Francis Schaeffer, Peter Singer, and the Logical Conclusions of Beliefs

Luke’s post earlier this week on Peter Singer reminded me of the importance of thinking deeply and consistently about the logical conclusions of our beliefs. Of course, that idea is by no means original to me. It was driven home in my own life several years ago when I read Francis Schaeffer’s classic The God Who Is There.

Often when Christians encounter people with beliefs that run contrary to a theistic, biblically informed worldview, our first inclination is immediately to dismiss or denounce said beliefs as not conforming to the Scriptures and/or to marshal a defense of our own positions.

Schaeffer, both in the aforementioned book and elsewhere, suggested a different approach, which I’ll attempt, at the risk of underexplaining, to summarize briefly:

1. First genuinely listen to the other person’s beliefs. The person you engage in a conversation has—despite what they themselves might believe—the dignity and worth of someone who is made in the image of God. They should be treated seriously and with respect.

2. Instead of attempting to “pull” people toward our own position, we should—again, respectfully—“push” them to understand the logical conclusions of their own beliefs.

3. In doing so, the person holding views differing from a biblical worldview will eventually have to grapple with the fact that he or she cannot live them out consistently. To put it another way, reality—the reality created, sustained, and governed by a personal, moral God—will continually to get in the way.

4. A brief example will illustrate the above point. Suppose Bob is an atheist and a chemical biologist. He believes there is no God and the entirety of our existence is to be explained naturalistically. He believes human being consists solely of a particular arrangement of elements and energy responding to physical stimuli in complex but mechanistic ways. The question then arises, however: when he leaves his laboratory to return home for the evening, what reason does he have for treating his seven-year-old daughter in a significantly different way than his toaster? That question might sound silly at first. But if the physical universe is all there is, then both “things” (daughter and toaster) are indeed merely specific arrangements of matter conforming to blind, impersonal, mechanistic laws. One may be more complex than the other or capable of different functions, but both are, at the end of the day, essentially machines. And yet, Bob’s own experience of his daughter continually argues that there is a real, qualitative difference between his child and his toaster. For instance, suppose he received successive phone calls telling him (1) his toaster was irreparably broken, and (2) his child was badly injured in car accident. He would almost assuredly understand there is a profound difference in the significance of these two situations. But he could not ultimately account for it in his worldview.

5. If and when people acknowledge they cannot account for various facets of the reality in which they find themselves, they will be in a much better position to listen to and understand how a biblical, Christian account of our reality actually corresponds with and grounds what we know to be true. In a helpful illustration, Schaeffer likened what we can understand of the world to the spine of a book with maybe an inch or two of the pages remaining. Our worldviews/beliefs are like any number of torn pages that we hold up to see if they correspond in size, color, type, etc. The only view that adequately fits, giving us a coherent story, is biblical Christianity. To return to the scenario mentioned in point #4, a purely naturalistic worldview cannot ultimately explain human significance or personhood. But a worldview that asserts a personal God made human beings in his own image, thereby investing them with an enormous amount of significance, does account for the value we’re so readily willing to give to human lives.

I should mention a couple of additional thoughts. First, Schaeffer would by no means suggest that someone with an alternative world view cannot live consistently in some, many, or even most ways with what they believe. Rather, he insisted that there will always be some areas where it is simply not possible to square such beliefs with the reality in which we all live. Secondly, he also maintained a conversation partner should always be given a gracious “out.” In other words, the point of his approach was not to win an argument, but rather to win a person. He had no interest in humiliation or grandstanding “gotcha” moments in dialoging with others.

So how does all this finally relate to Peter Singer? Truthfully it’s a topic that deserves more argument an attention than I can give here, so I’ll limit myself to saying simply this: he is remarkably consistent with what he believes, especially when one considers his positions relative to other atheists. In the end, however, he’s simply not consistent enough. His worldview may thoroughly account for his positions on euthanasia, “fourth-term” abortions, and the like. However, it’s an entirely different matter for it to account successfully for, say, his otherwise laudatory concern for the world’s poor or the tension he felt over caring for his own mother as she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. As he himself has been quoted, “I think this has made me see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really very difficult. Perhaps it is more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it’s your mother.”

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