Preamble section 1:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,


  1. Where Do Human Rights Come From
  2. Religion
  3. Natural Law
  4. Natural Rights
  5. Legal Positivism
  6. Marxism/Socialism
  7. Controversy
  8. References


According to Henkin, “religion” is not a single or simple idea, and its relation to the idea of rights is neither single nor simple. The major religions can fairly claim ancestry to values central to human rights: right and wrong, good and evil; justice and injustice; legality and illegality; the essential equality of men; the equal protection of the laws. But the major religions have ancient roots and their theology and ideology were largely formed before the idea of rights was conceived. To ancient Judaism, Christianity, Islam - to the older Eastern religions and to other traditional cultures - the idea of rights, surely of rights against society, was unknown. The Bible, for example, knew not rights but duties, and duties were to God; when by God's law one's duties to God related to one's neighbor, the neighbor was only what we would call a third-party beneficiary. (Even love -"Thou shalt love your neighbor as thyself'' was a command, a duty; my neighbor had no "right" to be loved and surely no remedy for my failure to love, except perhaps to complain to God.) Of course, ancient languages did not have a word for rights, and even our later English word suggests its derivation from what is "right" from a theory of good, or justice, without connotations of individual entitlements. The idea of human rights, moreover, is a political idea, addressing man's relation to political society, and ancient religions and other traditional cultures did not have a modern kind of political society to which an individual might have a modern-style relationships, and upon which he and she might make claims (Henkin, Age of Rights, 183-4).

Professor Louis Henkin
Is it possible to define human dignity without any reference to man in the image of God?
Henkin thus suggests that the contours of religious morality are not congruent with the implications of human dignity as commonly conceived. He cites four areas of difference as being of "particular contemporary interest and concern," namely, freedom of religion and religious choice, equality and non-discrimination, gender distinctions and capital punishment, as follows (Henkin, Religion, Religions, and Human Rights, 8 ff).

Freedom of Religion and Religious Choice

The Human Rights code declares freedom of conscience and religious choice; religions however, reject at least some religious choice. Religions reject atheism. In the past, religion --religions-- condemned idolatry (and killed idolaters). Religions generally condemn apostasy and resist proselytizing of their constituents by other religions. Religious anti-Semitism (or anti-Semitism supported or tolerated by religions) has not been unknown.

Equality and Non-Discrimination

For the contemporary Human Rights ideology, human dignity requires equality and non-discrimination, including non-discrimination on grounds of religion or non-religion; religions, have accepted --indeed mandated-- distinctions between one religion and other religions, between the faithful and the infidel.

Gender distinctions

The principal religions have established distinctions between the genders. Religions may insist that not only men but women also find their human dignity in such distinctions; for the human rights idea and ideology many gender distinctions are unacceptable relics of an earlier sociology, and inconsistent with human dignity today.

Capital punishment

The Bible prescribes principles and norms of justice — procedural justice, criminal and distributive justice calls for capital punishment for many offenses. (In Judaism, later generations had to mitigate the rigors of capital punishment by setting up nearly insuperable procedural and evidentiary obstacles.) The Human Rights ideology, though it has not wholly outlawed capital punishment, clearly aims at its abolition because it derigates from human dignity -- the dignity of the person executed, of the members of the society that executes. (It does not accept that the human dignity of the victims of crime requires or justifies capital punishment.)

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Peter Danchin, Columbia University