Surprised by Peter Singer (Extract)

Sarah Irving-Stonebraker on human value, philosophy, and her surprising journey from atheism to Christian faith.

(This is an extract from a 2018 episode of CPX’s Life & Faith podcast. Listen to the full episode here.) 

SIMON SMART: The story we’re bringing you today runs full circle from the suburbs of Sydney to the libraries and lecture halls of Cambridge and Oxford; to a university in Tallahassee, Florida; and back to Sydney again.

Sarah Irving-Stonebraker wanted to be a historian from when she was eight years old. So that trajectory was all part of the plan. What she didn’t expect was her journey from atheism to Christian faith.

SARAH IRVING-STONEBRAKER: On the one hand, we have written on our hearts this sense that human beings are precious and valuable, and in many ways the last few hundred years have seen enormous progress in terms of human rights, which are basically grounded historically on Christian ideas and the idea that we’re created equally and given rights by God. But yet on the other hand, we are still corrupted, we’re still human. And so, while on the one hand we have enormous progress, we still see around the world human life being devalued everywhere – I mean, sex trafficking, human trafficking, and so forth.

NATASHA MOORE: This is what Sarah believes now. She did become an historian – these days she is a lecturer at Western Sydney University. So the idea of what human nature is like and how it plays out over the centuries is an important one for her. But she used to be a pretty staunch atheist, so her 25-year-old self wouldn’t have agreed with much of this.

25-year-old Sarah though was totally convinced that humans had inherent and equal moral worth. And ironically enough, it was going to hear atheist philosopher Peter Singer speak at Oxford that was really the catalyst for her to start asking some uncomfortable questions about her own atheism and about the Christian worldview.

SARAH IRVING-STONEBRAKER: After I finished my PhD at Cambridge, I was elected to a Junior Research Fellowship at the University of Oxford. And a few months into my time there my friends and I heard that a very famous atheist philosopher known as Peter Singer came was coming to give a series of lectures. So we were really excited, and a bunch of us went to go and hear Singer’s lectures.

The lectures were on the topic of ethics. In other words, do we have any kind of duties to other people? And it tapped into the issue of human worth. So in other words, the question of: Do human lives have any value? So I quite happily went to these lectures really excited, because Peter Singer is a very famous philosopher, and I was expecting that as an atheist, I’d be hearing exactly the kind of ethics that I subscribed to.

But actually, what I heard just floored me to be honest, because the lectures that Singer was giving tapped into this issue of, well, do human lives have any inherent worth? And you see, because Singer doesn’t believe that there’s any god, then you’re suddenly in a position where you’ve removed the ground for saying that humans are created with any kind of purpose or love or that their lives have any inherent worth, because all you’re left with is looking at the natural world. And what does the natural world tell us? Well, survival of the fittest, the strong eating the weak, and so forth. So, on what basis can you claim then that human lives are of any inherent or indeed equal worth?

And so when I left those lectures, I felt quite sick to my stomach and did quite a bit of reading, and realised that this thinking is very true to his atheist convictions, because he says, Look, basically we’re kind of left with two options if we want to think about moral worth of a human life as an atheist, if you remove God from the equation. And he pursues the first path, which is that you basically have to come up with a list of capacities that define what he calls personhood. So there are humans, of course, biological species – but then there are persons, and not every human being for Singer has the status of personhood. So these capacities, if you have them, give you the status of personhood, on the basis of having those capacities. And the point is, well why don’t other creatures have rights and moral value and so forth? And of course to Singer, they do to a greater or lesser extent. But the point is you have these capacities then on the basis of those capacities your life has some kind of worth. So there are things like, you know, the ability to experience complex levels of suffering, various cognitive faculties, your awareness as a human being – self-awareness, self-consciousness, and so forth.

