An Intelligent Debate [Updated 14/04]

It’s late, and I am just adding a quick note to say that the encounter this evening between Fr Brendan Purcell and Prof Peter Singer in St Paul’s Cathedral has restored my faith in the possibility of rational debate between atheists and theists. The audience was also intelligent and respectful. No cheap shots, good questions, well thought out and argued answers. Thought provoking all round. They should have played this debate on QandA last Monday.

The Cathedral recorded the debate, and so hopefully before long I will be able to link to it for you. If I get the chance in the next few days, I will bring you some highlights.


Ok, a few thoughts. First, I was reflecting today that Brendan Purcell’s light Irish humour was a definite plus to his delivery. One of my Anglican friends commented that he talked too fast, but at least that meant that he got in a lot of material. He didn’t waste words, he didn’t engage in invective. Neither did Singer, although he was not quite so well prepared with his arguments as Purcell was.

One thorny issue that came up – and I recall it being a bone of contention at the Melbourne Town Hall “Intelligence Squared” debate too – was the matter of condoms, Africa and AIDS. Singer raised it, and he seemed to do so as a kind of non-sequitur in the discussion as a reposte to some argument made by Purcell for which he (Singer) didn’t have a better answer. It stuck out like a sore-thumb, because it wasn’t a logical argument. Singer claimed that “millions” had died in Africa because of the Catholic Church’s stance on condoms. Purcell came back to point out that the countries with the highest AIDS related mortalities in Africa have correspondingly low Catholic populations. In the African Countries with the highest Catholic (and Anglican) populations, which promoted the policies of abstinence, there was correspondingly many fewer deaths from AIDS. The argument put up against Singer by Purcell is essentially this one, but Purcell made a comment about studies by “Marshall”. The only “Marshall” I could find who has written on the subject is this one, so I am not sure if I have the right reference. I will try to track it down. In any case, we have heard this argument far too often. It is time that it was categorised firmly in the “myth” section of atheist/Christian debates. Singer degraded his arguments by bringing it up.

The subject probably came up in the first place because the debate focused on the question of suffering. Fr Purcell launched into this discussion in his first presentation (the program was 15 minutes from Purcell, 15 minutes from Singer, followed by 5 minutes each responding, followed by answering questions from the floor and submitted by SMS – the latter was a really clever method of moderating the discussion). Purcell expounded on the various causes of suffering, from the natural (such as animals eating one another) to “natural disasters” (such as earthquakes) to suffering caused by the willful actions of human beings (I think there were a few more categories than that, but that’s what I can remember). He chose this approach (despite the fact that the topic for the evening was “the role of reason in faith and unbelief” – a topic Purcell did get around to addressing eventually – largely on the basis of the Greek Philosophers) because it seems that this is one of Singer’s principle problems with theism (see here and here).

Here I thought that the discussion was especially interesting. Purcell said that Singer appears to regard suffering as the “ultimate evil”. Singer agreed with this. The upshot is that the highest good would come from the avoidance of suffering. There is – it appears to me – something of the Christian/Buddhist dichotomy in this approach: Buddhism is a system for reaching “salvation” (my word, not the Buddhist word) by avoiding suffering while Christianity is a system of belief in which suffering – though an evil in itself – can become a path toward salvation. In any case, Purcell seemed especially concerned here with explaining the “suffering” that is due to natural causes, and why such suffering does not contradict the existence of a “good God”. He spoke about earthquakes (there having been one in Indonesia in recent days): these are due to the way in which our planet is constructed, tectonic plates etc. Is this an evil? As a parallel, he cited the case of gravity. Gravity is a necessity for the existence of space-time, and certainly for our existence on this planet. Yet many people die because of the results of gravity every year (from falling from high buildings etc.). Is gravity an evil? Should God have constructed a world without gravity? I think you get his point.

Singer came back to say that just because we can’t imagine a world without tectonic plates or gravity, if God is all powerful, wouldn’t he have been able to devise a world in which these things did not cause suffering? Curiously, when asked about an hour later whether or not it would be possible to have a world without suffering in it, Singer responded “not as long as sentient beings exist in that world”. That seems to be the point, doesn’t it? To me, the question “Couldn’t God have created a world in which there is 1) no suffering, 2) sentient beings?” is a bit like asking “If God is all powerful, can he create a rock so big that he can’t lift it?” The question is “unreal”, like asking if it is possible for a square circle to exist.

