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Bruises all round in Pell-Dawkins street fight


Late in February 2012 Richard Dawkins, internationally renowned atheist, and Rowan Williams, soon to retire Archbishop of Canterbury, debated the meaning of life, the universe and everything at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. The moderator of the event was Sir Anthony Kenny, the famous British philosopher, ex-Catholic priest and current agnostic. The debate was podcast live around the world.

It was a gentlemanly affair. Dawkins was on his best behaviour, perhaps caught up in the solemnity of the occasion. Certainly Kenny did not let him get away with much. And Williams is a much respected figure even among atheists, and a genuine scholar. The audience packed the theatre but kept their place, reserving their applause until the end of the event.

In Australia we do things differently. Here we set Dawkins against Cardinal George Pell and put journalist Tony Jones in the moderator's seat. Rather than a gentlemanly debate the event was billed like a street fight, with Jones calling it 'a remarkable match-up', a 'title fight of belief'. Certainly the blogosphere expected a one-sided event with comments like 'Dawkins is going to crucify Pell' and 'I hope Pell doesn't mind being humiliated'.

Jones is no Kenny and Pell is no Williams, but Dawkins is still Dawkins, and in this instance was no longer restrained by the setting, the moderator or any lingering respect for his opponent. Though struggling with jet-lag his switch was set to attack. Pell, too, had pre-planned debating points to make, on Darwin, Hitler and Stalin, designed to provoke a strong reaction from Dawkins, which they did.

Sadly the cardinal's grasp of scientific details did not inspire confidence. His scholastic philosophical points on the soul and transubstantiation (complex at the best of times), found little traction with the audience. He struggled to give voice to religious truths in an environment more conducive to combat than conversation or conversion.

He did well however in making it clear that atheists could definitely 'go to heaven' and that Catholics need have no problem with evolution, suggesting that the Genesis account of creation and fall is 'mythological'.

Dawkins on the other hand failed to see the limitations of claims to explain the universe from 'nothing', promoted by recent writings by Lawrence Krauss. Like many scientists Dawkins and Krauss have no conception of a distinction between physics and metaphysics. Further, Dawkins' account of Krauss' position was as garbled and hand-wavy as you could get. Clearly not his area of expertise!

Dawkins went on to overstate the scientific evidence in claiming that evolution explains the origins of life. It explains the variations and developments, but presupposes the existence of life. A couple of times he snapped at the audience who giggled at some of his less coherent lines. It was not a good look.

The problem of suffering raised the level of debate somewhat, not for Dawkins for whom there is nothing to explain, but certainly for Pell, who admitted that this was a problem that he struggled with. Here there was some genuine religious depth, in his dealing with pastoral concerns for real-life situations.

It is hard to know what such TV debates achieve. They are not about a meeting of minds; both sides 'preach to the choir' only each has a different choir in mind. The issues are not conducive to sound bites and quick quips.

Trying to get a scientist to understand the difference between physics and metaphysics is not an easy task, as Kenny found trying to moderate the debate between Dawkins and Williams. There, once the discussion turned to philosophical issues, Dawkins was clearly out of his depth.

Still, complex questions such as transubstantiation and the resurrection of the body do not survive our media-driven 15-second attention span. The poll at the end of the night overwhelmingly gave the 'debate' to Dawkins, but more thoughtful tweets the next morning simply say 'no-one won, they both lost'.

All this is of course a lead up to a couple of weeks of atheist chest-beating and self-congratulations with this weekend's Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. We can expect more of the same in the near future. But it is important to keep these things in perspective.

It is true that Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, has sold over a million copies in North America, but as Alasdair McGrath has pointed out, in the same period a Christian devotional work by Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, sold over 30 million copies. While at best a couple of thousand might attend the convention in Melbourne, hundreds of thousands attend religious services every weekend in Australia.

No wonder the atheists get so frustrated.

Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University. His publications include Globalization and the Mission of the Church with Pentecostal theologian Shane Clifton and the soon to be published Creator God, Evolving World with Episcopalian theologian Cynthia Crysdale. 

Topic tags: Neil Ormerod, Richard Dawkins, George Pell, QandA, atheism



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Existing comments

Why spoil a well-considered article with words like chest beating and self-congratulations with reference to the atheist convention?

GAJ | 11 April 2012  

Thanks Neil for this good summary, which I can hand out to parishioners at the weekend. One point though, I thought the 'vote' was not on the debate between Richard Dawkins and Cardinal Pell, but on the generic question about religion contributing to the overall common good, and the results - on the internet version of the program the next morning were actually broadcast well before the debate had ended. Those sorts of polls are suspect anyway, but I too, concur that neither had 'won' the debate. The intervention by Tony Jones against Cardinal Pell with regards to the Jews and intelligence was pretty low as far as host aujudicators goes.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 11 April 2012  

Well, Q & A is reality tv pitched to the lowest common denominator, bragging about such fare in their promos. New information is rarely imparted, little more than 'party positions' is said, both 'sides' always "preaching to the choir". Q & A is almost always an intellectual desert and a degrading waste of time. No wonder young people are cynical and disaffected about the Australian political landscape, and seek intellectual nourishment other than from ABC.

Tafkao | 11 April 2012  

Excellent comments. Thank you Neil. Perhaps one might also add that the show - for 'show' it was - illustrates what is happening in the ABC. With the abandonment of spepcialist units - like the religious unit which is now a shadow of its former self, the Corporation thinks that generalist journalists with their cliche caricatures of religion and faith, can handle such discussions at any depth or even adequately.

Paul Collins | 11 April 2012  

I agree wholeheartedly with the above comments. Pell was an embarrassment, so much so, I had to switch stations for a while to get over it and then tuned back towards the end. Nothing had changed. There was just nothing inspirational or believable about a man holding such a high office, who could not explain his faith in simple terms and, at times, appeared to have no faith!

Shirley McHugh | 11 April 2012  

The rise of the atheist critique is one of the best things to happen to religion in a long time. It obliges religion to look carefully at its own utterances and practices in the light of rational, if uncomfortable observations from atheists. I am an ordained minister of religion, but it is my opinion that much may be learned from this encounter, should religious institutions find the humility to allow it. There is much in the atheist objection to religion which is also rejected by enlightened people of faith. There is also a great deal in traditional Christian doctrine which needs rethinking in dialogue with science and through biblical criticism liberated from dogmatic presuppositions.

Lorraine Parkinson | 11 April 2012  

. Pell was cautious on some traditional Catholic doctrine - e.g. his comments on the soul and on hell and salvation for all. Purists watching might have had their note books and pencils poised ready to report a Cardinal to Rome for dubious orthodoxy had it been anyone else. Overall, I found the discussion a bit flat and limited. There were many other relevant topics that could have come up, but the existence or non existence of God dominated the hour. Christopher Hitchens, now dead, or Stephen Fry would have made a more entertaining and competent atheist to argue with Pell who I thought was not able to show his own considerable intellectual and political skills to best advantage against a weaker Dawkins. At the same time Pell showed he was not all that comfortable when talking 'off the cuff’. He presents better when he is in control with prepared statements that permit no contradiction. Nevertheless last night’s Q & A format was an experiment worth repeating.

