Have you ever heard of “Chinese water torture”? The victim is strapped into a chair and water is slowly dripped onto his forehead. Over time he goes nuts waiting for the next drop.
I hope you won’t misunderstand me when I say that this is how I like to think about the method of apologetics I use when evangelizing someone who denies the existence of God.
Since I know my atheist friend will not, on the basis of his naturalist worldview, be able to account for even the most basic and fundamental aspects of who he is as a human person, I know that I can talk about almost anything and he will feel the tension between what he knows to be true as God’s image and likeness and what his materialist worldview tells him must be true.
For instance, his belief in unalienable human rights.
The Nature of Unalienable Human 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...
We’re all familiar with the phrase “unalienable rights.” But what exactly does it mean? Well, unalienable rights are rights that are inherent to us as human beings; rights that belong to us; rights from which we can’t be alienated.
Okay, and where do these rights come from?
The Declaration of Independence explicitly connects them with God. It is precisely because our rights come to us from the Creator that they are inherent to us and cannot be taken from us. This said to be “self-evident.”
When we look at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about human rights, we see all the same elements present.
The unalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state; they belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origin” (2273).
Atheism’s Problem with Human Rights
Now, whether we believe in God or not, these are precisely the sort of “rights” we all seem to believe in, cherish, and insist on for ourselves and others. In fact, many who would consider themselves secular to the core devote their lives to working for the recognition of human rights.
And of course this is no problem for the Christian, whose theistic worldview provides a coherent metaphysical foundation for belief in the existence of rights that are inherent, that belong to the person, that come from God, and that cannot be taken away by any human power or authority.
On the other hand, as much as atheists also believe in the inalienability of human rights, their worldview cannot account for them.
In a universe composed of nothing but physical particles interacting with one another in accordance with physical laws, there is no one to “endow” human beings with such rights.
If there is no God, whatever “rights” we possess must be rights granted to us by others. The only problem is, rights granted to us by others are rights that can be taken away. Since these sorts of rights aren’t inherent to human beings, they can’t be “unalienable."
The story goes that Shih Huang Ti, the first emperor of China, had 460 scholars buried alive because they dared to tell him he was wrong about something. When facing delays in the building the Great Wall, a soothsayer told him that unless 10,000 people were buried in the wall, it would never be finished. Thankfully, he found a man whose name, Wan, meant “10,000,” buried him alive in the rampart, and the work continued.
An extreme illustration, yes. But this is the way things go when human rights are not deemed as being inherent and unalienable.
Even in a democratic form of government, rights that are granted by the “people” are not rights that one possesses by nature. They are rights that can come and go with the mood of the society. For instance, before 1973, unborn children in America possessed the right to life. Now they don’t.
Chinese Water Apologetics
When I speak (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) of apologetic water torture, I’m not talking about drowning people in facts or immersing them in a tank of proofs. Indeed, the secret to Chinese water torture is the gentleness with which it works. Its effect is felt over time.
It’s the same with the argument presented here. It’s not as though your atheist friend is going to fall down and cry out, “What must I do to be saved?” the instant you lead him to recognize that philosophical naturalism is inconsistent with unalienable human rights.
But over time . . . over time such a realization, presented with compassion and respect, can have the effect of a gentle dripping that doesn’t stop.
So, you’re saying that on the basis of my atheist worldview I cannot account for belief in unalienable rights? You’re saying that unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness demand the existence of a God to endow them? You’re saying that in order to believe in unalienable human rights I will have to first believe in God?
As the implications of the naturalist worldview begin to sink in—in this case with respect to human rights—our hope is that our atheist friend will begin to see that something is wrong with a worldview that necessarily involves these kinds of implications. Our prayer is that he will slowly be nudged in the direction of sanity.