In a recent post at First Things, Mark Movsesian makes some observations about Roger Scruton’s The Future of European Civilization: Lessons for America. Movsesian is particularly interested in human rights which Scruton views as a European religion replacing Christianity, at least for European elites. Scruton faults human rights for lacking grounding and for being indeterminate because of that lack of grounding. That is, there is wide disagreement as to what is and is not a human right. To this, Movsesian observes that Christians disagree about what Christianity teaches in a wide variety of important circumstances. So on this ground, Christianity has no advantage.
Movsesian imagines that Scruton might respond that the dominant strand of secular human rights thought denies any objective truth claims, so there can be no objective basis for adjudicating between varying human rights claims. If this were true, however, human rights thought would be indefensible. If there is no such thing as an objective truth claim, there is no basis for claiming that it is wrong to torture, to napalm babies, or to violate any human rights. But I think the dominant strand of European thought is not so simple minded. And even if it were, it is best to confront a more sensible response, a response that affirms the existence of a moral reality (perhaps one grounded in the flourishing of sentient beings).
It seem to me that defenders of morality and human rights have no knock out blows to defend their positions; but neither do defenders of religion including Christianity. This makes neither of them wrong. Human rights independent of religion and/or God might exist even if we do not have the resources to prove their existence. Moreover, the connection between morality (and human rights) and God is itself complicated. Suppose God asks us to violate human rights (gratuitous torture). Should we abide by the request (think of Abraham and Isaac), or should we say that a genuine God would not ask us to violate human rights? If the latter, don’t the religious need to know what rights are human rights?
In the end, I think the grounding of religion does not deductively lead to clear, let alone, easy answers in a broad swath of moral questions that arise in the course of a complex social existence. Surely, there is no better agreement about what rights are human rights in the religious community than in the elite European secular community. The stones thrown at human rights secularists (at least on the account of Movsesian) seem to be thrown from a glass house. In the end, I suspect that those who attack the non-religious defenders of human rights and those who attack the religious tell us as much or more about themselves than about those they attack.