It was billed as a “battle of biblical proportions”, with the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney George Pell in the “red corner” and the high-priest of militant atheism, Professor Richard Dawkins, in the “blue corner”. If the “debate” between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Richard Dawkins turned out to be more of an afternoon tea with scones, then what we were built up to expect in this encounter was nothing less than the world championship fight between “mors et vita”.
In the end though, the QandA debate wasn’t much of a battle. Professor Dawkins was somewhat subdued, and the Cardinal – despite getting in a few good one liners – was generally incoherant. I don’t mean to be mean in that statement. It’s just that if you go into this kind of encounter, you should be able to present a clear and simple line of argument, speak in full sentences, stay on the topic and – above all – remember that the Neanderthal were our evolutionary “cousins”, not our ancestors. Cardinal Pell may be Australia’s “most senior churchman” (as the media insist on calling him) but he is unfortunately not our most articulate in these kinds of circumstances. He has the knowledge and the intellect to engage with the kinds of issues that emerge in any discussion with Richard Dawkins on such matters, but doesn’t have the skill of an “off-the-cuff” “heat-of-battle” apologist. As the report in The Sydney Morning Herald put it
While he kept his retorts short, the priest landed some blows. But as the exchange wore on and Dawkins sank into exasperation with the vapidity of some of the questions, Pell became more expansive. And the more liturgical rope he was allowed, the more thoroughly he hanged himself.
The QandA website has the full transcript as well as the video for those who missed it, but a few comments here.
1. The discussion about the “why” of our existence was very telling. Dawkins stated that the question “why?” in terms of the purpose of our existence is “not a meaningful question”. And yet it is THE question of the human condition. It is THE question that has bugged philosophers since the beginning of the philosophical endeavour. The fact that Professor Dawkins does not find the question “meaningful” raises questions for me about just how “in touch” he is with the rest of humanity.
2. George’s comments about the “intellectual” inferiority of the Jews was deeply regretable, and I don’t think he meant it. What he meant, I think, was that the Jewish culture – although so rich in many ways that it has become a foundational culture of modern Western (Christian) culture – it wasn’t one of the great cultures of the ancient world. He should have used this terminology rather than speaking about the “intellectual” qualities of the ancient Jewish civilisation. That being said, he should also have used Dawkins question “why the Jews?” as an opportunity to speak about the particularity of God’s revelation. George started going there but was diverted in his argumentation.
3. I think one of the Cardinal’s strongest points was that while Christianity may indeed have a “problem” with the question of the existence of evil and suffering, the atheists have an equally large problem in explaining why there is “truth, goodness and beauty”. It was very telliing that Dawkins, while embracing a basically evolutionary biological viewpoint, disowned the principle of the “survival of the fittest” in matters of ethical and social behaviour. However, he didn’t give us a viable alternative basis within his world view for any higher level of behaviour.
Finally, one would have thought that given the debate was held on Easter Monday, George could have brought in the Resurrection of Jesus. When it all comes down to it, we believe in God because he raised Jesus from the dead, not because of any philosophical or scientific “proofs”. This is a point well made in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter Sunday sermon.
Rowan Williams began his sermon by observing that there might be signs that the high water mark in the current assault upon people of faith from atheists may have been reached (a little optimistic, I think, but nevertheless):
So we have reason to feel thankful that things appear to be moving on from a pointless stalemate. Yet, granted all this, and given all the appropriate expression of relief Christians may allow themselves, Easter raises an extra question, uncomfortable and unavoidable: perhaps ‘religion’ is more useful than the passing generation of gurus thought; but is it true? Easter makes a claim not just about a potentially illuminating set of human activities but about an event in history and its relation to the action of God. Very simply, in the words of this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that ‘God raised Jesus to life.’
And that’s the point, isn’t it? It isn’t a question of whether ‘science’ approves of this event. It is a question of “Did it really happen?” and “If it did, what difference does that make to how we see reality and our place in it?” Monday night’s debate wasn’t just about Science and Religion – it was about whether or not the Christian religion is true. It doesn’t really matter that 76% of viewers thought that “Religious belief does not make the world a better place” (or, perhaps it does, but not to this specific question), but rather “Did Jesus rise from the dead?”
Somehow, we have to get that question – and more to the point, the proclamation that he has INDEED risen from the dead – out there. I don’t know how entertaining people would find that discussion though.