Culture: Dawkins and Pell on Q&A - discourse devoid of dignity?

Culture: Thoughts on Dawkins and Pell

For those not distracted by the Twitter ticker (take home phrase: "ideological cosmos"), last night's Q&A offered some insight into the thinking of two men: Catholic Archbishop George Pell and scientist and atheist/agnostic/non-theist/non-believer Richard Dawkins.

I found the program discombobulating, particularly as the Catholic views held by Pell are conflated with Christianity as a whole and they don't necessarily equate. Protestant thought is quite different to the Catholic rule of thumb, though we both believe in the same God and His son.

But my disappointment reached a crescendo when Katherine Shen dared to ask Dawkins, "As an atheist, do you believe that people should believe in God for emotional support, even if temporarily? After all, research has proven that people who believe in God has a better chance of surviving serious illnesses such as cancer and those that attend Church live longer. Couldn't believing in God be beneficial for our physical well-being, even if God is an illusion?"

The question was immediately dismissed as trivial.

And therein lies the problem with so much elitist discussion and Dawkins' snobbish brand of public discourse: it strips away at the dignity of the human being. It is rude and irritable and dismissive and oppressive and smug. It shuts down conversation and shuts out anyone whose intellectual mettle is not up to scratch, centralising its power in the hands and minds of a self-satisfied few in which they stew.

And, yes, it really is quite like the priestly nature of the Catholic church, and any church in which power is protected for its own sake or wielded to laud it over others thereby elevating a few, or one, over the rest... where priest does not tread the boards at the level of his parishoners, where pastor thinks himself too holy to associate with his congregation.

Jesus railed and raged against this state of affairs, incorporating laymen into his ministry to make that point quite clear. Faith in God is no scapegoat for the grandiose and self-important; that's "religion".

It's a terrible shame that this debate between Christians and atheists might be reduced to point-scoring and suspicion and mutual loathing instead of a civil exchange of ideas, which could benefit mankind as a whole. Understanding is the key to a peaceable and respectable humanity, after all. Why this obsession with winning? Who really benefits from that?

We have reason to respect and learn from those who have extraordinary abilities in all fields of life. Dawkins' sheer intellect is a marvel (and I'd say a reason to think on the possibilities for the mind as created by God and also of science, through which we come to know more about creation and of God). I am not familiar enough with his concepts to critique him on his body of work, but I appreciate that he is a man of significant achievements.

But to bring oneself – and one's work – into disrepute because you despise what others think, or think it not worthy of contemplation, is to cast a cloud over your own work. Perhaps this is a post-modern predicament; a necessary evil of the age of the 'talking head' whereby a man or woman's work is not permitted to stand on its own but is tainted by the man's faults and lesser attributes.

Moments of lucidity and understanding break through the clutter to deliver all of humankind with great benefits, such as Einstein's theory of relativity. But, as Dawkins himself notes, there are uncertainties, inexplicables that cannot be explained away by the reasoning of men, more particularly those with agendas that stray from goodness in its essence. Thus depending on them to "deliver us" is unwise (see Pol Pot, Hitler...). Men are fallible; God is not.

That "Why?" is a stupid question, as Dawkins posited, is also very odd. Curiosity, the wish to know and understand and reason, is a driving force for humanity; it speaks of our integrity. The ability to find things out for ourselves is one of the most satisfying aspects of being human; our personal 'evolution' from infant to adult, is what propels us forth (though, yes, some of us do have the occasion to get stuck). To learn, to grow, to think are all God-given things.

But knowledge for its own sake can be dangerous (think nuclear weapons). The thirst for knowledge is what drove Adam and Eve to betray God, thus leaving behind their humble and happy existence with the creator in exchange for a world they could not comprehend; one that will confound us to the end but whose challenges also create opportunities for us to get up out of bed.

Why do anything, indeed? Because in each of us, if it has not been stamped out by other men or deadened over time by worldly woes, is this will, this necessity, to survive and further ourselves and usher in a more pleasant world. That is part of the Great Commission. And it's a fundamental part of Christianity: blind faith would fly in the face of an almighty God who wishes for us to know Him and to know ourselves.

The Bible has maintained its authority and integrity, though men have abused and manipulated its contents for their own gain over the past 2000 years. Christianity, when unhindered by the motives of men, is ordered, logical and life-giving, like God himself.

