Are Human Rights a Fantasy?

Are Human Rights a Fantasy?

If there is no one to endow human rights, how can everyone be expected to honor them? There remains widespread agreement that genocide, terrorism, and slavery are wrong, but by what authority will we continue to agree? Glenn Scrivener offered the best answer to these questions. “Rights indeed belong to all,” he says, “—that’s the nature of them. But they’ve also come from somewhere particular.” The source is not just any God, but the God Who specifically became man in Jesus Christ, forever ennobling human nature and sparking the Christian revolution that would shape the West and inspire this declaration, that all are “created equal.” 

In a TEDX talk years ago, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari made the startling claim that human rights do not exist.  

[H]uman rights are just like heaven and like God: It’s just a fictional story that we’ve invented and spread around. … It is not a biological reality, just as jellyfish and woodpeckers and ostriches have no rights, Homo sapiens have no rights. … Take a human, cut him open, look inside—you find their blood, and you find the heart and lungs and kidneys, but you don’t find there any rights. The only place you find rights is in the fictional stories that humans have invented and spread around. 

Last week, Harari’s talk resurfaced on the site formerly known as Twitter and sparked a lively debate among Tom Holland, author of Dominion; Glen Scrivener, an Anglican priest and author of The Air We Breathe; and Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who wrote 12 Rules for LifeScrivener took issue with Harari’s materialism and called his remarks about human rights “nonsense.” Rights are indeed faith-based, he said, but that doesn’t make them any less real.  

Tom Holland, who is not a Christian, responded that while he believes in human rights, they are not self-evident. Rather, they require an act of subjective belief. “Human rights have no more objective reality than, say, the Trinity,” wrote Holland. “Both derive from the workings of Christian theology; and both, if they are to be believed in, require people to make a leap of faith.”   

Jordan Peterson disagreed, and responded in somewhat jumbled psychological lingo that rights are somehow “built into the structure of human being[s]” and are therefore “[n]ot arbitrary at all.” Holland shot back that if rights really are somehow “built into” reality, it’s awfully strange that the concept of human rights only emerged around the twelfth century in a specifically Christian and Western political context. 

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