Atheism's Best Defense of Rights

Over at Smallest Minority, Kevin Baker has posted a monumental effort at defining a "right," and explicating why it and the United States are so important, from the atheist perspective. (Kevin was kind enough to quote from my earlier piece, The Enervated Man of the West, as part of his presentation.) Ultimately he must fall back on Ayn Rand's "one fundamental right," the right to your own life, from which all other fundamental rights flow.

Yet, strictly speaking, this is not a "right." Nothing has granted your life protected status. By speaking of a "right to your own life," Rand, and Kevin in his piece, simply acknowledge that if you do not defend your own life absolutely, you will inevitably be destroyed. It is a philosophical reflection of reality:
The "state of nature" is the ultimate objective reality. In it, people will do whatever is necessary to survive, or they don't survive. In point of fact, throughout history - even today - people have not only defended their lives, liberty and property, they have taken life, liberty, and property from others not of their society. And they have done so secure in the knowledge that their philosophy tells them that it's the right thing to do.
Kevin argues that such an outlook clashes with the basic principle underlying Western civilization, that of God-given rights. And though a devout atheist himself, he concludes that the advance of atheism is to blame for the crumbling of our cultural strength:
It is my contention that the loss of faith in Western civilization is the direct result of two things: the secularization of Western civilization, and a corresponding realization that there are no absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, ultimate rights. Or, more specifically, the cognitive dissonance resulting from the refusal to accept this as objective fact.

Western civilization is based on the concept of God-given individual rights, but reality refutes their existence. War cannot exist if such a philosophy is true, yet war exists. People die. Their liberty is stripped from them. Their property is stolen or destroyed. No one is punished for the violation of these rights. If a society abandons religion (as much of Western civilization has done) then we cannot count on God to punish the violators, and they get away with their crimes against us, (See: Josef Mengele, Slobodan Milosevic, and most probably Saddam Hussein) yet we've been breastfed on the idea that our rights are absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, and ultimate - not to mention, self-evident.
This is the danger of atheism. Even Ayn Rand's "one fundamental right" when expressed in a social setting is merely a collective decision of enlightened self-interest. There is nothing about human life, in the abstract, that is worth defending when its destruction does not affect you.

This is why I have tended to avoid talking about "rights." Instead, I talk about the "sanctity of life," which has nothing to do with whether a murderer is punished for his crime or not. Nor does it have to do with human reason. Rather, it is an inherent state of existence, springing forth from our status as Divine creations. Only this axiom—that we are created, and given intrinsic significance, by God—can serve as a philosophical basis for defending life in the abstract. Kevin acknowledges this, which is why he believes that an intrinsic right to life does not truly exist.

Kevin believes that the need to wage war directly contradicts the idea of a "God-given right to life." He further believes that this contradiction must ultimately lead to a fatal cognitive dissonance that will bring down cultures based on such an idea. In saying this, Kevin does not consider how a worldview built on sanctity differs from one built on natural rights.

Kevin states: We have the right to kill others because our own lives are of value. Yet taken to its extreme, this formulation simply means that you can ultimately do whatever you need to to defend your own life, including killing the innocent. (This point is made explicitly above.) Meanwhile, in Judaism you are allowed to set aside nearly all parts of the law to save life. But there are clearly defined circumstances in which you are categorically ordered to lay down your life. You must allow yourself to die rather than commit idolatry, a capital sexual transgression such as adultery, or murder. These acts are considered so profane that you may never, under any circumstances, defile yourself with them.

However, you can, and sometimes must, kill someone who seeks to commit murder himself.

What is the difference? I believe that the act of profanity in which the would-be murderer has immersed himself nullifies his sanctity, for that instant.

More to the point, there is no contradiction between the sanctity of life and killing another to defend that sanctity. Admittedly, I have not studied enough to say whether this is the rationale used by Jewish law; but it shows, I think, that while a "rights"-based society might be built on a contradiction, as Kevin suggests, this does not mean that belief in God cannot generate a consistent worldview that allows war in defense of life.

Which brings us to the upshot. Without belief in God, you are left with self-interest, in its crude or enlightened forms. With belief in God, you can have the basis for a true defense of life as a principle.

Perhaps Kevin might be interested in a modified form of Pascal's wager. The stakes here are not eternal damnation, whatever that means; they are the philosophical integrity of our society, here on Earth.


Kevin said...

I believe that the act of profanity in which the would-be murderer has immersed himself nullifies his sanctity, for that instant.

More to the point, there is no contradiction between the sanctity of life and killing another to defend that sanctity.

However, this avoids the question of the deliberate killing of innocents in war, whether wholescale, as in the bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, and Hiroshima, or retail as in the bombing of al-Zarqawi (in which a woman and child were among the victims of the bombing.) What of their sanctity of life?

Your argument makes Jewish pacifism more understandable to me, but pacifism in any form to me seems anti-survival. I still do not grasp why all members of the Jewish religion do not embrace the idea of "never again."

Mastiff said...

Answering the question of killing innocents in war would require more knowledge than I possess. However, the question hinges on the exact point at which group identity becomes more important, in a moral sense, than individual identity.

Would it be moral to pick off North Korean soldiers right now? Maybe, maybe not; I don't know. But it certainly is moral if our nations were at war. What has changed? Not the identity of the soldiers; rather, some facet of the way our two nations interact. Like I said, I need to study more.

To your second point: in my view, it is impossible to accept the Torah as a binding mandate from God and still be a pacifist. One who loves peace, certainly. But pacifism, the belief that war is always wrong, is hard to reconcile with the Divine command to wage war against various surrounding peoples. Nor can it be reconciled with the need to defend ourselves, as you mention.

I think those Jews who are pacifist (as opposed to peace-loving) are Jews only superficially: regardless of how much of Torah law they follow or ignore, they clearly have not internalized the underlying philosophy of the Torah.

All of which is a longwinded way of saying, "Molon Labe, brother!"