Do you believe in human rights? Then it makes more sense to believe in God than to believe that God does not exist.

Timothy Keller, in his book The Reason for God, demonstrates that while it is fairly straight-forward to make a religious case for human rights, it has proven very difficult to construct a case for human rights from a purely secular foundation. If the cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be, and if the existence of Homo sapiens is merely an accident, then all of the injustices of the human experience don’t really matter one way or another. This is not saying that non-Christians (or non-theists) cannot really believe in human rights or morality, because it is clear that they can. It is just that they have to borrow—perhaps subconsciously—some of their ethics from the Christians.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of The Reason for God (pp. 155-156 of the hardback edition), in a section called “The Argument for God from the Violence of Nature.”

How would we know [that moral obligation exists]? To sharpen our focus on the significance of this indelible knowledge of moral obligation, consider the observations of writer Annie Dillard. Dillard lived for a year by a creek in the mountains of Virginia expecting to be inspired and refreshed by closeness to “nature.” Instead, she came to realize that nature was completely ruled by one central principle—violence by the strong against the weak.


Annie Dillard saw that all of nature is based on violence. Yet we inescapably believe it is wrong for stronger human individuals or groups to kill weaker ones. If violence is totally natural why would it be wrong for strong humans to trample weak ones? There is no basis for moral obligation unless we argue that nature is in some part unnatural. We can’t know that nature is broken in some way unless there is some supernatural standard of normalcy apart from nature by which we can judge right and wrong. That means there would have to be heaven or God or some kind of divine order outside of nature in order to make that judgment.

There is only one way out of this conundrum. We can pick up the Biblical account of things and see if it explains our moral sense any better than a secular view. If the world was made by a God of peace, justice, and love, then that is why we know that violence, oppression, and hate are wrong. If the world is fallen, broken, and needs to be redeemed, that explains the violence and disorder we see.

If you believe human rights are a reality, then it makes much more sense that God exists than that he does not. If you insist on a secular view of the world and yet you continue to pronounce some things right and some things wrong, then I hope you see the deep disharmony between the world your intellect has devised and the real world (and God) that your heart knows exists. This leads us to a crucial question. If a premise  (“There is no God”) leads to a conclusion you know isn’t true (“Napalming babies is culturally relative”) then why not change the premise?

Think about that again. The following two statements cannot both be true:

  1. There is no God.
  2. Napalming babies is wrong.

If you are an atheist, which of these contradictory beliefs will you hold on to, and which will you let go of? Or will you just live with the disharmony?

Grace and Peace


10 thoughts on “Do you believe in human rights? Then it makes more sense to believe in God than to believe that God does not exist.

  1. I’m on your email list but rarely actually hit your site. I thought I’d stop by to say thanks for the content you post. Respectful, thoughtful, and reasonable. I thoroughly enjoy it and I’m pretty much 100% on the same page.

    Regarding today’s post, I agree with Keller’s conclusions, but he seems to make some big jumps or assumptions in order to get there. Does the rest of the book explain why he believes that only God (the God of the Bible, specifically) must be the supernatural agent Who is the source of our plumb line for “human rights”?

    Again, I believe God is the standard-definer, as does Tim Keller, and I agree with the conclusions here. It just seemed like a big hole in the argument; a hole that C.S. Lewis plugged pretty well in the early parts of “Mere Christianity” by explaining the process by which he wound up with the God of the Bible rather than a generic god-like force or some other vaguely-defined concept. I’m guessing Keller does something similar in his book…?

    Or did I read the post too quickly and totally miss something?


  2. Chrysoprase

    That’s a circular argument. You start with the assumption that human rights are good and then say that the only way to justify that us assuming a god. If a god existed shouldn’t you be less concerned with prescribing it what to approve of? Or is it that your god made an arbitrary decision and that tomorrow it may change its mind and ask you to kill all left handed people? Stranger claims have been made by believers?

    Your premise also seems to run counter to the fact that humanism is shared by countless people who don’t believe on (your) god.


  3. Jordan

    With respect, Chrysoprase, I think you’re mischaracterizing the argument (popularly called the argument from morality). The argument goes as such:
    P1. If objective moral values and duties exist, then God exists.
    P2. Objective moral values and duties exist.
    C: Therefore, God exists.
    How is the argument circular? Note also that the argument doesn’t say that people can’t behave morally without believing in God (a question of epistemology) — it says that moral values must be grounded in God to be objective (a question of ontology).


  4. Robert Byers

    NO. There are no human rights. there are only the rights God gave to man. This is the only origin for rights unless men make rights based on mutual consent. However saying its about being human is not either case.
    Human rights today are used to overthrow Gods moral laws and mans rightful governing of himself.
    Gay rights, abortion, women foreign or identity rights and animals etc. These are attempts to demand a higher order of rights that comes from neither God nor democratic nations. Its a false claim to universal rights. its evil and dangerous and to be rejected and destroyed as a threat to God and mans actual claims to rights.
    If i may so.


