Peter Singer “Tells It Like It Is”

This speech was delivered in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 30, 2004, at the 27th annual national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

By Peter Singer

It’s a great award and I’m delighted to receive it. Thank you very much. My wife did ask me when I said I’d been given this award, Does this mean you’ll have to take your clothes off?” I said, “No, I’m not the one who’s supposed to be naked.”

Anyway, it really is an honor, and I’m delighted to be recognized in this way, because I feel I’ve been doing this kind of thing all my life. I was educated in Australia at the University of Melbourne, and I did have the honor there of first being a member and, before I graduated, becoming president of something called the Rationalist Society. The Rationalist Society was a freethinker’s society. In fact, we had a magazine which I edited called The Freethinker, and our principal sport was to engage in debates with students from the Evangelical Union.

That kind of evangelical activity actually was really active when I was an undergraduate–this was in the early ’60s. It died away by the time my daughters got to university, in the ’90s. The reason, I think, was that a lot of these issues had faded in Australia. Australia is a much more secular society than the United States. We do not have political leaders who end every speech with “God bless Australia.” That would sound rather odd to an Australian audience.


Prof. Singer accepting his “Emperor Has No Clothes” Award, a statuette bestowed on public figures who “tell it like it is” about religion, from Foundation staffer Dan Barker. Photo by Brent Nicastro

As a result, while there are certainly still people who are religious–although not as many as here–they tend to have a less prominent social/political role. A lot of major political issues here are not issues in Australia. For example, we have a relatively conservative government, but it’s not attempting to do anything to restrict abortion, not even to restrict the fact that abortion is something you can be reimbursed for under the national health insurance scheme. (That is another thing that we have in Australia that might be a good idea to think about in this country, too.) We’re also allowing stem cell research to be federally funded. All these issues which are so common in electoral politics here have really faded away in Australia. That’s probably why the Rationalist Society doesn’t exist anymore at Melbourne University.

Having come to live in America five years ago, I can clearly see why an organization like FFRF is very much needed. The need for that increased to a higher order of magnitude once President George W. Bush got elected. What I want to do is talk a little bit about that before talking about some other broader issues as well. But I won’t talk so much about the question of the faith-based initiatives and the blurring of the boundary between church and state, because I’m sure that that’s something all of you as members of this Foundation already have read a lot about and are well-aware of, and it’s probably fairly familiar ground to you.

I want to go a little further than simply saying this separation between church and state is very important. I think, in light of the effect that religion has on life in this country, that we need to go further and do something that is regarded as perhaps not really very polite or very respectful in this country, even perhaps offensive, but it’s something that really needs to be done. And that is to challenge the idea of faith as a basis for one’s belief and for the way one lives one’s life. So I want to do that, and I want to do that in the context of talking in particular about Bush and some of his beliefs.

Let me start with a view put forward by a 19th-century philosopher and mathematician who’s not very well-known, William Clifford, whom I quote in the book on Bush. He wrote an essay once about the question of faith, and he uses as an analogy a ship-owner who was about to send to sea a shipful of immigrants. Since he was English–and you know that was a time of a lot of immigration to Australia–maybe the ship was going to Australia, who knows? He knew that the ship was old and perhaps was in need of repair. So he had some doubts about whether it was actually seaworthy. Then he thought again and decided that surely, with families of immigrants going for new life in the New World, surely Providence would see to it that the ship was safe and could make the journey safely. He decided to place his faith in God that the ship would make the journey, and failed, therefore, to properly inspect it. Of course, the ship sinks, and with great loss of life, but he feels that, well, he did not do anything wrong.

We would be in no doubt that he did do something wrong. We would say that it’s wrong to rely on faith when you should be investigating what the evidence is for your belief before putting the lives of others at risk. If you want to put your own life at risk–if it was paddling in a solo kayak, perhaps–we might say, “Well, it’s his business if he doesn’t want to check whether it’s safe.” But if other people are involved, it’s not just his business and it’s wrong to rely on faith. The point is that’s a general principle, that we should not simply take things on faith, when there are possibilities of looking at the evidence and seeing what the evidence is.

