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“Is there a God?” A Review of a Debate between Professors Peter Singer and John Lennox

Monday, 5 September 2011  | Tim Foster

I was disappointed. He was certainly polite and compared to some, a reasonable person, however Singer’s arguments were surprisingly weak, his knowledge of the Bible and history of high-school level, and his arguments replete with logical flaws and inconsistencies.

Singer began by stating that he doesn’t believe in God for three reasons. The first was that there is no need for God. He rehearsed three classic proofs that generate a ’need’ for God (the need for a first cause, the need for a being to fulfill our idea of God, and the need for a designer). The logical fallacies with his argument are that (1) he assumes that if there is no need for God then there is no God. This does not follow logically. God can exist whether or not we have philosophical (or psychological) need for him. (2) These three ideas do not exhaust the list of possible needs. Even if he could convince us that these needs were fallacious (and he did not), and even if the logic of his argument held, then other needs might exist (and I will provide one below). (3) These arguments come from the 12th century, by his own admission are rarely advanced, and were presented in their weakest form. Not a good start.

Singer’s second reason for unbelief was that religious belief is merely a function of where you live.  If you are born in Iran you will be Muslim, in a Christian country then a Christian and so on. Again, I am surprised that such a smart guy would advance such a weak argument. The difficulties are that (1) there is no logical basis for moving from this proposition to the conclusion he draws that “therefore God does not exist”. The conclusion does not necessarily follow from the proposition. (2) As Lennox showed, his argument is circular. By Singer;’s reasoning it follows that his own atheism is a product of his own parents, culture and background and that his Atheism is therefore untrue. (3) It is simply not true in point of fact. There are plenty of people who grew up in Maoist China only to reject communism and embrace Christianity. There are plenty of people who have grown up in Christian families and ‘Christian’ countries and rejected Christianity. Singer’s second point exhibits faulty logic, its reasoning is circular and the evidence runs to the contrary.

Singer’s third reason gave Lennox, and the audience, more pause for thought. Suffering. If this was an AFL match, then Singer scored big points here, although it was more through sloppy defense than good play on his part. He rehearsed the common argument that suffering is inconsistent with the belief in a God who is all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent. In my humble opinion Lennox’s empathic response may have been winsome, but it conceded too much. Certainly there is no easy answer to this question, and it needs to be met with empathy, but in this context where it is being advanced as a philosophical argument rather than emotionally out of his own bitter experience, it required a much more robust and reasoned response from Lennox. Perhaps it was a difficulty with the format which does not really allow for the kind of thorough, nuanced and multifaceted argument that is required here.

My response would be to reject the definition of God that forms the premise of this argument. After all, this definition of God comes from Greek metaphysics, not the bible. While the Christian God may have these attributes, they must be understood within a much picture of his character, attributes and activity.  It is only after developing a more complete and richer understanding of the character, activity and purposes of God that we can ask if suffering is inconsistent with the existence of such a being.  What we find in the bible is the problem of suffering is not only explained but resolved in a way that reveals the magisterial love of God, the triumphant power of God and the unsearchable wisdom of God.

As Lennox wryly pointed out, Singer exhibited his own faith at many points, and his faith appeared to be faith of the worst kind – ‘blind faith’. He resorted to theories, such as the rebounding universe, which have little credibility among physicists and asserted that the move from inorganic matter to organic life must have happened “somewhere in the primordial soup”. He has no evidence to support these assumptions, but seems to have created his own “god of the gaps”.

Perhaps where Singer was most inadequate was, surprisingly, in his own specialist area of moral philosophy. The essence of his argument is that we can have a basis for ethics because there are universal moral norms, the most apparent being “universal outrage when an innocent suffers”. As my Facebook friends have commented on a recent post, this claim is demonstrably wrong. There is little outcry at the death of an innocent fetus when it is aborted. We may rage at the manner in which cattle are slaughtered in Indonesia, but reserve little emotional energy for those suffering drought in Ethiopia. I would add that we only need to find one person who does not share outrage when an innocent suffers to disprove his point and show the circularity of his argument.

Finally, the notion of  “innocence” is not self-apparent as Singer assumes, but logically depends on the existence of a moral law. But, where is this moral law, and from where does it come? Perhaps there is a need for God after all Professor Singer.

Tim Foster is Dean and acting Principal of Ridley Melbourne where he teaches apologetics.


James Garth
September 6, 2011, 9:54AM
Thanks Tim for the thorough review. You might also be interested our detailed review on the ISCAST website which includes a dot point summary of the points made by Lennox & Singer.

Conrad Parsons
September 10, 2011, 9:47AM
thx for the analysis. I found this article very helpful.

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