Disabled atheist takes on Peter Singer
Moral conservatives love Princeton professor Peter Singer because he makes such an easy target (for example, see the 2001 Books & Culture article "Professor of Death," various columns by Charles Colson, and Rethinking Peter Singer: A Christian Critique). Singer made his reputation as the author of Animal Liberation. But he has outraged defenders of human life by arguing that parents of severely disabled infants should be allowed to kill them.

In Sunday's New York Times Magazine, a 42-year-old lawyer and disability-rights activist writes candidly about her conversations with Singer—and how she defended her own right to life. Harriet McBryde Johnson recounts the dismay of her fellow activists in the organization Not Dead Yet. Many of them had previously protested Singer's presence at Princeton and been jailed for their efforts. That Johnson should dialogue with Singer both in Charleston and at Princeton, shake his hand, and discuss the issues with him in a civil manner offended them deeply.

On the other hand, Johnson didn't find it easy to do these things.  Singer was, after all, someone who (in principle) thought she should (or could) have been exterminated. How do you relate to someone like that? Especially when he is so polite and civil and "free of condescension"? He thinks you should be dead, but he treats you so nice.

"I am shaking, furious, enraged," writes Johnson. Not at Singer, but at those in the audience "who have listened with polite interest, when in decency they should have run him out of town on a rail."

Johnson easily shoots down one of Singer's fundamental arguments: that disabled people, by virtue of their very disability, are "worse off" and can't enjoy life. "I don't think so," says Johnson. "Not in any meaningful sense." Singer doesn't live in her skin; Johnson does. And so her testimony to her quality of life (including a wonderful account of a childhood trip to the beach) is unimpeachable.

Singer also argues that parental preference (what a cold word!) weighs heavily. But Johnson asks pointedly if parental preference would also count if a baby were of mixed race and therefore would be "worse off" in our society. Would parental preference not to raise that kind of "worse off" child trump our moral commitment against racism? Singer had no good answer.

Johnson is an atheist. On the plus side, that means Singer cannot stereotype her position as "the doctrine of the sanctity of human life." Because neither one of them believes in God, they are speaking the same language (though from very different perspectives).

Article continues below

On the negative side, however, that means that Johnson's arguments cannot rise above the personal or the utilitarian. She has no transcendent basis to claim human dignity. Nevertheless, her personal testimony is powerful, and is well worth reading. Those very interested in the subject might also want to check out.

More articles

Other religions and interfaith relations:


  • 'Steves' support teaching of evolution | 200 scientists "named Steve" issued a statement backing evolution instruction in public schools, the latest response to state science standards that allow criticism of Darwinism. (The Washington Times)

  • In Texas, a Darwinian debate | Religious student protests professor's question on evolution (The Washington Post)

Church life:

  • A strip club's holy conversion | Church turns den of iniquity into a community haven (The Toronto Star)

  • When churches squabble | Whether folks yell, gossip or play pew politics, misuse of the tongue can divide (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

  • Lights, camera, worship | High-tech wizardry is as expected at these churches as pipe organs are at others (The Dallas Morning News)


Article continues below
  • Also: Priest to study weeping Madonna | A fiberglass Madonna hailed as a miracle by thousands of pilgrims because it was reportedly weeping, has been taken off display (Irish Examiner)

  • Statue's tears draw thousands in Bangladesh | Thousands of people are thronging to a Roman Catholic church in Bangladesh for a glimpse of a statue of Mary, the mother of Christ, that appears to be weeping. (Reuters)

Related Elsewhere

Suggest links and stories by sending e-mail to weblog@christianitytoday.com

What is Weblog?

See our past Weblog updates:

February 17
February 14 | 13 | 12 | 11 | 10
February 7 | 6 | 5 | 4 | 3
January 31 | 30 | 29 | 28 | 27
January 24 | 23 | 22 | 21 | 20
January 17 | 16 | 15 | 14 | 13
January 10 | 9 | 8 | 7 | 6
and more, back to November 1999