Now let’s switch to George W. Bush. If we look at his own account in a book called A Charge to Keep, which he wrote (or at least his name appears on the cover) before the 2000 election, he talks about his decision to “recommit my heart to Jesus Christ.” Famously he traces this to a walk along the beach in Maine with Billy Graham. Conversing with Graham, Bush was, he says, “humbled to learn that God had sent his son to die for a sinner like me.” After his decision to commit himself to Jesus, he began to read the bible regularly and joined a bible study group. Later in the book, he describes a visit to Israel that he and Laura made in 1998, which gives further insight into his views about faith. Bush tells us that he and Laura went to the Sea of Galilee and “stood on top of the hill where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.” He says that it was “an overwhelming feeling to stand in the spot where the most famous speech in the history of the world was delivered, the spot where Jesus outlined the character and conduct of a believer, and gave his disciples and the world the Beatitudes, the Golden Rule, and the Lord’s Prayer.” He concludes his account of this visit by saying that he knows that “faith changes lives, because faith changed mine,” and this is something to build his life on, a “foundation that will not shift.”

Now, what we have if you take all of this together–the account of the walk along the beach with Billy Graham, the statement about standing on the spot where Jesus delivered this famous speech, and so on–is clearly someone who takes things on trust without a lot of reflection. He simply says he learned from Billy Graham that Jesus died for our sins. He didn’t question Billy Graham about how Billy Graham knew this, what was the evidence for believing in this. He just learned it as a fact, like learning that George Washington was the first president of the United States. He doesn’t reflect on the fact–presumably he knows, though it’s true that he didn’t have a passport, I believe, before he became president–that elsewhere in the world there are quite a lot of people who have other religious faiths that are actually not compatible with the idea that Jesus died for our sins. They equally have faith in their own particular beliefs, whether they’re Buddhist or Jewish or Hindu or Muslim.

So that doesn’t seem to trouble the president at all. When he goes to Israel, Bush is so confident that he’s standing on the spot where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, that you would think that there was a plaque that the disciples had engraved afterward, signing and dating it. It never crosses his mind that although Matthew does tell us that Jesus preached his sermon on the mount, Luke actually says that it was preached in the plain. There seems to be a bit of a discrepancy in the gospels. If you look at New Testament scholarly criticism–those who study the New Testament and how it may have been put together and from what different parts–the general view is that in fact Matthew himself composed the sermon, making it up from various sayings of Jesus that were part of an oral tradition that had probably been collected from different sources. If they were ever said by Jesus at all, they were not said on one occasion in one sermon. So if that’s right, we needn’t bother about the problem of identifying the hill from which Jesus delivered the sermon, since he never really preached it at all.

Most Americans, when you talk to them about this, don’t actually see a problem. That in itself is a problem. They just accept that as far as religious belief is concerned, faith is what we have. This is not the view that Christians have always taken. If you look historically at the tradition of Christianity, you find, particularly in medieval times, a tradition of attempting to develop rational arguments for belief in the existence of God. That was–and to some extent still is in some Roman Catholic circles–the tradition that there are claims about various arguments: the argument of design, what’s called the ontological argument, the metaphysical argument. Medieval scholastics like Anselm, Aquinas and so on talked about these arguments at great length and thought they were an important foundation of religious belief.

There are very few philosophers nowadays who really think that these arguments are valid. Some of them have been clearly undermined by our understanding of evolution. The universe may appear young to those who don’t understand how old it is, and species may appear to have been designed. But that’s an illusion.

Given that these arguments were debated and were, by the 18th or 19th century, starting to fall into disrepute, we then get, with the Protestant tradition, a disavowal of these arguments, and the claim that they’re not important. What really matters is faith. That’s something we really should reject. Especially when what you’re talking about is something that is going to affect others. If you want to believe something, if you make a claim about the world–such as that there is a God and that this God takes some active interest in ongoing lives and so on–you want to have some evidence for that claim. If I claim that there are fairies in the bottom of my garden and that they tell me to do certain things, or that I’ve been visited by aliens or whatever else there might be, you might want some evidence. I think we should regard claims about the existence of God or about the divinity of Jesus as exactly similar. In the absence of evidence, nobody should really believe these claims. There is something a little bit crazy, a little bit nutty about believing in these claims if you cannot provide evidence at all.

