Can Atheists Defend Human Rights?

God is dead ‒ it’s just taking a while to get rid of the body. ‒ Yuval Noah Harari

If God does not exist, everything is permitted. ‒ Fyodor Dostoevsky

This statement, often associated with the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, though never actually written by him, encapsulates some of the ways some theists view atheism and what they think is its necessary correlation with nihilism. It has been extensively quoted by theologians and apologists alike.

It has also often been invoked by believers when reminded that the world is becoming more secular. If the world is more secular, what stops people from infringing on other people’s rights? If our values are arbitrary, evolved by chance, how can our rights be universal and guaranteed equally? For the Christian, the answer is they cannot.

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From Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, Ravi Zacharias, to Eric Metaxas, and many other popular contemporary thinkers, the Western world, which in theory (and reality, to some extent) harnesses the values of liberty and free speech for all, is directly descended from Judeo-Christian principles. Without Judaism and Christianity, they claim, we would have never achieved the intellectual, moral, and human rights progress most now enjoy in Western society.

Indeed, we should appreciate the progress society has made in human rights. Today, we find a lot of commonplace behavior in the past as barbaric, inhumane, and disgusting. For instance, up until 150 years ago, children regularly watched public hangings and executions.

Few criticized capital punishment because few thought there were problems with it. Torture and scoldings were standard practices adopted by every civilization throughout history from the Assyrians, Persians, Seleucids, Romans, Chinese, Aztecs, or the Hindus. Steven Pinker explains in his book, Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined that “all of the first complex civilizations were absolutist theocracies which punished victimless crimes with torture and mutilation.” When Christians discuss God’s universal moral compass, they should then explain the universality of torture and indignance to suffering.

The rights and values we adopted today are radically different from those of our predecessors. As Pinker explains, throughout medieval Europe, “scores of trivial affronts and infractions were punishable by death.” These trivial offenses included: “sodomy, gossiping, stealing cabbages, picking up sticks on the Sabbath, talking back to parents, and criticizing the royal garden.”

Today, we rightly think of these offenses as minor, and because of our better grasp of psychology and human behavior, excuse them readily. In the past, people were not so lucky. Rummel claims that between Jesus’ time and the 20th century, “19 million people were executed for trivial offenses.”

In the previous chapter, I attempted to show the best side of the Christian argument for human rights. Here, I am showing the argument of the opposition. I will try to do so in a balanced way, nonetheless.

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Universal Human Rights in the Bible

From my previous blog post, we know that Christians have some way of defending human rights biblically. If humans were made in the image of God, then surely we should treat them well. But Christians have one difficult hurdle they must overcome if they are to defend human rights consistently. And that is the discrepancy over the call to “love your neighbor” in both the Old and New Testaments.

It is not only that Christianity has the historical problem of locating these universal human rights and values that they champion; it is that they have a difficult time defending the exegesis of the texts concerning the love for their neighbors. In fact, there is a lot of disagreement over how far the neighborly love in the Bible extends.

Many scholars rightly point out that the values that Christians claim are “universal” are situated, exclusive, and temporary. Robert Wright, in his book, The Evolution of God, makes a compelling case for Jesus not being as loving as we presume; And, instead, that Paul, “the apostle of love,” was primarily the one responsible for promoting the “loving” message of Christianity. Originally, Christian love was a “brotherly love” or “familial love.”

Wright elaborates: “familial love is by definition discerning — it is directed inwardly, not outwardly; toward kin, not toward everyone.” Wright argues that one of the key components to Christianity’s success as a religion was that it rewarded those who became Christians by granting them this “brotherly love.” Thus, the original appeal of Christianity was that it provided whoever joined the religion, the “benefits of an extended family,” which included financial and material assistance when needed.

The idea to love your neighbor is not only found in the New Testament; It is also found in the Old Testament (Lev 19:18). Notably, there is some dispute over what the term ‘neighbor’ means in these texts as well. The anthropologist John Hartung argues that in the Old Testament, a ‘neighbor’ was thought of as one’s kin rather than an outsider. Hartung elaborates:

[W]hen the Israelites received the love law, they were isolated in a desert. According to the account, they lived in tents clustered by extended families, they had no non-Israelite neighbors, and dissension was rife. Internecine fighting became rather vicious, with about 3,000 killed in a single episode (Exodus 32:26–28). Most of the troops wanted to ‘choose a [new] captain and go back to Egypt’ (Numbers 14:4). But their old captain, Moses, preferred group cohesion. If we want to know who Moses thought his god meant by neighbor, the law must be put into context, and the minimum context that makes sense is the biblical verse from which the love law is so frequently extracted.

