Image of God does not Ground Human Rights

Continuing the discussion from Atheist Defends Human Rights:

A thought I’ve been chewing through is the grounding for human rights. As you know, I’ve picked on @Patrick about this in the past: Atheist Defends Human Rights

Long story short, I’m not convinced that atheism gives any grounding for human rights. I’m glad they affirm universal rights, but they can’t do much more than that.

Now, turning it around, I find it curious that:

  1. The Image of God is used as the grounding for rights by Christians: Disability and the Image of God - #22 by Guy_Coe

  2. But they can’t even agree on what said Image of God is: Must a Genealogical Adam be a Sequential Genesis Reading? - #78 by swamidass

This is a microcosm of the larger debate, and I’m not precisely picking on @anon46279830 and @Guy_Coe here. The same dynamic arose at Dabar. This seems to me to be clear indication that the Image of God is NOT a good grounding for human rights. If we can’t even agree what it is, then it isn’t a grounding for much at all. It might be a great rhetoric for rights (see MLK), but not a solid logical grounding.

So, then, what does ground universal rights?

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The universality of all humans as made in the image of God, precisely the antithesis of the topic description. The Sovereign God, Who created all things, is the One in a position to make this assertion. Any other conception is changeable with the winds of culture.
We haven’t really discussed the substance of “image of God” much in the thread you cited on a sequential reading.

However, not every theologian thinks that all people are in the Image of God…

Can’t speak for them. Being in the profession is no guarantee of unanimity, obviously. Good question; how do those theologians ground universal rights, outside of those in the Christian community?

It is fairly common, as @Jongarvey, has often argued, to see Image of God as “called for a purpose.” This might leave Adam the only one in God’s Image, but that (hopefully) would not leave those outside the Garde, without rights because they were not in God’s Image.

Well if we can’t agree on what the Image of God is, than NONE of us can ground universal rights on the Image of God.

Yes, and we can’t agree on that until we discuss it. Thanks for raising questions, and perhaps the deliberate provocation for many in the topic description. I’ll be off-forum for awhile, running errands. But, BTW, what would the impediment be to seeing all of humanity as “called for a purpose?” I actually love that description.
Not sure whose catechism it’s in, but one says “the chief end of mankind is to know God, and to make Him known.”

Here’s a nice paper on the subject, exploring the pros and cons of grounding human rights in the Imago Dei.
If I recall correctly, Nicholas Wolterstorff (Justice: rights and wrongs) grounds rights in God’s love for us rather than us being in the image of God - so that’s another approach.


That seems to be much better grounding…and might be part of the puzzle…

Thanks for the paper too. Abstract looks great, and I’m gonna read it later:

The Image of God: Rights, Reason, and Order, Jeremy Waldron

The idea that humans are created in the image of God is often cited as a foundation for human rights theory. In this paper, this use of imago dei is surveyed, and while the paper is basically favorable to this foundation, it draws attention to some difficulties (both theological and practical) that using imago dei as a foundation for human rights may involve. Also it explores the suggestion that the image of God idea may be more apt as a foundation for some rights rather than others. Its use in relation to political rights is specifically explored. The moral of the discussion is that foundations do make a difference. We should not expect that, if we simply nail this idea onto the underside of a body of human rights theory as a foundation, everything in the theory will remain as it is.

Also, welcome to the forums @Zachary_Ardern.

Why wouldn’t God’s love for us lead Him to “create us in His image,” so we could return that love?

That grounds rights in God’s love for us, not the Image of God.

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It grounds our conception of each other’s rights, and gives Christians no “out” towards people who don’t love God.

If God hands out His love this freely, we are to do the same, having been “created in His image.”

You could only be picking on me if you attempted to limit speech or draw me into the minutia of your specialty. The rest is just iron sharpening iron.

Atheism doesn’t but secular humanism espoused in the Enlightment does. Stephen Pinker’s just released book is a deep dive into how the Enlightment ideals of the 19th Century have become a reality in the 21st century.


I still haven’t seen that grounding in secular humanism. Don’t forget that the Enlightenment gave grounding for some of the most systematic abuse of human rights in history.

I am really surprised that Neanderthals are deigned the “image of God” designation. They are existent. It is not like anyone has to give them any human rights or feed them or give them subsidizes. They are all gone. To say they were so close to human and then intermixed providing good genes and bad ones to almost everybody is kind of degrading. I can see how some can not want to call the Lucy Australopithecus “in the image of God” but the Neanderthals?

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Some people would say they are in the Image of God. In many Genealogical Adam models, for example, we say that God made people in his Image long before Adam. That might have included Neanderthals and Denisovans.

I’m just saying that no one can even agree on what that is. It is not like we can do an experiment to tell us the answer, or read the answer out of the Bible. We are just not going to know.


If we follow the YEC paradigm that de novo Adam and Eve experienced their special creation 6000 years ago, Neanderthals are completely irrelevant to the questions.

But for those who want to place de novo creation of Adam/Eve 12,000 years back, or 100,000 years back … the topic is still irrelevant.

It’s really the folks that are just aching for a good “barroom scrapping” that seem most interested in the topic…

2 posts were split to a new topic: Reading Science Into Scripture

John Locke did not need us to be in the image of God to conclude we have rights from God. He wrote (thanks for the link @T.j_Runyon)
" Men being all the Workmanship of one Omnipotent, and infinitely wise Maker;
All the Servants of one Sovereign Master, sent into the World by his order, and
about his business; they are his Property, whose Workmanship they are, made
to last during his, not one another’s Pleasure. And being furnished with like
Faculties, sharing all in one Community of Nature, there cannot be supposed
any such Subordination among us, that may Authorize us to destroy one another,
as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of Creatures are
for ours."

So Locke argued that natural rights were a consequence of mankind (even those Chapter one folks outside the garden) being given dominion over the rest of nature and humanity ruling nature on God’s authority. I.E. we were God’s agents in nature. When Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence he said we were “Endowed by our Creator” with certain unalienable rights. He wasn’t arguing it was because we were “in the Image”, but because of our God-given role. We are His stewards on the earth. When we mess with one another we are not merely messing with nature, but God’s fellow chosen instruments.

I have written two books on political philosophy. The second and underappreciated one mostly talks about the basis for our rights by refuting the anarchist/libertarian view of “self-ownership” as a basis for rights. That view is intellectually incoherent, as is the idea that the state owns us and defines rights. The only view of rights that makes sense is that we are the stewards of our lives and not their owners (until the next life). But the state doesn’t own us either. God owns us. And neither we nor the state have authority to mess with His property/designated agents in an unjust manner.

Scripture uses the language of rights a lot. Proverbs 14:31 says “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God”. This fits well with Locke’s position. And it is irrespective of who is or is not in “the image”. Now I will say we are all in the “likeness” of God. To be human is to be in the likeness of God. There is a difference and it takes eight or nine pages to show the difference. So I suppose you could use that language to justify rights, but I don’t think that is the main thrust of why scripture indicates people have rights. That is more connected to the fact that God is our maker and we have all been given dominion over nature, but not each other.

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