Reflecting on Dawkins vs Pell

Clare Condon SGS

There are many theologians within the Catholic tradition who provide us with both the language and understanding to bring together the scientific understanding of the universe and the spiritual dimensions of our lives, writes Clare Condon SGS.

BY Clare Condon SGS*

On Easter Monday, the ABC’s Q&A program featured a live debate between evolutionary biologist, author and militant atheist, Professor Richard Dawkins, and Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, on topics of faith, science, history and morality. The show attracted an audience of 863,000, its highest since the coverage of the 2010 Federal election; an indication that faith and God are still of great interest and challenge to Australians.

The next day media headlines included: “Dawkins and Pell battle it out in one hell of a debate” (Sydney Morning Herald), “Adam and Eve? That’s just mythology, says Pell” (The Australian), “Pell, Dawkins wage battle of belief” (The Age), “Heated debate between Cardinal Pell and Professor Dawkins” (CathNews).

When I read these headlines, I thought I must have watched and listened to a different program! Heat or battle I did not observe. I thought it was rather tame, with two disconnected arguments. Neither argument met the other while discussing the profound topic of the mystery of God; one came from a purely scientific point of view and the other from a metaphysical or philosophical perspective. Neither of them expressed any interest or real understanding of the other’s discipline. Each came from a position of certainty so there was no meeting of minds.

In its headline, The Australian reported a level of surprise when the Cardinal described the Genesis accounts of Adam and Eve as sophisticated mythology, and it dismissed mythology as insignificant (as had Dawkins the night before). Any well educated Christian would be fully aware of the implications of this profound religious myth. All cultures have sophisticated myths which tell the story of their search for meaning in life. I was surprised that Dawkins, an avowed atheist and intellectual, knew so little of the body of religious knowledge that he was rejecting.

It became clear to me that science cannot explain ‘the why’ of human life and therefore its meaning and purpose. Science can and has improved our knowledge and understanding of the way the physical world and universe work and we should seek to constantly update ourselves with the findings of science.

Similarly, theology is an ever-evolving discipline. I was disappointed that the Cardinal based much of his reasoning on the metaphysical tomes of the Greek philosophers and Thomas Aquinas. In the last 700 years, scholarly insights into Sacred Scripture and theology have given us a wealth of theological writing which engages positively with developing scientific knowledge.

Surely our human journey calls us to delve both intellectually and spiritually into the meaning of life, and to explore our capacity for goodness and love within the human community and the created order. These are realities beyond science; these are spiritual and theological realities.

There are many theologians within the Catholic tradition who provide us with both the language and understanding to bring together the scientific understanding of the universe and the spiritual dimensions of our lives. Throughout the history of the Church, Basil of Ceasarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Bonaventure, Catherine of Sienna and Duns Scotus, to name but a few, have enriched our lives. In our own time, I think of Karl Rahner, Teilhard De Chardin and our own Australian theologian, Denis Edwards.

Denis Edwards speaks of God as Creator Spirit. Both Richard Dawkins and Cardinal Pell referred to God as “He”. For many people this reference can be utterly confusing and limiting. It confines the image of God to a human category; it attempts to limit one’s horizons in trying to speak of the mystery of God. It is far from the Creator God portrayed in the Christian Scriptures. In his book Breath of Life: The Theology of Creator Spirit, Edwards writes: “The Creator Spirit can be thought of as the power of becoming, the power that enables the self-transcendence of creation in the emergence of the universe and the evolution of life on earth”.

At the heart of our tradition, Bonaventure of the thirteenth century captured the meaning of life in these words: “You exist more truly where you love than where you merely live, since you are transformed into the likeness of whatever you love, through the power of this love itself”. Such is the attraction of a Creator God of love whom we Christians celebrate in the Risen Christ.

At Eastertide, Christians celebrate an extraordinary spiritual mystery, a mystery of belief that goes beyond the confines of scientific investigation and our limited worldview. It is a question of faith in one who was resurrected. This is not a blind faith, but one founded upon 2,000 years of storytelling, practice and scholarly research.