But then, later in the discussion, the topic of heaven came up. Yes, there is suffering in this world, but doesn’t God compensate for this by planning for us a life without suffering in heaven? Certainly, the Scriptures in many points, Isaiah and Revelation for a start, envisage such a world. (BTW, at one point Singer criticised Christianity for teaching that there is only salvation for human beings, to which I was very glad that Purcell responded that we believe in a “new heaven and a new earth” in which the whole cosmos – animal life included – will be redeemed.) Isn’t “heaven” precisely supposed to be a world “without suffering”, and yet inhabited by “sentient beings”? How is that possible, given what we have just said?

Again, it is the mark of the quality of this exchange that it got me thinking further on these matters. I think the answer here is precisely that the “new heavens and the new earth” are predicated on the existence of this world. The future redeemed world could not exist without the prior existence of this world. Creation had to occur before there could be “new creation”. And in the “new creation”, creation will in fact cease. The inauguration of the “new creation” is in fact the ultimate act of creation after which the creative act of God will cease (I am wondering about this even as I write it, but follow me on this). We know that in “heaven” there will be no “marriage or giving in marriage”. So no procreation. We also know that although we will have bodies in the new creation, they will be “spiritual” bodies, not “physical” bodies (1 Cor 15). God alone knows what kind of “bodies” these will be, since we can’t conceive of them (note that this was a topic in the Dawkins/Pell debate – handled badly by both). Yet the fact is that, because the essential nature of the “new creation” will be spiritual rather than physical, there is no need to worry about tectonic plate movements or the nasty effects of gravity. Neither will exist (no floods, droughts, famines, cyclones etc.). It seems that the “new creation” will indeed be what Peter Singer says is impossible – a world of sentient beings without suffering. And yet, this could not exist if it were not for the prior fact of the existence of this creation, in which suffering is a necessity of the existence of sentience.

Of course, debates like this don’t resolve such questions. What this debate did – quite unlike any other that I have attended – is raise very interesting lines of further enquiry. There was no heckling from the assembly, and no laughter at the expense of either believers or atheists. It was respectful, and demonstrative (if not constitutive) of the topic “the role of reason in faith and unbelief”.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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25 Responses to An Intelligent Debate [Updated 14/04]

  1. John Candido says:

    On the Q&A debate between Cardinal Pell and Richard Dawkins, I thought that Cardinal Pell won it comfortably, despite some minor errors or faux pass by His Eminence. When Professor Dawkins or some other Physicist can convincingly demonstrate to the world that you can create something from nothing, I will eat my hat!

  2. Mary H says:

    Yes, Marshall is the right reference. But take a look at the guy who’s quoting the Marshall study: Edward C Green.
    And his research, published in 2003 as “Rethinking AIDS prevention: Learning from successes in developing countries”

  3. Hannah says:

    David, always whenever the AIDS issues comes up as a topic, it is the Catholic Church’s teaching (condoms) which is thought to be the problem and not the behaviour. I Always respond with, “those who would want to use a condom dont believe in the teachings of the church so that argument doesnt stand” Males and females who want to behave irresponsibly (sexually) are not going to think about the health of the partner and the tranfer of the virus and remember “Ah yes now I need a condom because I am going to do such and such” This argument is is fallacious and deserves the contempt of serious minded people.
    Perhaps even people like Prof Singer contribute to the “AIDS problem” because of their failure to see the real problem (rampant promiscuity and deviant sexuality) and encourage proper behaviour in order that this virus may be contained. I would have thought his first priority might have been to see clearly the issue, and see, even if it’s just this once, that the Church has it right.
    Abstinence and fidelity even in these times have to be answer, unpalatable as that might be to those who have wanted to liberate sexuality to the point of the bestial, it remains the truth whether about AIDS, abortions, STD’s etc.
    A reclaiming and reevangelising about the holiness of the body, life and sexuality is urgently needed or a further downhill slide is ensured.
    We actually did decide for the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” so now we have to choose.

