Facebook Google Menu Linkedin lock Pinterest Search Twitter


People & Ideas

Apr 18, 2012

Your correspondent arrived back in Oz last week for a short sojourn, and was almost immediately hit with a force-10 virus that left him out for the count for more than a week.

The two results of this period of incapability and delirium were 1) that he could not file on the issues of the day, and 2) that he really enjoyed the Richard Dawkins-George Pell Q&A smackdown. Given the period in which it occurred — amid the Melbourne atheist conference, and, in Victoria, the latest fudge on holding the Catholic Church to account for its past evils — it amounted to a moment of sorts. It is, across the world, a rare broadcasting corporation that will devote an hour to a debate about religious metaphysics, and leave out much of the extraneous stuff (i.e. the kiddie-fiddling, Islamism, etc). Given that, it’s worth some consideration of what the show told us about the state of belief and non-belief today.

For many of us who class ourselves as existential atheists — meaning that the possibility of something called God being a real entity can never be ruled out, but one never has the faintest day-to-day belief in it as a meaningful way to view the world — the show was to be approached with trepidation.

Dawkins, as a leader of the so-called neo-atheists, has for the past decade, attacked religion using scorn and ridicule as his preferred weapon, a move that has largely seen him playing to a rationalist gallery, and making little headway in the middle area of those with vague notions of faith, a deity, the supernatural, etc. Indeed, as a recruiting sergeant for theism, he was surpassed only by the late Christopher Hitchens, whose alcoholic post-Trotskyist lurching from one desperate and demented cause to the next served, I suspect, to convince millions that they better find something more than the vagaries of history to anchor their life, lest they end up lurching from one TV studio to the next unshaven, plugged with Chivas, and calling for more slaughter.

Dawkins, as was Hitchens, is not nearly as good on his feet as he thinks he is — especially going up against clerics who expound metaphysical concepts for a living, and deal with 14-year-old atheists all the time. Weeks ealier in the UK, Dawkins had been skewered while he was launching a new (and very useful) report by his foundation into the degree to which the UK was actually Christian — and establishing that most people who called themselves such had no belief in the divinity of Jesus, the trinity, regular church going, etc.

In other words, they were really some sort of fuzzy deists/theists, unable, for example, to name a single book of the Gospel. It was this factoid that got Dawkins pinged, for when he raised this, his interlocutor, Canon Giles Fraser (the man who had resigned from St Paul’s rather than throw out the Occupy protesters), asked him to recite the exact title of one of Darwin’s books. Instead of making the obvious response — that he knew the working titles, he just wanted people labelled as “Christians” to know the actual works their faith was based on, Dawkins got himself into a hilarious tangle:

GILES FRASER: Richard, if I said to you what is the full title of The Origin Of Species, I’m sure you could tell me that.


GILES FRASER: Go on then.

RICHARD DAWKINS: On The Origin Of Species. Uh. With, Oh God. On The Origin Of Species. There is a sub title with respect to the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.

GILES FRASER: You’re the high pope of Darwinism … If you asked people who believed in evolution that question and you came back and said 2% got it right, it would be terribly easy for me to go ‘they don’t believe it after all’ …

Dawkins’ problem in debate has always been that he can’t credit versions of theism that are more sophisticated than old-man-in-the-sky type stuff — so when he meets people who have genuinely wrestled with the idea of what a non-mythical God might be, and thus have a pretty thought out account of it, he is quickly at sea. However, to his credit, he has over past years, toned down his act, and learnt from early defeats, and presents a more circumspect account. Luckily for us. Lucky too, that in George Pell he was up against someone still willing to spruik a mythologised God — a sophisticated version of such, but still a mythologised account nevertheless, and one that, as it becomes elaborated, reveals itself as essentially childish and absurd.