  5. Statistique

    Jordan, apologies to you! I am mildly dyslexic and should spent more time looking at this. I thought you were guilty of affirming the consequent: If A then B, B, therefore A. Your logic is sound, although I would disagree with the premises.


  6. Well frankly, in reality I do believe moral values and duties are relative. Just look at history to see how we move the standards all the time, to adjust them to the ‘here and now’. First of all most people apply their moral standards primarily to their own ‘ingroup’, including Christians. The majority of people have a tendacy to not apply their moral standards to ‘outsiders’. I.e. even the Nazi’s could be very friendly to other Nazi’s, but if you were a Jew, or gay, or Gypsy their morals went out of the window.

    Same on the Allied side by the way, the carpet bombing of Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki… thousands of innocents including babies died. Both the Allies and the Germans (including the Nazi’s) were predominantly devout and churchgoing Christians. Most of the people in the Allied countries did not care about dead German or Japanese babies… Do I believe it’s wrong… well yes, but I also know that when I was living ‘there and then’ I’d probably have a different perspective.

    I’m using history to make my point, but I’ve also experienced it myself. I’ve travelled around the world a bit and have had many interesting experiences. Unfortunately wrong or right is not black or white…. It’s gray it’s circumstancial.


  7. geochristian

    Heimdalls Desert,

    Thanks for your comment.

    As a Christian, I agree that many values that we hold are cultural, rather than “absolute.” For example, as an American, I value certain niceties in routine social interactions, such as saying “please” and “thank you.” Not all cultures put as much emphasis on these things. The same can be said about the details of modesty rules. What is considered immodest in some cultures (such as a woman wearing a sleeveless top) is not a problem at all in other cultures.

    Moving on to a topic you brought up—the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—I believe that bombing these mostly-civilian cities was morally indefensible. I’ve read the arguments on both sides (e.g. saving lives by shortening the war), but cannot see any way to defend these actions. It was certainly made easier by the dehumanizing propaganda against “Japs.” I know Christians who disagree, but I believe this use of atomic weapons was wrong.

    Let’s take it a step further. You say you believe moral values and duties are relative. Do you believe it is morally wrong to enslave black people? Do you believe it is wrong to torture puppies. Do you believe it is wrong to drop napalm on children just for fun? If you agree that these things are always wrongbthen you are not truly a moral relativist. And if you are not a moral relativist, then you must agree that there is some basis for morality outside of human society. That basis is not found in nature, so it must exist outside of nature. Therefore, it makes more sense to believe there is a God who is the author of moral law, than to believe that God does not exist.

    As an aside, I disagree with your portrayal of the Nazis as “predominantly devout and churchgoing Christians.” The leading Nazis were quite hostile to Christianity. They were willing to use churches as tools for their purposes, but had much more interest in the occult than in Christian faith.


  8. @geochristian

    Thanks for the response.

    Though I tend to say the use of nuclear is morally indefensible, I go a long way with people saying it was a means to an end… I have yet to hear the definitive argument to pull me to one side.

    Enslaving people, torturing puppies and napalming babies is essentially wrong. But even though I have opinions on these matters and we most likely even agree on them doesn’t generate an objective morality. I believe that things like empathy and altruism have/had evolutionary benefits. So in a sense it can be found in nature. Humans live in groups, effective groups need rules. If you don’t play by the rules you’re kicked out of the group, reducing your chances of survival.

    In addition I’d argue that enslaving someone, for example based on skincolor, torturing puppies and napalming babies is simply not reasonable. I.e. Why would or should I? But these feelings of empathy and altruism are easily suppressed with ingroup/outgroup sentiments, which can be based on anything from skincolor to politics to religion. Therefor I’d argue that religion or God can be a suffcient reason for moral behaviour, But I don’t think it’s necessary.

    But let me a also take it a step further. Let’s say that killing babies (as an ultimate symbol of innocence) is objectively wrong. What does that say about God himself? What about the babies of Sodom and Gomorra, the great flood or the Egyptian first borns? How can the creator of objective morals break his own rules? i Mean God could end any conflict without bloodshed just by revealing his presence?

    I agree that the top Nazi’s used the church as a means to an end. But in (occupied) Europe most people were Christian, the churches were still full in those days. But still Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals were transported and murdered. They let it happen and I’m quite sure the population new bloody well what was going on. Ofcourse there were people who opposed, helped people hide etc. And yes some were Christian, others were communist, and some just thought it wasn’t reasonable to treat people this way.


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