Easter, Q&A, Dawkins, and Jesus

Did you hear the one about the Cardinal and the Evolutionary biologist? Or at least watch Australia’s highest ranking Catholic, George Pell, take on Richard Dawkins on the ABC’s flagship “new media” panel program Q&A, on Monday night in an Easter extravaganza?

You can watch it in full here…

It was a train wreck. Talking too much about where Pell went wrong wouldn’t be conducive to keeping my promise not to debate atheists online, at least atheists I don’t know personally. But Pell was awful. In my humble opinion. The only saving grace of the night was that Dawkins wasn’t much better, and my conversations with non-Christian friends afterwards, both on Facebook and in the real world, confirm that his brand of intolerant fundamentalism is every bit as on the nose as Christianity.

Despite giving up visiting atheist blogs and forums to engage in what I would like to call “winsome trolling” – where you keep a conversation going, but as pleasantly as possible, as “tolerant” as possible, as genuinely inquisitive as possible, and as focused on Jesus as possible – I have some experience arguing with people who adhere closely to Mr Dawkins views, with a more than liberal smattering of those advocated by the late Mr Hitchens, and messers Dennett and Harris. By my calculation I’ve spend hundreds of hours engaged in such debates, either at the keyboard, posting here, speaking to others in person, or ruminating about the conversation I’m currently engaged in while I go about my daily business. I’m a fairly experienced amateur. But I’m an amateur no less. Pell. Arguably. Is a professional. At least that’s why he was presented to us on Monday night. And yet. Almost immediately. He became tangled in several follies of, well, any form of argument/debate, let alone an argument or debate that is televised to a national audience.

In some moments he was sneering, in others pompous, in others snide, in others confused, in others doddery, in others he danced around a question without going near providing an answer, and every five minutes he trotted out a reference to Hitler. In short he was neither convincing or winsome. His theology was jelly-nailed-to-mast stuff. One minute he said he hoped hell existed because Hitler’s evil required it, on the other hand he said he hoped nobody was there, then he said that atheists would end up in heaven if they did good – thus defeating himself. Why would one sign up for a life of self denial if the outcome is unchanged. Pell said himself (and I agree) that an atheist can do good. What he didn’t say was that any “good” act is the result of humanity being created in the image of God, and that none of it has any merit so far as our relationship with God is concerned (the former is consistent with a Catholic understanding of human nature, the latter is pretty much the root cause of the Reformation and non-Catholic Christianity).

I wasn’t expecting to agree with much of what Pell said theologically – but I was hoping that as a guy wearing our colours, and claiming to own Christ, he’d at the very least be loving and winsome, and treat his opponent with respect. Instead, he spend time strawmanning Dawkins, engaging in logical fallacies, playing the man not the argument, misunderstanding the science he was claiming to promote, and generally not talking about Jesus – except after he’d confused everybody by talking about ancient Greek metaphysics (particularly Platonism), while trying to explain what goes on with the wafers when Catholics take communion (transubstantiation).

At one point, when Tony Jones asked him where he’d draw a line on what is “myth” and what is “truth” in the Bible, or rather historical truth, citing the example of God writing the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, Pell flat out denied that the Bible says God wrote the commandments down.

Here’s a little bit from the transcript:

“TONY JONES: So are you talking about a kind of Garden of Eden scenario with an actual Adam and Eve?

GEORGE PELL: Well, Adam and Eve are terms – what do they mean: life and earth. It’s like every man. That’s a beautiful, sophisticated, mythological account. It’s not science but it’s there to tell us two or three things. First of all that God created the world and the universe. Secondly, that the key to the whole of universe, the really significant thing, are humans and, thirdly, it is a very sophisticated mythology to try to explain the evil and suffering in the world.

TONY JONES: But it isn’t a literal truth. You shouldn’t see it in any way as being an historical or literal truth?

GEORGE PELL: It’s certainly not a scientific truth and it’s a religious story told for religious purposes.

TONY JONES: Just quickly, because the Old Testament in particular is full of these kind of stories, I mean is there a point where you distinguish between metaphor and reality? For example, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments inscribed directly by God on a mountain?

GEORGE PELL: I’m not sure that the Old Testament says that God inscribed the Ten Commandments but leaving that aside it’s difficult to know how exactly that worked but Moses was a great man. There was a great encounter with the divine. Actually, with Moses we get the key that enables us to come together with the Greeks with reason because Moses said who will I tell the Egyptians and he tell that my name is “I am who I am”.”

Perhaps he’s not familiar with chapters 31-34 of Exodus…

Exodus 31:18 When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God…

32:15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.”

