Pell vs. Dawkins: A Clash of the Titans?

Easter is for bishops what spinach is for Popeye, so you have to admire Richard Dawkins for accepting an invitation on Australia’s ABC TV (see the transcript) to debate Cardinal George Pell yesterday. Both have PhDs from Oxford and both are old hands with the media. It promised to be a clash of the Titans.

Dawkins is in Sydney for the 2012 Global Atheist Convention, which is like Sydney’s World Youth Day in 2008, but much, much smaller. And much older. He was jet-lagged and a bit tetchy, like a new teacher in front of a class laughing at a joke he doesn’t understand. “Why is that funny?” he asked his audience several times in genuine perplexity. He was beautifully coiffed and coutured but he was not in peak form.

Pell, a massive, imposing man, looked weary. But he had eaten his spinach and landed a few jabs to the solar plexus. At one point Dawkins denied vehemently that Darwin was a theist, but Pell was able to jab his finger at his notes and say, “It’s on page 92 of his autobiography.” Hell is a reality, said Pell in response to a question from the audience, but I hope nobody’s in it – a compassionate position for which Dawkins appeared to have no riposte.

On the other hand Pell’s grasp of evolution appeared sketchy. He said that its engine was random natural selection, whereupon Dawkins triumphantly trumpeted non-random natural selection as his own “life’s work”. Dawkins then gave Pell a lecture on Australopithecines and Neanderthals.

Neither landed a KO, but I would have awarded the belt, on points, to Pell. A clash of the Titans it was not.

It was a pity that the debate was too short to draw little more than shop-worn jests and caustic platitudes out of Dawkins. There were no surprises in what Pell had to say. After all, the Catholic Church’s stand on fundamentals has not changed in 2,000 years. But Dawkins, to my surprise, seemed brittle and vulnerable. After the debate I was left scratching my head: is this man really the world’s leading propagandist for atheism? At 71, is it time for a golden parachute? Perhaps they can pass the hat at the Convention.

First of all, to everyone’s astonishment, Dawkins admitted that he is not an atheist. This was jaw-dropping, at least for those who know him only by reputation. Dawkins has become famous for scoffing at God, mocking believers and comparing religious education to child abuse. Only the other day he addressed a “Reason Rally” in Washington DC at which he urged the cheering faithful to “ridicule and show contempt” for the Catholic Eucharist.

Yet he now says, with some hemming and hawing, that he is not a simon-pure unbeliever. On a scale of 1 to 7 of belief in God, he ranks himself at about 6 — because a scientist cannot prove the non-existence of anything, from the Easter Bunny to God.

So hasn’t he been invited to the Global Atheist Convention under false pretences? He’s only another mushy spread-your-bets agnostic, for heaven’s sake. If I had purchased a A$310 ticket to the convention (plus a $150 dinner), I would be as dismayed as a Christian who learns that Mother Teresa had a very large Swiss bank account, six kids, and a taste for Johnnie Walker Black Label.

Another revelation is that he is not a simon-pure Darwinian either. He believes “passionately” that natural selection explains the existence of life. But the struggle to move up the evolutionary tree involves unbearable, unacceptable, suffering and it would be unthinkable to take The Origin of the Species as his Bible. “Survival of the fittest” is no guide to politics and morality. “Very unpleasant” indeed, he said, even Thatcher-ite. So the source of his morality is something other than evolution.

Finally, Dawkins is literally a killjoy. Perhaps his central message was the morose assertion that life has no purpose whatsoever. None at all. Zero. Purposes are done and dusted after Darwin. “Why? is a silly question. What is the purpose of the universe? is a silly question,” he said in a moment of exasperation.

Whatever the truth of this, meaninglessness is not a meme which has survival value. Thousands of years of human culture show that man is the only animal who has ever asked Why? The key to a culture’s survival is how successfully it can answer that question. The joy for which we all long comes when we discover meaning, even in the midst of suffering. But Dawkins’s vision is one of unrelieved bleakness. It would come as no surprise if his car sports the famous bumpersticker, “Life’s a bitch and then you die”.

What the rather rambling conversation between the two tired men suggested to me was that Dawkins may be a gifted demagogue but he is a mediocre philosopher. “It’s a cop-out to say that anything exists outside of time and space,” he said testily. In this assumption are summarised all of his arguments and mockery. But it is no more than an unproved assumption. If only what can be touched and measured is true, there may be no God, but neither is there justice, or beauty, or love, or consciousness, or mathematics. As Cardinal Pell said, with great insight:

“If I get a chance to say to ask a question when I die I think I will ask the good God why is there so much suffering. That’s a problem for us… [But] I think it’s a much greater problem for the atheist to explain why there is goodness and truth and beauty. Our problem is to cope with suffering. One of the unique… features of Christian teaching is the value of redemptive suffering and that is the significance of Christ suffering with us and dying on the cross. That helps people.”