In fact, the Rollins Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University, Peter Brown, says that “The teaching of the church defined for the Chritian who was not his neighbor: the neighbor of the Christian was not necessarily his kinsman, not his fellow dweller in a quartier, not his compatriot or his fellow townsman; his neighbor was his fellow Christian.”

But Are Secular Rights, Universal Rights?

Even if there is a dispute in Christian scholarship over what these terms suggest, Christian apologists still do not get rid of their inadequate theoretical framework for “universal morality,” as we saw in the previous chapters on morality. Are Christians any closer to “universal” human rights?

The philosophical and argumentative appeal to divine revelation is tough to universalize, and Christians have no way to ignore this dilemma. An argument that relies on divine revelation simply states that an opinion is right because my sacred book says it is. Unfortunately, engaging with those who argue for these views is as futile as the argument itself since there is no way to persuade someone of its falsity. It is, by definition, unfalsifiable.

Furthermore, Christians have the more pressing question of how they will universalize a morality that is not inclusive to minorities, whether that is to the LGBTQ+ community, or even to atheists and others that according to them “infringe” on their freedoms for wanting more separation between church and state. The inclusive umbrella of Christianity extends only so far, critics say. Susan Jacoby explains:

We can answer the question of what the Western world would have been like without the Enlightenment because we can see what other human beings are enduring now for holding the wrong beliefs in the wrong place at the wrong time, in societies where so-called secular law is subordinate to the laws and lawlessness of self-appointed spokesmen for God.


In her book, Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion, Jacoby helpfully traces the story of conversion seen in Christendom from its genesis in Jerusalem and the Peloponnesus to its steady downfall in France and England during the Enlightenment. She writes that the Christian conviction in early Christendom was that rejecting God was a “moral error of the highest order,” which meant that it was the “right and duty of the state to enforce one faith.”

Augustine of Hippo, one of the early Church fathers, was an outright proponent of this view. Other Church notables, including Ambrose, Leo, and Martin of Tours, argued that executing heretics was a harsh admonishment; instead, they thought it would be wiser to simply condemn them. Despite the advocacy for milder treatment, the execution of heretics was common-place by the tenth century.

In John Calvin’s Geneva, citizens were forbidden gambling, playing cards, dancing, fornication, witchcraft, and reading books that were not given an imprimatur by the legal enforcement agency, called the Consistory. Therefore, prisons in Geneva were often full. Geneva’s legal force also regulated the amount of meat that could be eaten with each meal, restricted family gatherings that exceeded 20 people, prohibited eating pastries and candied fruits, the skipping of sermons, and the naming of children after Roman-Catholic saints. Jacoby goes so far to call Calvin the “most intolerant of the major founders of the Reformation.”

Hatred directed toward ethnic groups, among other minorities, was common among influential Church leaders. When it came to Jews, Calvin wrote:

Some say that because the crime consists only of words there is no cause for such severe punishment. But we muzzle dogs; shall we leave men free to open their mouth and say what they please? . . . God makes it plain that the false prophet is to be stoned without mercy. We are to crush beneath our heels all natural affection when his honour is at stake. The father should not spare his child, nor the husband, his wife, nor the friend that friend who is dearer to him than life.

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Historical Christianity was not particularly inclusive, nor did it stress liberty, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness as many American Christians do today. In fact, each of the great fathers of Protestantism, including Zwingli, Calvin, and Luther, were “hostile” to freedom of conscience. Luther was similarly adamant and vitriolic toward the Jews as Calvin was. In his treatise, On the Jews and Their Lies, Luther writes:

First, . . . set fire to their synagogues or schools and . . . bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. . . . Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. . . . Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them. . . . . Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. . . . Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. . . . Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping. Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam.

