Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Atheism and natural rights.

  1. Nov 10, 2009 #1
    Is atheism incompatable with the concept of natural rights?

    Most (or at least some) adherents to natural rights argue that human rights come from a god, or that there is an absolute morality that is the basis of natural rights. Atheists obviously do not believe in a god and most would probably not believe in an absolute morality. So how can an atheist justify the concept of natural rights?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 10, 2009 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    None of the rules came from gods, they came from men in dresses who claimed they came from god.
    A bunch of guys in long dresses just figured out a way to get indoor work with no heavy lifting - good luck to them.
  4. Nov 10, 2009 #3
    I don't see how a lack of belief in a god would make one not want to treat others with respect.
    I love my fellow primates and wish them good simply because I empathize with them.
    I am under the perhaps egocentrical perception that since they look and interact like me (sort of) and that I like good feelings, they would too.

    In my opinion it is equally easy to use god to take a persons rights as it is to give them.

    I have not experienced a large difference in the (what I perceive as) good/bad people ratio, when it comes to believers vs nonbelievers.

    To answer your question, I believe atheism is compatible with natural rights.
  5. Nov 10, 2009 #4
    Natural rights? Nature is a much more creative agent that I've granted it. Are they written on a tree somewhere?
  6. Nov 10, 2009 #5


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    The question boils down to what sort of constraints should we work under - indvidually and as a society?

    Talking about natural rights is taking the view that there could be a way things naturally are, and so the choice of constraints is not arbitrary or in other ways "free".

    The word of a god can be taken as an authority that simply hands down your constraints, and what is "natural" gets left up to him.

    But an atheist can see that societies invent gods and their rules. So the search for natural would have to be a step back to what science or philosophy discovers to be natural about the kinds of constraints that operate generally in the world.

    Yet still work is required as we then have to identify the scale of analysis.

    For example, the natural world is ruled by the second law of thermodynamics in a very general way. So we might take from that that our first commandment is "thou shall go forth and entropify". What is good is to create waste heat and accelerate the heat death of the cosmos.

    Or you might instead say what really matters is the production of order, of complexity. So then the first commandment becomes go forth and create negentropy.

    But anyway, an atheist - being individually less constrained - would have more freedom to consider what does constitute the natural, and so what would be right - aligned with - in the light of that knowledge.
  7. Nov 10, 2009 #6
    The isolated tribes of Papua New Guinea and the Amazonian rain forest did certainly well without the influence of major religions. They are still alive and kicking.
  8. Nov 11, 2009 #7
    "thou shall go forth and entropify". <-- Perfect.
  9. Nov 11, 2009 #8
    My experience with atheists, being one, and being around quite a few others, is that quite a few take the humanist and/or the utilitarian view on 'rights'.

    That is, there are certain things that all human beings need, and based on the objective fact of this need, they have a right to certain things. It is different from the more Romantic(not like the smutty novels) religious idea of human rights.

    Essentially, one looks for an optimal way of living that balances what individuals want/need, with what the society they live in want/needs. The utiliarian looks towards maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain.

    Personally, I find that problematic, since you're limited to averaging wants/needs(and quite frankly we'd all die in horrible accidents if we didn't have pain to guide us.)

    A sociopath, will have different wants/needs than a loving mother. And the optimal way they live their lives will be significantly different.

    This is why I don't put much stock in 'rights' per se. I do think however that its in our best interests both as individuals and as a society to define the 'basic rights' that we expect to apply to all people. This is somewhat arbitrary. And in reality, these are more accurately called privileges, since whether one actually has these rights depends more on citizenship and place of birth than anything. Calling them 'rights' however affirms their importance.
  10. Nov 12, 2009 #9


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    Some would probably be more accurate.

    An absolute morality? Meaning there is one correct way of thought and those that understand this absolute morality are best suited to determine what rights we should get?

    Atheism and religion don't work as a binary system.

    There are atheists that believe there is no free will or soul and that all actions and thoughts are just chemical reactions. There are atheists that believe humans are rational beings beyond just uncontrollable chemical reactions. Among those, there's some that believe "natural" human rights can be derived from sort of system of morality separate from a god. Some believe that "natural" rights can be derived by objectively looking at what works and what doesn't work.

    There are religious people that believe in God and that he has set down a system of morality that should work (if only there weren't so many sinners gumming up the works). Some of those believe that only a select few are capable of understanding those rights and those capable should dictate to others what those rights are. There are also religious people who believe God's will and "natural" rights can be derived by objectively looking at what works and what doesn't work.

    In fact, atheists and religious people could follow the exact same social rules, with their only differences being philosophical differences about why things work the way they do.

    By the way, if the Declaration of Indepence provided some of the inspiration for this post, you should research Jefferson and some of the other founding fathers. Many were religious and a few were atheistic (even if that would be even more inadmissable for a politician back then than it is now). Jefferson's definition of "god" was more of an impersonal creator than the god most religions espouse. Humans were capable of reason and didn't need religious leaders to tell them what to think anymore than they needed a king to tell them what to think.