Therefore, I would suggest that our minds and our hearts need to expand well beyond the limited debate we experienced last Easter Monday on the ABC’s Q&A program.

*Clare Condon SGS is the Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St Benedict.

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The Good Oil, April 17, 2012. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

23 Responses to “Reflecting on Dawkins vs Pell”

  1. Josh says:

    Pell may be ignorant on science, but not half as ignorant as Dawkins is on theology! You should check out the slightly less vulgar and populist debate with Dawkins that is moderated by the philosopher Anthony Kenny. Dawkins repeatedly fails to grasp embarrassingly simple logical points. The key thing is that by entering into these broader arguments Dawkins is stepping into a domain that demands conceptual and well as empirical clarity, a demand he is neither willing nor capable of meeting.

  2. Mike Furtado says:

    Apologies, Clare. ‘Supercilious’….one ‘l’.

  3. Michael Furtado says:

    Well said, Clare; the most lucid critical reflection of this disappointing non-event that I have read! Dawkins did interlocute earlier on the internet with Abp Rowan Williams at the Sheldonian with many eminently recognisable scholars and theologians in the audience, including Timothy Radcliffe, former Master General of the Dominican Order. A very different sort of event to Q&A, I’m delighted to say: scholarly but not without humour, humanity and a great deal of civility. Dawkins showed an ameliorative side and Abp Williams was characteristically urbane and engaging, both aspects of which were missing in the Q&A bunfight, with the Cardinal inappropriately billed by Tony Jones as a prize-fighter for a kind of unavailingly conservative Christianity and Dawkins at times supercillious, irritable and condescending. (It made many in my company cringe to be Australian, scientific and Catholic). Nary a mention of Aquinas at the contrasting Oxford event, you will be pleased to note, and the best question afterwards was from a NZ feminist theologian and scientist, Elizabeth Wilson.

  4. Alice Priest says:

    Thanks for your reflection, Clare – you’ve captured for me what was painfully present and what was painfully absent in this debate.

  5. Ian Faulkner says:

    Both “debaters” lacked passion and commitment and neither engaged the other in real debate. What should have been a battle of minds about the most important questions for humanity became a childish attempt to feign boredom of the other person and his position on the topic. The debate moderator didn’t raise the tempo and only seemed to want to get through a numerical quota of questions, ignoring the fact that questions were rarely being answered. We watched the whole boring thing vainly expecting some spark of insight to appear. Sadly none appeared (or maybe I fell asleep and missed it). The newspaper that described this as “one hell of a debate” gave us the usual inaccurate headline – it would be more accurate to say “boring as all hell”! 863,000 should have been disappointed.

  6. judith floyd says:

    Thank you Clare for your clarity and feminine insight. It’s wonderful to have another voice than the one represented on Q & A. We shall share your article far & wide.

  7. Joe says:

    I say this every opportunity I get regarding public controversy. The media trive on conflict. Q&A was not a debate. It was promoted as a contest. The moderater was not an umpire. He ended up being a participant, partly because Dawkins yielded to jet-lag and lost his punch, partly because Cardinal Pell resorted to “playing the man” and complaceny. Tony Jones couldn’t resist goading the Cardinal into some mis-statements. The objective of the debate was not that the truth might be revealed
    but rather that the ratings might be raised.
    I’m indebted to Sister Clare for her perceptive critique and to all the commenters who agreed with her. Go The Good Sams!

  8. Ursula says:

    Well done Clare – sorry that you were not invited by the ABC to participate. My frustration level was rising by the minute! I agree that people of the calibre of Denis Edwards would have engaged with Dawkins with more energy and conviction!

  9. Edwina says:

    I missed the show, thank you for sharing your thoughts Sister Clare and all the other comments I read above. For a breath of fresh air, clarity, beauty, breadth and depth of insight and an engaging dialogue on this topic of Science and Religion I recommend reading Johnathan Sack’s book published last year: “The Great Partnership: God, Science and the search for meaning”.

  10. Allyson Mascarenhas says:

    Thank you Clare. As usual, you offer us something worth reflecting upon! The Q & A debate, a misnomer on this occasion, was very difficult to watch. For me, it wasn’t because purely scientific and purely faith perspectives of reality might be incompatible but because both men appeared unwilling or unable to sincerely engage with anything the other offered.

