There was a thought experiment used by some of the Enlightenment-era political philosophers. It went something like this:
“In the state of nature all people are free and equal. There is no society or government to limit or prevent any choice or behaviour. Each individual is perfectly free to do as they please without regard for any other person. Even the strong are vulnerable to the weak when they sleep and this means that each individual is perfectly equal.”
I’m simplifying for the sake of brevity, obviously. From this point, the philosophers could point out that it is beneficial to give up some of that freedom in order to be protected from other people’s freedom. Once we can accept that principle we can get down to arguing over which freedoms and how much freedom people should give up to live in peace. It’s an interesting thought experiment and might be useful in some ways. What it is not, however, is accurate.
That is not at all how human society developed. We were never solitary creatures. We have always moved in packs. The anthropologists who study our behaviour and the behaviour of our closest non-human relatives (primates) show that we create structures of power and complex social networks. The evidence suggests that we always have.
Once the idea of human rights, like freedom and equality, began to emerge and take hold, we began to think of them as God-given. I actually don’t think there’s a problem with thinking those rights are God-given. There is a problem with thinking of them as natural though. Rights, freedoms, and equality don’t exist in nature the way you and I think of them.
We have so much to learn from the natural world. We’re just scratching the surface of what the world around us can teach us about how we got to where we are. We’re just beginning to learn how we are dependent on each part of the creation of which we are a part. But there are some things nature cannot supply.
The worth and value of each life can’t be learned simply from observing how each living thing interacts with each other. Social, political, and economic equality between people cannot be learned from the state of nature. Justice and mercy and love cannot be learned from the state of nature. In other words, the Kingdom of God cannot be learned from the state of nature.
People of faith have a role in the conversation with scientists and anthropologists and historians. Our role is not to challenge their conclusions or restrict their work. We benefit from their work and should be vocal in our support of their responsibility to chase knowledge wherever it leads. Our role is to constantly hold up the value and dignity of every person. Our role is to constantly hold each other to the highest standard of love.