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”.