  11. I am in France so I could only pick my way through the various media outlets here on the debate. Hence I need to be cautious in any comments.

    Congratulations Clare on such a brilliant analysis – you should have been the person on the program!

    What I read and viewed in various media outlets left me deeply disappointed on the paucity of knowledge about the topic demonstrated by both speakers. I am currently writing a book on the topic and was very sad that an informed Catholic position was not presented and frankly appalled by the ignorance of Dawkins on current religious thinking on evolution and the science/religion dialogue.

    Well done Clare – you are an inspiration!

  12. Diana Law says:

    The Dawkins/Pell “debate” left me too cold to waste time on it. However, as I read your response, Clare, I marvelled at your courageous capture of key components for an empowering theological and scientific dialogue in which ‘our hearts and minds’ could expand in joy and gratitude.

  13. Margaret says:

    Clare’s commentary is so beautifully penned.

    Both science and theology are in a state of constant advancement. The limitations of the arguments from each of the men failed to appreciate this.

    Clare’s powerful comment about Dawkins’ paucity of knowledge about matters that he so stridently rejects is enligtening.

    We need to showcase our Catholic scholarship though our contemporary theologians so that the Pell view is not perceived as the only view.


  14. Veronica Box says:

    Thank you Clare: at last some sense on this pathetic excuse for a debate.
    Someone on the program or in the press called Cardinal Pell the Catholic Primate of Australia. He is not. He is the Bishop of Sydney, no more important that any of our bishops, most of whom are more articulate.Did he have to appear so bored?

  15. Pina says:

    Sister Clare, Thank you for your clear and insightful comments on the debate, which I thought was a bit of a non-event. I have gained much from your comments, and will pass them on.

    I am grateful and proud to have been educated by the Good Sams, many moons ago. You all still do wonderful work. Thank you!!

  16. Loretto Richardson says:

    Like you Clare I was vey disappointed in a debate which went nowhere. In fact turned it off as I got increasingly annoyed and embarrassed at the lack of intellectual depth in both men. Thank-you for your article which gives a theological prism to the ever widening embrace of science and reinforces the development of spirituality in the life of each of us.

  17. Gerri Boylan says:

    Thank you,Clare, for expressing well what I felt about this Q&A debate.

  18. anne hyeronimus says:

    Thank you Clare for your great comments. I was left frustrated and wanting to shake Cardinal Pell for his laid back comments and lack of meaningful answers.

  19. Carmel Posa says:

    Thank you Clare for this intelligent response to the Q&A program featuring Dawkins and Pell. The most disappointing thing to me was the lack of respect between the two advocates. Respect is what enables a creative dialogue and deeper understanding of each other, of course. The best interviews I have seen involving Dawkins have been when he clearly respects his opponent and vice aversa. These moments are worth listening to as we can all learn so much from such a conversation. I for one loved the interview between Dawkins and George Coyne SJ (which can be found on youtube) and also that between Rowan Williams and Dawkins from Oxford (again on youtube). Both are well worth watching.

  20. Jane Marshall says:

    Clare – thanks for your rich comment as you have said there was so much more that could had been said. The Q and A speakers certainly left some gaps.
    Where as it could have been a thought provoking session providing some hope and light.

  21. Helen Mc Dermott says:

    Clare – I would have had a much more engaging hour had you been part of the conversation. When two people are so certain of their position there’s nowhere else to go really!

  22. Aileen Crowe says:

    Clare – very refreshing. I thought the program dissapointing and shallow. You have given a perspective which has depth.

  23. Beth says:

    Thank you Clare for articulating well my own frustrations with the Q&A debate. As you pointed out there are many theologians in the Catholic tradition with both the language and understanding to bring together the science with the spiritual and sadly Cardinal Pell was not able to demonstrate that on Q&A. It is frustrating that his position becomes the lens with which the secular world sees the Catholic viewpoint. Thank you for reminding us that there is an alternative Catholic view (now if we can only get you on Q&A)…

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