Emory Law Journal


I am delighted to contribute this Essay to this collection of works celebrating Michael Perry’s lifetime achievements. From my first acquaintance with his work in the late 1980s, I have both admired and been profoundly challenged by it. One of his greatest and most enduring contributions is his foundational idea that every human life is sacred and, therefore, all are entitled to basic human rights.[1] In his words, it is this “fundamental conviction [that is] at the heart of the morality of human rights.”[2]

What is the ultimate source for this “sacredness view,” upon which so much of human law depends? Perry is inherently skeptical about the capacity of secular reasoning and convictions to offer a coherent account of both human rights and the innate worth of human beings upon which they are founded. Rather, the premise that every human being is “sacred” or “inviolable” is inescapably religious.[3] In other words, religious beliefs and secular objectives work together to create legal regimes of human rights.

As a matter of personal understanding and conviction, I do not doubt there are both great truth and power in what he says. For me, questions about human worth and destiny involve inquiries that can easily transcend the limits of the human mind. In this Essay, rather than engaging with his work in a theoretical vein, I have chosen to engage it in an immediate and very critical context. Religion can create, ground, and support human rights. But what if it does not?

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