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Jan.28, 2009

Vol. 109, No. 7

A missed opportunity

In response to: Singer, D'Souza face off over religion and morality

Peter Singer and Dinesh D’Souza’s Dec. 3 debate on morality and religion was an extraordinary waste of an extraordinary opportunity (see coverage in Notebook, page 21).

Singer, a profound if controversial thinker (these are not mutually exclusive), approached the evening with seriousness. D’Souza, in contrast, seemed a parody of a public intellectual. Singer addressed the topic. D’Souza opted for a Palinesque approach, responding to the question he would like to answer rather than that which he was asked. This apparently was: Reduce Singer’s philosophy to misleading sound bites, achieving maximal emotional impact with minimal intellectual content, then ridicule them.

It is nonsense to state, as D’Souza did, that Singer advocates the killing of infants and the handicapped. (To engage Singer’s actual thought, one ought at least to read Practical Ethics.) D’Souza also drew the tired and dishonest comparison between Singer’s views and Nazism, particularly outrageous given the fact that three of Singer’s grandparents died in Nazi concentration camps.

D’Souza made the fantastic claim that all of human compassion derives from Christianity, then adduced the fact that “atheism has been responsible for mass murders” in support of morality’s dependence upon religion, neglecting the obvious rejoinder, and generally failed to mount a coherent argument. His central position was both circular and illogical: Insupportable premise — extant morality derives from religion. Invalid conclusion — no religion, no morality.

Unfortunately, the topic, “Can There Be Morality Without God?”, was singularly infelicitous. This is akin to asking, “Can there be breakfast without eggs?” Well, yes. Posing a question with a self-evident one-word answer does not motivate an enlightening debate.

Also unfortunately, Singer and D’Souza seem to be putting on a traveling salvation show (Google “Singer D’Souza”), presumably for more than the sheer intellectual joy of it. I can’t knock that, but I do wish Singer would find a worthier opponent, so that the audience might benefit as well as the debaters.

Princeton, N.J.

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