by Christopher Hallpike and Maria Barry
from Signs of the Times No. 61 - Apr 2016

While modern secularists dismiss God and believe we live in a purely material universe, they still suppose we can make human rights the cornerstone of a modern, non-religious morality. Human rights are presented to us as though they were self-evident truths any rational person of good will would agree with.

But secularists either ignore or forget that the idea of human rights originally developed in a specifically Christian context, of the moral unity of all the human race as children of their Heavenly Father, of the dignity of each individual as made in the image of God, and the responsibility of kings, under God, to rule their people justly and to refrain from tyranny. To this limited extent, human rights, in the sense of ‘civil liberties’, are certainly Christian. One can add that the freedom to speak according to one’s conscience established by the Reformation was an essential basis for the liberal value of freedom of expression.

The first problem with dismissing God is that a divinely ordered world maintains a proper balance between the claims of individual and society. God requires us, on the one hand, to respect the social order, show humility in our relations with other people, and restrain our physical appetites, but on the other requires the state and society to respect the dignity of the individual and the claims of spiritual life. But if we no longer worship God, public moralities will tend to go either toward worshipping the individual and the Self, or the state. We saw plenty of godless state worship in the last century, but the Western world has gone in the opposite direction of worship of the Self, particularly in the extraordinary proliferation of what are claimed to be individual rights.

The second and more fundamental problem is that while secular liberals can produce endless arguments for not believing in God, it is remarkable that they never seem to ask themselves why we should believe in the existence of human rights. It does not seem to occur to them that in a purely material, Darwinian universe, the whole idea of human rights is completely meaningless. We are simply another species of animal, as Dawkins and others constantly remind us, ‘not so special after all’, and have no more significance in the ultimate scheme of things than ants or wasps. It is quite normal for different groups of the same species to fight one another in the competition for natural resources, and within groups there are inherent natural inequalities between individuals that make some winners and others losers. In a Darwinian world it would be quite rational to be wholly unconcerned with the well-being of foreigners, to treat the poor as contemptible failures, and the old and sick as burdens, and in this respect the philosophy of Nietzsche is far more plausible than Humanism.

The growing worship of Self and the individual in modern Western societies has had two especially obvious results. The first is the increase in self-absorption, narcissism, and the importance of winning at all costs, in which social media, in fostering an obsession with fame and consumerism and a corrosive sense of entitlement, are playing an increasingly malignant part. Added to this are the vastly increased opportunities for pornography and depravity of all kinds. But why not? Surely the old ideas that pride and lust and avarice were deadly sins were just religious mumbo-jumbo that we are much better off without in our more enlightened times.

The second is the growing cult of victimhood, and the idea that not just governments but society as a whole is a vast system of oppression with an ever-growing list of sufferers. For example, advocates of children’s rights regard discipline in schools as a violation of their rights, and not just discipline but teaching itself is now being represented as a form of oppression because it prevents children discovering their true identities. Indeed, the very idea of normality is seen as oppressive because it stigmatises anyone who is different from bourgeois norms. So diet soda, for instance, is oppressive to fat people because it carries an implicit criticism of their excessive weight. If everyone’s feelings are sacred then not only all forms of criticism, but opinions that can cause offence become ‘hate speech’ that should be banned, indeed, can be considered a form of violence. University students who are too intellectually and psychologically fragile to encounter opinions with which they disagree are therefore entitled to exclude speakers who might challenge their beliefs, while professors must warn students if they think anything in their lectures might offend them. The belief in freedom of thought and expression is starting to seem almost as old-fashioned as religion.

We don’t need God to tell us that it is wrong to rape, steal, and murder, and that it is good to be honest and helpful to others, because we can understand this from our experience of living in society. But God and religion have a much more profound influence on how we view the world than a simple list of moral do’s and dont’s, and a Christian civilisation that is abandoning its religion is being hollowed out in fundamental ways, some of which I have indicated here. There is a common belief in the non-Western world that the doctrine of human rights is cultural neo-colonialism - whether this is true or not, Christian beliefs actually have much more in common with those of the other world religions than with secular liberalism.


C. R. Hallpike is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McMaster University, Canada, and an Oxford D.Litt. He has lived with mountain tribes in Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea and written many books about them and on morality, religion, culture and social evolution. Read more about his work at www.hallpike.com
Do We Need God to be Good? An anthropologist considers the evidence is published by Christian Alternative Books. ISBN: 978-1-78535-217-1 (Paperback) £13.99 $22.95, EISBN: 978-1-78535-218-8 (e-book) £5.99 $8.99.