On the Right to Have Rights If There Is No God There to Grant Any

By Ed Buckner | 24 March 2023
Letters to a Free Country

(Image by cgrape from Pixabay)

About the Friday Freethought Perennials in general: This subset of my blog is to answer questions, nearly always already answered by me and by many others but posed again and again—over many years and in many places—on freethought, atheism, secular humanism, secularism/church-state/”This is a Christian Nation,” and similar topics. These answers are mostly not intended to be original analyses, breaths of fresh air, so much as just putting a whole series of things on the record (I’d say “forever,” except I know better). One source for many of these answers is the 2012 Prometheus Books book by me and my son (Michael E. Buckner), In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty. It’s available in many libraries and pretty readily in the used book after-market. I’ll cite writings of others that answer these things in more depth if I’m aware of them when I post these.

A quite frequent freethought perennial is related to the source of rights. Many a theist (and especially many a Christian nationalist) seems to think that this issue is the ultimate clincher supporting claiming a Christian basis for the US as an approach to governing, whatever the US Constitution says or doesn’t.

If there is a god who is all powerful and cares about humanity, then of course it is logical to think that god granted us whatever rights we may have. But if there is no god who is all powerful and cares about humanity, then of course it is quite illogical to think that god granted us whatever rights we may have. But there is plenty to say on the subject even without resolving the question of whether any supernatural force exists at all.

I have been in several formal debates on these matters, but probably the ones most directly on this topic have been with my friend Jay Lucas, pastor of Grace Community Church in Washington Court House, Ohio. Most of the text in this post is adapted from those debates with him. (Jay has posted one essay here on Letters… and will, I hope, post here again.)

Less reasonable and trustworthy Christian commenters—men like Philip Witig (Apostasy Can Lead a Nation to Self-Destruct: Will America Mend Its Ways and Return to God? [2019]) and Richard G. Lee (In God We Still Trust [2009]—provide irrelevant and misleading facts about things like how many members of the Constitutional Convention were Christians of one denomination or another. Some of the “Founding Fathers” were deists, but most were at least nominally Christians. They were, in a general cultural way, influenced by Christian ideas and by British ideas and by Enlightenment ideas, etc. What matters, though, is the values and principles they incorporated into the governing document they created—and honest discussion of this subject requires addressing those, not in presenting poorly related “facts.”

So, if human rights don’t come from god and they don’t come from government (if they did, government would also have to power to remove them), where do they come from? Hint:

The very idea of human rights has developed over many thousands of years, and the details and meaning of those rights are still developing thanks to “We the People”—to human culture in general and to the citizens of the US more specifically—not being handed down fully formed from on high or by government edict.

It’s clear to me that a society and a government not based on any religion—that is, an a-theistic one—is as much in the best interests of believers as it is in mine. All citizens of this nation agree—or should—that human rights are quite important and we agree that human rights are not bestowed upon us by government—that seeing government as the source of rights endangers those rights. My case against this being a Christian government, a case that is irrefutable given the known facts, logic, and history, is simple, and I invite others to try to break down even one major part of it. Here are seven key points:

1.    Calling a society “atheistic” or “Christian” is assuredly not enough to protect human rights. Neither Christianity nor atheism is a sufficient basis for protecting human rights, however such rights are defined. Pol Pot and Joseph Stalin led societies that were atheistic but that slaughtered human beings, never mind affording them even less basic rights. Likewise with inquisitions led by Christian popes, governments like that led by the great Protestant John Calvin in Geneva, as well as Nazi Germany (led by Hitler, a man who proclaimed himself as doing Christ’s work). And there have been hundreds of other examples of leaders or societies who asserted that the horrific rule they carried out was done in the name of one god or another, one religion or another—with  many concepts of “god,” many of these “Christian.” To repeat, point #1 is that calling a society “atheistic” or “Christian” is assuredly not enough to protect human rights.

2.    The official charter of Christianity, the Bible, is not amendable, is not subject to change for the better, though that change has been plainly needed. The Bible is demonstrably inadequate for protecting human rights that virtually all modern Americans—including Christian Americans—take for granted as obviously wise and just rights.