    • Schütz says:

      Singer granted the possibility that Fr Brendan may have been correct (in citing the evidence against he condom myth) but went on to say that “even if it wasn’t millions, even if it is only thousands or perhaps only hundreds that have died because of the Church’s teaching o condoms, that’s too many”. What he did not pause to consider we’re the hundreds, thousands and possibly many millions of people in Africa and around the world today who are alive and sexually healthy and who have prevented the further spread of AIDS because they have practiced the Christian ethic of faithful, heterosexual monogamy.

      • Hannah Smith says:

        But david that would have to have him admitting that the church got it right and that would choke him to profess.
        Nah the church (according to the atheist) doesnt get anything right.

      • Mary H says:

        “even if it is only thousands or perhaps only hundreds that have died because of the Church’s teaching o condoms, that’s too many”
        That’s a strange way for Singer to put it. According to the research, it’s the non-Church “teaching on condoms” that is leading to death in this particular case.

  4. Brendan Purcell says:

    Many thanks for your comments, David. I got the Marshall ref wrong (following Purcell’s Law for Septuagenarian philosophers, the felt certainty I have of a name is inversely proportionate to its being correct). I meant to refer to Edward Green. And you’re quite right on my approach–since the only objection to God’s existence I could find was a 2008 article, where it was ‘suffering’, I thought I might as well focus on that, given I’d just 15 mins. Just like you, I also felt he hadn’t really prepared for the debate, maybe expecting a more faith-based argument that’s an easy knock-down if you’re not a believer. As I mentioned in my last few words, I wanted to work from what we both had in common, a commitment to reason–which is much like what Aquinas says at the start of the Contra Gentiles–with heretics, we have the New Testament in common, with Jews, the Old Testament, and with non-believers (he’s thinking of Muslims, I think), we have reason in common. Very best, fr Brendan

  5. Peregrinus says:

    As a fellow Dubliner, I demand the privilege of passing the port to Fr. Purcell myself.

    Rather more humbly, I also want to throw this thought out for discussion, picking up on the issue raised by Hannah about whether the promotion of condoms does or does not help to protect people against AIDS infection.

    If you share Peter Singer’s view that suffering is the ultimate evil, and his utilitarian, consequentialist ethics, then the question of whether condom promotion does or does not offer protection is the central one. To discuss the topic in these terms is, therefore, basically friendly to Singer’s position. If you argue that condom promotion does not in general, or does not consistently, offer protection, are you conceding the point that in more limited circumstances where it does offer protection, it is the morally right course?

    As far as I can see, the evidence from Africa is that broad-spectrum condom promotion doesn’t work very well, but focussed condom promotion works better. The “ABC” campaign in Uganda, for example, employs condom promotion as the main tool for AIDS prevention for certain groups – sex workers, men working away from home, single adult urban-dwellers – and abstinence and/or fidelity, as appropriate, for other groups. This seems to produce good results (or, at least, better results than the campaigns in other countries). Do those good results justify condom promotion in the Ugandan style? Is it the case that by engaging in the discourse in these terms, you effectively concede that point?

    As I understand it, the Catholic position has do to with the intrinsic nature of the sexual act, and considers condom promotion to be immoral even in those circumstances where it is, in fact, effective to reduce AIDS infection. That’s a radical challenge to Singer’s basic position. It does seem to me that Catholic advocates do move very easily into debating the efficacy of condoms, thereby avoiding the more fundamental challenge that they could and perhaps should make in this context. The impression created is that they don’t really have confidence in the orthodox Catholic position, or alternatively that they are not entirely honest in that the arguments they offer publicly against condom promotion are not, in fact, the arguments which really motivate them.

    I don’t mean to criticise anybody here, and in particular let me make it clear that I am not suggesting that Fr. Purcell is either less than orthodox or less than honest on this matter. And I think I should put my cards on the table and say that I myself am not persuaded by the Catholic view that condom use (and therefore condom promotion) is intrinsically wrong, regardless of the consequences. I just note that that is the Catholic view, and I wonder whether those who are convinced by it are entirely happy with a discourse about AIDS prevention which, as far as I can see, is framed in very Singer-friendly terms.

