded as mythology.   I’m sure I’m not the only one who has heard this before and equally sure that I am not the only one rolling my eyes in disgust that any sane adult could even consider such a comparison.  Well let’s try to read through the satire, shall we?

“Some people may take this as satire. I couldn’t possibly comment. But all these arguments have been made to de-legitimise religion”

The dictionary definition of satire is to expose human folly to ridicule.  In this case the ridicule is more than deserved. If Mr Brown clearly takes himself to be a wit (when he’s really only half of one) with his casual disdain for reason and rationality.   The onus of proof is truly on the believer but let’s be sensible.  Human rights may well be fabricated but they are still evolving (no pun intended), often in the face of very heavy religiously motivated opposition such as the right of homosexual couples to legally marry, that non-believers be permitted to enter the career of their choice without any religious test, and that women be allowed to choose for themselves whether or not they carry a child to term.

“The essential point about human rights is that there is no evidence whatsoever that they actually exist. Children are born without any belief in them and they were certainly never heard of in all the millennia of prehistory. Even in recorded history, they are a very new invention, and one which has been confined, even in principle, to a very small part of the world. They are based entirely on documents written by human beings, and produced through squalid political processes nothing like the later myths. Countries where enemies of the state are routinely tortured before being executed sign declarations of rights with as much enthusiasm as peaceful democracies.”

The general acceptance of modern (and enlightened) society, legislation, social movements and many other socially driven phenomena has over time (and much effort) provided us with a set of guidelines that we call modern laws.  They may not be perfect but they are open to change unlike the biblical laws that some believe we should be following to the letter.  Please note the use of the word ‘biblical’ and exchange it with any scriptural law and you will see that any theocratic constitution is utterly incompatible with a secular culture who hold ALL persons to be of equal worth.  If you want an example, look no further than the conflicts in the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran, or to Israel where Jewish teenagers are being jailed for refusing to take part in their country’s military action against Palestine.  When laws are absolute and immovable (as they would be under any theocracy) there can never be real justice.

“We are told that the two qualities of human rights is that they are “self-evident” and “unassailable”. This is like saying that the chief quality of porridge is its excellence as a material for building skyscrapers. The chief evidence for the existence of these unassailable and self-evident human rights is that we are told, by people who believe in them, that they are everywhere attacked and trampled. What difference does a right make if it doesn’t change the world, and if there is no help for all the people who believe in it?”

I fail to see the problem in the philosophy of ‘self-evident ‘ human rights, but unfortunately that generalisation is sadly lacking in information and allows room for a great deal of self-rationalisation for inhuman acts.  Who’s to say what is a right? WE ARE; all of us, regardless of race, gender, age or religion.  It may be subject to debate but it is OUR place to campaign for social changes, against unethical practices, and that includes and end to the arbitrary privileging of religious organisations or attempts to revoke women’s rights over their own fertility.  A ‘right’ might not change the world but it can make all the difference where it IS observed and applied.  Once it is seen as beneficial, news will spread and ideas can change where they are allowed to.  To refuse to cease any detrimental practice because ‘everyone else is doing it‘ is a cowardly excuse used to justify injustice.  Those who tolerate injustice in silence are as guilty as the perpetrators.

“It’s obvious from watching children playing that they have no concept whatever of universal rights, only of their own. In societies where adults are forbidden to indoctrinate their children, the idea of human rights never arises except among lunatics and seldom spreads beyond them.”

Have you seen children, particularly teenagers, left to their own devices?  They team up, form cliques and ostracise any who they feel does ‘not fit in.’  Those who are not leaders are either ‘followers’ or on the receiving end so ‘fairness’ does not come into it.  I am speaking from personal experience here.  Children are not social activists, but survivalists.  The only time ‘fairness’ gets involved, for the most part, is when one of them decides they want their own way and they are not getting it.  But they are children and it is our job, as parents and teachers, to show them how and why this bullying behaviour is not acceptable.

“Even in this country, the active supporters of human rights are tiny and dwindling minority, with influence entirely disproportionate to their numbers. If it weren’t for the disgraceful pandering of the BBC to the rightist agenda and its decision to spend license payers’ money on such rightist indoctrination and propaganda as the Secret Policeman’s ball, these people would dwindle into their natural obscurity.”

Atheists are NOT tiny or ‘dwindling’, however much we might be a ‘minority’.  If the census shows that we are it is because the 2001 was biased and contained deliberately leading questions.  If our numbers are so trifling, why did you write this article, Mr Brown?  And since when has the BBC pandered to anyone?  This paragraph alone shows your abject and totally unjustified panic.

