Polish human rights advocate and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Walesa recently spoke at a summit of Nobel Peace Prize winners. In his speech he called for a “secular Ten Commandments.” Specifically, he said, “We need to agree on common values for all religions as soon as possible, a kind of secular Ten Commandments on which we will build the world of tomorrow.”
Hold on just one minute. I can get on board with a generally accepted secular Ten Commandments. In fact, I really like the idea. It would be great if we could all get together and really commit to principles of fairness and equality. However, I must object to how Walesa framed the need.
Walesa doesn’t say that we as humans need to agree on common values, he said that religions do. I find this perplexing. Why should it be the responsibility of religion to find common values on which the world will be built?
As a non-believer, I get this all the time. People assume that atheists, agnostics and non-believers are inherently immoral. Oprah thinks we can’t experience awe and wonder. This is essentially what Walesa assumes when he says that religions should set the world’s pace.
Perhaps I’m being too sensitive, but like I said, I get this all the time. Surely non-believers can have nothing to contribute to a discussion of values. All they care about is science and empirical evidence! They don’t want to make the world a better place; that’s the job of religions.
Atheists have every right to be in on that discussion, and if it’s a secular Ten Commandments you want, then atheists should be at the table. Religious organizations do some incredible work around the world, but they don’t have a monopoly on good deeds. It’s perfectly possible for atheists to believe in justice and equality. There is nothing inherently religious about that. It would be nice if, once in a while, atheists weren’t discounted as a source for good in the world.
This isn’t to say that I disagree with Walesa’s larger point. As far as we know, we’re alone in the universe, stranded on this blue orb. It’s not impossible to come up with a set of values on which to build a better world. In fact, we have a pretty good start. It’s called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it was adopted by the UN General Assembly 65 years ago.
If you are unfamiliar, the UDHR was written in the aftermath of World War II. It enumerates all of the rights that human beings are entitled to by virtue of being human. It attempts to balance culture and religion with the right of every person to be autonomous and practice self-determination. It doesn’t care where you live or, what religion you are (or aren’t), or your gender. If you’re a person, you are entitled to certain human rights.
You may argue that we’ve had this list of rights for six decades and we haven’t made a lot of progress. I’d argue that the fact that human rights are even a concept is a coup. The global community came together to decide that these were the rights we need to invest in to guarantee that every person has the opportunity to live full, productive lives. We don’t always succeed, and progress has been uneven. However, my grandparents lived in a world without human rights, and I can’t imagine a world without them. That’s not bad for two generations. Give it two more and we’ll see where we are.
What’s even better is that these values are truly secular. The UDHR doesn’t depend on believing in the right god. They can be justified with religious, as well as non-religious, reasoning. I guess that’s why it’s called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Maybe we should all recommit to these goals. It’s counter-productive to divide the religious and the non-religious when the betterment of the world is at stake.
Photo Credit: Franklin D Roosevelt Library via Wikipedia