I never knew Peter Singer could run so fast. The controversial bioethicist is originally from Australia, and I hear that they breed some good sprinters over there. Still, I was very surprised to see a man who has devoted decades to formulating some very controversial views run so desperately away from them. This was precisely what Singer did when I debated him on December 3 on the campus where he currently teaches, Princeton University.
My first debate against Singer was at Biola University in Los Angeles several months ago. There the organizers came up with the resolution, “God: Yes or No.” In my opening statement I suggested that Singer was a perfect illustration of what you get when you reject God and attempt to construct ethics on a purely secular, Darwinian foundation. Singer’s atheism, I suggested, is the primary foundation of his advocacy of infanticide, euthanasia, and animal rights.
Somewhat to my surprise, Singer announced to the largely Christian audience that he was not there to debate his views on infanticide and euthanasia. Rather, he said, he had come to debate whether God existed or not. For Singer, the existence of pain and suffering in the world was enough to show God’s non-existence.
I countered that the existence of pain and suffering raised no questions about the existence of God, only about the nature of God. Imagine if I had a father whom I always considered to be kind, generous, and loving. Then I encounter a tragedy and my father does not help. It would make no sense for me to say, “Since you have acted contrary to my previous assessment of your character, therefore I conclude that you do not exist.”
I met Singer on his chosen territory because I wanted the Biola debate to be a real engagement, not a case of two ships passing in the night. Even so, I sought a second opportunity to take on Singer’s controversial positions. Here, after all, is a man who has publicly said that even infants have no rights for some 27 days after they are born. According to Singer, these infants can be killed during that time if they are felt to be an inconvenience or burden to their parents or society.
When Singer agreed to another debate, this time on his home campus of Princeton, I proposed the topic, “Can We Have Morality Without God?” Here, I thought, was a direct opportunity to link God with morality and to show what happens when a thinker like Singer seeks to formulate an entirely secular morality. Singer readily agreed to the subject. Moreover, as a defender of the resolution, he agreed to go first.