Brian | 11 April 2012  

Dawkins at least had the good grace to address Pell as Cardinal, it was disappointing that he did not respond by referring to Dawkins as Professor. Pell's ignorance of such basic scientific facts as the evolutionary origin of humans would suggest he is scientifically sub-literate, it does not inspire confidence in his climate change scepeticism. His foray into Jewish intellectual development was very clumsy and ill-considered, I am not suggesting he is anti-semitic but he was skating on thin ice at times on that issue. Pell's ignorance would be well and good if he remained a parish priest in Victoria, he is just not intelligent enough to be a Cardinal, especially at this crucial time for the church. Dawkins came across as a humourless prig, his response to laughter in the audience reminded me of my old school teachers, I thought he was going to give them six of the best after class for speaking out of turn! The whole program was depressing, Q & A rarely satisfies.

chris g | 11 April 2012  

For superficial yet informative social and political commentary, Q&A and its host serve well. However, I agree with Paul Collins that it was completely inadequate for the Dawkins/Pell meeting. It cannot be called a debate since there was little engagement at a deep intellectual level from either, and Tony Jones was out of his depth. I found the literalism of Pell on the subject of transubstantiation and resurrection gob-smacking, and Dawkins' description of 'nothing' disinge

Patricia | 11 April 2012  

I, also found the programme hard to watch. Aside from the combatative nature of the setting which was never going to be a forum for deeper understanding, the poor moderation by Tony Jones who did nothing to lift the disrespectful atmosphere of the audience. His questions were shallow and evidence he was out of his depth.

Helen Richardson | 11 April 2012  

Pell is enough to put most thinking people off religion for good, or at least off the organisations that grow fat from religion.

Mike H | 11 April 2012  

Each to his own Neil. Pell appeared to be somewhat doubtful even within his own area of 'expertise' and sounded more like a clapped out ruckman than a Cardinal, perhaps he is? The audience and their questions were gormless, and a waste of time. Far better to have had an Adams character, or Heavens above, Critto, chairing the meeting between these two as they discussed the issues, perhaps setting the tone with a clear question for them to address and circle around. But what do people expect? Dawkins is a thoughtful person, Pell a Catholic Cardinal, hardly a recipe for enlightenment is it? I had to wonder if Pell knew what he was talking about. If atheists can go to Heaven, why all the activity in Christians converting people to their brand of fables? As for God living in the bread and winel- really! Surely no intelligent person actually believes these are anything but props? Which is all dawkins was trying to say. I thought Jones did well with his questioning of Pell on the question of Jews, Jesus and Pell's clear contempt for their IQ. Was it worth the effort though? No, but these sort of discussions never are. As for trying to pretend that metaphysics is a wholesome pursuit, that's like pretending that homeopathy and chiropractry are worthwhile medical activities. Finally, very very few Christians waste their time going to church, as the figures show. Perhaps the Pells of the church should reflect on that?

Andy Fitzharry | 11 April 2012  

A good article highlighting some of the awkwardness of arguments put forward by both debaters. I must quibble though about one of Neil Omerod's statements: "Pell ... here was some genuine religious depth in his dealing with pastoral concerns for real life situations." The former Archbishop of Melbourne showed no concern at all for the real-life situation of homosexuals desiring full membership of the Catholic Church. Not only did he refuse the Eucharist to them many times in St. Patrick's Cathedral but spoke out about the 'aberrant' inclination of gays and the threat they impose on any children in their relationship. Very hard to forget!

Jan Coleman | 11 April 2012  

Man's eternal search, the everlasting and unresolved understanding of God, again played out by antagonistic opponents each uncertain of the finer points that clearly define his position. And for no good purpose other than to provide a circus for the entertainment hungry populace. Some men have faith, some do not, and while this will no doubt be the case till the end of time, this debate will outlive the generations. Antagonism prevents resolution and until people like the Cardinal and Dr Dawkins display the humility that empathy for alternative views demands there will be no amicable reconciliation of varying positions. Failure to show empathy for other views is always self-defeating because of the rancour that it generates. The greatest existing evidence of this is the fact that the abortion debate has been lost because the anti- abortion lobbies (of which I am a part) preferred confrontation to empathy and understanding. Monday's debate served no purpose other than to massage Jone's TV image. Sadly it also served to belittle both the proponents. There are many other examples of Christian truth available to the Cardinal which might earn greater empathy from the populace. Crikey! I'm drinking too much tea again!

john frawley | 11 April 2012  

When studying theology 101 a few years ago my fellow students were more enlightening than Pell.

Jo dallimore | 11 April 2012  

An atheist who is mellowing to the point where he now sees that science cannot disprove God, a theological lightweight who speaks ex cathedra about the weather, and a facilitator who often has to have the last word and condescends to the experts. It is not a match made in heaven. I’m glad I was in the other room reading a book by Rowan Williams at the time: much more intelligent and thought-provoking. And Williams treats his readers with respect.

UNDERWHELMED | 11 April 2012  

Like Shirley McHugh (see above), I had to abandon the ‘debate’ about halfway through. As Neil comments there was a conspicuous failure by Dawkins to appreciate the difference between physics and metaphysics, but equally there was a failure by Pell to realise that Scholastic philosophy is an insufficient vehicle to engage in dialogue with a modern world. Both protagonists demonstrated a lack of understanding of the limitations of their respective areas of enquiry, I suspect Dawkins could benefit from a course in the philosophy of science and Pell from the course in philosophy of religion. Both could benefit from a foundational reading in epistemic logic and an understanding that our knowledge claims, especially on the bigger questions, must be more modestly based on some type of consistency across the multiple domains of knowledge that help us to understand our world and ourselves. Epistemic logic provides the glue that holds them together and gives the outcome some credibility both logically and ethically.

John Edwards | 11 April 2012  

Tony's unsophisticated hostilities were inappropriate for a moderator. The level of Oz religious ignorance is high and wide.Catholics have believed in evolution for years and distiguished myths from facts.So last century! Pell was strangely laid back and Dawkins was unexpectedly the self righteous tetchy one. Disappointment all round.

Molly Moran | 11 April 2012  

I, too, thought George Pell an embarrassment. He is clearly used to telling people what to think, not persuading. He was cliched and anti-intellectual on matters of science. His position on climate change is ill-informed. His intervention on this issue is utterly negligent. He has taken the Catholic Church in Australia back to the 1960s where the views of priests could not be challenged. No wonder so many of us are disillusioned.

KateJ | 11 April 2012  

Atheists can go to heaven. Well that kinda wipes out any need to bother with religion doesn't it? :)

Davo | 11 April 2012  

From the claims made in a number of the above comments regarding the Cardinal's ignorance on numerous matters, including those relating to Christianity, it is a matter of considerable wonderment that Oxford ever accepted him as a student, and worse, didn't improve his knowledge and understanding. But then, I suppose Oxford is also dumbing down like our universities. Also unbecoming to read the discourtesies afforded the Cardinal. Let those Oxford intellectuals and those with impeccable educational standards and superior knowledge of Catholic Christianity amongst us cast the first stones. The Cardinal might, like all human beings, possess some personal traits that do not appeal to everyone but he is no intellectual outcast and unlike most of us has the courage to stand up for his belief in God. Pity, however, that he doesn't stick to being our pastor and leave the sideshows to the circus performers.

john frawley | 11 April 2012  

Thanks Neil for your comments. I am not a fan of Q&A, and so I was not surprised that the Pell-Dawkins 'clash' was far from satisfactory. As one who is in training to be a "lapsed Catholic", thanks to the victory of the conservatives over the Vatican 2 reformers and being forced to accept the new mass,I was most disappointed with Pell.For him Catholicism is for the elite (elect?), thus his wishy-washy responses.As for Dawkins I am now interested in reading his book. The Williams-Dawkins podcast can be found at http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/people/rowan-williams

Toff | 11 April 2012  

Cardinal Pell had the opportunity to offer a deeply Christian view reflecting the love of God. Instead he was drawn into the point scoring, oneupmanship that degraded both sides.