But then of course, the question is, well, what happens for those human beings who don’t have those capacities – the severely disabled, for example; people who are in a vegetative state, whether as a result of accident or medical treatment; the very, very young, right, newborn babies? My five-month-old son doesn’t have the capacity to consider his self-consciousness. And so elsewhere in his work – and he’s quite well known for arguing this –  he’s arguing that, well, any kind of rights we talk about don’t really apply to people who lack the status of personhood. So, this has huge implications for people with disabilities, for example.

I had always taken it as a basic moral intuition that all human beings are of equal moral worth.

NATASHA MOORE: So, why do you think you were so resistant to that? Like, if his logic is kind of sound and you considered yourself to be an atheist, why were you so resistant to accepting that logic?

SARAH IRVING-STONEBRAKER: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Well, I had always basically taken it as a basic moral intuition that all human beings, regardless of whether we’re disabled or able-bodied, mentally or physically, are of equal moral worth. And I’d sort of just assumed that that was something that all rational people could accept. And of course, Singer and his work says this is the other possibility, and a lot of secular philosophy proceeds down that path. But then of course, as a historian – and actually, you don’t even need to be a historian to think this through, you don’t need much knowledge of history – of course, all kinds of societies throughout history and indeed in the contemporary world don’t value human life at all. Like even in my grandparents’ generation, in Nazi Germany, it was considered “right” by that society at the time to gas to death and put in concentration camps six million Jewish people. So the notion that all rational people can assume that every life is of equal moral worth – I realised that the notion that that’s just something that everyone knows is really dangerously foolish as well as extremely historically ignorant.

NATASHA MOORE: So Peter Singer – for all his, you know, what he has to say about disabled children and so on – he is, I think quite into altruism and doing the right thing. And obviously a lot of atheists care about leading a moral life …

SARAH IRVING-STONEBRAKER: Oh absolutely, and I did too when I was an atheist. And I’m glad you asked that question, because that’s the other thing that actually gave me pause for thought. I thought, well, I live an okay life – or so I thought. And I thought, well, I have my friends who, those of my friends who were atheists seemed to, you know, live pretty good lives. But then I realised that if you if you don’t believe that there’s an ultimate ground to morality, while I might have a perfectly appealing set of principles that I live by most of the time (though we all kind of fall short, I realise) – I might have a perfectly appealing set of principles, and there are plenty of atheists who live very moral lives, but that’s okay, as long as you’re happy in saying that kind of truth is right for them, but not necessarily universally right. Because atheism does a good job of explaining that people can have different moral feelings about the world, but what it couldn’t explain is any kind of ultimate morality.

So in other words, let’s say I wanted to have a conversation with Peter Singer and said, Well, hold on, Peter, look I don’t believe that in some circumstances a very disabled newborn baby should have the right to be euthanised by its parents. I can make a really, really good argument about that and therefore, I think, have a more appealing morality. But then Peter Singer could make his very good argument, and then at the end of the day, all we’d have to appeal to is our argument, there’d be no kind of ultimate truth. And to put it more personally, any person – that disabled child or any human being, able-bodied or not – would have no reason to be able to say, I know that objectively, ultimately, I am loved and my life is of absolute, precious value.

So, yes, sorry, Natasha, to come back to your question, the idea is that you can have relative morality. And so of course, relative morality can be quite appealing. I might be an atheist who gives money to charity now and again. Or I might be an atheist who lives a really good moral life. But ultimately, you have no way of saying to somebody else who does the complete opposite, who lives like the Wolf of Wall Street or who lives like Adolf Hitler. I don’t have anything to appeal, to say, But, this way of living is ultimately right. All you can come down to is say, yeah, it’s right for me.

SIMON SMART: You’re listening to Life & Faith from the Centre for Public Christianity. Sarah Irving-Stonebraker lectures in Modern European History at Western Sydney University. She started out her academic career as an atheist, but her confidence in her worldview was shaken by, of all things, going to hear atheist philosopher Peter Singer speak about morality. But that didn’t mean she suddenly became a Christian overnight. Sarah continues the story.

