Atheism and the strawman of cultural relativism

As an atheist and a trained sociologist, I fail to see any evidence for innate human rights (what some may call natural rights). While I personally agree that all humans should be extended equal rights  and that this should occur in all places and at all times. Yet, at the moment there is no evidence that such origins of such rights are to be found in either biology or human nature (if there is such a thing).


This is why I was disappointed to hear human rights being discussed in the atheist community as something that is concrete, either through biology or human nature.


The most annoying thing was the lack of understanding that such claims are a form of ethnocentrism, the idea that one culture is superior to another. Tied to this was a critique of cultural relativism, which is never a justification of violence or discrimination. Rather it is a method,  in social science, that attempts to avoid ethnocentrism. It does not say that all cultures are equal or all things in them equally true, only that the people in such cultures believe their cultural beliefs to be true (sometimes universally true). This is exactly what we are doing, if we lay claim to innate/biologically determined human rights: we are claiming that our beliefs are superior to those who do not believe in innate human rights.


It is a minor point, but one that I find many atheists and humanists misunderstand (including thinkers as great as Sam Harris). To make claim to innate human rights is to condemn all those who break them to being less than human. That is not something that a humanist, in my opinion, should be dong.


Happy to discuss.

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Comment by jay H on March 17, 2013 at 9:11am

As I started reading your post, my thoughts went immediately to Sam Harris etc, who feel that morality can be fully derived (rather than informed by) rational thought.

I think that Haidt ("The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion") is much closer to the truth. We have some deep instinctive sense of right and wrong, good and bad, but as experiments have shown (runaway trolley etc) it's an ad hoc collection of evolutionarily derived social behaviors, far from a logically consistent rule set.

Comment by E Gross on March 15, 2013 at 4:28am

I believe that human rights, like human morality, is the product of our evolution, of generating framworks in which societies can not only survive, but improve. A society that recognizes that a woman is not property to be used or abused will progress, while those who cannot conceive of such a thing, will remain stagnant, will decay, and will either experience chaos or revolution - eventually. Based on what I have learned from studying history, order must always evolve - order does not mean immovable fixation. So countries with secular laws concerning rights and freedoms are an expression of this progress, and like everything else, those too must evolve.


The religious books of an older morality and human rights have failed to keep up, and their messages are antiquated. Unfortunately, religion, unlike science, cannot change, because it must be true, and truth, in their eyes, is immutable.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on March 14, 2013 at 6:51pm

Justin, those examples are inapposite. 

Comment by Justin Murray on March 14, 2013 at 5:54pm

John, Thanks for the link . I will have a look.

Comment by Justin Murray on March 14, 2013 at 5:49pm

Glen, the statement "And clearly all cultures are not equal" is by definition an ethnocentric one.

In regards to the origin of that ethnocentrism, reason is a justifiable one. However, how do we exclude the taken-for-granted from our reasoning. Eg.: In Japan, it is common sense that roads have no names and that blocks do. The reverse is true in Western countries. Who's reasonable explanation of geography should be excluded? Again in Japan it is reasonable to say "This is the first time we have met." and in English we say "Nice to meet you." Do we exclude the English phrase because we have no evidence that it is actually nice to met the person and parsimonious to say the obvious.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on March 14, 2013 at 9:41am

I claim that extending human rights is superior. I dont want to give hate groups, fundamentalists, or any of the other invasive creeds a pass. The source of rights is reason. So yes our biology and our nature play a part in producing what amounts to a construct.

Also I disagree that ethnocentrism derived of reason is tantamount to ethnocentrism derived of faith. And clearly all cultures are not equal.

Humans have a deplorable record of violating rights if reason is the guide. The condemnation is only in keeping with observation. It is not less than human, it is simply human. 

Comment by John B Hodges on March 14, 2013 at 3:56am

I've made a summary of my long study of ethics here; supporting essays on relevant philosophical points are also here on my blog.

Comment by Justin Murray on March 13, 2013 at 7:29pm

I was using innate to mean something that is inborn or natural.


I would agree that human rights are social constructs.

Comment by Ted Foureagles on March 13, 2013 at 7:09pm

As someone not trained in much of anything, I'm not entirely sure what you're saying here.  The concept of 'rights' is a social construct evolved along with social critters like us and many others.  To claim that something is 'innate' is a shortcut for 'what's worked so far' among groups of genes.  There must be or have been evolutionarily stable systems of behavior that produced attitudes about 'rights', else we'd not have them.


Such shortcuts can be useful (you just can't think about everything all the time), but become a burden when we try to translate them into absolutes.  Pure relativism -- hell, pure anything is an absolute construct that does not exist in nature.  Probably :) .



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