Angela | 11 April 2012  

Dr Rowan Williams is a theologian as well as being an archbishop. Cardinal George Bell is neither a theologian or biblical scholar. he just gave the offical line on Catholic Docrine. Richard Dawkins is a professor arguing outside his own area of scientific speciality. All we had on monday evening was a verbal slash between two "fundamentalists". Such debates may amuse the public but they do not solve the misconceptions about belief and genuine science.

john ozanne | 11 April 2012  

Why does nobody mention the weakness of the theory that the universe spontaneously arose out of nothing? It is hard to imagine what nothing means, when there is no space and no time. I can't talk about a place or a time, so I'll call it a situation. Whatever it means, it can't be bounded (can it?) and so it must be infinite (whatever that means). And so anything that can arise spontaneously from nothing will arise / will have arisen an infinite number of times. I find the idea of an infinite god outside of time and space implausible. But the idea of an infinite number of universes (with an infinite subset of universes in which I have been born and lived and died) is more implausible, and so I believe in God.

Gavan Breen | 11 April 2012  

I watched Q&A with great anticipation, and was struck by the disrespectful, beligerent and arrogant manner in which Cardinal Pell conducted himself, and presented his "arguments". Neil Ormerod continues in this attitude of beligerent disrespect for the non-theistic world-view. Must be all those centuries of practice which organised religion has racked up. Late last year I was lucky enough to attend the Wheeler Centre Intelligence Squared debate at the Melbourne town hall, the topic of which was "Is the Catholic Church a force for good in society?" As with last Monday's Q&A, the result for the affirmative was roughly 30%, for the negative 70%. It was moderated in a "gentlemanly" manner, and everyone was "on their best behaviour". The speakers for the affirmative were clearly not up to the intellectual task,just as Cardinal Pell was not. Religious belief is clearly a matter of faith - precisely why it should not continue to assert its entitlement to unquestioned influence over society as a whole. Religious tradition is simply incompatable with egalitarian, inclusive 21st century society - it is inherently sexist, exclusive, hi erarchical and self-interested - all the qualities Christ himself reportedly denounces time and time again, right up until his crucifixion.

Michelle Goldsmith | 11 April 2012  

@ Loraine Parkinson As an atheist I am greatly heartened by your comment. My position was arrived at over many years, and not without confrontation, both internal and external. I have found my confrontational stance to have been softened over the past few years through friendships formed with similarly enightened ministers of the faith. At the end of the day, most of us are striving for the same goal - the betterment of humanity - albeit from opposing viewpoints. Engaging, genuine dialogue is surely the best way forward for all parties. Thank you for brightening my morning. You have contributed more in a few lines than Cardinal Pell has managed in years.

Heath Callaway | 11 April 2012  

Dear Toff, What on Earth is this "new mass" that you have been forced to accept???? I have yet to hear of it. You couldn't really believe that changing a couple of words here and there changes the Mass. Surely? If you truly believe that you require little further training in the discipline of being "lapsed".

john frawley | 11 April 2012  

It is a matter of considerable wonderment, John Frawley, that Oxford ever accepted many of the students who have found their way through its portals. The myth of the Oxford genius is an abiding matter for comedy, as you learn when reading novels about many of the people who went there. Never mind real life. Being clever at something in your twenties is no proof that you really know much or have any superior social skills. Likewise, what is the logic in thinking that just going to Oxford will improve a person’s knowledge and understanding? Often all it does is reinforce the person’s arrogance and sense that they are superior to the humdrum people they have to mix with the rest of the time. It might be unbecoming to read the discourtesies afforded the Cardinal, but they generally seem to be commensurate with the discourtesies he shows any number of good and hardworking people, including many Christians. The Cardinal is not an intellectual outcast. Hardly. He puts himself up as the last word, except for his friend the Bishop of Rome, who didn’t go to Oxford, poor chap. I know a number of people who passed an exam at Oxford, and they never got over it.

UNDERWHELMED | 11 April 2012  

"No wonder atheists get so frustrated"? That's a bit of a cheap shot if you ask me. If you mean frustrated at appalling scientific illiteracy, or frustrated that it only takes a few minutes of debate for the Hitler comparisons to start, then yes indeed they do. However atheists could mostly not care less how many people attend church. That hundreds of thousands of people need weekly reminders on how to be good to others is unfortunate, but the continuing search for scientific truth and logical reasoning to explain the happenings on our planet and in our universe is not a competition.

Mike | 11 April 2012  

Neil Ormerod you nearly made it a balanced review but fell at the second last fence "chest beating Atheists".

Brian pearson | 11 April 2012  

This was a very frustrating waste of opportunity...mainly on the part of the Cardinal. What a great opportunity missed to start the new-evangelisation. But he just did not have the words, or possibly even the understanding outside of medieval cliches, to explain the sacrements or redemption to a modern world in modern language.That was truly embarrassing and explains a lot about the mess the Church has gotten itself into, including the debacle of the current "translations"to Romish.Dawkins on the other hand, although generally pretty awful, did offer two things that Pell should have found common ground with: 1) that the creation of the universe/life is essentially "mystery"; 2) that science and evolution in themselves cannot/do not provide the values for a civilised society. The Cardinal started well on that, emphasising that Christianity uniquely brought its civilising force to the service of mankind 2000 years ago, but should have taken the opportunity of developing that further with Dawkins (where on earth did he get those values if not from us?).

Eugene | 11 April 2012  

Ho-hum.... The debate didn't appear very different to a typical QandA forum involving politicians squabbling over climate change/carbon tax. The only difference was there was no comedian to add some light relief and humour/humanise the debate.

AURELIUS | 11 April 2012  

Dawkins did not 'overstate the scientific evidence in claiming that evolution explains the origins of life' He said science has a pretty complete picture with a few gaps. The origin of life isn't contained in evolution but other scientific theories like the hydrothermal origin of life theory. Glossing over transubstanation probably benefited Pell who in the space of 30secs said he had told a child that the transformation does not occur, but that he believes it does. There was genuine concern in Pell's dealing with questions like why is there suffering, but no depth, saying he would have to ask God when he gets to heaven, or telling people 'yes your suffering but so did Jesus'. Responding to a question is not the same as answering. Dawkins raised a good point when Pell stated the tale of Adam and Eve was fictitious. If it is, where does original sin come from?

Brad | 11 April 2012  

The Genesis account of creation and fall is 'mythological', according to George Pell, which is nothing very new in theological terms, though Genesis itself is a scintillating explanation of newness. The Seven Days of Creation is a first warning in Scripture that we are not just reading a straightforward text the whole time. Fundamentalists and Atheists and Oh So Many Other Ists have to get over their instinctive compulsion to require truth to be literal. Not only is The Seven Days of Creation a poem, it is meant to be read as a poem. It is a poem singing up the reality it is thrillingly wanting to express. Like all great poems, there is the surface of the words, and then there is what is under and around and exploding out of the words: everything we can possibly imagine. Poems are restricted by form and structure, when what they want to say is tantamount to the whole kit and caboodle. The opening of Genesis is stuck on the structural number seven, which is a very fine indivisible prime number. It is also saying that even poets like God have to rest on the Sabbath. Some religious and scientific people remain fixated on the world being made in seven days when what they need to be doing is reading more poetry. I have a similar poetic understanding of that seemingly dry piece of dogma, the Creed. It’s not the words, but everything that the words imply that is so amazing and truly beautiful beyond words.

