Start the Week showed that atheists and Christians can argue in a civilised fashion

Andrew Marr's Start the Week is available online

I was in the car on Monday morning, so was a captive audience for Andrew Marr’s Start the Week. The debate on this occasion, between atheists Baroness Mary Warnock and Raymond Tallis and Christians John Gummer and Stanley Hauerwas, centred on how we view life: is it a gift from God – or are we autonomous individuals who can do what we like with it? The argument swiftly proceeded to the morality or otherwise of assisted suicide and abortion.

Two things stood out: the gulf between these two ways of looking at life, and the civilised way in which the debate was conducted – very different from the brutal arguments of the blogosphere. In a response to my recent blog on Claire Rayner, one post dismissed the phrase “atheist debate” as an oxymoron. Lady Warnock demonstrated the falsity of this. However repugnant her views (not so long ago she stated that elderly people with dementia are wasting the resources that could be more profitably used; indeed, that they might have a duty to die), she made her case carefully and courteously. Unlike Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, she showed no bigotry against religious belief.

John Gummer (now Lord Deben) found some common ground with her; they both agreed that medical technology is often employed inappropriately when a person is dying. Hauerwas made the added point that once we give such technology the power to keep a person alive, it is not hard to harness it to help put a person to death.

Raymond Tallis suggested that only a tiny group of patients would fall into the category of “assisted suicide” and that this could be easily controlled. Gummer rightly challenged this assumption with the “slippery slope” argument: David Steel’s Abortion Bill was meant for just such a tiny group; in practice it had altered over the years beyond all recognition, to become abortion on demand.

The whole debate reminded me of a good book recently published on the subject of euthanasia: George Pitcher’s A Time to Live: The Case against Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. I do not always agree with Pitcher’s views. An Anglican parson and journalist, he does not share the Catholic belief that life begins at conception. But in this book he comes out very strongly against assisted suicide, employing all the persuasive reasons used by Catholics and others. In particular, he makes the same point that Gummer raised in his response to Tallis, writing: “Killing someone is not easy, practically or morally, and it is glib and thoughtless to expect medical professionals to take it on.”

Pitcher also examines the cases of Oregon, the Netherlands and Switzerland, where assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia are legal. Like John Gummer in the Start the Week debate, he argues that such laws drive up the rate of death; now in Holland there are 1,000 cases of involuntary suicide per annum. His book is an excellent addition to the debate touched on this Monday morning.

One final point: Raymond Tallis was described by Andrew Marr as a “humanist”. I have described him as an “atheist”. Am I being unfair to him? Is there a difference between the two?