Dawkins V Pell in battle of belief
Richard Dawkins, left, with Q&A hosT Tony Jones and George Pell.
In the great showdown between God and the godless, it was the silver-haired professional agnostic in the middle – calm throughout, pointed in his questions, and thankful that his warring guests were "not grunting" – who emerged victorious on the ABC's Q&A last night.
To the left of Tony Jones on the panel of two sat Cardinal George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney; to his right sat – or more accurately, slumped like the jet-lagged traveller he was – Richard Dawkins, professional atheist.
Billed as a kind of final countdown, a day of reckoning for the chattering classes, the exchange was often not much better than a feral snarl-off. Pell ran circles around his own arguments (frequently of the how-many-angels-can-you-fit-on-the-head-of-a-pin type) while Dawkins threatened to bite off the heads of those in the audience who dared titter at his crisp assertions of scientific verity. "What," he snapped more than once. "Why is that funny?" If an entire audience could have been given six of the best, this lot would have left with very sore bottoms indeed.
The disclaimer at the start of proceedings told us the audience split was 31 per cent Labor, 47 per cent Coalition, 13 per cent Greens. All well and good, but wouldn't it have made more sense to give us the God-botherer versus heathen split? At least we know how the viewers felt: 76 per cent of the 20,000-plus who voted using the brand new q&davote app decreed religious belief does not make the world a better place, apparently. No word on how they feel about religious debates on telly, though.
Pell scored some early points with the studio audience with his insistence that science fails to answer the biggest of all questions: why are we here. “You can’t say why do mountains exist," replied Dawkins. "But you can ask what are the antecedent factors that lead to the existence of mountains.” It had all the logical power of Mr Spock dressing down Bones on the deck of the Starship Enterprise, and about as much poetry too.
When Pell equated atheism with Hitler and Stalin, Dawkins tetchily replied "what nonsense". "We should not live by Darwinian principles," he expanded. "But Darwin explains how we got here."
As they traded more blows on the question of why, the battle lines couldn't have been clearer: faith and emotional yearning on one side, logic and the desire to know on the other. “The question why is not necessarily a question that deserves to be answered," Dawkins asserted. "'What is the purpose of the universe?' is a silly question."
"It's a very pertinent question to ask why is there suffering," Pell shot back.
While he kept his retorts short, the priest landed some blows. But as the exchange wore on and Dawkins sank into exasperation with the vapidity of some of the questions, Pell became more expansive. And the more liturgical rope he was allowed, the more thoroughly he hanged himself.
God picked the Jews to prove his existence, he said, even though they were just a bunch of shepherds and intellectually inferior to the Egyptians. "Even Jesus?" asked Tony Jones. "Exactly," said Pell, as if he'd pulled off a great act of sophistry right there.
Pell's argument during an exchange over evolution was downright baffling. He started by saying he "probably" accepts that humans descended from Neanderthals.
"Neanderthals?" piped up Dawkins, jumping disdainfully on the slip. "They were our cousins. We can't be descended from our cousins."
"These are extant cousins?" shot back Pell. "Where will I find a Neanderthal today if they're our cousins?"
Dawkins: "They're extinct."
Karl Quinn is on Twitter: @karlkwin