PHILIP HARVEY | 11 April 2012  

I felt as if I were watching one of the boxing bouts which used to take place in circus tents with, for example, the magnificent Joe Bugner displaying his skills against an even more aged opponent. On reflection, the Cardinal was not up Joe Bugner's standard and Professor Dawkins was not worth a fee to compete. The initial pictures showed them both looking jaded and lacking energy. Neither improved as the show went on. I hope both sides have better representatives than these to rather washed out warriors.

Gerard Costigan | 11 April 2012  

What a balanced and insightful commentary I thought Pell put up a good fight but I didn't want bully tactics but a discussion on some very complex areas. I wonder how it would have gone if Bishop Geoff or Bishop Bill or Bishop Bede or even our young intellectial Dominican Bishop from Parramatta was there instead of Pell. I think we would have seen an attempt at dialogue with Dawkins more controlled by the moderator.

leo kane | 11 April 2012  

I thought the Dawkins/Pell debate was going to be really interesting but after it was over decided it was a damp squib. Dawkins lost to Pell in the sense of humour stakes - in fact he looked really frustrated at times. I was a bit disappointed that sometimes the Cardinal waffled. As far as the statement made in the article above that the poll at the end of the night gave the debate to Dawkins - I would query that, as the poll question was put early in the night with some early results shown, and the numbers hadn't changed by the end of the program and the question was not about who won or lost.

Pat | 11 April 2012  

If you wanted to put someone up against Dawkins, Pell would be well down the list. He has no grasp of the basics. No wonder people are seeing through the big con and leaving in droves. His comment about Tim Flannery was Tony Abbottish!!!

richard bartley | 11 April 2012  

I saw Adam and Eve just this morning. They were arguing on the tram. Sometimes I see Adam when I look in the mirror. It’s not nice. Brad, the tale of Adam and Eve is not fictitious in the sense of something unbelievable and not to be treated seriously, it’s a fiction. By which I mean, it’s a story told to reveal the truth. When I go to watch The Lorax I know it’s a fiction, but the film is telling me something about the truth of human greed and ignorance, and that someone (me and you) has to do something about it. I don’t have to explain this to my young daughter after the film because I know what she will say: yeah Dad, I know, why are you telling me that? Where does original sin come from? If you believe there is original sin then you will make a story to help explain it, a fiction like Adam and Eve. Or The Lorax.

PHILIP HARVEY | 11 April 2012  

I tuned the TV in for a moment, heard Pell say something about homo sapiens evolving from Neanderthalers, and tuned out again.

Religion is a social phenomenon; its emergence and development are readily explicable at that level. Dawkins's neo-Darwinian focus on the individual replicator therefore cannot account for religion.

Neil Ormerod comments that evolution "... explains the variations and developments, but presupposes the existence of life." Evolution can and does hypothesise how life emerged as self-replicating processes, and therefore has no need to suppose pre-existence of life.

Regarding Pell's other excursions into the realm of science, I comment that if I were Satan, then I'd send my emissary, my anti-Christ, to earth to preach climate change Denialism.

This would exploit human capacities for greed and ignorance to overcome the human capacity for reason, thereby ensuring large-scale misery, despair and death. This emissary would also utilise the exclusionary closed-mindedness of conservative Christians to propagate this (pernicious) doctrine.

David Arthur | 11 April 2012  

I was disappointed with the 'debate'. Pell was a little disrespectful, Dawkins was a bit priggish and the questions were all over the shop. Perhaps it would have been better had the questions been well prepared and more to the nitty-gritty allowing for considered answers. There is no value in arguing about transubstantiation because unless you are Catholic you're on a losing side and probably many Catholics even do not really believe in this as a rational outcome of a consecration. I'm an ex Catholic and more atheistic (I breathed a sigh of relief to hear Pell say I could get to heaven though as I like to bet both sides) and really I just don't like the Catholic Church. Pell is too conservative and represents the boring over-religious side of religion (eg funerals are not allowed to be the celebration of the human life lived and lost but must be the ceremonious handing over the soul to God - sorry, but that lacks humanity and is very sterile and medieval).

I didn't like the 'my way or the highway' attitude Pell demanded from Catholic school principals a few years ago and what about his and the pope's attitude to ordaining women, the treatment of homosexuals and the rather wicked treatment of victims of abuse by priests and brothers? Perhaps there could have been someone better than Pell.

Joe | 11 April 2012  

"A mountain in labour shouted so loud that everyone, summoned by the noise, ran up expecting that she would be delivered of a city bigger than Paris; she brought forth a mouse."
With due apologies to Jean de la Fontaine may I paraphrase his immortal description of unfulfilled expectations.
The ABC and/or Tony Jones promoted the Dawkins/Pell Debate and/or Non-Theist v Theist Heavyweight Championship of Metaphysics so loudly that many people ran to their TVs expecting they would see a contest bigger than The Thriller in Manila: the ABC and/or Tony Jones produced A Giant Waffle.
But not to worry. The ratings were astronomical (by ABC standards).
Too bad if the show barely stimulated the intellectual/emotional/spiritual receptors of the viewers.

Uncle Pat | 11 April 2012  

Maybe once upon a time people like me who don't believe in the humbug of any religion could be cast into dungeons but not any more.

It's all been proven to be the greatest hoax perpetuated on stupid people for thousands of years and there is not a skerrick of evidence.

Like the jewish passover and the non-exist wandering the Sinai for 40 days, the impossible virgin birth and rising from the dead.

It's just plain nuttery.

Marilyn Shepherd | 11 April 2012  

It was a very lacklustre event. I was looking forward to it but came away very disappointed. Dawkins the Atheist is also Dawkins a very well respected man of science and letters. It's a pity Cardinal Pell hadn't read Dawkins' more recent publication, "The Greatest Show on Earth" which deals with evolution in a most informative and believable manner. In the end, the debate got off the rails and became, to a large extent, a critique on Catholic Dogma. The ABC and Tony Jones (not to mention Dawkins and Pell) could have (should have) structured and presented this event vastly better than they did.

John A | 11 April 2012  

Ormerod: "He [Pell] did well however in making it clear that atheists could definitely 'go to heaven' and that Catholics need have no problem with evolution, suggesting that the Genesis account of creation and fall is 'mythological'."

Pell's theology was welcome news to me; especially his expressed hope, while there was a Hell, that nobody was in it. I join him in that fervent hope, the more so since I think that this non-place, with no clients in it, is also non-existent.

I used to be an Anglican, but was continually frustrated by the idea of Original Sin. Just what was it? If one took Genesis literally, which it seemed to me the Christian had no alternative but to do, all of the suffering and evil in the world tracked back to one event: the eating of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. But what did that mean? The literal eating of an apple (that God was saving for jam? h/t Brian James.) Childish disobedience? To this day I have never been able to find out except in the most abstruse formulations. And if it was paid for in all the famines, wars, pogroms, exterminations, tortures and afflictions of human history, I do not think justice has been done. Justice has been vastly, vastly 'overdone'.