SARAH IRVING-STONEBRAKER: Yeah, that basically started to spark a period of just deep reflection. Because as much as I could say, Oh, well I happen to believe that every person is of equal moral worth, and I have these sound morals, when I realised, of course, that that’s not actually a position with integrity if you’re an atheist – like if you don’t believe there’s an ultimate ground or an objective ground for morality, then I just have to believe, oh well, this is good for me, and it works for me, but that morality may not be shared by anyone else – but then that made me realise, I can’t live like this. So I went through a period, this is when I was about mid-twenties, 25-26, at Oxford, just realising that atheism could not sustain any moral belief that I had. And so it just made me engage in this period of self-reflection.

NATASHA MOORE: So was there a kind of catalyst? How did you decide to throw in your lot with Jesus, with these Christians?

SARAH IRVING-STONEBRAKER: Believe me, that took a long time. That kind of period of self-reflection made me become a lot more open minded. And you know, it sounds funny to say I had to become more open minded to become a Christian. But one night, in the library, I realised that the little desk that was allocated to me in the in the Wolfson College Library was in front of the section on theology. And at this point, I was still too narrow-minded to go near a Bible. I was not going near a Bible, but I thought, well, hold on, if atheism doesn’t work – and I turned around and there were books of sermons. So I thought, okay, let’s think about what is the picture of the human condition that Christianity gives me? So I opened up this book of sermons, and there was a sermon entitled You Are Accepted. And among other pieces in the scripture, it pointed me to this passage from Psalm 139, which talked about God. And the psalmist who’s writing the psalm was talking to God, and says, It was you God who formed me, fashioning me within my mother’s womb. And so here was this idea that my value as a human being and my life, my self-worth, is actually given to me. It’s not something I have to work for through whatever worldly kind of success or material things or whatever. But it was given to me by God. And so my life has value because I’m created by God. And so I thought, hold on, what’s this all about?

Our yearning for justice as human beings isn’t just some kind of accident of culture and biology.

And I read more, and then the more I read into that sermon – and then of course this sparked deeper reading – the more I realised that the picture that is given in the story of the Bible about who we are and who God is and what we’ve done wrong and who Jesus is made profound sense to me. It was a picture in short that said, Look, the world is broken – and that was so borne out by everything I knew as an historian, looking at the poverty and the violence and the injustice in the world – and yet here we are as human beings. And this is what I could see in the human condition too, that we’re yearning for something more, something that can’t be captured or exhausted by this world. I mean, that’s why we want poetry and art and music, and that’s why we have a craving for justice. Our yearning for justice as human beings isn’t just some kind of accident of culture and biology. And the same thing, that’s what I knew about my feelings about human life too, this is not just some accident of culture and biology that I happen to think that all human lives are of equal moral worth. No, this is something written into my soul or written on my heart as it were.

Sometime in this period, about a year and a half after I’d been at Oxford, I got a tenure-track job at Florida State University. And once I moved to Florida, I kind of had the freedom living in America but with no family or any of my existing group of friends around or anything like that, I had the freedom to start being part of a Christian community. So I started, eventually, to walk into church. And as soon as I walked into church in Tallahassee, I just had this overwhelming sense of coming home, of knowing that I was no longer running away from God. And then the more that I became part of church communities in Tallahassee, the more I started to realise that actually, in terms of like the rolling up your sleeves and doing kind of everyday life, the Christians that I saw were living life differently. They were running homeless shelters, letting homeless people sleep in the church. In Florida you have this phenomenon where there are migrant workers, undocumented migrants, who do really cheap work, like picking tomatoes, and they get paid very little money, because they’re undocumented workers. So here was the church involved in their plight, bringing them in and taking their cause to the Florida government. Here they were helping people who, I then discovered in the Bible, the people that Jesus is saying, Look, these are my people, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger. These Christians were living life so differently and I wanted to be part of that because it didn’t seem like it was anything I’d ever seen before.