    And I'm not sure the definition of natural rights accepted back then were all that natural. One of the natural rights most espoused was the right to own private property. There are those that would consider the concept of owning property as being very unnatural (nomadic tribes, for example). The value of owning property never became an issue until humans developed farming that provided the economic base for creating cities, specialization of tasks such as manufacturing, etc. In other words, "natural" rights tend to be time dependent and can vary when the culture they serve changes - i.e. there are no (or at least very, very few) absolute natural rights that exist outside of the context of the culture they serve.
  11. Nov 12, 2009 #10


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Funny, the timing of things. Just the other day, I was thinking about atheism in this respect.

    I was wondering if it would make sense for atheists to collectively develop a manifesto. It would be something that, in principle, might be presentable whenever this kind of discussion comes up among the Believers about us Godless ones. But really it would just be for us to bat around.

    I didn't get far because it occurred to me that the first tenet of atheism is that we are individuals, not a collective. Atheism is not tantamount to a religion, with unilateral constraints and rules.

    What do you guys think? Do atheists have a common enough set of beliefs that could serve as scaffolding upon which a manifesto could be constructed?
  12. Nov 12, 2009 #11


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Something along the lines of the scientific method or empiricism? For me, atheism is tied closely to cause/effect so something along those lines wouldn't be too far off.
  13. Nov 12, 2009 #12


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Well, no. We were talking about Rights and Morals. The human side of the equation.

    An example of an atheist's code of morals might involve The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is a moral mandate that results in our good behaviour to others without resorting to some overarching judge and juror.
  14. Nov 12, 2009 #13


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I don't believe in absolute morality, and "natural rights" would be along the same lines, so yeah, it's probably incompatible.

    On the other hand, by saying morality is subjective, and that "natural rights" are a product of consensus reality, we are not invalidating it any. As an atheist, I still find human conduct and relationships to be important. I do not think I'm justified murdering, thieving, or raping, simply because I was raised in a society (and perhaps genetically shaped by evolutionary history) that doesn't look well on the people that do these things.

    Also, there's a good chance that people aren't arranged into murderers and non-murderers because of their moral set, and more just because of the behavior their genetics leads them to.

    Still, I think there's a lot of science involved if you want to come to reasonable conclusions. For instance, evolutionary psychology would be a great source.

    But yes, atheists have emotions, and some things are just "wrong" to us despite any logic or rationale that might tell us otherwise. I don't think these things can be grouped into atheists vs. non-atheists though. I think humans are much more diverse than that.
  15. Nov 12, 2009 #14


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    The problem here is that atheism is defined by a non-belief. It is very difficult then to find the constraints in such a position that would produce some other coherent belief system.

    It is the same with post-modernism. Or the version most people like to complain about. Once you say all cultural truths are relative, a free choice, then there are no constraints, no particular choice can be preferred. There is no choice "natural" to the situation.

    So for a non-authoritarian god believer, there has to be some other decision about which system you do believe in.

    Utilitarian notions like the golden rule, do unto other, etc, have been around a long time. And they could be put on a natural science footing by making the connection to equilibrium models - the thermodynamic approach I've already cited.

    But, the big but, there are two different notions of equilibrium. One is gaussian, the other powerlaw. One closed, one open.

    So which is more natural to the human situation? To go for the static equilibrium of the normal curve - where human happiness or whatever is organised so it bunches around a Benthamite mean. If everyone does unto others, then this would be a homogenising recipe where the mixture tends towards a central limit.

    Alternatively, there is the expansionist, open, theory of human destiny - the kind expressed in the American Dream. Like a scalefree network, this is a powerlaw regime. Success can have any scale as the system is tuned for open growth. But it also has powerlaw results, so that you get a few ludicrously rich people, like Bill Gates, or incredibly famous people, like Madonna, and a fat tail of the very poor, the very unknown.

    So there are laws of nature that the scientifically-inclined, and atheistically non-believing, can believe in. But we could still be torn as to which kind of equilibrium producing system - the closed or the open, the gaussian tepid or the powerlaw wild ride - is the naturally right one.
  16. Nov 12, 2009 #15


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    How could morals develop in a culture whose members' actions were entirely involuntarily (i.e - all actions purely a result of hormone/chemical balances with no soul or free-will)?

    Prisoner's Dilemma

    Except the principles of the two-player game are extended to a simulated culture of players playing various PD strategies imperfectly (i.e. - the game injects a chance of random error regardless of the intended strategy) with the number of cooperative players/selfish players/somewhere-in-between players evolving depending upon how successful each strategy is (sections 14-19).

    With players that are simple computer program strategies, it's interesting how the simulation develops. You need a certain number of eye-for-an-eye members to weed out the selfish members, but, as soon as the selfish members are too small to be significant, the more forgiving, cooperative strategies thrive and the eye-for-an-eye members become as insignificant as the selfish members (but they still have to exist to keep the selfish members from making a resurgence).

    If you toss in the group benefits of cooperation, groups with a high percentage of people willing to put the group first will probably outdo the groups with a high percentage of selfish people. Or would a variation comprised of people that cooperate within the group, but wage war on neighboring groups thrive, instead? (the simulation doesn't take things to that high of a level).

