One bright spring morning in the early 1630s, a wealthy Dutch merchant was delighted to receive a visit from a sailor bringing a tip-off that a very valuable cargo had just arrived at the docks. As a reward for the information, the merchant presented the sailor with a fine red herring. Whilst the merchant was distracted for a moment, the sailor saw, lying among the debris on the shop counter, what he thought was an onion. Thinking it would go nicely with his fish breakfast, the sailor surreptitiously slipped it into his pocket. That, however, was no onion — it was a Semper Augustus tulip bulb and this was the height of the “Dutch Tulip Craze”, which saw bulbs valued higher than gold and sold for extraordinary sums of money. That one bulb alone was worth three thousand florins (over $1,000)! As soon as he spotted it missing, the furious merchant launched a search of the docks. Finally the sailor was found, sitting happily on a coil of ropes, chewing the last mouthful of his herring and “onion”.
A central idea in economic theory is that something is worth what people are prepared to pay for it, despite it often having no inherent value. Your new mobile communication device may have cost hundreds of dollars but if you’re stranded alone on a desert island, as Tom Hanks found in the movie Cast Away, then your shiny piece of technology becomes completely useless compared to the more mundane basics of life such as food, water and shelter.
What people are prepared to pay for something, what the market will bear, also tells you a lot about our culture’s priorities, which are often skewed to say the least. We may laugh at the foolishness of Dutch Tulip Mania, but our culture has its own peculiarities which would appear bizarre to anybody from another time and place. What does it say, for example, that in some luxury hotels you can pay $50 for a cup of Black Ivory, one of the world’s most expensive coffees, notable for the fact that the beans from which it has been brewed have been eaten, partially digested, and excreted by elephants?
Our curiously skewed value system is reflected not just in the very expensive but also in the very cheap, even the free. In his book, You Are Not a Gadget, computer scientist and musician Jaron Lanier describes the increasing pressure that our digital culture places on artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers to make their content available free on the Internet. Thus increasingly the only way to make money online is through advertising. Lanier suggests:
If money is flowing to advertising instead of musicians, journalists and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than truth or beauty.
So much for objects, then, but what about people — does our worth and value as human beings derive from what somebody is prepared for pay for us? For example, a world famous sports personality like Tiger Woods earns 1,400 times the salary of the average nurse — what does that say about our culture’s values? If our worth derives from our earning capability, what about those who cannot pay their way, such as children? Perhaps their worth derives from the joy they bring to others? In which case, what about those who have nothing to offer anybody: the very old, the homeless, the chronically disabled?
Realising that human value and dignity cannot possibly be grounded in economics or utility, the last sixty years have seen politicians, lawyers and activists push the development of human rights theory, a very different approach to the question. Listen to these powerful words from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world … All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
But what’s the basis for this idea; where, in short, is this noble sentiment grounded? Not every worldview can bear the weight: for example, the atheistic materialism of Richard Dawkins, standard bearer of the New Atheism, would be a difficult place to start from. He describes how we are matter and only matter:
We are survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules of DNA known as genes.
That claim has some implications, although I am not sure you can fully live them out. Indeed, I frequently meet atheists who are deeply and passionately committed to causes like human rights, to fighting injustice, to alleviating poverty — in other words, atheists who believe that we are far more than just matter but are persons with inherent worth. The problem is that their assumptions cannot bear the weight of their aspirations.
Only one worldview, in fact, can bear the weight of modern human rights theory, can support the claim that human beings have inherent value, dignity and worth — and that’s the Christian worldview. In Genesis 1:27, we read these words:
So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.
The Bible is very clear: we are not merely chemistry and biology, mere accidents thrown up by the dice as chance rolls them on a cosmic scale. No, we are made “in the image of God” and that means we have inherent value, infinite value — value so great, indeed, that God would consider paying an infinite price to restore and redeem us. But that’s a story for another time.
Human rights is too valuable an idea to build on sand, it needs a foundation, a worldview that can support it. That worldview is not atheism. Leo Tolstoy put it perfectly:
Attempts to found a morality outside religion are similar to what children do when, wishing to replant something they like, they tear it out without the roots and plant it, rootless, in the soil. There can be no genuine, non-hypocritical morality that is without religious basis, just as there can be no plant without roots.
Among all the world’s peoples, the Dalits of India have experienced some of the greatest sadness, pain and persecution. They sit at the bottom of India’s highly stratified caste system, and are considered “untouchable”. Dalit women often bear the brunt of this and two-thirds of them have been sexually abused and 750,000 trafficked into sexual slavery, yet the conviction rate for crimes against Dalits is just 5.3%. How do you change a mind-set that says that a person is quite literally worthless, because of her caste, her family, her birthplace? Words like “all men are born equal” are just fine-sounding platitudes to those who daily experience such discrimination.
One Dalit religious leader summed up the problem in an interview. He said that by the time a child is fourteen, it is too late to change anything, as by then they have been told all of their life that they are worthless. The only way to correct this, he continued, is from a very young age to speak a different worldview into their lives — and the Dalits are finding that it is the biblical worldview, with its profound message that all of us bear God’s image, that is the most powerful corrective.
If you tell a child all their life that they are worthless, there will be implications. Here in the West, we are trying a similar sociological experiment: discovering what will happen if you raise a generation of children to believe they are just accidental collocations of atoms, dancing to their DNA, nothing but a pack of neurons. We may be unpleasantly surprised what happens when they become our future leaders and begin acting out that philosophy.
The atheist writer and philosopher, Raimond Gaita, wrote these very honest words:
We may say that all human beings are inestimably precious, that they are ends in themselves, that they are owed unconditional respect, that they possess inalienable rights, and, of course, that they possess inalienable dignity. In my judgment these are ways of trying to say what we feel a need to say when we are estranged from the conceptual resources we need to say it. Be that as it may: each is problematic and contentious. Not one of them has the simple power of the religious ways of speaking.
If atheism is true, then talk of “human rights” is meaningless, as nonsensical as assigning great monetary value to a tulip bulb. On the other hand — the Christian worldview, and only the Christian worldview — gives us a genuine basis for true human value, worth, and dignity. Only the Bible tells you that you are made in the image of God and that you are not merely matter, but that do you matter.
 The story is found in Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Volume 1 (London: Richard Bentley, 1841) 92-93 and is also retold in William H. Davidow, Overconnected: What the Digital Economy Says About Us (New York: Business Plus, 2011) 111.
 Eko Armunanto, ‘Elephant’s-poop coffee: The most expensive coffee—$50 a cup’, Digital Journal, 3 June 2013.
 Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget (New York: Random House, 2011) 83.
 See Michael J. Perry, ‘The Morality of Human Rights: A Nonreligious Ground?’, Emory Law Journal 54 (2005) 97-150.
 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) xxi.
 Leo Tolstoy, A Confession and Other Religious Writings (Translated by Jane Kentish) (London: Penguin, 1989) 150.
 See Luke Harding, ‘Sex hell of Dalit women exposed’, The Guardian, 9 May 2001 and http://idsn.org/caste-discrimination/key-issues/dalit-women/.
 Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1995) 133.
 Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (New York: Touchstone, 1994) 1.