While we might respect people’s right, in the privacy of their homes, to have these beliefs or to pray or whatever they wish to do, if these beliefs are going to play a role in politics (whether as president of the United States or as simply voting for a candidate on the grounds that this candidate is more in accordance to Scripture), we should challenge this. We should demand that people provide either rational argument, or evidence, for their beliefs. If we take the offensive, we can perhaps resist the tide of religion that certainly seems to have been increasing in recent decades.

Now we have a particularly powerful reason for doing so, arising out of the tragedy of September 11, and that, of course, is that the people who carried out those terrible events on September 11 were inspired by religious faith. They had a different faith from Christians, of course, or Jews, but they had a religious faith which is also represented in this country. It led them to do terrible things. But in accordance with their interpretation of that faith, it was as rational or as irrational as the beliefs of Christians who accept on faith the word of the Gospels as being the word of God and as being a guide to life.

People will say, “Well, they misinterpreted Islam,” and, of course, there are many Muslims who think that they did do that. But just as with Christianity, there are many sects and many separate beliefs among the Islamic religion, and I can’t really see that the views taken by Osama bin Laden or his followers are any more wrong, in terms of the Islamic tradition, than other interpretations. It’s simply open to a lot of different interpretations, and of course there are many ayatollahs and mullahs who will defend that interpretation. There was something deeply ironic in the events of September 11 leading to that scene, where the assembled members of Congress came and sang “God Bless America,” and people felt the need to reaffirm religious belief at that time. Their reaction should have been just the opposite. It should have been, “See? This just shows how dangerous religious belief is.”

Once you give up standards of reasoning and of using evidence for your beliefs, anything is possible, including a belief that it’s a good thing to fly aeroplanes full of people into office buildings full of more people, and that somehow that will lead to you being rewarded in an afterlife. That’s why I think it’s time to take the offensive on this sort of belief.

Let me just say a little bit about some of the ethical issues that I am interested in, and why I think it important to develop a secular ethic that not only does not have religious foundations, but actually thinks independently of a tradition and heritage of ethical beliefs that comes down in the West from the Judeo-Christian tradition. This tradition is still the heritage even of many people who actually no longer would count themselves as following that tradition.

Some of the views that I put forward that have been most controversial have been used to challenge the idea of the sanctity of human life–views that go beyond simply saying that there is nothing wrong with destroying embryos for creation of stem cells, provided it is done with the consent of those from whom the gametes came; that there is nothing wrong with a woman terminating a pregnancy when she wants to do so. I also hold, for example, that if a baby is born severely disabled and the parents and the doctors believe that it’s better for that baby not to live, then they shouldn’t have to “wait for nature to take its course” as many doctors will do even in this country. They should be able to ensure that the baby dies swiftly and humanely. That’s a kinder option, I think.

Because a being is a member of the species Homo sapiens, it doesn’t mean that being’s life is sacred. Those of us with a secular outlook take a more naturalistic view of the world. We understand that we are one species living among a number of other species on this planet, many of whom are also sentient beings. And the membership of a species in itself cannot make a being more valuable than beings of other species. This is not to say that there’s nothing that makes some beings more valuable than others. Some people misinterpret the things that I’ve written in Animal Liberation, as if I’m saying that somehow all beings are of equal value and that it’s as bad to kill a rat as it is to kill a normal human being. Or, put it this way, that the tragedy that happened on September 11, 2001, was just a tiny incremental addition to an already tragic day, since on that day, tens of millions of chickens were also being killed, and that the lives of each of those chickens are just as sacred as a human life. That’s not what I hold. There may be some people who do hold that, but it’s not what I hold.