    In other words, whether you believe in the death penalty or not; and whether your society actually implements the death penalty or not; it's good for society to have at least a few that do believe in the death penalty. I only use this example because, in a world populated by people with no soul or free will, the loss of a malfunctioning machine (one that doesn't cooperate with the rest of society) isn't anything to grieve over. Human life loses its value compared to any other life. It might be true that not only is human life not worth more than the life of a slug, but that human life might be detrimental to all life on Earth - but I'd hate to adopt that as my life's philosophy.
    Last edited: Nov 12, 2009
  17. Nov 12, 2009 #16


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Game theory is a good example of close system thermodynamics. In a zero-sum game, co-operative strategies are maximal.

    But in an open system you have instead the opposed tendencies of co-operation~competition in equilibrium. So in an openly-developing culture, individuals are not free as such, but they are continually making choices about whether to co-operate or compete.

    And once this dynamic is identified in culture, it can be optimised. That is what management consultants would try to do in an organisation. Tune the balance of activity so that individual workers are optimising their co-operation and competition. Showing initiative yet also working for the team, etc, etc.
  18. Nov 14, 2009 #17
    Some two cent thoughts from the sofa with feets on the table

    Natural rights? That would translate to laws of nature, fundamentally, the evolutionary success of a certain species. It would thrive the best as a species if the specimens are not only successfully surviving as individual, but also as group.

    The natural or logical axions that are required for the success of the species could translate to natural rights but even more to natural obligations. Natural rights could be the right of living, freedom, adequate education and approriate esteem and reproduction etc, natural obligations would be to observe the natural rights of all individuals, do everything required to prepare the next generation and preserve the biotope for their future.

    Obviously many seem not to be too aware of these principles and some enforcing appears to be required. Somehow scaremongering seems to be the more efficient mechanism (be good or face dire hardship) and it's easy of course to charge deities with such a task, who can sanction good behavior with Valhalla's and bad behavior with hades. However, with the decline of the credibility of heavens and hells, it does not take away the function of natural rights and obligations for the survival of the species. So it looks like mankind is experimenting with other mechanisms to accomplish that, global warming perhaps: be good or fry. But it looks certain that many atheists are keenly aware of the existence of natural rights and obligations, enforced or not.
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2009
  19. Nov 14, 2009 #18
    Not at all. Religion has nothing to with thinking there are natural rights. They don't come from God.
  20. Nov 14, 2009 #19
    But the scientific method was developed by Francis Bacon and other people who were deeply religious. Then you got Sam Harris, who actually wrote an atheist manifesto, interested in the eastern supernatural and thinking it gets a bad rap.

    I think atheism is becoming too organized, dogmatic, and profitable. With too much groupthink. Atheism is in danger of being hijacked by false prophets the same way religions have.
  21. Nov 14, 2009 #20
    Indeed. Evolution(and science in general) can give you an explanation for any moral behavior. Such as altrusim. Many think that altruism(and other morality) is inborn in humans because of selective advantages. I'm not sure I agree; and it can't really be proven, but it sounds plausible.

    About scare tactics...this is one thing that both Skinner and Freud agreed on even though they came from opposite schools. Humans have to be lashed and prodded through life. Whether it is parents, school, society, government, religion, etc.. We are animals who have to be oppressed to keep from systematically killing and raping eachother, which is our natural animal instinct which we arent far removed from.
  22. Nov 14, 2009 #21


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Speak for yourself perhaps. Humans evolved as a social species. And social intelligence is about striking an effective competition~co-operation balance.

    Natural law for humans would be about optimising these sorts of decisions.

    You are talking about a white man's caricature of "primitive savage" people that arose in early colonial times - a justification for oppressive measures.
  23. Nov 14, 2009 #22


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I don't think it matters if somebody religious developed it. Religion made reasonable assumptions up until the last century of discovery, where its conclusions and predictions are being shown to be completely wrong.

    Fads are just a part of society. Sooner or later, atheism was going to get its fifteen minutes. I'd br impressed if it stuck.
  24. Nov 14, 2009 #23
    I am not speaking for myself. I am speaking for Freud and Skinner. And none of us are far removed from savages. They werent just talking about "brown people". They were talking about all humans.

    The world is enforced by violence. By force. That is oppression and the world can't spin without it. All government and rule is an impediment on freedom and therefore oppression.
  25. Nov 14, 2009 #24
    That wasnt my point. My point was that the religious can embrace it as well. People like Bacon and Al-Kindi thought empiricism was being true to the nature of God. They thought science and experiment was the best way to reveal God's handiwork. They were ahead of the curve. Some of the main contributors of the modern evolutionary synthesis were theists as well.

    "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" was said by a christian.

    religous people dont have to take a literal interpretations.
  26. Nov 14, 2009 #25


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    I haven't done more than just skim the replies so far, because just one question comes to mind...if something is truly a "natural" right, shouldn't it be fully independent of any religious beliefs? Or, for that matter, of any other type of beliefs either? Perhaps this is a good test of whether something is a natural or universal right, if it persists in the absence of any special belief system.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook