An Honest Atheist?

Peter Singer is one of the most controversial figures in America. The bioethics professor from Princeton cheerfully advocates euthanasia and what may be called “fourth term abortions” – the option of killing babies for a certain amount of days after they have been born if the mother decides she does not want to keep it after all. He writes:

“My colleague Helga Kuhse and I suggest that a period of 28 days after birth might be allowed before and infant is accepted as having the same right to life as others.”

In his book, Should the Baby Live? The Problem of Handicapped Infants, Singer’s thesis is that in certain cases it would be better for society as a whole if babies were not allowed to survive and in such cases doctors and parents ought to withhold treatment and allow the baby to die.

In many cases his conclusions are horrifying. However, in almost the same breath, Singer is a staunch supporter of animal rights and one of the loudest and clearest voices in the fight against global poverty. (Check out his recent article, America’s Shame for a taste of his style and argument.)

Judging from this (very) brief survey of his positions, Peter Singer’s ethics may seem to be randomly cut-and-pasted together, but after a closer look he is an amazingly consistent and honest philosopher.

Dinesh D’Souza, a Christian author and speaker, recently debated Singer at Princeton on the topic: “Can we be moral without God?” In an article in Christianity Today (Staring into the Abyss), D’Souza writes:

“Some people consider Singer a provocateur who says outrageous things just to get attention. But Singer is deadly serious about his views and – as emerged in our debate – has a consistent rational basis for his controversial positions.”

Then later:

“There is a grim consistency in Singer’s call to extend rights to the apes while removing traditional protections for unwanted children, people with disabilities, and the noncontributing elderly.”

Singer is very unpalatable to people (for obvious reasons), even to his fellow atheists. As D’Souza points out, the “New Atheists,” like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, etc “say we can get rid of God but preserve morality. They insist that no one needs God in order to be good.”

Singer’s ethics, however, completely abandons the notion of an objective standard of morality. He is working out the logical implications of living in a world without God. He acknowledges, just like we do as Christians, that without God, there can be no standard of right and wrong behavior, that without God the only ethical standard we can employ is a kind of Universalism – whatever is best for the most people is what we should do. This statistical kind of litmus test opens the door to all kinds of ugly and horrifying implications: infanticide, euthanasia, animal rights trumping human rights – all done in the name of the ‘overall good for society.’ It is internally consistent. It is scary.

This scares the new atheists as well because Singer is giving voice to the ultimate position one is forced to adopt if they deny that God exists from the outset. This is the only logical position an atheist can take. Singer is courageous enough to voice it, no matter how unpopular it makes him. We ought to commend him for that.

D’Souza’s closes his essay with this:

“Why haven’t the atheists embraced Peter Singer? I suspect it is because they fear that his unpalatable views will discredit the cause of atheism. What they haven’t considered, however, is whether Singer, virtually alone among their numbers, is uncompromisingly working out the implications of living in a truly secular society, one completely purged of Christian and transcendental foundations. In Singer, we may be witnessing someone both horrifying and yet somehow refreshing: an intellectually honest atheist.”

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