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Apr 18, 2012

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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.

RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes I could.

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)

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