Life & Faith

Surprised by Peter Singer

November 29, 2018

It took a famous atheist philosopher to shake the foundations of Sarah Irving-Stonebraker’s atheism.

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“A few months into my time at Oxford, my friends and I heard that a very famous atheist philosopher known as Peter Singer was coming to give a series of lectures. The lectures were on the topic of ethics – do we have any duties to other people? Do human lives have any value? So I went to these lectures really excited, and I was expecting that, as an atheist, I’d be hearing exactly the sort of ethics that I subscribed to. But actually, what I heard floored me.”

Sarah Irving-Stonebraker knew she wanted to be an historian from when she was eight years old. From Sydney to Cambridge, then Oxford, followed by a tenure-track job in Florida, things went very much to plan. What she didn’t expect was her journey from atheism to Christian faith.

In this episode of Life & Faith, Sarah tells the story of discovering that neither the Christian nor the atheist worldview were quite what she thought they were. Through her academic research, as she read the work of early modern scientists and was surprised by how influential their faith was for them, and through an encounter with the logic of eminent philosopher Peter Singer, she came to question how her deepest convictions about humans and morality fit with her belief that God did not exist.

She’s quick to add that when she eventually did become a Christian, that didn’t just make all her problems go away. But it did change things dramatically for her.

“Christianity isn’t some kind of self-help doctrine. It’s not probiotics for the soul. But there was an immediate sense that I had an enormous burden lifted from me. That had a lot to do with not thinking that I had to earn my self-worth anymore. I had this immediate rest for my soul – that no matter what else was going on in life, that ultimately, my soul had rest.”

Success, identity, human rights, what history has to tell us about human nature, and more: Sarah’s very academic but also very personal story is one for all of us, as we figure out what it is we believe, and why.

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