Origin of rights

The question is eventually posited to non-theists by theists: from where do our rights originate?

Recently I entered into an argument with several Christian conservatives regarding the concept of rights. The discussion started in the comments area to an article on The Right Scoop, a right-wing blog that is gaining some prominence in conservative circles. The blog has been mentioned on Rush Limbaugh’s program and also on Fox News. It would not surprise me if Glenn Beck’s radio program has mentioned them.

The article in question is in regard to the President recently mentioning "inalienable rights" without mentioning "Creator".1"Obama omits ‘Creator’ again when paraphrasing Declaration of Independence", posted April 21, 2011, on the blog The Right Scoop The Right Scoop’s article pulls on an article from Glenn Beck’s relatively-young news site call The Blaze.

First, let me say that the reaction to this is on the order of the reactions received when people say "One nation, indivisible". The reaction is downright absurd, to say the least. Why the big deal? I opened the discussion by saying this:

Okay let me see if I have this straight: if a person uses the word "endowed" when talking about "inalienable rights", that person must always say "endowed by our Creator", at least to keep you from going up in arms about the fact that the word "inalienable rights" was used without mentioning God or "the Creator"? No thanks.

We are endowed with inalienable rights. Plain and simple.

The reaction to this was expected: because the President says he is a Christian, they expect him to use the word "Creator" when mentioning inalienable rights.

Eventually the discussion got to the point where two Christians were basically asking me where I think our rights originated. The *wink wink* answer in the back of their minds, being Christians, is that our rights are "God-given". Being agnostic I don’t believe this, but the question is unavoidable: where did our rights originate? This is not an unanswerable question, but the answer is not what people think. I’ll get to that later.

"God-given" rights

In a previous article written last October, I responded to a YouTube user called TheAtheistAntidote and his video in which he says, very prominently and foolishly, that liberty only comes with and from God. In the discussion noted above, I asked of the Christians who were responding where in the Bible it says that God grants us rights or certain rights, even and especially those protected by the Bill of Rights:

Where in the Bible does it say God has granted you the freedom of speech, freedom of press and assembly? It’s certainly clear in the Bible that you do not have freedom of religion, for you are commanded to believe in God and the Bible or face a tortuous eternity. Where does the Bible grant you the right of protection from self-incrimination, right to a trial and an attorney to assist in your defense? Stoning is considered "cruel and unusual punishment", so the protection of the Eight Amendment is out the door.

Where in the Bible does it say God grants you any rights in particular?

As of yet, when I’ve posed this question to Christians, I have not received any response. Not one. Not one quote from the Bible that even alludes to this being the case. The invitation is still open. After all, since the Bible is the basis of Christianity, Christians should be able to point to a verse or series of verses in the Bible and say, "Ah ha! Here is where God says we have these rights."

I’ve been in numerous discussions in which Christians have said, to paraphrase, that the Constitution is based on God’s law. Not quite, as I’ve wrote in response to another commenter on another article on The Right Scoop:

The Constitution is not based on God’s law in the least. Where in the Bible is a bicameral legislature, a separation of powers, checks and balances, a Supreme Court, and the like even mentioned? How is the Constitution based on God’s law? Not even the Bill of Rights is based on God’s law. If the Constitution is based on God’s law, why is the word God nowhere to be found in the Constitution or any Amendment?

The concept of rights being "God-given" leaves open one giant problem: that which is given by God can be taken away. After all Christians believe that God gives everyone life, and then takes it away from us when he "calls us home". The Bible alludes to this in Job 1:21:

And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.

Yet never will a Christian admit that the same can apply to rights. If God grants us our rights, he can take them away from us, and no Christian can, in their right mind, say this will not or cannot occur. Who are you to say what God will or will not do? In a previous article mentioned above, I discussed the issue of rights being "God-given" a little more in-depth:

If you believe in God, you believe in a government, a supernatural government whose will, authority, and tyranny you have no choice but to accept and to which you are eternally subject without any hope or possibility of escape. This government is even more tyrannical than the governments of men, as the governor God can find you guilty for crimes of thought, thoughts you may not even realize you had.

And on this trial of guilt there is no jury, no witnesses to cross-examine, no counsel to assist, and no appeal. Any finding of guilt is final, and any sentence eternal.

The idea that without God you have no liberty, or without God you have no rights can be seen as the fallacy it is when taken in this light.

If government does not grant rights, then God does not grant rights. From where then, do our rights originate? Ourselves.

However if government is to be the protector of rights, the protector of liberty, then God, if He exists, is not a grantor of rights and liberty, but the ultimate protector of rights and liberty. For if we have rights because we exist, even God cannot trample upon them, and any laws handed down by God that trample upon our rights as men are also illegitimate on their face.

Christians can proclaim all they like that God will never take our rights away from us, yet they cannot know for sure that it will never happen. That’s like saying that God will, in the dying days of our sun, refuel it to keep it going again such that our solar system will not suffer the same fate as countless solar systems preceding our own and following our own. These are extreme, extraordinary claims on which there is no basis and no reason to believe them to be true.

So the notion of God granting or giving us our rights is a complete and total fallacy. So from where do our rights originate?

"We made them up!"

The immortal words of the late and great George Carlin ring true here, rights are a purely invented concept:

Folks, I hate to spoil your fun but—there’s no such thing as rights, okay? They’re imaginary. We made them up! Like the Boogie Man… the Three Little Pigs, Pinocchio, Mother Goose, shit like that. Rights are an idea, they’re just imaginary, they are a cute idea, cute… but that’s all, cute, and fictional.