“We in The National Realist Association do not want to outlaw the belief in human rights. That would be absurd. But it is just as absurd, and surely more dangerous, for the rightist to have a specially privileged position. They are allowed to teach in schools, and even protected against discrimination laws and allowed to sack anyone who doesn’t believe in Human Rights. And yet there is no evidence that human rights exist at all.”

To save you looking, I already googled ‘The National Realist Association’ and it appears not to exist outside Mr Brown’s imagination, whereas The National Secular Society and The British Humanist Association etc., actually do.  We do NOT desire a privileged position.  We simply wish to be allowed to live without religion impinging upon us.  Unfortunately this is not possible for now.  I hope it will be within my lifetime.

“They should be taught in schools as part of a balanced curriculum, one in which such practices as slavery and torture are discussed on their merits – for they have never been more popular nor as widely practised as they are in the world today – and they, at least, exist, which no one has ever proved that human rights could do.”

I am with Dawkins on this one, in that a good knowledge of theology and mythology can be of great assistance in understanding the references in a great deal of European, American, and English literature.  Dante’s Inferno is possibly one of my favourite pieces of poetry (obviously translated from the 13th century Italian) but that does not mean that I should have to take it as ‘truth’ because of its religious references.  Indeed, much of its meaning would be lost without my understanding of Christianity.  The Iliad is another, but we would question any who claimed to live their lives through its teachings.  Teach them about religion, by all means, but along with the real history and allow those students to compare and contrast, raise questions and objections.  If they were as ‘true’ as those believers claim their beliefs to be, then they will stand up to any scrutiny.  Any attempt to enforce blasphemy laws is more revealing than those who support them realise.

“There is no instance of supposed human rights which cannot be better explained by a modern biological analysis of power arrangements in which “‘Genteel’ ideas of vaguely benevolent mutual co-operation are replaced by an expectation of stark, ruthless, opportunistic mutual exploitation.” We are after all, animals, another fact that makes the idea of specially “human” rights ridiculous.”

And an example of this very replacement is now even more evident in the US ‘Tea Party’ movement.  With everyone out for themselves and little, if any, compassion for those who are not paid enough to afford both exorbitant insurance premiums AND put food on the table ( though as much as I like Mr Obama, he really has this whole health system idea completely around his neck).  They are funded by corporations and are therefore OWNED by those corporations, while they should about this elusive ‘trickle down’ effect of corporate tax breaks.  Sod the bloody corporations!  They are not at risk; they seek only to improve their margin and inflate their profits.  If Potty-Palin thinks that the corporations will really employ more Americans to fill their posts rather than ‘out-source the jobs for cheap labour’, then she is truly out of her tiny mind.  How will she stop them once she has granted these big corporations the freedom they have paid her to advocate?  We may still be apes in essence but why should that mean we behave as such, with the ‘alphas’ laying down the law and laying waste to those who oppose them.  I’m an atheist but I am no practical Darwinist.  Rather, my atheism is accompanied with strong humanist ties and, though I cannot speak for everyone, we generally support a social atmosphere of cooperation.

“Whether parents should be allowed to indoctrinate their children with a belief in human rights is of course a vexed question. Rightists would claim that a prohibition violates their rights, but this is a ludicrously circular argument. You might as well claim that the bible is true because the bible says it’s true. Once we realise that there is no evidence that human rights exist we must seriously ask ourselves whether society can allow parents to abuse their children in this way. A belief in human rights can lead people towards such absurdities as supposing that parents have a right (that word again!) to tell their children lies, and even that this is one of the foundations of a free society. This is a clear example of the terrible damage which a seemingly moderate and harmless delusion can do. In many ways the woolly and harmless rightists are far more dangerous, because of their apparent mask of decency, than the fanatics of Amnesty International.”

Parents definitely should bestow their children with a sense of general respect for others (because that is what rights bestow to us), regardless of their personal beliefs on religion.  That does not mean they should demand or bestow complete respect as more specified forms of respect are earned, but do teach children not to be bullies or be spiteful.  It is our social responsibility to ensure that the physical and psychological well-being of those dependant on us, whether children or otherwise, are neither subjected to cruelty or persecution.  If parents teach their children to hate and fear, they are not only violating their children’s rights, but the rights of those nameless strangers who will be the victims of that ‘teaching’.  Nor should parents be teaching their children to fear questioning authority, or that if they do not believe and behave as their parents instruct them, they will face an eternity of punishment and torture.  Those of us who do not follow any religious doctrine, generally do not tell our children that those who disagree with them or live a different lifestyle, are any less worthy of human compassion.