Several days later, conservatives such as Greg Sheridan and Andrew Bolt scored the encounter as a decisive win for Pell. Well they would, wouldn’t they? Personally, I scored it as a narrow win for Dawkins, insofar as the general, agnostic and curious viewer might be concerned, but as a far from decisive victory. Dawkins seemed to narrowly prevail, not merely because Pell appeared so willing to throw in a series of cheap shots and gotchas — confronting Dawkins with two different (but far from contradictory) statements he’d made about his own atheism in the past — and announcing triumphantly that Darwin had declared his own theism “on page 92 of his autobiography!”.This was slightly desperate stuff, and came across as such. Indeed, neither party did themselves any favours — a jet-lagged Dawkins meandered about some movie he’d seen with some actress who said something about atheism, while Pell, showed himself ignorant about some key basics of science when he put the parallel sub-species of the Neanderthals (homo neanderthalis or homo sapiens neanderthalis) as the ancestor of modern humans — and then displayed an utter unconcern with his ignorance of the facts (something to remember when he next dilates on climate change).

But the crucial moment as far as I’m concerned came with the question of the origins of the universe, which revealed the inadequacy of both men’s formulations. Responding to a question about the “big bang”, Dawkins noted that physicists such as Lawrence Krauss were now postulating the way in which a universe of something could emerge from nothingness.

Pell chided him for believing that the “nothing” that physicists speak of is the real Nothing we speak of when we ask the founding question (“why is there something rather than Nothing at all?”), and went on to expound the Aquinist “natural law” view — that God (the amalgam of Judeo-Christian monotheism and the Aristotelian prime mover) is a necessary conclusion from the contradictions inherent in any other view of the world. At that point, for many viewers, one could say that Pell had the advantage, because he’d put forward a simple and philosophical idea of God “outside of space and time” — a God whose existence was as likely as non-existence.

Fortunately, in the next exchange, on evolution, humanity and the soul, he then gave the game away:

TONY JONES: Just on the subject of heaven, if we can, what is your own concept of what heaven is?

GEORGE PELL: Well, even St Paul was severely agnostic but one way in which the Christians differ from the Greeks, the Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul. We Christians believe with one section of the Jewish people in the resurrection of the body.

GEORGE PELL: So in some sense we will be there as continuing persons. In some with a new heaven and a new earth with all the good things that we’ve done will be incorporated into the new heaven and new earth. How it will work out I don’t know because, I think, physically and morally and intellectually we’re at our peak at different stages in our life. How it will work out I’ve got no idea but that is the general outline of Christian teaching.

TONY JONES: But you think about it as a kind of collection of individual souls, in fact obviously billions and billions of individual souls with their own personality existing in some galactic space?

GEORGE PELL: I think that’s a traditional well, that’s certainly the traditional Christian view. It’s the view that I accept and it’s also the view of some of the Jews.

Pell had earlier denied the Cartesian notion that an immaterial soul somehow resided in the body — but refuting such an obviously contradictory hypothesis leaves you with a no-less absurd proposition, the full resurrection of the body. It’s only then that the utter entanglement of current Catholic doctrine is laid bare — on the one hand God as a non-spatio-temporal prime mover of whose explicit character we can know nothing — and on the other, a celestial judge presiding over some vast gymnasium of eternity at the end of Time, in which we are all restored to our body at some “high” point of its existence.

What? Before I put on 20 pounds but after I got my teeth fixed? What if someone lost an arm committing war crimes? Can bre-st implants be retained? And so on.

It’s this sort of childish, mythologised just-so nonsense that reminds you that, for all the Dawkins-Hitchens bluster, one really is an atheist, and that Pell’s theology and cosmology, stands in utter contradiction to any intelligent grappling with Being and the mystery of the universe. Having got into his stride, Pell gave us the full megillah — God, heaven and hell exist because otherwise evil would go unpunished. Essentially Christian cosmology is a way of avoiding the contemplation of irredeemable suffering:

TONY JONES: So you actually — well, prefer the idea of hell as a place of punishment for — but for who? Where do you draw the line? Do unbelievers go to hell?

GEORGE PELL: No. No. No. The only people — well, one — I hope nobody is in hell. We Catholics generally believe that there is a hell. I hope nobody is there. I certainly believe in a place of purification. I think it will be like getting up in the morning and you throw the curtains back and the light is just too much. God’s light would be too much for us. But I believe on behalf of the innocent victims in history that the scales of justice should work out. And if they don’t, life is radically unjust, the law of the jungle prevails …

Really, if this is the best that Catholicism can do as a philosophical-religious movement, then it’s pathetic. One understands that the global poor, the badly educated, those still sunk in mythical ways of thinking will cleave to a mythical version of Christianity, but are we really in dialogue with a Church that believes this sort of stuff at its heights? If nothing else, such encounters remind us what we’re up against — intelligent men and women who are willing to believe a series of elaborate and absurd jerry-built cosmologies for a mixture of inherited culture, psychological need and cultural power.