While rights are an invented concept, they were invented for a pretty good reason. Most often when rights are exercised, implicitly it is to keep the government in line. In the United States, the Constitution requires the government to recognize certain rights, while also stipulating that certain rights being stated in the Constitution is not reason to imply that those are the only rights people have.

So how did the concept of rights originate? It’s difficult to pinpoint, as it’s difficult to say where the people first started asserting that they had any rights at all. But a course through history shows that rights were generally asserted where the government sought to act with tyranny toward the people. The history of the Magna Carta is certainly telling on this point. The Bill of Rights of 1689 – also called the English Bill of Rights – established many rights that are mirrored in the Constitution:

  • freedom to petition the monarch without fear of retribution (First Amendment)
  • no Royal interference in the right of the people to have arms (Second Amendment)
  • no excessive bail or "cruel and unusual" punishments (Eighth Amendment)
  • freedom of speech and debates (First Amendment)

among others, including the declaration that only civil courts (those established by the government) have any legal authority, stripping such authority from courts of the Church, and also barring Roman Catholics from the throne.

But it is in the Declaration of Independence that we first see the concept of "inalienable rights":

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The Declaration states not only the existence of inalienable rights, but states that they are established by a government that transcends all governments, even the Crown: the divine rule of the Creator. Further it names four rights specifically: life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and to alter or abolish the sitting government and establish a new one whenever it tramples upon these, among other, rights of the People. More importantly, it establishes the concept of the limited government, that government is about securing the rights of the people and that government receives its powers from the people. This is, in essence, the idea of a Republic.

Thus the concept of rights is clearly defined. Rights are about limiting the government. Whereby laws are the devices of government for limiting the people, rights are the devices of the people for limiting their government, for where the laws of the government and the recognized and declared rights of the people are in conflict, the laws of the government are to fall.

The Rights of the Silver Platter

However the concept of rights has also been usurped and bastardized by the government as a further means of limiting the people whenever it is deemed convenient. This is something else we’ve seen all throughout history. The United States has a horrible history of it.  We’re certainly not alone, but since I’m an American living in the United States, I might as well talk about my own country, right?

In more recent history we see the bastardization of the rights concept with the invention of other "rights" that turn the concept from one of the people limiting their government to one of the people limiting other people. Let me explain.

When a person says they have a right of free speech, it is a statement to the government that the government may not tell that person they may not state their opinion without a damned good reason. And not liking the message is certainly not a damned good reason.

However, we have people who are saying they have some other rights: free education, a job, food, health care, and housing. When you say you have a right to these things, or are entitled to them, a very dangerous situation has been created. To assert these rights, you are claiming the ability to require these things be provided to you, and the only way that can occur is by way of someone else.

This is what I like to call the "rights of the silver platter" because essentially those asserting rights such as the aforementioned among others basically want their entirely livelihood, or large chunks thereof, handed to them on a silver platter, completely free of charge both in terms of money and effort expended to earn that livelihood or portions thereof.

The assertion of these rights has been commandeered by the government as another method of limiting the people. This can be seen in the comments of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) in her comments on the repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010:2Benson, Guy. "Sheila Jackson Lee: Obamacare is a Constitutional Right". Posted on the blog Townhall.com.

The Fifth Amendment speaks specifically to denying someone their life and liberty without due process. That is what H.R. 2 does and I rise in opposition to it. And I rise in opposition because it is important that we preserve lives and we recognize that 40 million-plus are uninsured. Can you tell me what’s more unconstitutional than taking away from the people of America their Fifth Amendment rights, their Fourteenth Amendment rights, and the right to equal protection under the law?

For those unfamiliar, here is the text of the Fifth Amendment, emphasis added to point out the clauses that Rep. Lee is attempting to invoke:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

The Fifth Amendment lays out protections for the people when they have an encounter with the government by way of law enforcement. This can be seen by the entire clause that includes the original "due process" clause:

[No person] shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law

You shall not be compelled to be a witness against yourself, nor shall you be put to death, incarcerated, or stripped of your properties and effects without first having the benefit of a court procedure. Rep. Lee is twisting out of focus the actual protections of the Fifth Amendment to apply them where they have no context.


The concept of rights has come a long way since rights were first asserted against governments. As I said herein, wherefore laws are the devices of the government to limit the people, rights are devices of the people to limit the government. Basically the concept of rights demands the government to justify everything they will do that will create limitations on the people. That, however, was back before the people had an inflamed notion of what rights actually are, before they decided that they are entitled to goods and services provided by others.

So to answer the question of where rights originated, the idea is quite simple: we made them up. But we had reason in doing so, as they gave the people ammunition to suppress their government from whatever tyrannical motives and actions were being undertaken. To sell the idea even further, calling the rights "God-given" elevated those rights above their governments and the claimed divine right of kings by saying, in essence, that the people have rights that not even the king (or other government) can take away.

The one thing that is odd about the concept of rights is that to exercise them fully required the suppression of the Church from the government, as can be seen in the English Bill of Rights and the declaration that Church courts no longer had any legal authority.

So what’s the verdict: are rights real or illusory? Rights are an illusory concept, invented by intelligent men for the very necessary purpose of suppressing governments, especially those governments that attempted to claim divine right of rule. For this notion was recognized not only by those who wrote the Declaration of Independence, but by many other intelligent men preceding them: when the government fears the people there is liberty, when the people fear the government there is tyranny. The concept of rights can be used to instill fear in the government, thus establishing and providing for liberty and suppressing tyranny.