Reflections on Peter Singer

An interesting article/interview with Peter Singer appeared in the December 1 Sunday Age. Entitled, “In a softer light,” the sympathetic article tried to portray the bioethicist, animal libber and pro-abortionist as perhaps becoming a bit softer in his old age. Or at least he is presenting his views in a less harsh way, the journalist suggested.

In response I shot off a letter to the editor saying that it is hard to consider someone getting “softer” who still thinks that killing new born babies is OK, and that not eating meat has more moral merit than not killing babies. I said that if anything, the article may demonstrate that society is getting harder. After all, this is the same Peter Singer who recently argued in favor of bestiality. As one critic was to quip, for Singer it is OK to have sex with animals, as long as we don’t eat them.

But the thing that got my attention in the article was when Singer spoke of his religious background. He is of course today well known as an atheist, along with his other radical ideas. But when growing up in a Jewish home, and while attending Scotch College in Melbourne, he was exposed to the truths of Scripture.

But at an early age he decided against religious belief. Speaking of when he used to read the Old Testament, for example, he says that there “was much more sex; there was a lot of bloodshed, including a lot of bloodshed carried out by the ‘goodies,’ the Israelites, with god’s approval”.

He says that organised religion “leads to close-minded sectarianism; you can see how much killing there is in the world as a result of people saying, ‘I’m a Catholic; you’re Protestant, I’m a Christian; you’re Muslim.” And it is not just the “bloody” Old Testament that disturbs Singer. He is equally upset about the New:

“Also in the New Testament there were puzzling things that Jesus did, like cursing the fig tree and making it wither because it didn’t have any figs on it. Really petulant. And you had to wonder why no one ever talked about these passages, and how they were supposed to be reconciled with the idea that Jesus was God or everything he did was wonderful.”

It is worth looking at this example in more detail. Granted, Singer is not a theologian, nor does he have a background in biblical studies. But given his intellectual credentials, and given his tendency to boldly speak out on all kinds of subjects, maybe even on some he should show more humility in, he needs to be answered here.

The story of the curing of the fig tree occurs in two of the four Gospels: Matthew 21 and Mark 11. In Matthew it precedes the story of the cleansing of the temple, while in Mark it is carefully intertwined with the story. Mark, even more than Matthew, is making the point that these two stories both speak to the same situation.

In both cases, they have to do with Israel’s barrenness and disobedience, and the judgment that is therefore set to come. The fig tree episode is in fact an enacted parable, speaking of Israel’s unfruitfulness and pending judgment. Both actions indicate that God’s judgment on a rebellious Israel is now taking place, and fruit will be sought elsewhere (among the Gentiles).

Jesus is of course not being petulant here. Nor is he mad that he couldn’t get a bite to eat. And it is exactly because Jesus was God that he could carry out this judgment on Israel. But theological details aside, the rejection of faith by Singer tells us more about himself than the truthfulness of the Gospel message.

Indeed, in some ways his life is nevertheless an interesting testimonial to biblical truth. The article mentions the well known story of how Singer devoted himself to his mother as she died of Alzheimer’s. Normally there is nothing unusual in a son caring for his dying mother. But it is most unusual here, because by Singer’s own philosophy, he was wasting time and resources on someone who was – in his eyes – a non-person. Thus in this case he lived out the imago dei, while temporarily jettisoning his own pagan ideology.

Thus like all non-believers, when it comes to crunch time, a choice has to be made between living in the real world, or living, as Francis Schaeffer once said, with both feet planted firmly in mid-air. But on all the key logical out-workings of his secular utilitarianism, he really has not moved an inch. Thus we do not have a new, softer Singer. The same hard rationalistic thinker is there. The same advocate of euthanasia, abortion and infanticide is there. It’s just that every once and a while he has a run-in with reality, resulting in a temporary suspension of his destructive ideologies.

The bottom line is we need to pray for Peter Singer. He needs to have a few more encounters with reality. True, he has caused untold damage to countless millions of people by his barbaric philosophy. But for all that, he is still an image bearer of God, someone for whom Christ died, and possibly a potential prodigal son.

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2 Replies to “Reflections on Peter Singer”

  1. Peter Singer has this strange contradiction that is evident especially in one of his older books. In “Practical Ethics” Singer argues that life is purposeless and meaningless, but at the same time argues that it is purposeful to minimize pain and maximize happiness. So to argue there is no purpose but then to argue there is purpose seems a little contradictory. From my understanding he comes to this conclusion using basic intuition (pain=bad), yet he does not trust intuition in other circumstances, such as the sanctity of life issue. It makes sense that his actions do not match with what he believes, because his beliefs are not consistent with reality, his own actions with his mother testify to this.
    Thanks for the article Bill.
    Keith Jarrett

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