There was some opposition to the Reformation leaders, and indeed, Luther had at one point said that executing heretics was something that the Holy Spirit would not be pleased with. The contemporary of Calvin, Sebastian Castellio, wrote in Concerning Heretics, Whether they are to be Persecuted, that Calvin and other Protestants should differentiate between essential and inessential Christian doctrine to discern who is worth executing. For example, Castellio considered the doctrines of predestination, the Trinity, and the nature of heaven and hell, inessential views that one should not be killed for.

In his writings, Castellio was referring primarily to Servetus’s execution by Calvin for denying the Trinity and rejecting infant baptism. Notably, these executions were becoming less prevalent because of the writings of Christian thinkers, such as Castellio.

Atheists were also persecuted; However, they were not as common in Europe. Atheists, such as Cesare Vanini, who died at the stake in 1619, were still being executed in Europe by having their tongues pulled out and then burned alive up until the 17th century. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that Christians stopped having stiff legal penalties in Britain for “impiety.”

In 1763, 70-year old Peter Annet was sentenced to a year of hard labor for questioning the accounts of miracles in the Old Testament. However, it should be pointed out that 17th century Europe was far from 15th century Europe when it came to what discussions were off-limits and what type of behavior was permitted in society.

The writings of John Locke in the 17th century helped with the tolerance that was increasingly seen in Europe, especially in England. Locke could not spare his tolerance for atheists, however. For example, he refused to engage with the philosopher Thomas Hobbes because Hobbes identified as an atheist. When it came to religious affiliation, Locke was more progressive than he was with regard to atheists. Locke, himself a Christian, although there is some debate over whether he had a more deistic view of God, thought that conversion should be voluntary. In Locke’s words:

A Church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order for the public worshipping of God, in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls. I say it is a free and voluntary society. Nobody is born a member of any Church; otherwise, the religion of the parents would descend unto the children, by the same right of inheritance as their temporal estates, and everyone would hold his faith by the same tenure as he holds his lands; than which nothing can be imagined more absurd.

Many philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries adopted similar views. Meanwhile, Protestant and Catholic thinkers up to the 17th century thought of religious intolerance as a prerequisite to sharing their faith. Although, there were rare glimpses of hope even from the most vitriolic anti-Semites of the Reformation. In That Jesus Christ was a Born Jew, Luther writes:

If we wish to make them better, we must deal with them not according to the law of the pope, but according to the law of Christian charity. We must receive them kindly, and follow them to compete with us in earning a livelihood, so that they may have a good reason to be with us and among us and an opportunity to witness Christian life and doctrine; and if some remain obstinate, what of it? Not every one of us is a good Christian.

However, as William Nichols points out in Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate, even this “humane” and “charitable” take on Jews from Luther was principally about making the Jews “better”; Nichols explains that, “Luther does not attempt to comprehend or evaluate positively the Judaism by which they live.” Luther very well may have been a product of his culture, but the question then is where our “universal” human rights and values came from if we cannot see them from the major Church founders.

Jews were finally given legal equality in the 1790s in the West, beginning with the United States, France, and the Netherlands, with the rest of Europe following suit in the following century. It should be pointed out, however, that the Calvinistic Netherlands improved the relations between Christians and Jews “well before” that of France and Germany where the Enlightenment was in full effect. Some places saw the utility of pluralism and tolerance when it came to different faiths. Nichols comments that the Reformation may have led to more religious pluralism in society, but it was by no means a purposeful move by the Reformers: “The Reformation was not therefore the precursor of modern liberalism but (in the areas it influenced) the last kick of the medieval world.”

Atheists, on the other hand, were still not allowed university positions well into the 20th century. Of course, it was not until recently that other minorities in many developed countries were given legal rights to rightfully participate in democracy.

“The Reformation was not therefore the precursor of modern liberalism but (in the areas it influenced) the last kick of the medieval world.” — William Nichols

If you want to continue reading on this topic, I have released a book on the topic. This is an excerpt from Chapter 6: The Human Rights of the Atheist. It is now also in kindle version.

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I write to keep you thinking and to keep me thankful and reflective. Cheers and until next time,

keep reflecting.

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Author of “Up in the Air: Christianity, Atheism & the Global Problems of the 21st Century” on AMAZON | Exploring Ethical Living | IG: jakub.ferencik.official

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