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.
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?