Human dignity and rights needed to be set free from religious foundations. Only a secular basis can maintain their continued existence free from religious violence and tensions.
At least, that was the learned opinion one of Holland’s best-known atheists as expressed in a seminar last week in The Hague. Dr Margriet Krijtenburg, who spoke in Dublin at a recent State of Europe Forum, was presenting her doctoral thesis on Robert Schuman to an invited audience, and had invited her supervising professor, Paul Cliteur, to be one of her respondents.
As in Dublin, Margriet had described Schuman’s conviction that the Christian faith had a significant role to play in restoring unity in Europe and in Europe’s future. Concepts such as human dignity and solidarity were, in Schuman’s understanding, intrinsically linked with a Christian concept of humanity.
Margriet’s professor agreed that the identification of such values as the freedom of expression, of religion and of assembly had laid foundations for the unique European project. But fortunately, he said, those values had been set free from their religious roots and redefined within a sustainable secular framework. Such a framework protected human dignity from religious intolerance and offered it a tolerant pluriform context.
A few days after attending this seminar, an engagement near Den Bosch gave me the opportunity to visit the former Nazi concentration camp in Vught while in the neighbourhood.
Some 31,000 Jews, political prisoners, resistance fighters, students, Jehovah’s Witnesses, tramps, black marketeers and criminals were thrown together into Kamp Vught, some for short periods, others longer. Almost all of the 12,000 Jewish internees, over a third of the camp population, were later murdered in extermination camps in Poland.
A reconstructed cell remind visitors of the so-called “bunker drama” of January 15, 1944. In response to a protest by prisoners, the camp commandant ordered 74 women to be locked up together in one cell in a space of nine square metres, without ventilation. When the doors were finally opened after 14 hours, ten of the women had died.
Most sobering, however, was a memorial to the 1,800 Jewish children taken away from the camp on June 6 and 7, 1943, to a “special children’s camp” -- or so the parents were told. Some parents were allowed to accompany the children. After a three-day train ride to the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland, almost every person perished.
The cold metal monument carried those names and ages of 1,269 of the children that are known. I stood there transfixed and emotionally disturbed reading the ages of these little defenceless human beings. I sought out the ages of my own three grandchildren: three months, two years and four years.
At the base of the monument was a sculptured teddy bear, a truck and other toys. In the trunk of my car was a wrapped present for my grandson celebrating his second birthday. What if he had been born 70 years earlier, to Jewish parents?
What was the source of the evil that had led to this vile crime? Was it not a denial of the Biblical truth that the dignity of every human is rooted in the understanding that life is a gift of the Creator? and that each one of us has been created in His image, Imago Dei?
Had not the “freeing from religious foundations”, the rejection of the Biblical view of humanity, by Hitler and his henchmen caused this European tragedy? Was it not this very tragedy that had led Schuman and others to formulate the European Convention on Human Rights, to which every member nation of the Council of Europe had to agree? Was it not their aim to render such “state gangsterism” impossible, to prevent for ever the atrocities of Kamp Vught, Dachau and Auschwitz?
How quickly we are forgetting this most important lesson of modern times! No, Professor, it is not “fortunate” that in the minds of millions of Europeans today human dignity has been freed from its historical and transcendent foundations. For there are no other foundations. We can’t invent foundations or roots. A process of materialistic evolution in which only the fittest survive can never result in protection and rights for the weak and vulnerable.
As (non-believer) John Gray, formerly of the London School of Economics, wrote in his 2007 book Straw Dogs: humanists are simply Christians in disguise. If there is no God, there is no basis for human dignity and human exceptionalism. Humanism is the creed of those who have “given up an irrational belief in God for an irrational belief in humans”.
The truth is, many Europeans are squatters living in a house built on Judeo-Christian foundations -- but they don’t want to pay the rent.