A post-match analysis from the U.T.P. sports desk.
I would like to join the commentary about the battle between George Pell and Richard Dawkins on the ABC’s Q&A program on 9/5/12. A copy of the show is – here
While I have never had any previous reason to critique Richard Dawkins’ opinions and I have had many reason’s to critique George Pell’s theology and church administration, I found myself being much more attracted to Pell’s position than Dawkins. While both men relied on stereotypes of the other in presenting their opinions, Dawkins argument was much more reliant on Christian stereotypes than Pell’s were of atheist stereotypes, Pell even acknowledged that atheists can go to heaven..
Pell totally undermined Dawkins’ stereotype when he acknowledged that Adam and Eve were mythical figures and that there were probably no original humans. Dawkins appeared prepared to debate a conservative creationist and was simply unable to advance the discussion once Pell had acknowledged the legitimacy of science. Pell however was able to articulate the co-existence of two types of knowledge – mythical and scientific – at which point, for me, he won the argument. Dawkins became the narrow minded voice as he demanded an adherence to science to the exclusion of religious myth. Pell was able to accommodate myth and science and demonstrated his own comfort with the accommodation of the two. The contradictions of religion and science at the centre of Dawkins argument simply did not reside in Pell.
Pell was the superior debater. While his oratory was not as journalistic as Dawkins, his battle strategy was magnificent. He knew beforehand that he was going to deny creationism and fully expected Dawkins to challenge him on it. Similarly when Pell claimed Darwin’s support for the notion of intelligent design, he knew full well that Dawkins would challenge him and was able to reference the book and page number to back up his assertion. He probably had the page number written on his hand.
Dawkins’ self righteous arrogance got the better of him in this debate. Once Pell shifted the goalposts, Dawkins was simply unable to score. Pell’s self righteous arrogance was central to his delivery too but I think he had great intellectual respect for his opponent, much more than was reciprocated, and he did the preparation necessary. Dawkins seems to have been expecting a religious fool and relied on his capacity for logic alone to engage with Pell.
Pell’s apparent liberal theology is really quite orthodox. Despite persecutions and executions of scientists, the Roman church has in fact adapted its dogma along with scientific development. The Galileo affair has set precedence. However what cannot be challenged in church dogma is the centralised hierarchical authority, not matters of theology or biblical interpretation for which the church is, within limitations, quite liberal and small “c” catholic. Nowhere in the Q&A program did matters of the church’s hierarchical structure and its power over people’s lives come into the discussion, this was a lost opportunity for Dawkins. Instead the debate concentrated on matters of theology and science but did not go near matters of the church itself.
Both the science of Dawkins and the religion of Pell are firmly rooted in the classical traditions and cultural heritage of Greko/Roman civilisation, Pell specifically confirmed it and it is the scientific tradition that Dawkins repeatedly refers too. Pell is culturally orthodox in accommodating science and religion and Dawkins is culturally orthodox in affirming western science and rationalism. The debate between theism and atheism occurs within a common cultural and language framework, as such excludes other cultural spiritualities and philosophies from the debate. Two old white men debating classical philosophy has its own limitations to the pursuit of universal truth and this was, for me, the frustrating limitation of the debate.
I would have found a debate between Pell and a third world Liberation Theology advocate to be a much more revealing exploration of the relevance of Christianity, especially in matters of suffering and evil that Pell says is the realm of christian mythology. I would have found a debate between a tribal shaman and Richard Dawkins on the nature of objective reality to be a more revealing exploration of the relevance of humanist rationalism. But given the limited cultural parameters of the debate, it was an entertaining clash of intellects and both fighters fought well on the night, but I reckon the victory went to Pell on points.