September 29, 2009
Christianity and Liberty
There’s an increasingly popular apologetic making the rounds these days: that Christianity provides the intellectual framework for our modern conception of individual rights. This is a popular David Barton conceit, for example, and Dinesh D’Souza relied on it extensively in his debate with Christopher Hitchens.
Unsurprisingly, the argument has always struck me as completely batty. Our modern conception of rights stems exclusively (and some would say axiomatically) from the concept of the social contract, made explicit in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, and extended in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government. Locke and Hobbes articulate a theory of individual rights that is entirely secular; in fact, Hobbes puts it this way:
A law of nature, lex naturalis, is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved. For though they that speak of this subject use to confound jus and lex, right and law, yet they ought to be distinguished, because right consisteth in liberty to do, or to forbear; whereas law determineth and bindeth to one of them: so that law and right differ as much as obligation and liberty, which in one and the same matter are inconsistent.
I do concede that both Hobbes and Locke were (to varying degrees) theists, and both drew upon the Christian tradition in framing their arguments. That is, of course, to be expected. But — at least for me — the underyling contribution of social contractarianism to liberty is that it can be justified on exclusively secular grounds. Thus, I have long concluded that Christianity offers no sort of justification for the American scheme of individual rights we now enjoy.
This is readily confirmed by history; beginning in 380 AD and extending for more than a thousand years, Christians and Christian thought dominated Western Civilization, and nobody — not even indisputably brilliant theologians and Christian philosophers like Thomas Aquinas — ever articulated a theory of individual rights (or anything that is even arguably a precursor). Rather, it was only once Christianity’s influence over Western Civilization began to subside in favor of the secular philosophy of the Enlightenment that we developed the theory of rights described above.
However, I stumbled across this interesting article by well-known atheist George H. Smith, author of Atheism: The Case Against God (which is a must-have for any skeptic’s bookshelf. Interestingly, Smith’s article was written for the Acton Institute, a Christian organization dedicated to, among other things, “promoting a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.”
So the resulting article is, I think, about as “fair and balanced” as one can be on this topic. Smith forcefully articulates the positive role that Christian thought and institutions played throughout history in the development of the concept of liberty as we understand it today.
Of course, the apologist’s argument that Christianity provides an ontological justification for liberty remains patently false; there’s nothing in the Bible that suggests that individuals enjoy basic rights, and plenty to the contrary. But as a social institution and a force of history, Smith has persuaded me that the relationship between Christianity and individual rights is a bit more complicated than I initially thought.