    • Mary H says:

      I understand what you’re saying @Peregrinus. For me personally, when I note the issue of condom efficacy in dealing with AIDs in Africa, or anywhere else, one of the things I’m pointing out is the unwillingness of the other side to accept plain verifiable truth. This is an issue that troubles me greatly about many positions.

      The Catholic Church’s position, as you point out, is not *based* on the efficacy of her position in preventing AIDs. She would still consider condom usage wrong, even if it *were* shown to be more efficient in preventing AIDs, as indeed it is in certain cases. The result, though, is that the Church’s position is more open to verifiable scientific data than the position of many other people. Science is one of the *tools* Catholics use to come up with methods that *are* moral to help people.

      In fact, if Singer were to be consistent, he ought to agree with the Church when her approach leads to fewer deaths. And since his *only* criteria is the reduction of suffering, he ought to applaud her policies when and to the extent that they lead to a reduction of suffering. Does he? Perhaps so, I don’t know.

      The thing is, I see over and over that the Church, because she doesn’t worship science, seems much more willing to accept what it actually says. The degree to which I see some secularists completely ignore scientific results they don’t agree with is very frightening. The condom issue is one. Green’s study was from *2003*!!! How many people in Africa have died from AIDs because western orthodoxy won’t accept something that was demonstrated NINE YEARS AGO? Another is downplaying or downright ignoring the dangers of oral contraception (although we *finally* appear to have agreement that hormonal contraception is at least a carcinogen); the dangers of abortion from a purely medical point of view is a third.

      The Church sees science as a tool, neutral in itself. So if research shows that condoms do decrease the incidence of AIDs in some circumstances, that’s important data. It doesn’t mean we promote condoms; it means we use all the data to determine the best moral methods to use.

      For example, many factors lead to women getting abortions. The Catholic answer isn’t to legalize abortion, OR to ignore the problems that lead to abortion. It consists of dealing with the factors that lead to abortion and helping the women who feel abortion is their only choice, leading to things like crisis pregnancy centers and Rachel’s Vineyard. To really help, you need to accept real data, not ignore it.

      Same thing with embryonic stem cells. Use of embryonic stem cells is immoral, so Catholics research other moral methods.

      I guess what I want to hear Singer say is that he doesn’t ignore data just because it happens to back up what the Church says. I’d be absolutely thrilled if the atheists and other secularists would simply accept scientific research that meets their usual standards, even when it doesn’t say what they think it should.

      • Peregrinus says:

        “For me personally, when I note the issue of condom efficacy in dealing with AIDs in Africa, or anywhere else, one of the things I’m pointing out is the unwillingness of the other side to accept plain verifiable truth.”

        I take your point. It sometimes seems to me that “Catholic church responsible for millions of AIDS deaths!” is succeeding “Catholic church taught that the world was flat!” and “Catholic church burned Galileo at the stake!” as the myth most cherished among a certain class of sceptics and rationalists.

        And yet – maybe we prefer to fight these particular battles because they are easy one to win. Galileo died in his bed at the age of 77, of heart failure, following years of ill-health. The roundness of the world has never been a matter of theological controversy among Catholics. And the claim that the Catholic church is responsible for AIDS deaths in southern Africa does not stand up to evidence-based scrutiny.

        There’s an undeniable satisfaction in demonstrating that people who claim to be committed to reason and truth are occasionally heavily invested in irrational falsehood, but maybe it’s a slightly unworthy satisfaction. And, worthy or unworthy, it may be a bit of a cop-out to prefer it over a serious examination of the Catholic position on the question of condoms and AIDS.

        • Mary H says:

          @Peregrinus I guess the question to me is where to start. It seems to me we have to start with a baseline of mutually agreed objective data, at least when discussing these kinds of issues with people who claim to base their position on reason and data. The Church’s case against condoms, as I understand it, is based on a combination of natural law and an understanding of the dignity of the human being. This can explain both why the use of condoms is wrong, as well as provide insight as to where and why the non-condom-based programs are working. But I’m not sure what good those arguments will do if we cannot even agree on what evidence is acceptable. Singer and others like him insist on impartial evidence (or at least say they do) where it is available and relevant and that’s a great idea. It would be a great place to start to build a common understanding.

          As Father Brendan said above, we need to start with what we have in common. As I would put it, we have to start on what we CAN agree on. Although admittedly, perhaps there is some sense of satisfaction, for its own sake, of proving the other person wrong, and I admit that is not particularly helpful or praiseworthy.

      • Hannah says:

        Mary the church’s handling of AIDS, and abortion have in many ways left a lot to be desired. Not because the Church has it wrong but because the Church fails in its delivery of its message.
        Pere is making excuses to use condoms for those sexually active because they are eg sex workers and men working away from home etc. As if that is an excuse for fornication and adultery and therefore condoms needed. As long as we see and understand condoms needed/used because of this then AIDS will prosper nicely because the instinctual will be dominent and the body is just an instrument for use to achieve what one wants irrespective of possible consequences.
        The Church and abortion. Crisis pregnancy centres are good but most women do not go to a crisis pregnancy centre, they go immediately to Women’s hospitals, and abortion facilities. By this time the reason for the abortion is digested. the child is dehumanised, it is not “wanted” it is an “inconvenience” and in the process the woman is also dehumanised. Her value is marked by how she responds to the demands of her boyfriend , husband, friends, career that is until later after the abortion. As for Rachel’s Vineyard, that is for AFTER the abortion, and not for before, and there are many charisms which offer the same if not better and more complete.
        The church as a whole needs to gather all denominations and speak about the issues of “Life” and how “She” (church) must proclaim her role as saving and lifegiving to man, woman and child.
        With the AIDS issue we are saying that bandaids will do just to keep the germs out. with abortion separating woman from child that is a big mistake. We dont help the woman if we dont help the child so the catechesis has to be a renewal of teaching of the holiness of life because this is at the bottom of all the anti life behaviour of our day.

        • Mary H says:

          @Hannah I agree with your points. I was trying to show what I would consider a Catholic approach, especially in cases where the “easy fix” solution (or at least what appears to be the “easy fix” solution) is immoral. I did not mean to comment on the adequacy of our efforts.

          Mainly I was trying to say that we don’t base what we think is moral or immoral on what science says is or is not possible. So if one fix is immoral, we simply seek other(s) that are moral, using science, reason, our knowledge of the human person, etc.

          And while it is true that perhaps our shepherds haven’t been proclaiming the truth as clearly and consistently as they should, it is also true that their primary job is to declare and help us to understand what the Church teaches. Then it’s up to us laypeople to bring our own gifts to bear on the issues. To use the example of birth control, it’s up to the Popes to reaffirm the teachings (as Paul VI did in Humanae Vitae) and the Bishops and clergy to make sure these teachings are known and understood by the whole Body of Christ. But then it’s up to Catholic social scientists to understand the pressure of continual childbearing on women and families in an environment where social practices and improved health lead to higher fertility. It’s up to Catholic medical scientists and health specialists to articulate how to bring science to bear on the subject in a moral manner that puts the proper emphasis on respect for human dignity as a unity of both body and soul. It’s up to married couples seeking to live the Church’s teaching on sexuality to communicate it to other couples and provide each other help and encouragement, etc.

          In the area of teaching on contraception, it sometimes seems to me that the laity dropped the ball as much as the bishops and the rest of the clergy.

          • Hannah says:

            Mary we agree on all you say. That is what I meant that the Church has failed mainy in the delivery of the message, not the message itself.
            It has employed “managers” and “CEO’s” to manage “life” matters. this is its failure.
            Humane Vitae Should have been dissected, taught by the leaders and then with practisisng couples who really believe in its efficacy proclaim the goodness of this charism of married couple. This document was written for the laity. But the laity waited for priests and Bishops (who are meant to be celibate) to speak and proclaim and it didnt work.
            AIDS issues the same.
            Preaching loudly the manner of the illness, its aftereffects, chastity, fidelity, the alternatives to AIDS must not be compromised for anyone because when compromised it starts the slippery slope.
            Keep well and have a good day. Its an early one for me.

