How can we define and defend human rights in a secular world? If God is dead, what secures the ought of human rights and human dignity? This may be one of the most haunting questions of our times.

Writing in Crisis, Edward Feser argues that human rights cannot be sustained or secured in a secular context:

It’s clear enough that the moral ideals that Western secularists
value had–as a matter of historical fact–a theological origin. But
could they not be given a foundation instead in some other,
non–Judeo-Christian religious tradition–or in a purely secular
philosophy? It doesn’t appear so. For the dignity that the Western
tradition has attributed to human beings derives entirely from the idea
that their distinctive attributes–reason and free will, personhood and
moral choice–reflect the very nature of the ultimate reality that is
God Himself


The idea that all human beings as such have an inherent
dignity–and that this entails a doctrine of objectively valid,
absolute, and universal human rights–seems to exist only in the
Judeo-Christian West, and the moral (as opposed to economic or
political) pressure other societies might feel to conform to this idea
seems to come only from the West. Those who value these ideals, even if
they are not personally religious, would seem therefore to have an
interest in the continued health of the Judeo-Christian tradition; for
whatever basis this or that individual person might have for endorsing
these values, it is not at all clear that they can be maintained at the
societal and global levels in the absence of that tradition

After tracing various questions, Feser points to Europe as an
indicator of what happens when a culture denies absolute principles and
attempts to ground human rights in a fully secularized worldview. He
describes the European condition and ends with a warning:

And then there is the apparent obsession with legalizing and
even celebrating all manner of vices–such as pornography and drugs–to
a far greater extent than has occurred in the United States; the
collapse of marriage and the traditional family in many European
countries, along with an alarmingly low birthrate; and the vigorous
promotion of euthanasia. We’re left with a continent that appears to
see no greater end in life than to eat and drink well as far as
possible at others’ expense, to work little, and to copulate frequently
without the bother of marriage or children; to idle away the remaining
hours with various entertainments and illicit pleasures; and, when
these distractions start to bore, to end this pointless existence as
painlessly as possible with a quick injection at the hands of a
government physician.

If this is a caricature, it is hardly a groundless one. And from
the traditional Judeo-Christian perspective, the way of life it
describes already sounds halfway like a description of hell. It is
surely understandable if those still committed to that perspective
might wonder if it is a harbinger of worse things yet to come.