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. 

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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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