          • Hannah says:

            Mary I have been sprouting for nearly 20 years that “we” the laity got it wrong in expecting the clergy to talk and talk about fertility and Humane Vitae and contraception. It is the laity, married couples that should have picked up Humane Vitae, studied it with spiritual guidance, lived it and taught it and not celibate priests and bishops. Its about sexuality for goodness sake!
            We allowed priests like Fr Curran who began the dissenting to feast on his dissent because he was not going to accede to the Pope’s declarations in HV.
            We, couples, should have said to him “go and be a priest and save souls” and continued with learning and praying and practising the norms of HV.
            Indeed i fully agree with you that the laity dropped the ball and never quite picked it up ever again.

            Mary goodness we think alike!! amazing

            • Mary H says:

              @Hannah: and you’re in your nineties? I’m in my fifties, and wish I’d had someone like you to talk to thirty years ago when I was falling for the “wonders of contraception” hook, line and sinker. (Although I probably did and just didn’t notice. ) Better living through technology. Any difference between the treatment of men and women is totally due to social structures that devalue women. Biology is not destiny [translation: biology is irrelevant. Although for that to work, we had to “correct” women’s bodies so women could have sex when fertile and not get (or stay) pregnant, just like men].

              So many of us (including me) had to learn the hard way, by doing everything wrong first. I think Vatican II was a gift from God. As I read in another blog (or maybe this one?), I think a lot of the negative fallout was a result of satan attacking the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. One of the important things from the council was its stress on the role of the laity – not blurring it with the role of priests, as so many misinterpretations have done – to stand up and be accountable for their implementations of the Church’s teaching, according to their own gifts.

              Instead of laypeople trying to take on more of a role in the liturgy, as if what they were doing in Mass wasn’t already important, they should have been doing just what you said – married couples figuring out how to live HV, etc. But the faithful Catholics (in the US at least) were too accustomed to being led by clerics in everything. So in the end, you had some laypeople not doing their jobs and others trying to do the clergy’s job.

              It’ll be awhile (I hope) before faithful Catholics let what happened with HV and Curran et al happen again. We’re still digging ourselves out, but that’s actually something the laity are pretty good at (I think).

    • Schütz says:

      I guess this is where the Pope’s reference a while back to a sex worker using a condom comes in. The Catholic doctrine regarding birth control is developed within a Catholic sexual ethic, which sees the right place for the sexual act to be within the lifelong exclusive monogamous heterosexual relationship we used to call “marriage”. When the sexual act in which birth control is used takes place outside such relationships, I would say that we have a bigger problem going on than the intrinsic evil of using birth control. It’s a bit like the chap who murders another chap and steals his wallet. Yes, stealing the wallet is an intrinsic evil, but murder is a greater intrinsic evil. If there were a spate of such attacks going on, you would expect the authorities to classify them as homicides rather than thefts, and seek a way of ending the homicides rather than the theft of wallets.

      • Hannah Smith says:

        David what on earth are you saying!!!! too much plonk I think and too early in the day. Im confused.
        If I remember the comment of the Pope correctly and maybe I dont because of my 93 1/2 years of age he suggested that by wearing a condom someone who couldnt help himself was actually in some way thinking about the health of the other and there might be some rightness about the idea and act. and if I have remembered this correctly (and if I havent please remind me) I am reminded then of the words of JPII about marriage/divorce Jesus speaking about reason Moses allowed divorce
        “In the beginning it was not so” implying because of their heardness of hearts and sin they brought upon themselves the rupture in marriage but it wasnt what God had envisioned for love. Likewise condom issue and the Pope’s comment.
        Did I get it right?

    • Gareth says:

      Pere: And I think I should put my cards on the table and say that I myself am not persuaded by the Catholic view that condom use (and therefore condom promotion) is intrinsically wrong, regardless of the consequences.

      Gareth: I respect the fact that you have put your own cards on the table here and admitted that some of your personal beliefs are not in accordance with Catholic belief.

      Too mnay times converstaions on Catholic discussion boards go around in circles because posters discretly ‘hide’ where they truthfully stand.

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