3.    Despite the official invariability of the Bible, Christians have changed their ideas, substantially and importantly, as to what properly constitute human rights, their standards for what human rights ought to be. Christians have not, in other words, just varied in terms of how well they adhere to standards for human rights—they’ve changed standards.  How many of you reading this, for example, think that it is now or ever has been acceptable to “buy slaves” from nations other than your own? (See Leviticus 25: 44.) Or that slaves should quietly serve and obey their Christian masters, as Paul declared in  1st Timothy 6:2? Changes from such ideas have been accepted by almost all modern Christians, including almost all leaders and theologians (dominionist theocrats are exceptions), and likely all Christian readers of Letters … .

4.    Despite significant flaws in protecting human rights throughout American history, the overall picture suggests that human rights are better protected in the US now than in any other time or any other nation. (If you disagree, please name a better nation or time.)

5.    The governing charter in and for the US, in effect since 1789, is the US Constitution. That Constitution has been amended 27 times, with most of those amendments affecting human rights. Many of those changes have had dramatic and historically important effects, especially in the US but also world-wide. The Constitution can be amended again, though only under complex and difficult-to-accomplish terms. This built-in-from-the-beginning amendability is one of its great strengths, including as a bulwark against injuring or destroying human rights and, especially, as a necessary tool for developing and improving human rights.

6.    The US Constitution is a-theistic—free of any religious tests, religious authority, and not in any sense based on the Christian—or any other—religion. It has been that way from its start and by design of the men who wrote it, not by accident. Evidence for this, despite frequent contrary declarations, is overwhelming.

7.    Human rights are better protected under an a-theistic system, provided that system allows changes—but not changes dictated by any leader nor granted or taken away by anyone but “We the People,” and not changes that can be made easily or frivolously.

Now, even those who accept what I’m saying about the US Constitution being the document that describes our rights and how they are protected—but not as the source of those rights—sometimes claim that it was a supernatural force—often, the Christian “God”—who created or at least inspired that Constitution. There are quite good grounds for rejecting that specific claim:

  1. The document itself—the Constitution is the first significant governing charter in human history that does not invoke the authority of any god and that nowhere in it has a single declaration of what constitutes religious truth.
  2. No exclusively Christian principles—not a single one—can be found in the Constitution. There are many truly revolutionary, original, vitally important ideas in the Constitution—none of them derive from the Bible or Christianity, despite various claims by Christian nationalists that some do.
  3. The Treaty w/ Tripoli (1796-97)—for this one, there is much more detail in an earlier Friday Freethought Perennial—Article 11 of that treaty includes these words, “As the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion… .” And it was ratified unanimously in the US Senate.


Is the US the best place on earth, now and potentially, for human rights, as most US citizens think? This is not a Christian nation; it is, by design of its framers, an a-theistic (secular) nation and has been since 1789. History, logic, and the facts are all my side—and not even a well-prepared great guy and effective debater like Jay Lucas could overcome that. Remember:

1.    Under the a-theistic U.S. Constitution, rights come from and are protected by “We the People.” Those rights are not based on Christianity or any other religion, are not “given” to Americans by any government, are not defined according to any religious book or document, and neither need nor have any protection from any sacred book or any religious leader. The people are not constricted in their ability to expand or reduce human rights except by the values accepted by the people—though they cannot change rights easily.

2.   Human rights are plainly not protected in the Bible—the right to avoid being anyone’s slave, the right of a woman to professional and political power, even the right to sell and drink alcoholic beverages—are protected under the U.S. Constitution as amended.

3.   Human rights change—this is probably usually if not always a good thing—but Christianity makes no allowance for that. The Bible is nowhere considered subject to amendment. The a-theistic U.S. Constitution IS amendable and rights have been created and protected by this process.

4.  Freedom of religion, now widely considered a basic human right, is the first right cited in the First Amendment and, despite explicit prohibition by Christianity and Judaism, is perhaps the most quintessentially American invention of all human rights. The alternative to having a secular, a-theistic government is to have a government that we empower to make religious decisions for citizens. Whether the government is headed by a king or by democratically elected leaders, we should all prefer liberty of conscience. Ours is a free country (for atheists and Christians and everyone else).

Ed Buckner is an American atheist activist who served as president of the organization American Atheists from 2008 to 2010. He served as executive director for the Council for Secular Humanism from 2001 to 2003 and was once the Council’s southern director. He is the author (with Michael E. Buckner) of In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty (Prometheus Books, 2012).

The Right’s Fight to Make America a Christian Nation | CBS Reports

America is Not a Christian Nation

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God Bless America: How the US is Obsessed with Religion | ENDEVR Documentary

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