This weekend. on Sam Harris's site, I ran into yet another fundamentalist claiming that there is no basis for morality or human rights without religion. Here is my response:
The basis of human consciousness and self-awareness is that we evolved the ability to model and anticipate the actions of other intentional entities. This ability spans from the simple action of throwing a spear to where the deer will be, rather than where it is, to anticipating the actions and reactions of other human beings like ourselves, so that we can anticipate threats, form alliances, and even manipulate or resist manipulation by others. Out of this initial advance came the ability to create respresentations, express those representations in language, and create a representation of one's self just as one could create a model of the intentions of other people. This self representation became 'I', self awareness, and we became conscious beings.
What this means is that we are essentially social creatures, who have a strong empathy for others of our kind, and even for other animals. This empathy is the basis of human rights, expressed in what we now call the Golden Rule (which, though expressed in the Bible, predates it by millenia): Treat others as you would like to be treated. This is no more or less than the expression of an evolved capacity common to all human beings who are not stunted by development or upbringing. We understand each other as being like ourselves, and are affected (in the most literal sense of the word) by their pain, pleasure, sadness, or joy. In order for this bond to be broken, we must cease to see the other as human. This capacity for empathy is present even in many other mammals; we, as conscious beings, are able to codify it. As we continue to understand ourselves better, we improve upon the expression of it. Our current standard of human rights is a recent achievement, which is not reflected or prefigured in the bronze age values enshrined in the Bible.
But the root of it is and always has been in our genes, and survived there because it conferred a strong adaptive advantage. The ethics of the Bible is simply an earlier, more primitive, expression of this innate ability. I do not wish to harm others because I know they are like myself; I literally feel their pain, and share their joy. I support the codification of mutually supportive conduct because it works in my favour as well as everyone else's, ensuring our safety, well-being, aid in the event of need, and the delight of peaceful human coexistence. This is all that morality and human rights require. I neither ask nor need more.
If you do not feel this human bond, and require the ministrations of a cosmic tyrant to hold you to civil conduct, then you have my pity--but not my respect.