But then God made recompense. He had himself born as Joshua bar Joseph (aka Jesus Christ), had himself crucified as a human sacrifice to himself as God the Father, and thus paid for all past and future sins of everyone. Justice was done at last!

Well if you swallow that, you'll swallow anything.

Ormerod again: "Dawkins on the other hand failed to see the limitations of claims to explain the universe from 'nothing', promoted by recent writings by Lawrence Krauss. Like many scientists Dawkins and Krauss have no conception of a distinction between physics and metaphysics. Further, Dawkins' account of Krauss' position was as garbled and hand-wavy as you could get. Clearly not his area of expertise!"

Actually, Dawkins happily admitted that the Big Bang was not his area of expertise, and that he looked forward to further developments from physicists like Krauss, who was one of many working in the area. How space, time, matter and energy can come from nothing is a problem for physicists. But not for theologians. They are locked as gravel in concrete into their various interpretaions of Genesis 1; of various 'hand-waviness' and obscure profundity.

"Dawkins went on to overstate the scientific evidence in claiming that evolution explains the origins of life. It explains the variations and developments, but presupposes the existence of life."

Dawkins actually corrected Pell when the latter repeated a common misunderstanding: that evolution rests on pure randomness. Dawkins stated, quite rightly that evolution rests on the combination of random mutation and non-random selection.

Nor does evolution presuppose the existence of life. Random mutation and natural selection can proceed right down to the extra-cellular and molecular level.

O. Puhleez | 11 April 2012  

Great to read someting by Neil Ormerod I recall his article "When Ministers Sin", and had a strong voice for non-religious women caught up with clergy.
Pell lost me years ago, when claiming the importance of fathers', but placed obstacles in the way of clergy who sought to be fathers to their own.

L.Newington | 11 April 2012  

Worth reading for the comments of Philip Harvey - a breath of fresh air! As the 'debate' proceeded I changed my mind and was actually glad that Stephen Crittenden was not in the chair. He would have made something of it, but really it was not in his class.

Julia | 11 April 2012  

After viewing Q & A I believe that what could have been an intellligent and fruitful discussion was more akin to a football match. I also viewed the discussion between Rowan Williams and Richard Dawkins, which took place in Oxford in Febuary "The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin" Apart from being respectful I found this intellectually and spiritually stimulating and uplifting, and illuminating in respect to both positions - it was catholic in the truest sense of the word and it made the most of the opportunity to throw the spotlight on some very important and perplexing issues of existence. Q & A did not do justice to their opportunity for something similar and much needed in today's society.

John Whitehead | 11 April 2012  

You can't be serious guys! His Eminence did a top job ripping the insides out of Dawkins compost of agnostic atheism ------------------------------------ [NB FRJG annotations to partial abc transcript added below, in bracketed lower case.] ====================================== "RICHARD DAWKINS: You can dispute exactly what is meant by nothing but whatever it is it’s very, very simple. (AUDIENCE LAUGH) [FRJG:"they intuit Dawks silly pseudo sophistry"] RICHARD DAWKINS:[FRJG NOTES:"RD descends into sheer paranoid hypersensitivity"] Why is that funny?[exclaims RD] GEORGE PELL: Well, I think it’s a bit funny to be trying to define nothing. ------------------------------------ [frjg:"His Eminence by most adroit use of understated sang froid wit and incisive insight exposes everything Dawkins rests his 'atheism' ETC on= N-O-T-H--I-N-G-" --------------------------------------- RICHARD DAWKINS: I take...[FRJG:"Dawks flustered,beside himself"] ====================================== frjg:"RD discusses[ELSEWHERE IN TRANSCRIPT] the origins of all as best explained, he thinks, by matter and anti matter[if the latter is 'something' [SIC then it itself needs ultimate causality [even if material energy: magnetic micro force or such];if that is nothing but mere scientific mental construct, then it is mere figment of imagination with no basis in reality, and if such, antimatter is nothing and thus forget it[hardly worth constructing a platform for atheism /agnosticism let alone a psteriori theism. Any wonder RD cops out by referring to someone else who has dealt with this, cos sure as helL he cant handle it!!!! The dawks waffle continued viz just as matter can produce nothing=anti matter[in fact that is one hell of a gratuitous unproven assumption viz the apparent absence of visible or quantifiable matter leaves nothing how about oxygen or is there some other composite matter not yet discovered, where we once thought there was absolute nothingness [The Neo Scholastics used to call this impermeable invisible seeming nothingness HYPOTHETICAL 'Ether[but let modern science keep trying versus mere mental constructs versus sheer nothingness"] The neo scholastics used the philosophical hypothesis for other probs relatedtonotion of place andlocation in philosopical cosmology Dawks then suggests if matter correlates with antimatter[a sorta kinda nuffin then why not vice versa antimatter sorta nuffin creates matter presto! humbug!-as the anti matter is not physically established as reality[mere mental construct=nothing so Dawkins has absolutely no foundation for any of his theist/agnostic/atheist hybrid weltenschaung

Father John Michael George | 12 April 2012  

"Trying to get a scientist to understand the difference between physics and metaphysics is not an easy task" The difference is actually quite clear to a scientist - physics is based on evidence gathered through the scientific method while metaphysics is made up and has no apparent basis in reality. Metaphysics is ill-defined and undemonstrated. You could substitute the word "magic" in its place in any argument and the substance of the argument would remain unchanged.

John D. | 12 April 2012  

O.Puhleez thought in a younger incarnation that one had to take Genesis literally, and it seemed to O. the Christian had no alternative but to do so. Where does this assumption come from? The imagination is a gift and learning how to use it is a lifetime’s business. We don’t take the parables of Jesus to be literal: from an early age we grasp that parables are a means to saying something more important about existence and ourselves in the world. So how come we cannot treat large parts of Genesis in the same way? No intelligent person today believes that Adam and Eve was a once-off event, but that doesn’t make it irrelevant. One can take a lifetime pondering Adam and Eve. What is the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? We know that human evolution started out in the world and that gardens came later, but in this story we find ourselves in a garden and are then expelled into the world. (Gardens started in Persia and, more famously, in Babylon) John Milton was not the first or last person to see that we are talking about paradise. For all us, paradise is of supreme value, and we don’t want to lose it. But we do lose it, and when we do we ask, why? And how do we recover paradise? One answer is found in the parable storyline of the Passion. Human beings have analogical imaginations, but it’s not me who first said that.

PHILIP HARVEY | 12 April 2012  

! Greg Sheridan's column in today's Australian is considered and balanced and praises the cardinal's performance as outstanding. All you who hate him should read it and then take a Bex, have a cup of tea and then a long lie down.

John of Canberra | 12 April 2012  

Marilyn Shepherd seems to think that once upon a time people who didn't believe in any religion could be cast into dungeons, but not any more. My impression is that all too often it has been the people who did follow a religion who were the ones thrown into dungeons, the last century being a particularly gruesome period in this regard. She also seems to believe that religion has all been proven to be the greatest hoax perpetuated on stupid people for thousands of years. It seems hard to ascertain exactly when or how this was ‘proven’. Marilyn seems to think there is not a skerrick of evidence for religious claims, but I have to say when I gaze upon the whole mighty creation of the universe before my eyes, that’s a lot of evidence. When it comes to Christianity in particular, I find skerricks of evidence of unconditional love being doshed out in all directions. Passovers and Resurrections seem to be tied up with this unconditional love business, for some strange reason that I don’t always fully understand myself. If unconditional love is nutty, then take me to the nuthouse.

