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The Ethics of Belief

 by Peter Singer

Free Inquiry Spring 2003


In his book A Charge to Keep, George Bush writes of his decision to recommit my heart to Jesus Christ." He traces it to a walk along the beach in Maine with the Christian evangelist Billy Graham. Conversing with Graham, Bush was "humbled to learn that God had sent His Son to die for a sinner like me." After his decision to recommit himself to Jesus, Bush tells us, he began to read the Bible regularly and joined a Bible study group. Later, when Bush describes a visit to Israel that he and his wife, Laura, made in 1998, we get a further insight into his view of the Gospels as history. George and Laura went, he tells us, to the Sea of Galilee and "stood atop the hill where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount." It was, he adds, "an overwhelming feeling to stand in the spot where the most famous speech in the history of the world was delivered, the spot where Jesus outlined the character and conduct of a believer and gave his disciples and the world the beatitudes, the golden rule, and the Lord's Prayer." Bush concludes his account of his visit to Israel by saying he knows that faith changes lives, because "faith changed mine." This faith is something that enables him to build his life on "a foundation that will not shift."

Here is a picture of a man who accepts what he is told without asking himself if it is coherent, credible, and based on reliable evidence. Take his belief in God - let's say, to make this concept more precise, his belief in a being who possesses the traditional characteristics attributed to God in the Judeo-Christian tradition, that is, a being who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good and according to whose plan the world is governed. A quick look at the state of the world does not suggest that it has been designed by such a being. Here, to take one of innumerable possible examples is a paragraph from an article by Stephen Lewis, a United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, which I happened to read while writing this essay. It is a description of a pediatric ward at the University of Lusaka Teaching Hospital, in Zambia:

The infants were clustered, stick-thin, three and four to a bed, most so weakened by hunger and ravaged by AIDS….that they really had no chance. We were there for forty-five minutes. Every fifteen minutes, another child died, awkwardly covered with a sheet, then removed by a nurse, while the ward was filled with the anguished weeping of the mothers.1

As I write, this scene and similar ones are being repeated all over sub-Saharan Africa and in many other parts of the world, too. Is the suffering and death of these infants and their mother’s part of a divine plan? What kind of divine plan could include such an atrocity, and the similar sufferings that have been inflicted on innocent people throughout history as a result of diseases, droughts, and floods? (For those who would blame it all on the fanciful and morally repugnant idea that humans suffer because Eve sinned and we have inherited her original sin, I add that nonhuman animals are supposedly untainted by original sin and yet also suffer from diseases, droughts, and floods.) If this world was made by a divine plan, there seem to be only two possibilities: the divinity was evil or a bungler. Either way, the divinity was not the one Christians worship. There is, of course, more to be said on this question; but at least it should cause a reflective person to hesitate and ponder for a while before embracing the Christian idea that the world is made according to a divine plan.

A thoughtful person might also notice that the single chief determinant of belief in the Christian religion is being brought up as a Christian. Very few people brought up in Islamic homes believe that Jesus is the son of God; and the same goes for those brought up in Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, and other homes. There are a few converts, of course, both to and from Christianity and other religions, but they are a tiny proportion of Christians, or Muslims, or Hindus, or Jews, or Buddhists as a whole. Only one of these religions can be true. Bush himself seems to believe that only Christians have a place in heaven.2 Most Muslims believe, just as fervently, that only Muslims do. They cannot both be right (although they can both be wrong). It would be normal to be skeptical of claims to know something when belief in it is so immune to any objective evidence or argument that it depends largely on what one's family believes and on the customs and beliefs of the society in which one was raised.

The existence of undeserved suffering and the cultural relativism of religious belief are serious grounds for doubt about the existence of the Judeo-Christian God. Yet none of this seems to trouble Bush in the least. He "learns" that God sent his only son to die for sinners, as if it were just like learning that Washington was the first president of the United States. He does not tell us how he learned this-that is, what evidence or arguments Graham gave him for believing it to be true. This is not surprising, because Graham is not known for offering evidence or arguments. His method of converting people to Christianity relies, instead, on an appeal to faith just the kind of appeal on which Bush's conversion appears to have been based. There is nothing in Bush's account that suggests he gave the slightest critical scrutiny to what Graham said to him.

