The debate, sponsored by the Christian Union and the Fixed Point Foundation, was held in a stately auditorium in Alexander Hall on the Princeton campus. Some 800 people—around 650 of them Princeton undergraduates—were in eager attendance. The atmosphere in the room was electric. The debate had been promoted in extravagant terms as a clash of heavyweights.
Yet once again Singer began his speech by announcing that he had no intention of defending his positions on the taking of human life. In fact, he said that people who had come to hear him defend such positions could leave and go home. Singer argued that even if his views were terrible, it would not follow that atheism was terrible. He offered a strange analogy. Osama Bin Laden is a Muslim, and his views can be considered dangerous, but it doesn’t follow that Islam itself is dangerous. Having compared himself to Bin Laden, Singer did not seem to be off to a very good start.
This time I refused to play Singer’s game and permit him to duck his outrageous views. “Peter Singer is reluctant, perhaps understandably, to discuss his positions,” I began. “Therefore it will be my task to discuss them.” My argument was that when we think of secularism, we think of Europe or perhaps of the American Northeast. But the values of America and Europe—even secular values—are decisively shaped by Christianity. Many of the new atheists, I suggested, want to get rid of Christianity but keep core Christian values. Richard Dawkins has even identified himself as a “cultural Christian.”
This, I said, is what makes Singer different. He is an honest atheist in that he recognizes that you can’t have Christian morality without its transcendent foundation. I identified Singer with the philosopher Nietzsche’s project to go beyond the “death of God” and eradicate all Christian values—including equal dignity and the preciousness of human life—from the West.
Singer, I said, is an advocate of comprehensive secularism. To discover the consequences of this secularism, I said, we must look to twentieth-century regimes that have actively sought to get rid of God and Christianity. Specifically, the Communist regimes of Stalin, Mao, and the Nazi regime provide the clearest indication of what truly God-free societies look like.
I noted that some of Singer’s critics had accused him of being a Nazi and Singer himself writes that he is frequently prevented from speaking in Germany. Singer has vociferously protested the equation of his views with those of the Nazis, and I said he was right to make this distinction. After all, I pointed out, the Nazis favored state-sponsored genocide while Singer advocated free market homicide.
Remarkably Singer’s only defense against this argument was to point out that he had lost some of his relatives in the Holocaust, and to note that religious as well as atheist regimes had committed historical atrocities. Not once did Singer attempt to defend his shocking views. Nor did he contest the Darwinian and atheist foundation for those views. Instead, Singer went right back to the problem of pain and suffering. A just and compassionate God, he said, would never permit such disasters as earthquakes, hurricanes and cancer. Consequently there is no good God presiding over human affairs. Therefore if we are going to have morality we will have to develop morality without God.
I am giving only an abbreviated account of what was, from start to finish, a lively and wide-ranging debate. Audience applause for me was tepid in the beginning—no surprise, since I was on Singer’s home turf—but grew louder throughout the evening. This suggested that I had gained ground in a generally hostile setting. Even so, Singer emailed me after the debate to say that his philosophy students considered him the winner. I resisted the temptation to ask him to take another poll after he had handed out his semester grades.
I regard Singer and Christopher Hitchens as two of the most effective advocates of atheism in the United States, and perhaps anywhere. In Britain, of course, there is Richard Dawkins. I like to debate these men in order to show that theism in general, and Christianity in particular, can withstand the best that the opposition has to offer.
Hitchens, to his credit, is always ready to rumble. Dawkins, however, has shown himself to be a coward by refusing to defend his aggressively-articulated views in open debate. And now Singer has twice shown up at debates with his running shoes on. So with Dawkins hiding under his desk and Singer sprinting for cover, is modern atheism losing its nerve?