People fret more about coping with suffering than with how to make ever-more-vicious sneers at God. After last night’s debate, my chips are on Christianity rather than atheism as the philosophy most fit to bring humanity through the challenges of the 21st century.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook


Michael Cook likes bad puns, bushwalking and black coffee. He did a BA at Harvard University in the US where it was good for networking, but moved to Sydney where it wasn’t. He also did a PhD on an obscure corner of Australian literature. He has worked as a book editor and magazine editor and has published articles in magazines and newspapers in the US, the UK and Australia.

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  • Guesto

    It was somewhat boring indeed. Dawkins is a brilliant writer but not the best debater. Hitchens was. Search youtube for an englihtening debate of Hitchens and Stephen Fry vs. Catholic speakers.. This was indeed great and lively.

  • Guesto
  • Guesto

    I think the vote after the debate was pretty convincing; 76 per cent vs 24 per cent answered NO, religion does not make the world a better place

  • No

    Well, I don’t know why the author pretends to be surprised at Dawkins’s not being a 100 per cent atheist. He never said he was. He always just said there’s no proof that God exists, and admits he would accept any proof if it was presented. He deosn’t pretend to know for sure, he never did. He’s OK with being called an atheist or non-believer or agnostic. That’s all relative. See, the beauty of being a non-believer is that you don’t mind those relative category differences and, unlike religious people,… you are even allowed to change (and have)  your beliefs and opinions. So there was nothing really new about Dawkins.
    What was interesting to learn from Cardinal Pell, that althoug Catholics “generally believe” in hell, probably no one’s in it, surely not atheist, agnostics, non-believers, but only people who did horrible things, perhaps not even them. This is quite a difference from centuries of Catholic eaching that all non-believers, atheistis, jews, muslims, heretics, shismatics all go to hell for eternity.

  • James H

    That debate was a sore point: none of the big hitters in Catholic life in the UK were even aware that it was going to take place, as far as I know. It was a bit stage-managed.

    Stephen Fry made a name for himself as a curmudgeon during the Pope’s visit to the UK in 2010. He had to ‘clarify’ that he was against the Pope’s visit being a State Visit, because of the expense – when it actually generated money, overall, and the Catholic Church forked out most of the money anyway. Our church had 2 collections for the purpose. His question ‘What are you for?’ was a bit rich, coming from a less-than-stellar comedy actor.

  • James H, London

    Hey, hope is free. We have to give people the benefit of the doubt, that they may have had the opportunity to change their minds in the nick of time when faced with judgement; but make no mistake, there are some things, some *actions*, which God really hates. *People*, on the other hand, God wants to save. The punishments given to heretics, for example, were intended to atone in part for the evil of their leading people astray. But yes, burning people at the stake was an evil in itself. The church has said as much. Atheists, on the other hand, show a distrurbing tendency to approve of the evils done in the name of atheism.

    Dawkins is being religious when he says “It’s a cop-out to say that anything exists outside of time and space”. That statement is not scientific. Science has to do with time, space, matter and energy and their substrate fields, and can simply not say anything about what necessarily exists outside of that. We wouldn’t know anything about the outside of spacetime unless it had bothered to make itself known. And if it had, it would be cosmically important to find out what it has said.

  • Clement_W

    There is such a thing as ‘negative reinforcement’. I have to thank Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins for stimulating the need to know and understand my faith better as well as look at Darwin’s theory of evolution. I encountered the name of Lamarck who had his own theory of evolution and I discovered that Darwin had thanked Lamarck in the formulation of his own theory.

    I then came to the label of Homo sapiens(Latin for ‘Wise Man’) to the species to which we belong. Accepting the logical basis for Darwin’s theory, it seems, at least to me, we have been premature in assigning to ourselves the grandiose label of Homo sapiens. At best, we are more than likely on the first rung of the ladder towards the sapiens and when we reach the top rung, we may have no need for the ‘envelope of clay’ as Lamarck theorized. Thus, it is no surprise that Richard Dawkins is at a 6 on a scale of 7 in his belief in God.

  • Pstao

    The quote above is: “Hell is a reality, said Pell in response to a question from the audience, but I hope nobody’s in it” this is not the same as saying probably  no one’s in it as you stated.

  • Faithfromreason

    I’d check your facts before saying Catholics have taught for centuries that non-believers go to hell.  That is simply not the case, you may be confusing this with what other Christian groups who broke from the Catholic Church have decided on their own.

  • Victoria

    Fools abound. I wish I had a penny for every person whose life has been made richer by his faith, or who has been saved from despair, or who has been cared for in religious hospitals, orphanage or schools throughout the ages.