Pell vs. Dawkins

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.



9 responses to “Pell vs. Dawkins

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  3. I’m not sure which debate you watched, but we clearly saw different debates.

  4. Pingback: Spoiled Spirituality, Vain Philosphy, and Religious Tradition | Ronnie Murrill

  5. How can you say that?
    Pell just showed how ignorant he really is, especially regarding evolution (the neanderthals part was just sad for him)
    Seriously, it seems you wrote the review before the debate even happened
    waiting for reply…

  6. Hello Manuel,

    Not sure what you want me to say but this is my first response to your comment –

    It is irrational of you to suggest that I did not see the debate before writing the review. By any standards of observation and analysis it is clear that I had seen it. Perhaps what you meant to say was that you disagreed with my perspective but I wonder why you might express your disagreement with an irrational obviously false statement?

    If it is the case that you disagree with my perspective, I would be curious to hear how and why? I guess I wrote the piece to open up some kind of conversation so i would welcome any feedback beyond the unsubstantiated blanket condemnation that you have offered so far. Again I wonder why you choose to condemn rather than discuss?

    And finally, in the absence of any substantive opinion, I can only assume that you are emotionally reacting to what you perceive as an attack on your beliefs or a significant symbol of your beliefs (Dawkins). Your irrationality, condemnation and defensiveness sounds like a religion to me.

    • Hi, thanks on your reply
      Perhaps that was not the best way to aproach you, but I was really really stunned with your conclusion.
      To be honest I really think Dawkins was way superior and here are my reasons:
      Btw, english is not my native language, so I apologize in advanced for future errors in my writing.

      First big error in Pell’s arguments
      – Pell calls Hitler and Stalin’s actions as the two “Great Atheist Movements”
      Which is completely false and was explained very well by Dawkins leaving Pell without answer

      -When he said jews were intelectually inferior to other empires, which is obviously false

      – “He dumbs down God and he swops up nothing” regarding Dawkins response to a ignorant over simplifying the Big Bang Theory
      Pell runs from Dawkins questions by saying something apparently funny which contributes with nothing to the discussion
      To notice that Dawkins made some really good points here
      And the only thing Pell says is God is not applied to our laws which is just a cop out.

      – About the Darwin’s issue regarding if he was a theist or not Pell was just really low saying it was on page 92 saying Darwin was a Theist which is not entirely false because he said he was a theist but gradually lost his belief in God. Darwin’s conclusion was and I quote “The mistery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; And I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic” (page 94)
      So as usually, Pell was wrong, and this time he knew it, assuming he read the whole book.

      -The saddest part of the debate was really the neanderthals part which there really not much to say except that Pell’s ignorance on this crucial topic is immense and there is no way to deny that.

      -a funny part was when Pell accused Dawkins of saying natural selection is random and it gave me great pleasure seeing Dawkins pull this one out of the park prooving Pell was once again wrong

      -by the end the cardinal was just confused and was just babbling and was even homophobic when saying creation is messy when asked why God created homossexuals and questioning God’s existence saying “so am I” when Dawkins said he was interested in finding out if God actually exists

      My conclusion is that your debate review was just full of bias, considering you are religious and Pell apparently defended your point of view
      And my admiration to Dawkins is not base on belief of irrationality, Dawkins was just amazingly crystal clear and most important, honest and not constantly attacking the other debater like Pell did many times.

      Once again, I really dont understand how you say Pell was the superior debater

      Thanks for your attention and I await, once again, your response

  7. Firstly you have misread my bias, I have no sympathy for Pell. On the basis of his church administration on issues such as clerical sexual abuse and homosexuality, I say he is a devil. My bias can perhaps be explained in my description of the debate as “Two old white men debating classical philosophy”. My bias would be more towards the shamanism and liberation theology mentioned in my conclusion. I do not agree with either man but said “both fighters fought well on the night”. I explained my points decisions on Pell’s liberal accommodation of myth and science compared to Dawkins rigid dismissal of such a possibility. I like myth, not Pell.

    Darwin was a theist when he wrote Origin of the Species and his latter agnosticism is not a refutation of God but of the fallibility of the human mind. (p93) “But then arises the doubt—can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?” This question is as equally relevant to grand scientific conclusions which I suspect was evident to Darwin as displayed in his concession in Origin of the Species that his theory could not explain the sudden proliferation of life forms in the precambrian era.

    Pell has much more in common with Darwin than Dawkins who absolutely refutes god. Pell is happy to embrace myth to explain what Darwin calls (p94)“The mystery of the beginning of all things (that) is insoluble by us”. Dawkins on the other hand, unlike Darwin, claims the human mind and its grand conclusions as absolute truth.

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