PHILIP HARVEY | 12 April 2012  

I got something positive out of the so-called debate. Cardinal Pell believes that the Bible uses figurative language to convery theological truth. The story of Adam and Eve is a myth ie it is a narrative created by a tribe/a nation to pass on the principles which underpin the existence and development of the tribe/nation. How the human race began was a question beyond the ken of the tribe/nation in millenia past. So they imagined what might have happened based on their own creative experiences - drawing, painting, sculpting, planting, reaping etc. Today scientists on the basis of pre-historic evidence see evolution as a plausible explanation. Two more important questions were (and still are): Why do bad things happen? Why do people do bad things? Again working back from their own experience (in their social/familial/tribal relations) the ancient tribes created myths that illustrated the mysterious fact that human beings were flawed; that the world/the universe was magnificent but dangerous. If I understand Cardinal Pell aright the whole of human history cannot be explained by the original fault freely committed by our first parents. Human history is the story of flawed people in an awe-inspiring and sometimes injurious universe.

Uncle Pat | 12 April 2012  

I believe the ridicule that Prof Dawkins got when he tried to talk "of nothing" was unfair and unconstructive and that allowance should have been made for the subject to have been expanded upon. The Big Bang theory - as it is now known thanks to Fred Hoyle, was first proposed in 1931 in a scientific paper by Georges Lemaitre, Belgian cosmologist and catholic priest - the universe started (we now know 13.7 billion yrs ago) as a small particle. We now know more - Stephen Hawking and co scientists have now refined that size to about the size of a sub atomic particle, a proton. The idea of creation from nothing comes close to the spirit of the creation 'ex nihilo' of Christian doctrine, and until recently belonged solely to the province of religion. The possibility that all cosmic matter and energy might appear spontaneously as a result of purely physical processes would have been regarded as utterly untenable by scientists a few decades ago. This was what Dawkins was attempting to address, although I realise it was not his main area of expertise. There is often a common held misconception about the 'Big Bang' for want of a better name. Prof Paul Davies, physicist/cosmologist/philosopher/writer, points this out in his book Superforce, that this explosion did not occur in a pre existing void, as we would imagine a normal explosion to do. According to physicist & cosmologist Alan Guth and co scientists, it was an inflationary scenario, a very special explosion - of the inflation of space and time, and still continues. Interestingly, although 'space time' as it is correctly termed cannot be traversed faster than the speed of light, it is believed by scientists that beyond the cosmic horizon the universe is actually expanding faster than this relative to us. I note that Prof Paul Davies once referred to 'a universe out of nothing' as 'the one free lunch'. On the same theme, Pope John 2nd - a man of great faith and reason during his time stated in a book of reflections that "Creation not only signifies calling from nothing into existance and establishing the existance of the world and man in the world, but it also means according to the first story, beresit bara - 'donation,' a fundamental, radical giving, that is to say, a giving wherein the gift arises exactly from nothing."

John Whitehead | 12 April 2012  

Anaïs Nin wrote that “We don't see things as they are. We see them as we are.” That observation helps me as I try to understand the different responses and reactions to Monday's Q @ A. I am glad that Noel pointed us in the direction of the Oxford debate involving Rowan Williams, Richard Dawkins and Anthony Kenny where three intelligent and respectful people held a helpful discussion that was not so much about them as about the ideas that matter so much to them. It gave us something to take away. There was also a sensible audience who came to listen and engage in a thoughtful manner. All this seemed to be lacking in the Q @ A. I hardly ever watch it and I wish I hadn't put myself through it on Monday evening.

Frank Sheehan | 12 April 2012  

I wonder if Neil Omerod and I were watching the same programme - "Q & A" - on Monday evening. I found Cardinal Pell weak and limp. Knowing his forceful opinions, many of which I disagree with, I expected much more. Dawkins was, to me, much better in his responses to questions. However, the questions themselves were very weak, leaving not a great deal of scope for depth in answers. Tony Jones, himself, appeared bored and longing for the show to come to an end. I wasn't surprised at the end that the verdict was about 70+% for atheism and less than 30% for Christianity. What a lost opportunity.

Dr Judith M. Woodward | 12 April 2012  

PHILIP HARVEY (12 Apr) "... We don’t take the parables of Jesus to be literal: from an early age we grasp that parables are a means to saying something more important about existence and ourselves in the world. So how come we cannot treat large parts of Genesis in the same way? No intelligent person today believes that Adam and Eve was a once-off event, but that doesn’t make it irrelevant. One can take a lifetime pondering Adam and Eve. What is the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? We know that human evolution started out in the world and that gardens came later, but in this story we find ourselves in a garden and are then expelled into the world. (Gardens started in Persia and, more famously, in Babylon)..." (etc) This confirms that the modern Catholic interpretation of the Bible is pretty well 'anything goes!' Cardinal Pell certainly gave me that impression. I particularly liked the bit about atheists being able to get into Heaven (I assume as we are, without redemption or Purgatory. Hope for us yet who have used our (God-given?) critical faculties a bit too much. Times have certainly changed. BTW that noise you can hear is not the underground railway, but departed evangelical parsons thumping about in their graves. If I were to return to Christianity it would be as a fundamentalist. Otherwise Christianity is no different from Postmodernism, where all is relative and anything is as good and valid as anything else.

O. Puhleez | 12 April 2012  

In my recent comment a misprint seems to have occurred which I wish to correct. Towards the end of my comment it states Pope John 2nd - who a man of great faith and reason. This is meant to be Pope John Paul the second.

John Whitehead | 12 April 2012  

Neil Ormerod could mention that the position of Cardinal Pell in no way undermines defined Catholic Dogma on Original Sin, nor defined propagation of Original Sin to mankind, being of course the reason the Second Adam died on the Cross to redeem man from inherited Original Sin and personal sin His Eminences position is to be understood acording to Analogy of faith[original sin of course not being a mere psycho-social fall out! but having most serious implications on the level of grace[no sanctifying grace versus mere ['dis']grace reductionisms [a theme of Neils earlier book] addendum: ANALOGY OF FAITH The Catholic doctrine that every individual statement of belief must be understood in the light of the Church's whole objective body of faith.

Father John Michael George | 12 April 2012  

The commentry is correct, it was a spectacuular failure of the meeting of minds! It also demonstrates how materialist and metaphysical discourse cannot be reconciled. \their epistemic foundations are opposed. \There is only one philosphical tradition which enables that tp happen and it is coherentism. ;.

John Collard | 13 April 2012  

I liked this article up until "'no-one won, they both lost'". One must remember before boasting about the suport that catholicism has from the crowds that it is those same crowds who once opposed African American civil rights, who slaughtered countless indigenous races and who, in fact, stood by during Christ's crucifiction shouting for his blood. Validity of arguement and experiential truth are the grounds this debate should rely upon because I for one see no credulity in the opinion of the crowds.

Lachlan O'Connor | 13 April 2012  

I refused to watch. If I want mixed martial arts, I'll watch some boys with six-packs.

