When I was a child growing up in America’s south, I could be forgiven for misspelling “damn Yankee” as one word; after all, that’s the sound that conveyed our intent, damnyankee. “God-given rights” also long ago acquired that single word status in America. Politicians and regular folks could demonstrate with each articulation that they were God-fearing Christians (there’s another term that bears examination). I suppose, if pressed, they’d recognize a distinction between rights they say are God-given and rights that are human-given. I’m willing to bet, however, that they’d have a hard time saying which is which and probably never gave it any thought.
The Enlightenment popularized the idea that people have or should have rights. It also shared some of that period with the spread of deism. The mixture is interesting and as observable in America’s founding fathers as anywhere else. After all, a deistic god—which was the meaning intended in documents like the Declaration of Independence by no small portion of our founders—doesn’t intervene in human affairs including, one would have to assume, the specifications of personal rights and responsibilities. Of course, it would be naïve to think when political figures use terms that they worry much about philosophical discipline. It should not surprise us that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson said some seemingly inconsistent things about deities, churches, clergy, and scripture over their impressive careers.
At any rate, the popular term and belief in America that rights are God-given begs the question about this particular god’s existence and our ability to know what he/she/it had to say on the matter. Whatever message the faithful discerned must have been a bit foggy about the role of women, divorcing, remarrying, political dissent, and a few other embarrassing items . . . either that or God is frustratingly fickle about such topics. I’d think that when you ascribe your own predilections to a divine source, you’d better get it right rather than just mindlessly slinging a slick term around.
I’ll cut to the chase: Human beings have no rights, that’s no rights, that are not given by other human beings. The rights don’t come from God, the Orion Nebula, or the Ten Commandments. The term God-given is a snare and delusion, telling something about the speaker but nothing at all about the authorship of his or her advocated set of rights.
What societies ascribe to gods is actually a human decision—a pretty obvious conclusion since different believers yank their puppet-God’s tongue in different directions. We pretend that God did the talking when in reality we’ve merely cloaked our own choices in robes of divinity. Our suppositions about God enable us to pretend our choices are those of the universe. What rights humans should have is an important human phenomenon and calls for a reasoned human decision.
The reasoned part is the sticking point. We don’t reason all that well when ancient texts rule our lives. Their provenance is confusing and their intent is to please a supposed deity rather than to inform our living on this planet together. There is nothing to recommend the Abrahamic Jehovah, Jesus, or Saul/Paul of Tarsus as a guide to rights, as any former slave could express more convincingly than I.