If Bush is not inclined to reflect on the philosophical problems of religious belief, he is equally credulous about the Christian Scriptures. When he goes to Israel he seems as confident that he is standing on the hill where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount as he might be if he had come across a bronze plaque installed by the disciples. It never crosses his mind that, since the Gospel according to Matthew was written sever-al decades after Jesus died; it might not be a reliable historical document. Nor does he notice that the Gospel according to Luke has Jesus coming down to the plain before uttering the sayings that Matthew has him saying on a mountain. (Most New Testament scholars believe that the author of the Gospel according to Matthew himself composed the Sermon on the Mount, basing it on various sayings of Jesus that had been written down earlier. It that is right, we needn't bother about the problem of identifying the hill from which Jesus preached the Sermon, since he never preached it at all.3)

Most Americans will not see a problem here. They share Bush's faith and are all the more ready to vote for him because of it. But we are considering the ethics of his views, not whether they are widespread or politically convenient. Even if 90 per-cent of Americans share Bush's naive beliefs (and I hope that the figure is significantly lower than that), the rest of us need to ask what we are to think, ethically of someone who bases his or her life on unquestioning faith. In other words, what are we to think of the ethics of someone who, although he talks and writes a lot about his religious belief, shows no signs of having struggled with the question at all-someone for whom religious belief is an unquestioned "foundation that will not shift"? As the philosopher Karl Popper aptly said, the difference between science and dogma is that a scientific theory must always be open to falsification, on the basis of evidence.4 Bush seems almost to boast that his view of the truth is not open to falsification on the basis of evidence.

If this were merely a matter of one person's private beliefs, we might deplore it, but we could ignore it. But when that person is president of the United States and evidently bases his policies on a wide range of issues- stem cell research, abortion, not aiding the United Nations Population Fund, and funding faith-based charities-on his faith, it becomes a matter of public concern on which those who do not believe things on faith should speak out.



1. Stephen Lewis, "The Lack of Funding for HIV/AIDS Is Mass Murder by Complacency," January 8, 2003, http //allafrica.com/stories /200301080529.html.

2. Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose, Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W Bush (New York: Vintage, 2000), p. 58.

3. On the historical problem, see Harvey K McArthur, Understanding the Sermon on the Mount (New York: Harper, 1960).

4. Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London: Routledge, 1977).



Peter Singer was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1946. He is Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University. He has taught at the University of Oxford, New York University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of California at Irvine, and La Trobe University. He is the author of Animal Liberation, first published in 1975, and is widely credited with triggering the modern animal-rights movement. His Practical Ethics is one of the most widely used texts in applied ethics, and Rethinking Life and Death received the 1995 National Book Council's Banjo Award for non-fiction.  He is the author of the major article on Ethics in the current edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and, with Helga Kuhse, co-editor of the journal Bioethics. Singer was also the founding father of the International Association of Bioethics.

His other books are: Democracy and Disobedience; Animal Rights and Human Obligations (with Thomas Reagan); Marx; Animal Factories (with Jim Mason); The Expanding Circle; Hegel; Test-Tube Babies (with William Walters); The Reproduction Revolution (with Deane Wells); Should the Baby Live? (with Helga Kuhse); In Defence of Animals (ed.); Ethical and Legal Issues in Guardianship (with Terry Carney); Applied Ethics (ed.); Animal Liberation: a Graphic Guide (with Lori Gruen); Embryo Experimentation (with Helga Kuhse, Stephen Buckle, Karen Dawson and Pascal Kasimba); A Companion to Ethics (ed.); Save the Animals! (with Barbara Dover and Ingrid Newkirk); The Great Ape Project (with Paola Cavalieri); How Are We to Live?; Ethics (ed.); Individuals, Humans and Persons (with Helga Kuhse); Rethinking Life and Death; The Greens (with Bob Brown); The Allocation of Health Care Resources (with John McKie, Jeff Richardson and Helga Kuhse); A Companion to Bioethics (ed. with Helga Kuhse); Bioethics (ed. with Helga Kuhse); Ethics into Action; A Darwinian Left; Writings on an Ethical Life; Unsanctifying Human Life (edited by Helga Kuhse); One World: The Ethics of Globalization; and Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna.

Singer and His Critics (edited by Dale Jamieson), a collection of essays focusing on Singer's work, was published in 1999.


[The United States] risks falling into a situation in which it is universally seen by everyone except its own self-satisfied citizens as the world's "rogue superpower."

PETER SINGER. One World, pp. 198-199

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