Takes to the sky like a bird in flight… Are ‘religious’ and ‘human’ rights in conflict?

Inalienable human rights are the phlogiston of political science.  Sensible people who reject all kinds of superstition, pseudo-science, and quackery happily jump on board the rights train.  Libertarians are the worst at it, to be frank.  They will look at you with a straight face while they deny every conception of community that isn’t ontologically grounded in individuals (lulz) and then will happily assert that individuals have rights that exist prior to the formation of the State and which must, as a matter of fact, be respected.


There are plenty of psychological experiments where you give people contradictory stimuli (usually visual and sensual) and then watch them squirm as their brains try to rationalise what’s going on.  Here’s one with visual and sound stimuli (the McGurk effect).

It’s rare that you see somebody caught in one of these conflicts as a result of their political philosophy but, when you do, it is a delight.  On The Guardian, Deborah Orr finds herself stuck in a bizarre conflict between ‘human’ rights and ‘religious’ rights.

For human rights to flourish, religious rights have to come second to them. We are all human. We are not all of the same religion, or religious at all. One cannot protect religious rights if they are used as a reason to abuse human rights, human equalities, as so often they are. Britain may not be able to export its new-found anti-discriminatory zeal to the rest of the world with much ease. But Britain is in a good position to start working out a framework whereby people with diverse beliefs can live together without conflict, safe in the knowledge that the religious beliefs of all who respect human rights will be respected in turn. People need to answer on Earth to our fellow humans. We can square things with our God, if we have one, when and if that day arrives. Compliments of the season, whatever that means to you. [Source]

In her barely coherent — borderline Thomas Friedmanesque — ramble about discrimination, we never quite work out what Orr means by ‘religious’ rights and how they’re distinguishable from ‘human’ rights.  Indeed, if you’re drinking the rights Kool-Aid, it seems sensible and coherent to say that ‘religious’ rights (perhaps freedom of worship, freedom of belief, &c., &c.) are themselves ‘human’ rights.  This creates a strange hierarchy of rights in Orr’s world: all human rights are equal except for the rights she’s labelled ‘religious’ rights.

Most of Orr’s problems stem from the fact that she plainly doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

Human rights are often mocked as imaginary. “How can a baby, born of nature, have inherent ‘rights’, any more than a newborn rabbit?” goes one argument. But human rights are not imaginary. They’re conceptual. They rest on a single idea – that all humans have a common need for certain conditions if they are to flourish as productive members of society, and that all humans have a responsibility to ensure that everyone attains and maintains those rights. (The second part of the covenant is more often overlooked than the first, it’s true.) [Source]

What the devil does ‘conceptual’ mean in this paragraph?  If I state that Santa Claus is imaginary, I’m not certain that anybody is contradicting me if they declare that he is conceptual.  Nobody disagrees that rights are conceptual.  When people say ‘A baby is born with rights,’ nobody thinks that the rights occupy some physical part of the baby’s body.

Even more strange: rights exist so that people can flourish as productive members of society?  It is unusual when consequentialists reverse-engineer their ontologies.  So that we can achieve this particular end, otherwise fantastic and magical entities called ‘rights’ must exist and everybody must respect them.  It’s not even as good as Aristotle’s attempt to achieve some form of the highest good: it’s merely that we need people to be ‘productive’.  We have a social framework to make sure that you’re productive.

Scratch rights from her paragraph and replace it with ‘God’.  ‘God is not imaginary.  He is conceptual.  He rests upon a single idea — that all humans have a common need for certain conditions if they are to flourish as moral beings.’

And this brings us to the crux of the problem: the rights discourse seems to support a wide (perhaps wild) range of conflicting positions.  Here, Orr thinks that it’s obvious that ‘religious’ rights are subordinate to ‘human’ rights because she’s worried about discrimination and she thinks that religion is irrational (or antirational).  Elsewhere, a libertarian thinks that it’s obvious that property rights are the only real rights and that provision of welfare to some is an infringement of the property rights of others.  Elsewhere, somebody thinks that the right to bear arms is a right.  Elsewhere, somebody thinks that freedom of speech should be absolute, even when it means intimidating and humiliating minorities.

Orr’s assertion is easily dismissed not only because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about but also because there’s no rational reason to believe that she’s correct.  If you don’t share her hostility towards religion, you can’t reconstruct her argument.

Until we get past the fantasy of rights, we’re going to continue to have these diseased discussions where one group asserts a default right to disenfranchise their opponents.


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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