Penelope | 13 April 2012  

Hello O. Puhleez. Who said anything about my approach to the Bible being representative of “modern Catholic interpretation”? I’m not saying that. My understanding of modern Catholic interpretation is that it is certainly much more flexible than it was one hundred years ago, but hardly 'anything goes'. It’s not even clear to me how you arrived at the idea that my blog was a call to ‘anything goes’; it isn’t. Cardinal Pell’s remarks about the Jews in history have caused a stir in recent days. What upsets me is that he reveals how very limited his understanding is of the centrality of the People of Israel to the grand narrative of Scripture. I wouldn’t subscribe to anything he said on that subject, at all. To refer to the “little Jewish people” and say that Jews were not the intellectual equals of the Persians and Egyptians is not only crass and insulting, it shows that he has lost sight of the fact that the House of Israel is pivotal to our understanding of most of Scripture. I have no idea, O., who will go to heaven and who will not, it’s not my position to say. Somedays though I am drawn to the positive side of Origenism, I confess, but maybe that’s just my nature. Christianity is very different from Postmodernism, indeed if you read someone like Zizek he thinks that Christianity is virtually the only thing left that can still stand up to rampant postmodern relativism. Zizek is worth watching. My main caution, O., is that it would be unwise for you to return to Christianity as a fundamentalist. Not a good move, and it has to be observed how many of the Atheists in this debate were taught well by their Christian evangelical mentors not to listen to anyone else and just carry on with the same old message. You’re different, you listen. Thanks for listening, O.

PHILIP HARVEY | 13 April 2012  

Whilst I enjoyed reading this article and watching the debate, I would like to question Neil's comment that hundreds of thousands attend religious services each week, this is not true and is part of the problem and why atheists are being listened to. The religious dogma and gobbledygook no longer speaks to those who seek relationshiip with God.

Julie ottobre | 13 April 2012  

Julie Qttobre infallibly dogmatically decrees "religious dogma and gobbledygook no longer speaks to those who seek relationship with God."

Such catholic dogma may speak clearly to your elusive 'those' but as with Jesus there were numerous people for myriad motives who turned away from his dogmatics and crucified Him.

Furthermore I would like to see your global scientific survey on numerous possible motives for eg undestanding dogma but turning away[including survey dependent and independent variables.[eg age,ethnic/educational background, religious or atheist/agnostic background etc.

No doubt you globally surveyed the above before your 'infallible decree'

No need to survey vague term 'gobbledygook', a loaded term bristling, with researchers projected prejudice, and unworthy of rigorous, scientific,objective, research!

Father John Michael George | 14 April 2012  

Frank Brennan would have been a far better choice than Pell. He is an intelligent, thoughtful theologian and is used to debating and not simply delivering homolies to those presumably already converted.

Maureen Strazzari | 14 April 2012  

Julie Ottobre treads thin ice by rejecting the simple statement that hundreds of thousands attend religious services each week in Australia. Contrary to what Julie thinks, this is in fact true. Not that anyone hears or reads what those people think, because they are not interested in getting into overheated arguments with people who don’t understand what they believe and who waste their time ridiculing their faith. Most of the Christians I know haven’t the time to get into silly jousts of the kind we saw last Monday, they have a grounded faith that won’t be left open to the sort of glib generalisations and putdowns of frustrated Atheists.

It is also quite fallacious to say that this is why Atheists are being listened to. It is my impression that Atheists seem to hold a variety of beliefs as different and sometimes strange as any other religious groups. Many of them are very serious and those ones often keep right away from Atheists Conventions. Many others have such uninformed ideas about religion that you wonder if they have ever had any real encounter with religion itself. I would go so far as to say that many of the Atheists we hear in the media come from religious backgrounds, and this is why they argue: they are having an argument with the Christianity that has let them down.

Of course, if the media gave as much space to real Christianity in Australia as it does to church scandals, weirdo fringe groups and atheism, then the picture would be very different and a lot closer to the reality of contemporary Australia. You never hear much about what is really going on in churches if you read the media.The media is filled with the opinions of journalists. Need I say anymore?

THE GOOD WEEKEND | 14 April 2012  

Dawkins actually has a great understanding of philosophy, and a great sense of humor. This was not Dawkins at his best, but when the audience is laughing at genuine scientific questions, it is hard to communicate your point.

Pell's first argument was an attempt to claim that all the progress achieved by the liberalism movement during and following the enlightenment was due to the church, when the church was the main opposition to this movement. This was indicative of his later arguments. His lack of scientific knowledge was depressing.

Tyson Buzza | 15 April 2012  

Dawkins is not really sure if he is an atheist or an agnostic. If he is so uncertain abut who he is, how can he be so sure whether God is a delusion? He probably needs to apply the scientific principle he uses to describe God being a delusion on himself. Am I being delusional in suggesting this?

Dominic Savio | 17 April 2012  

The clear-cut, dogmatic, vengeful God presented and believed in by the most visible of organised religion is certainly a delusion, so Dawkins is certainly correct on that point and he actually pushes true believers towards God's truth rather than away from it. If we'd only listen to a contemplative-style Christian in the mode of Thomas Merton, for example, this whole debate would be pointless, and the Mertons amongst us would be too busy enjoying the fruits of God's unspoken wisdom that the be arguing with deocrats and anti-deocrats.

AURELIUS | 17 April 2012  

Dominic Savio your allusion to dawkin delusion far from being illusion merely underlines his utter confusion-but dont laugh, beware the scathing Dawks retort "Why is that funny?" Personally I think him a latter day gnostic. Only he understanding the gnosis, or "secret". of whether there is a god; and if no god, whether he believes in one[negative hallucination] or settles, at best, for an agnostics paranoid possible projection onto the numinous. [but I beg you dont laugh,he is serious; gravity adding to the delusion of his watertight illusion],

Father John Michael George | 17 April 2012  

Some of the rants by so-called believers commenting here makes one wonder how much faith they actually have in God and why Dawkins is such a threat to them that that need to obsess with such analysis of every word he utters. It's a pity they didn't take more notice or Jesus' words.

AURELIUS | 17 April 2012  

Aurelius! Jesus said "The Truth will set you free". Meanwhile Dawks is back there with Magdalenian cavemen trying to define 'nothin'[the threat of a flea to an elephant]. To quote Cromagnon Man "Now why is that fumy?"

Father John Michael George | 17 April 2012  

What clear-cut, dogmatic, vengeful God are you talking about, Aurelius? In this whole debate there is nothing more problematic than the assertion made that this is God, most revealingly when asserted by Atheists. No wonder Atheists don’t want God if that is what God means to them. As someone who has followed in close proximity to the most visible of organised religions for decades at a time, I have yet in anything I have heard or seen or experienced in church or anywhere come across this clear-cut, dogmatic, vengeful God. No one follows such a God in the church I go to, it's an absurdity. This is certainly not the God revealed by the human we worship who are part of the most visible of organised religions. So what are you getting at?

UNDERWHELMED | 17 April 2012  

OVERWHELMED, maybe you should leave your utopian bubble of Christian experience, step outside that and see the "Christian" experience many others inside and outside churches have experienced. Maybe you should be preaching to the converted so that they too are converted to your true and loving version of Christianity rather than the fundamentalist Christianity that screams the loudest. (And by 'fundamentalist' I don't mean the foundations set down by Jesus but by divisive political groups)

AURELIUS | 18 April 2012  

Aurelius counsels thinking outside the bubble and joining his 'cult'

Father John Michael George | 18 April 2012  

A curious thing about blog conversations is how we judge others solely on the evidence of what we think they mean in the blog, not everything else they might think. A conversation between people called Underwhelmed and Aurelius doesn’t clarify the situation much either. One of the most challenging facts about Christianity is that it is made up of people who call themselves Christians. They include the best and sometimes amongst the worst that humanity has on offer. It is quite obvious, Aurelius, from where I am sitting that you have no idea who you are talking to or the extent of my views on Christianity. The "Christian" experience, as you put it, that many others inside and outside churches have experienced is all too familiar to me. The Gospels themselves are full of stories about people stuffing it up and getting it wrong. But that doesn’t stop me from trying myself to understand more fully what is really being revealed in the Gospels. I heard a sermon last Sunday in which the preacher said we must propose our religion, not impose it; I happen to agree with that position. It is a position that is not utopian and not fundamentalist. Over to you!

