This dissertation examines whether a commitment to human rights is cogent apart from a religious view of life. I identify three distinctive religious criticisms of secular conceptions of human rights, from ultimate meaning, dignity, and comprehensive good, illustrating each through the work of a prominent author, Michael J. Perry, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Alasdair MacIntyre. The criticism from ultimate meaning focuses on assessing enduring goods and universal solidarity, from dignity on distinct and equal human worth in relation to other species, and from comprehensive good on holistic flourishing, shared reasons, and sources of obligation. I grapple with these criticisms by drawing on the capabilities approach that has gained ascendancy in human rights theory and policy, most notably in the United Nations Development Program and its annual Human Development Reports. I appraise the approach through the work of social philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum. At each point of the inquiry, I discuss the approach’s limits and possibilities and suggest what both religious and secular critics could learn about upholding and evaluating human rights. As the discussion progresses, it becomes clear that whether human rights are plausible on secular grounds or inescapably religious entails several complex claims that admit no single, simple resolution.

Degree Date

Spring 5-19-2018

Document Type


Degree Name



Religious Studies


Robin W. Lovin

Second Advisor

William J. Abraham

Third Advisor

Charles E. Curran

Fourth Advisor

William F. May

Number of Pages




Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License