“Everywhere that human rights have gone, terror and bloodshed have followed, from the French Revolution, which convulsed Europe in war for nearly thirty years, through to Stalin’s Russia, where the constitution protected more rights than almost any other one has ever done, and now in the invasion of Iraq, where nearly people have died from our determination to impose rights and democracy. Of course the apologists will claim that these are perversions of the original idea. But why should we listen to the apologists, when they believe in something that doesn’t even exist?”

Agreed human rights have been the resolution to the conflict and blood shed so not only is this statement untrue, but it’s insulting to my and everyone else’s intelligence.  Stalin (a Catholic) aimed to replace religion with himself  and place himself in the role of god.  If the people of Russia had not already had religion foisted upon them by previous generations, the maybe he might not have had such an easy time of it?  To equate a justified and non-violent desire for human equality with religiously ordained conquest is disgusting.  The French revolution occurred because the aristocracy had virtually enslaved the lower class.  They had NO rights and so were forced to fight for them.  It went on for thirty years, at least, partly because England, under the Prince Regent and other ‘nobles’, were supporting the oppressors.  Rights are not imposed and nor can democracy, they are bestowed under common agreement, based on a changing society, and must be worked for.  Even a look at the history of Europe in the twentieth century should tell us that democracy cannot be imposed.  I agree we should never have gone to Iraq and still strongly feel that we went under false pretences despite the fierce public out-cry (our right to protest and speak out against our government.  Care to give that one up too, Mr Brown?).

“People have criticised me for failing to read any literature by rightists. But the Emperor must prove he has new clothes before I will discuss their frills, their furbelows, and the excellence of their cut. And whatever the emperor’s sycophants may say they must first prove that rights exist before I can discuss what they are. And of course no one can prove this, and all their so-called proofs come down to mere assertions, based on books written hundreds of years ago by people who knew nothing of the modern world.”

If ever there was a straw-man argument, this is it.  Rife with table-turning (a typical tactic used by those with no argument), he persists in informing us that as non-believers we should refrain from comment and he dismisses any idea that we have a right not to have his (or anyone’s’) religion foisted upon us as some sort of requirement to be a decent human being.   There is no such thing as a ‘Rightist’, unless you count the ‘religious-right’ who persist in decrying anything they personally disagree with as ‘leftist’ in pathetic attempts to discredit their opponent rather than come up with any credible explanation or counter argument.  Human rights advocates come from all spheres of society (including the religious) so Mr Brown’s non-argument is already a moot point.  I would suggest he DOES read some history and ‘rightist’ literature about what the human race has suffered (and at whose hands) before we began to come up with the idea of universal human rights.

“I know that some people will be shocked by this argument. It’s all very well, they will say, to dismiss God, or religion in this way, because those are things that other people believe in, and they are silly, and nasty, and wrong. That’s why they’re other people. But to demand evidence that the things exist which we believe in – that’s absurd.”

Why do I believe that Mr Brown couched his sordid bigotry behind a mask of satire?  Because without the satire, giving himself a loophole should there be any complaints.  If, Mr Brown, you truly do not believe in human rights then ask yourself ‘why’?  I would say it was more a symptom of religious influence and indoctrination than anything else.  Your ridiculous claim that religion has, or should have, any claim on us is laughable, if not worrying that you truly do believe what you say you do.  As atheists and secularists (the two are not mutually exclusive but nor do they mean the same thing.) we do not deny you the right to practice your beliefs.  We do not claim that our non-belief gives us some anciently given monopoly on morality, and we do not grant ourselves the right to deny others the same rights that we enjoy.  Our right to non-belief stops at us. We do not try to enforce it on others.  We have no leaders egging us on to persecute you on religious grounds, no messiah and no scriptures telling us that we shall eventually inherit the earth (by whatever means necessary if you take the bible seriously.).   So please get this straight.  WE expect the same courtesy from you and it has taken this long and tawdry onslaught of media press against secularism before we have finally snapped and now we are pushing back.  Unorganised, we may be but there are a lot more of us than you think, and we plan to make a lot of noise.

Letter to
Here is another article, but in summary the same feelings are expressed.  The woman who sent this later tried to wriggle out of her corner by claiming it was a joke. Pardon me for not finding this sort of ‘joke’ funny anymore.




2 thoughts on “Do human rights exist?

  1. pjcorona says:

    Hi Anna. The right side of the text is being cut off. This discussion is ongoing with theists who never a seem able to think for themselves, the trust their imaginary friends more than logic, reason or science. I had a conversation yesterday with an agnostic who still could not even consider that nothing exists after death. It is fear of the unknown that drives them to believe, fear of death, and fear of nothingness. As for the question about rights, they only exist if we say they do and then enact laws that protect them.


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