In doing so, they are ultimately unwilling to confront the world with courage and follow a truly existential theism — one that acknowledges, post-Holocaust (although numerous other events will serve) that anything called God, if it exists, is indifferent to our suffering and fate. What could be more wicked than the Catholic Church’s current hagio-mongering, in which saints are turned off the production line a dime a dozen, after this or that respite from childhood leukemia or some such somewhere has been turfed up and declared a miracle? What sort of belief system continues to honour this possibility while believing that the same God would allow the gassing and shooting of six million? It is the theology of cowards, nothing less.

Of course, there are many who have a more sophisticated take on religion, and of Christianity — as a philosophy of absence, of an unknowingness within which faith exists. This is the tradition that goes through Kierkegaard, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Kung and others, and a tradition with which existential atheists can be in dialogue with — indeed a tradition we are closer to than much of the metaphysical materialism (which includes Marxism) that passes for atheism at events such as the recent conference.

Yet Dawkins shows as little interest in debating that sort of theism, than do mythical Catholics such as Pell in having a true encounter with the world. To a degree Pell and Dawkins need each other — and if the show served to remind us of the absurdities that crouch within the mainstream religious mindset, all the better. But some day it would be good to see a real encounter between theism and atheism at their best.*

*Those interested in a stunning take on the founding question should consult my namesake Bede Rundle’s 2004 zingily-titled book Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (OUP)



We recommend

From around the web

Powered by Taboola


Leave a comment

38 thoughts on “Why Pell and Dawkins need each other

  1. Sidamo

    I think Dawkins has little interest in debating “that sort of theism” because the sort of theism which results from a personal metaphysical quest doesn’t usually result in a theism which inspires all of the abuses which have been committed over the years by organised religion.

    I suspect Dawkins would mellow quite considerably if, at some stage in the future, we had the same amount of people believing in a deity, but with the organised religions having no influence on daily life, i.e: keep the billions believing in a personal god but get rid of the sermonising from the pulpit.

  2. Simon

    just had to mention the kiddie fiddling didn’t you?

  3. syzygium

    A few weeks ago Radio National presented a talk by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks for their Big Ideas program. It was the most lucid, rational account of what a modern theism looks like. He didn’t completely convince me, but he did move me. I imagine Rabbi Sacks would eat Dawkins’ lunch, but agree that the debate/discussion would be well worth having.


  4. Barry Brannan

    I’ve never heard of “Kierkegaard, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Kung and others” and I suspect neither have many other atheists. They might be good topics for the next Global Atheist Convention. But on the face of it, I don’t see a problem with Dawkins et al tackling the easy subject matter first before moving onto advanced stuff. There are still far too many people believing the Pell-style nonsense to worry about the nuanced variations yet.

  5. Steve Gardner

    I’ve no doubt that Pell made it a condition of his appearing on the show that there would be no discussion of child abuse by Catholic priests. And in a way, I can understand why the ABC agreed to this: the topic would have taken over the whole show and left Dawkins more or less a spectator. But still, I would have loved to have seen a video question, “Cardinal Pell, you say that atheists have no purchase on morality. Yet the Catholic Church is a criminal accessory to the sexual abuse of thousands of children. The Church has silenced the victims and protected the abusers. My question to you is: where do you get the nerve?”

  6. Jeepers

    Sidamo: yes, exactly.

    Guy: you do realise that Dawkins is exactly the sort of atheist that you describe in your definition of “existentialist atheist”? Despite the protestations from people on both sides of the debate that he’s the sort of extremist they’d rather he was.

    I would also question whether you have any reason to believe that Dawkins hasn’t made headway with “those with vague notions of faith, a deity, the supernatural, etc”. He has testimony from plenty of ex-believers of all stripes.
    Of course he rubs lots of people the wrong way. I would say that goes with the job – and a lot of those people are on the “atheist side”, oh so worried that he’s giving us a bad name. Gimme a break.

