Dawkins vs. Pell – a match made in heaven

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Oh boy.

Did you see the great face-off on Q&A last night? Dawkins vs Pell, you can watch it below.

Holy cow, what a mismatch it turned out to be. Even though jet-lagged, Dawkins was his usual self, alternating between incisive comments and snapping at inappropriate laughter by the audience. Early on, he seemed to feel the audience was stacked against him, but as the show wore on, there seemed to be no bias one way or the other, unless you count Tony Jones’ obviously siding with Dawkins, by putting many of Pell’s statements under the microscope.

While this held great promise, unfortunately Pell didn’t rise to the occasion, and came off as a rambling fool. At times he dug himself into a logical hole, and kept digging. The most surprising thing was that when asked to explain the catholic church’s view on something or other, he was unable (or unwilling) to clearly do so. He seemed to prefer to ramble on with the usual meaningless and nebulous religi-speak, raising more questions than were answered.

Once we got to the exchange about evolution, things got more interesting, and at times comical. After all, you have a man who has devoted his life to the subject, versus someone who questions its very existence as an explanatory theory. The exchange in particular about neanderthals exposed Pell’s ignorance and simplistic understanding of evolution, and left Dawkins somewhat speechless.

Clearly though, Pell had done some homework. He was armed with references to Dawkins’ books, and even blog entries, quoting from them to make some point about how inconsistent Dawkins is, or whatever. The key example was Dawkins’ agnostic/atheist dilemma, which he freely admits has given him some grief. However, he was still clear that the agnosticism is still only based on the fact that it is not possible to disprove some things, and hence technically he can’t be totally sure about the lack of a god.

Overall, it was pretty embarrassing for the church. Unfortunately, Dawkins hasn’t been presented with much in the way of intellectual argument here in Australia; last time he was here, and on Q&A, he was seated next to Steve Fielding, former senator and young earth creationist. It was hard not to cringe every time Fielding opened his mouth, making arguments so inane that Dawkins couldn’t even formulate a response.

Maybe next year we can pit Dawkins against Barnaby Joyce – that would be the trifecta.

UpdateHere’s what PZ Myers had to say about the show. As usual, he doesn’t hold back. And in the comments of PZ’s piece, Richard Dawkins gives his own review of the evening. Apparently he was less than happy with the participation of Tony Jones. I’ve quoted his full comment below the video.

You can watch the whole thing here:


Richard Dawkins himself had this to say about the ‘debate’:

I too was disappointed in this so-called debate. I don’t want to put all the blame on my jet lag (I had spent the whole night on the plane from Los Angeles and, incidentally, missed the whole of Easter Day crossing the Date Line). The two things that really threw me were, first, the astonishing bias of the audience and, second, the interfering chairman.

Right from the start when we were introduced, it was clear that the studio audience was dominated by a Catholic cheer squad. The cheered whenever the Cardinal said anything, however stupid and ignorant. To be fair to the ABC, I am confident that they were not responsible for stacking the audience. I believe it was genuinely first-come-first-served, and I can only think that the Catholics must have got off the mark very swiftly and rallied the troops. Our side just isn’t very good at doing that: perhaps it is one of our more endearing qualities. It was encouraging that the vote of viewers at large came down heavily on our side, to the evident surprise and discomfort of the studio audience.

Such an extreme audience bias was a little off-putting, but it wouldn’t have mattered so much if the chairman had allowed us to have a proper debate instead of continually racing ahead to get in another dopey question. There were times when the Cardinal had doled out more than enough rope to hang himself but then, in the nick of time, the chairman blundered in and rescued him with yet another samey question from the audience. The only time the chairman did a good job was when he pressed the Cardinal on what seemed perilously close to anti-Semitism.

More and more, I am thinking that discussions of this kind are positively ruined by an interfering chairman. That was also true of my encounter with the Archbishop of Canterbury, which could have developed into an interesting conversation but for the meddling chairman who, to make matters worse, was a ‘philosopher’ with special training in obscurantism.

Cardinal Pell had evidently been well prepped, formally briefed (for example with his alleged fact that Darwin called himself a theist on page 92 of his autobiography). I knew it wasn’t true that Darwin was a theist and said so, but I obviously couldn’t counter the “Page 92″, which duly got a cheer from the touchline. I’ve since had a chance to look it up and, as expected, it refers to the way Darwin felt earlier in his life, not his maturity when he said he preferred to call himself ‘agnostic’ because the people “are not yet ripe for atheism”.

Another missed opportunity on my part was when the Cardinal nastily insinuated that I had not read to the end of Lawrence Krauss’s book having written the Foreword. Actually I didn’t write the Foreword, I wrote the Afterword, which suggests that the Cardinal hadn’t read the book. Indeed, the content of what he said suggests that he (or whoever briefed him) had read only the infamous review in the New York Times, again by a philosopher not a scientist.

Altogether an unsatisfactory evening. Much better was the radio interview the following morning, after I had had a night’s sleep and had my wits more properly about me:



7 thoughts on “Dawkins vs. Pell – a match made in heaven

    @blamer said:
    April 10, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    What does Pell care if we’re agnostic or godless.

    Both groups are as convinced as each other that his biblical teachings about the creator of the universe are untrustworthy.

    Even protestants realise that Pell’s church isn’t miraculously in possession of additional information about the characters that the bible describes.

      rationalbrain said:
      April 10, 2012 at 4:52 pm

      Why does he care? My theory is that religion is an infection which causes its host to spread the infection at any cost – say or do anything that will transmit the infection to the next person. As such, I guess one could postulate a Darwinian mechanism for the spread of religion, and why some survive and others don’t. Hmmm. Idea for new post. Watch this space!

        @blamer said:
        May 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm

        You can be more specific than “religion”. Abrahamic monotheism causes hosts to spread infection.

        Buddhist strains generally don’t. Hindu (and historically Pagan) strains are markedly accepting of the monotheist strains.

        rationalbrain said:
        May 1, 2012 at 12:54 pm

        Agree to an extent, except that I don’t really count Buddhism as a religion – it’s more a philosophy of life – they have a Buddha, but he’s not a god, right? Clearly some thinking going on in Buddhist circles, so automatic immunity. Theory stands.

        @blamer said:
        May 7, 2012 at 12:32 pm

        Sure no gods no prophets, so no pandemic of Buddhateria unless or until some thinker installs a 5th pillar to Buddism along the lines of “spread the good news” (read: one cult to rule them all and in the darkness bind them).

    Dan Rea said:
    April 16, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    Funny, but naaa…. they just get lotsa god-points for converting people. ‘Saving souls’ gets good points onto the (get-into-heaven) and (god-likes-me) scoreboard.

    […] then there are the complete mismatches – revisit the Dawkins vs Pell fiasco for a bit of fun, and this great effort by PZ […]

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