The other thing he kept doing, that really irked me, was presenting the Catholic theological position as the “Christian” position, rather than the position of his own tradition.

MATTHEW THOMPSON: I am an atheist. What do you think will happen when I die and how do you know?

TONY JONES: George Pell, we’ll start with you? You ought to be an authority on this, I imagine?

GEORGE PELL: Well, I know from the Christian point of view, God loves everybody but every genuine motion towards the truth is a motion towards God and when an atheist dies, like everybody else, they will be judged on the extent to which they have moved towards goodness and truth and beauty but in the Christian view, God loves everyone except those who turn his back turn their back on him through evil acts.

Sadly that is not the “Christian” point of view, but a disputed point where Catholics and Protestants disagree.

It was. In short. A train wreck.

Here are some of my favourite tweets from/in response to the night that pretty much sum up what I’m thinking…

Jesus got 8 mentions in the program, by name, he was obliquely referred to in a couple of Pell’s quotes. One was from a questioner, one was from Tony Jones, three were from Dawkins.

Here’s the best description of the gospel from the night.

“…the fundamental idea of New Testament Christianity, which is that Jesus is the son of God who is redeeming humanity from original sin, the idea that we are born in sin and the only way we can be redeemed from sin is through the death of Jesus…”

And it’s from Richard Dawkins. Who is dismissing it. Dawkins is clearer on the gospel he’s rejecting than Pell is on the gospel he’s promoting.

Two mentions were in a segment where Pell suggested that the Jews were culturally inferior to the other civilisations of their time.

“TONY JONES: I’m sorry, can I just interrupt? Are you including Jesus in that, who was obviously Jewish and was of that community?

GEORGE PELL: Exactly.

TONY JONES: So intellectually not up to it?

GEORGE PELL: Well, that’s a nice try, Tony. The people, in terms of sophistication, the psalms are remarkable in terms of their buildings and that sort of thing. They don’t compare with the great powers. But Jesus came not as a philosopher to the elite. He came to the poor and the battlers and for some reason he choose a very difficult but actually they are now an intellectually elite because over the centuries they have been pushed out of every other form of work. They’re a – I mean Jesus, I think, is the greatest the son of God but, leaving that aside, the greatest man that ever live so I’ve got a great admiration for the Jews but we don’t need to exaggerate their contribution in their early days.”

Pell finally got on message at the last gasp, in his best answer of the night, answering the last question which essentially suggested a modified Pascal’s Wager, where people should become Christians because life is better for Christians, particularly health wise. Pell thought that was a bad idea.

GEORGE PELL: So am I. It’s a question of truth. Christians don’t present God as, like Santa Claus, something that a myth that’s useful for children and believing in God and being a Christian cuts both ways. More people were killed for their Christian belief in the last century than any other century, probably than all the other centuries combined. They died on principle to be faithful to Jesus so we might get some benefits. You know we mightn’t get ulcers, we might live a bit longer, that might have much more to do with our heredity but we follow Christ because we believe it’s the truth. I think it does bring a peace of mind. It does help us but sometimes it gets us into my life would be much simpler and much easier if I didn’t have to go to bat for a number of Christian principles.

The one thing the transcript doesn’t capture is tone. Pell was snarling. Sarcastic. Snide. He didn’t miss an opportunity to take a cheap shot. Dawkins wasn’t any better. But the tone of this discussion was what really disappointed me. I am overjoyed that we live in a country where the national broadcaster hosts discussions like this, without any fear of repercussions or persecution from the government, or any fear of censorship. But surely Christian spokespeople should be using these opportunities to talk about Jesus, not get cheap laughs and applause from a crowd for mocking their opponents.

So that was Q&A’s Easter special. It made me angry. Why couldn’t someone like Peter Jensen have been invited onto the panel instead. He’s so much more winsome, and able to stay on message about what Christianity is really about (hint – Jesus). Check out the raw footage from this interview he did with SBS.

That’s heaps better than the turkeys who used their Easter media opportunities to slam the banks (though they may deserve it), and even those who try to turn the attention onto the upper middle class (which was social justice champion Father Bob Macguire’s approach). I was pretty thrilled that the ministers asked to comment on the meaning of Good Friday in the Townsville Bulletin all talked about Jesus (with varying degrees of clarity and plain english).

5 Comments Easter, Q&A, Dawkins, and Jesus

  1. Dylan

    Well said. Could not agree with you more.

    Honestly, I’ve read quite a few of your columns and this was, without a doubt, the best. Well done.

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