    Agreed, though, he wasn’t in great form on Q&A.

  7. michael r james

    I suspect Rundle’s febrile state may have interfered with his assessment of the Dawkins-Pell debate. IMO, it was not much of a debate but mostly because of the lamentably lame performance by Pell. As evidence, what more do we need than an enthusiastic endorsement by Greg Sheridan?
    I wouldn’t particularly hold the comment about Neanderthals against Pell since it was not especially fundamental. Most Australians–except pure Africans–contain a little bit of Neanderthal genome in ours, which to be sure was likely transmitted horizontally rather than vertically–that is, not via common lineage–picked up on our way out of Africa (by indigenous Australians (and the few other ancient remnant populations such as the indigenous Japanese Ainu) in a very early wave, then about 50 millenia later by the rest of us who became Europeans and Asians etc.).

    Anyway I vaguely remembered that Bede Rundle (actually Bernard Bede Rundle, a Kiwi) had an obit in the Guardian last year at his death. I extract a relevant bit below. (For someone who taught at Oxford for 40 years there is remarkable little on the internet about him, no Wiki entry). I am dubious about that book, not just because of its 2 star Amazon rating, though Guy’s endorsement counts for something. The thing is, like Pell or any number of either medieval philosophers or latterday churchmen, there are “things under heaven” we still do not understand. That is different to believing we need to fill the gap with fantasy.

    In the third of his most notable books, Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (2004), which received considerable attention, Rundle tackled one of philosophy’s most important questions, formulated by Gottfried Leibniz in the 18th century, in a new way. Rundle contended that the question cannot be answered by science, but must receive a genuine philosophical treatment. He did so by addressing a famous argument in favour of the existence of God, presented by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century.

    Since this universe is contingent, that is to say it might not have existed, at some point it did not exist, and at a later point it came into existence. Since something can only begin to exist in relation to something else already existing (for instance, a football match can only start if the players are on the field), a non-contingent, necessary thing, God, must have existed for this universe to begin to exist. Had there been no necessary thing, God, there would be nothing now.

    Unlike most recent philosophers, Rundle found some truth in this argument. In his version, we must indeed claim that if nothing had existed, nothing would exist now, in other words that it is impossible that nothing at all should have existed. For to say that there might have been nothing “then” (before the Big Bang) or “now” presupposes a temporal framework of reference, and thus space, motion and objects.]

    If I remember correctly Pell rather sneered at the notion of “something from nothing” which Dawkins did not entirely adequately address (it was one of those points that he was visibly tetchy). Being a geneticist I have no idea of the current status of such ideas but I remember that it was a certified documented process that happens all the time in physics experiments: namely in cloud chambers or suchlike fundamental particle observational setups, tracks are observed diverging 180 degrees from each other that indicate a matter particle and a anti-matter particle (eg. electron/positron pair) can be generated from nothing, literally nothing. When such particles meet (or I suppose the positron meets any electron in our mostly matter sector of the universe) they disappear back to nothing. No laws of physics have been broken.

    This phenomenon was called “vacuum fluctuation” and was the basis for the theory of the origin of the universe that was the alternative to Big Bang, namely Steady State. Herman Bondi made the model in which the universe has always existed as we see it, everything moving away from everything else and with continuous creation in the “vacuum” so created. This model fell out of favour for reasons I forget, however it does point back to the original question. For there to be a universe of net “matter” something must cause the asymmetric behaviour of anti-matter Perhaps it disappears into the mysterious dark matter or dark energy that current theories require; I dunno. But not knowing does not turn me into a Diest.

  8. Daniel

    Dawkin’s is about as far from an existential atheist as Pell is.

  9. colin77

    I thought Tony Jones won the debate. Quickly decided Dawkins was sub-par and so skewered Pell with his questions.

  10. Microseris

    We don’t need to make up pretend deities to idolise, we already have a true religion which can be proven by basic scientific analysis. Its called nature. It has a set series of laws and flow on effects which essentially cannot be broken without consequences.

    Unfortunately there are too many non believers not respecting nature which is resulting in the progressive deterioration of the systems of the natural world on which we all depend.

Leave a comment


Telling you what the others don't. FREE for 21 days.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.