I think that there are a range of things that make life valuable and important. The most basic one is sentience, or the capacity to feel something. If you can’t feel anything, if you can’t experience consciousness at all, there is nothing that can be of benefit to you. You don’t know how your life is going, whether your life is going well or badly. It doesn’t really make sense to say your life is going well or badly, because you have no subjective experiences. If you do have subjective experiences, then you matter, because there are things that people can do to you that will make your life worse, like causing pain, distress, or suffering, or that will make your life better. That’s one important fact about the world, that there are sentient beings in it, and we of course are among them.

There are other capacities, other mental properties, that also make a difference. One of them is being not only sentient but able to understand that you live in the world, that you have awareness over time, that you have a past, that you can make plans for the future, that you can plan your life out. That, for example, might be relevant to what a tragedy it is if you were killed against your will, as people in the World Trade Center were killed on September 11, 2001. If you’ve read the obituaries that The New York Times published, there was a great sense of loss and tragedy. These were people who were looking forward to things in life. You will have read how one man was looking forward to getting married to his high school sweetheart, and the family that they were planning to have. All of these things were cut off. That’s why it is a greater tragedy for a life like that to be lost than for the life of a chicken to be lost. The chicken presumably does not make plans of that sort. Which is not to say that the chicken hasn’t lost something. The chicken has lost experiences of enjoying life. At least if the chicken was able to live outside–which unfortunately is a microscopic percentage of all the chickens in this country at the moment–it lost enjoyable moments out there, scratching around and socializing with other chickens. But it didn’t lose the kinds of things that normal human beings can lose.

On the other hand, we have some human beings who tragically are not going to ever have those sorts of experiences. This applies to those who are born with such severe brain damage that they will never be conscious, or that if conscious at all, their consciousness will be of a very limited kind, will have no degree of self-awareness. It’s the heritage of the Judeo-Christian view that says that nevertheless, if they’re human, their lives are enormously precious, much more precious than the life of, let’s say, the chimpanzee, who of course, is a being who is conscious. As Jane Goodall’s wonderful work shows, chimpanzees are clearly self-aware as well. Even if not making detailed plans for the future, they are at least aware of the possibility of doing something in the future, and of having a rich and complex social life with other members of the group.

It’s the religious view that says if you’re human, you’re special. That really is a relic of the idea that you’re made in the image of God, or perhaps you have an immortal soul. Or maybe the animals don’t count so much because we read in Genesis that God gave us dominion over the animals. Many Christians have said that basically means we can do what we like with them. Not all Christians say that, but many important Christians, like Paul, Augustine, and Aquinas, developed the tradition that basically we have no real duties to animals at all because they don’t have immortal souls and God gave us dominion over them, and so on.

Rejecting religion ought to make us think more deeply about some of these questions, about the questions of what we owe to nonhuman animals who have been so degraded by the religious tradition, merely into the status of property or things, that we unblinkingly accept locking up billions of them in factory farms where they never get to go outside or see sunlight or fresh air, and live incredibly crowded together for their entire lives before being roughly transported and sorted. That, I think, is a heritage of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

On the other hand, we have this idea that we must keep human beings alive no matter what their condition, even if they are terminally ill and they tell you that they don’t want to go on living any longer. You still cannot assist them to end their lives, or at least not legally, with the sole exception, in this country, of the state of Oregon. Of course, people do provide such assistance all the time, but they are taking legal risks. We need to rethink all of those questions once we start to not adhere to the religious traditions from which those beliefs came.

Let me close by saying that I’m honored to receive this award from you. I hope that you’ll think about some of these ethical issues. I hope that you’ll also be considering the role that faith plays in political life.

I’d like to thank the Foundation again for the award.

Peter Singer is Decamp Professor of Bioethics, University Center for Human Values, at Princeton University, where he teaches “Practical Ethics,” one of the university’s most popular courses. Born in Australia, he earned his B.A. from the University of Melbourne in 1967, his M.A. at the University of Melbourne in 1969, and his B. Phil. at the University of Oxford in 1971. He was a Fulbright Scholar in 1978.

Among his many books: Animal Liberation (1975), Practical Ethics (1979), Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics (1994), and The President of Good and Evil: Questioning the Ethics of George W. Bush (2003). His works appear in 20 languages.

Freedom From Religion Foundation