UNDERWHELMED | 19 April 2012  

The ABC Q&A program is anti-intellectual and nothing more than trivial and celebrity nonsense. People such as Cardinal George Pell and Richard Dawkins are only interested in their own egotistical self-indulgent opinions and cannot engage in respectful discourse. Some of the 'submitted comments' demonstrate a desire for genuine intellectual debate, but unfortunately most of the mainstream electronic and print media are incapable of doing so. Genuine intellectual robust debate can only be experienced at sessions held at the various Writers' Festivals and the Wheeler Centre. I think that any debate about belief in god and atheism is meaningless, because god is indefinable. I believe that believers in god and atheists have similar philosophical beliefs for living in a pluralist multicultural society as well as similar moral and ethical standards. The only difference is that believers in god have a community to share their beliefs and way of life; this community is usually religious or spiritual, such as one of the religions of christianity, islam, buddism etc. or spiritual groups such as the unitarian church or the quakers. I suspect that atheists would like a similar formal community group as well, which was the purpose of Alain De Bouton's recent book.

Mark Doyle | 19 April 2012  

To UNDERWHELMED: I am actually envious that you are in a situation where you can grapple with the challenges of Christianity WITHIN a faith community. My reality is very different and I don't pretend to have any answers and my responses on this blog arise more from frustration rather than desire to judge or dismiss views of others.
Despite a deep interest and passion, I'm almost convinced that the traditional way of being a christian through belonging to a faith community is almost impossible.
When you take into account the demands of work, keeping a roof over your head and trying to fit in a little bit of time for R@R (recreation and religion), and compounded by the fact that 100% of the people around me at work, neighbourhood and scarce social circle - and either indifferent to religion or openly hostile to it.

I don't think just going to Mass on a Sunday, to a church I have no connection with, sitting in the pews without knowing anyone and with no real opportunity to meet anyone, taking communion and then returning back home is what it means to be a Practicing Catholic/Christian.

AURELIUS | 19 April 2012  

Mr Doyle fear not! Atheists have never been short of support groups[from Nazi 3rd Reich,[pace Godwin Rule ] to atheist state of Albania and Romania[ facilitated by Nicolai Ceausescu,] till his untimely execution/assassination in 1989.

Add Soviet Empire support groups:CHEKA, NKVD, MVD, and KGB with group-facilitators Josip Stalin,Lavrentiy Beria providing hands on support and touch therapy for card carrying atheists and share 'one on one' for others as well.

And Red China has numerous support enclaves; and your best mate Dawks had to rush off to an atheist support conference in Sydney!

Father John Michael George | 19 April 2012  

What if we find out that the universe-cosmos doesn't have a beginning? It is simply as it is and as it will always be. Would this then become our idea of god? Only we humans are aware that we have a beginning and an end, and how we struggle with it. Could we, when we become ancestry after a billion more years or so, come to represent angels, demons, saints, and demi-gods who once lived on our little blue planet? I sometimes think we as humanity are barely out of the starting blocks. I cannot get my head around nothingness and infinity, and in lay terms a zillion years and more from now, and a zillion years and more to back then. I'm just too puny.

Bede | 20 April 2012  

Bede,Saint Thomas Aquinas held to possibility only of an eternal creation but to explain with sufficient reason its eternal existence such demands an eternal creator versus something eternally coming from PERENNIAL nothing Aquinas preferred a rigorous logic from the world around deriving not from nothing but from an ultimate uncaused cause;an unmoved first mover; a necessary being to explain contingent beings;a perfect being at the summit of lower graded beings and an ultimate designer of an order in creation All versus something coming from nothing. True only humans worry about ultimate causalities. Is Bede suggesting unicellular paramecium have it right?[ask no questions;get no answers] As for demons etc being antiquated humans.Now that's a quantum leap beats humans being reincarnated as antiquated demons I guess.[though there are better explanations of demons than another Piltdown fraud with latent horns ] Humans not out of starting blocks? Aquinas got gold for his record 'five ways' cross country!!!!

Father John Michael George | 20 April 2012  

Thank you Aurelius for your considered reply. It deserves respect. You address a very big question in Christianity. A community of faith would seem essential to the sensible and inspired living of the Gospel, but what if people cannot find a community of faith? I think living in a community of faith is possible, it must be, but sometimes this might mean having to travel some distance in time and personal journey. I agree, life is about the roof over your head &c., it all just goes on, but I am always arrested by the saying that the son of man has nowhere to lay his head. This challenges our easy ideas about a lack of faith community, or that religion can be thought of in the same way as recreation. We are definitely being told to do something about our situation and not be complacent. Bede inspires some words too. There is nothing we can do about the universe-cosmos. The vision seriously intends to stay. I too at times think we as humanity are barely out of the starting blocks, but this is not useful much when most of us have only 90 years tops on the blue planet. I find it arresting that Christianity never rejects your infinity zillion years theory, but does question your ‘I'm just too puny’ theory. Jesus seems always to leave open the possibility for change in any of us. He is emphatic about self-worth, i.e. we’re not puny, we’re ourselves in time and space, all of time and space. He tells us not to worry and to become more self-aware.

UNDERWHELMED | 20 April 2012  

Usually the people who advise others that life is not just about having a roof over your head ("son of man has nowhere to lay his head") are they ones who already have a reasonably comfortable existence, and they have the privilege of indulging in the delights of contemplation. I'm not really saying religion is recreation, but the middle class attitude of faith communities is not very open to the poor and lowly struggling to survive. Some very good church communities I know have great social justice intentions with ministries to the homeless - but I do think they are really throwing their scraps under the table and don't regard them as part of their community.

AURELIUS | 21 April 2012  

Contemplation is not an indulgence. A community of faith is not “a middle class attitude.” The Jesus saying that the "son of man has nowhere to lay his head" is not a piece of advice.

UNDERWHELMED | 25 April 2012  

I'm puzzled by your idea that Abp Williams is more of a "genuine scholar" than Cd Pell. Whether judged by formal academic qualifications or by their public statements, Cd Pell is streets ahead. Dawkins seemed to be floundering way out of his depth. Pell clearly won the "argument" such as it was, but for some strange reason he kept uncharacteristically pulling his punches every time he had Dawkins "down for the count"; perhaps overly fearful of being portrayed as an intellectual bully.

Peter Kennedy | 03 May 2012  

The best unspoken words had not been spoken. For had they been spoken, they would no longer be the best unspoken words - in other words, there are simply certain things that aren't debatable. It's like comparing a stone to an eye.

Myra | 03 May 2012  

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  • Frank Brennan
  • 16 April 2012

His proposed amendment to the Migration Act is designed to remove the peg on which the High Court hung the Malaysia solution out to dry. It is a convoluted means for allowing the executive government to declare an offshore processing country without meaningful scrutiny by Parliament or the High Court.