It does not laud it over us but invites everyone in – tradesman, academic, student, scientist – to use their reason, their common sense, their imagination, all their human faculties, for the getting of wisdom, the furthering of the Kingdom and simple, joyful daily living.

"Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these," said Jesus, knowing full well how maturity can rob us of the simple ability to believe what we do not see. "Daughter, be of good cheer! Your faith that has made you well," he told the woman who touched his robe. 

"Couldn't believing in God be beneficial for our physical well-being, even if God is an illusion?" Yes, Katherine, it could.

See also:
Bruises all round in Pell-Dawkins street fight by Neil Ormorod @ Eureka Street
Questions without answers in a Kingdom of Whatever by Scott Stephens @ The Drum

Faith built on belonging, not debate by Scott Cowdell, The Australian Financial Review

Girl With a Satchel


echomeme said...

It seems that while being affronted by Dawkin's, not unexpected dismissal of God as a reality, the fact that Pell had no idea of even what he himself believed or understood about his own faith, one which he heads in this country, seems to have been totally ignored.
It is little wonder Christianity and specifically Catholic Christianity is in such a parlous state, it's leaders unable to articulately explain it's core beliefs.

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Hi Echo,
Thanks for the comment.
While I alluded to my confusion over Pell's stance on the issues and his theology in the second paragraph, I chose not to focus on unpacking Catholic v Protestant theology in this piece, settling on the idea of the shutting down of discussion by public figureheads. I was equally mystified by Pell, and find both men intriguing but inaccessible though Pell came across as the warmer of the two on this occasion. Not that warmth is a prerequisite for likeability, but I'm a fan of humility and humour.

Bob Meadows said...

How has the Bible "maintained it's authority and integrity" as you have claimed? There are so many contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible (a simple Google search will prove this). Even Pell now says that atheists "can certainly go to heaven" and that Adam and Eve are a mythical construct. On the former, I thought the Bible's clearly stated stance was that unless you took Jesus as your personal saviour, you would not enter the gates of heaven. On the last point, as Dawkins queries, where does this leave the concept of mortal sin? I thought Pell waffled far to much and at times was incoherent in his responses.

AC said...

You must try and understand that Dawkins is concerned with what is actually true. Katherine Shen's question was treated as trivial because in terms of what is actually true it was trivial. Believing in God may well make someone feel better but this has no bearing on whether God is real or not and this is not a trivial matter. His response does not "shut down conversation" as you say but rather allows the conversation to move more effectively towards the revelation of truth. Furthermore, it is not that Dawkins thinks these things "not worthy of contemplation" but rather that they have already been well contemplated, by anyone who has given the matter any serious thought at all. There is often a conflict between the truth and a comforting illusion. The side one favours in this conflict often depends on one's values, courage and integrity. I, for one, prefer the truth over the comforting illusion and false consolation.

Anonymous said...

I am tired of this whole debate. For me it seems that this world is increasingly godless in morality. Porn has infiltrated everything in our culture like it's the norm. I think that in this world, we need more good people to balance out all the garbage in this world. The weeds need to be balanced out. While it is cool now to be an athiest than ever, I have yet to see any athiest organisations that set out to do charitable works, to help the oppressed in society. For some people, hearing that there is no God, just makes them live a reckless life, uncaring about other people's thoughts and feelings. I believe it is better to believe in a God who wishes that the good will balance out the bad, than to believe in no God at all.


Anonymous said...

Despite being a Christian myself I actually found Dawkins much more approachable and reasonable than in this debate than Pell. I didn't find Pell warm at all infact he was just as 'smug' as Dawkins appeared to be. Pell even directed questions to the host rather than directly to Dawkins for a large part of the broadcast which just seemed plain rude. In it's entirety the debate was a waste of time and even though I'm commenting on it, I'm dissappointed by how much media attention it has received.

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Bob, you are most right. It is very tempting as a Christian to say, "All roads lead to Rome! Everyone on board!", and that the Bible is all about perspective and open to interpretation in the context of the culture of the day and the latest scientific findings, but that line of thought has done the text more harm than not, I feel. While we should certainly exercise our mental faculties, if we start tinkering with one part, then we might as well negate the whole lot.

