How an atheist encourages Christians to live questionable lives

Peter Singer is one of the world’s most influential ethicists and atheists. Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and also Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne, Singer ranks as one of Australia’s top intellectuals. He is particularly famous for his views on vegetarianism, animal rights and effective altruism.

I was recently listening to a podcast where Peter Singer was answering questions about Effective altruism. Effective altruism is an admirable social change movement spearheaded by Singer which attempts to ‘do the most good we can and we ought to use reason and draw on evidence to assess the options’. Driven by his ethical assumptions, Singer is actively promoting this movement around the world.

Yet as I was listening to the Q&A I was struck by an answer Singer gave to a question on the social impact of effective altruism. The questioner believed in the concept of ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ and asked Singer’s thoughts.

Singer responded by saying you couldn’t underestimate the power of setting an example and briefly shared the story of how he became a vegetarian. He said he became a vegetarian back in 1970 because he happened to meet another graduate student at the time who was a vegetarian. This student then explained to Singer why he had rejected the meat option at lunch. Singer admits, “It was his personal example that really changed my life.”

Singer then gave this advice about how to try to enable social change:

“We don’t want to be always preachy and self righteous but we do want to invite people to ask us why we’re living in certain ways that are ways that are in harmony with our values and maybe that will lead to some of those interesting discussions about how we all ought to be living and what we all ought to be doing...We have an influence through the way we live.”

I was somewhat astonished because Singer articulated clearly and accurately to his vegetarian audience precisely the motivation the Apostle Peter provides to Christians for how they should live in a hostile non-Christian world. They are to live ‘questionable lives’, lives that invite unbelievers to ask why we’re living in certain ways. "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (1 Peter 2:12). And again in 1 Peter 3:15; "Always be prepared to give the reason for the hope that you have". Singer was ‘converted’ by someone living consistently with their values. He was attracted and persuaded by this unwitting but nonetheless firmly committed vegetarian “evangelist”.

The encouragement is for us in our workplaces to live questionable lives. To live lives which invite our colleagues to ask questions about why we didn’t overcharge our time sheets because we believe in a God who values truth and honesty. Lives which invite questions about why we are calm under pressure because we believe in a God who loves us and is in control. Lives which invite questions of why I care for the ‘difficult’ colleague, because we’re called to love our neighbour, regardless of who they are.

Peter Singer is a vegetarian today because of the questionable life of a committed and consistent vegetarian. How might God use your questionable life to bring people to Him?