Josh McDonell writes, "Faith is the assurance of the heart in the adequacy of the evidence."

To the question of the Bible, it is self-authenticating to the extent that the Old Testament is authenticated by the New and the centrepiece - the historical figure of Jesus Christ, the carpenter from Nazareth who was nailed to a cross, died and rose again - was undeniably a real, flesh and blood man.

The Gospels are the first accounts – the search for evidence - we have and their authors, including the doctor Luke (a "historian of first rank"), were painstaking in their scribing, attesting to what they had seen and others, too (why choose to use the story of the woman at the well? It was completely counter-cultural for its time).

"For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty," wrote the apostle Peter in his account.

The Bible was compiled over a period of more than 1500 years, was divinely inspired, authoritative in its testimony (the elders, the scholars, the scribes were committed to preserving its integrity) and has spread throughout the earth, giving rise to transformation in the hearts and minds of many a convert and the Christian church.

As ultimate intercessory, mediator between man and God, the figure of Christ, a divine man, is intoxicating... and I have no hesitation in declaring I feel devoting oneself to the exploration, discovery and understanding of him is a worthwhile existence.

AC, as Clark Pinnock has said, "The heart cannot delight in what the mind rejects as false." It is arguably a futile exercise to start down the road of apologetics. But here I go anyway...

Like Dawkins, many Christians are also concerned with what is actually true; we may be 'surprised by joy', as the reluctant convert CS Lewis described it, but we feel we are not delusional; that there is consistent and ongoing evidence to support our faith.

The fact is that "faith" does require an element of "faith" (i.e. belief in what one does not see) but that the Christian faith is also factual. It does not require the abandonment of thought. It requires the concentration of it.

"God never burglarizes the human will. He may long to come in and help, but he will never cross the picket line of our unwillingness," wrote James Jauncey. And yet He wants none to perish so will in all sorts of ways will communicate his desire for us to know Him, to seek, to find. If we choose not to, he obligingly steps out of the way.

And on that note, authors, historians, theologians and experts in apologetics with whom I cannot compete have written extensively on the veracity of the Bible and its associated complications - there is a wealth of material out there.

I respect that others will find their truth - and deeply respect those who pursue it – and also enjoyment in decidedly different ways; it would rail against the integrity of the individual to think otherwise. So thank you for the comments and the opportunity engage in truth as we know it.


Anonymous said...


I think your desire to degenerate Dawkins stems from an desire to avoid questioning your religion. You state a whole set of claims as true in your last posting which are verifiably, historically, false.

That you won't look critically at the reality of you attributions to christianity is WHY you won't see why Dawkins has so little truck with waffle - you don't want to look for fear of what you will find. It's more comforting to you believe in a sky father. Why should you take responsibility; you are snug in your .... arrogance.

Deep questions need deep answers, not pablum. Those answers, that you claim to seek, are more reliably answered by science, since it deals with reality rather than myth. It is both freeing and illuminating when you realise you have grown beyond gods.

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Anon, it's not my desire to degenerate Dawkins. What would be the point?

I only aim to ask why discussion of truth need be about who wins (on either side) and who is able to partake and why the search for "truth" need be separated from legitimate discussion of human wellbeing.

Faith, or science, need not only be used to justify one's existence or a world view, but to create understanding amongst peoples, or benefit the greater good. The singular wellbeing of another person, more particularly their soul, whether that is derived from a fairy story or not - is not something I think on lightly. It is about the human condition.

If you find comfort in Care Bears, or at the opposite end Plato, to me that's better than going through all your life in a paralysing, lonely fear even if you have acquired all the knowledge in the world.

The world of science is not my primary interest, that's true. There are many Christians in the field, however, who maintain, or have maintained, their faith in the context of their work: Newton, Pascal...more recently Lennox. Einstein said religion without science is blind but that the opposite was also true.

My personal faith was not arrived at as if by fluke: like other reluctant converts, it hasn't been a walk in the park. It has been hard won; probing, doubting, questioning, reckoning. I think anything in life worth holding onto will be similarly arrived at. As a thinking person, I think you can appreciate that.

I'm certainly not foolproof or all-knowing; I am just as prone to all the shortcomings of man as the next person. But I can't deny what I feel, believe and see, however quaint or trivial that might seem... that would equate, on my part, to blasphemy.