Here in Australia last week’s Q&A on ABC television was an Easter Monday special, featuring Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, and Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell for a live discussion of faith, science, and morality. The show’s audience was 863,000, its biggest audience since it covered the 2010 federal election.
However, it frustrated me. As Scott Stephens, the ABC’s Online Editor of Religion & Ethics said, “The Q&A panel was comprised of the two most divisive and respectively reviled proponents on either side of the debate”. There was little common ground on the common good. I was sad to hear that our Anglican Archbishop, Peter Jensen, was unavailable overseas.
Cardinal Pell obviously tried hard to prepare well, and was ready to engage on physics and biology, as well as theology and ethics. But on the science side his answers sounded a little like an undergraduate preparing for exams with a few choice quotes, but not necessarily a deep understanding. Likewise on climate science! Religious leaders ought to be very careful pronouncing on detailed science issues, unless they are genuinely qualified in the area.
Cardinal Pell’s best point here was when he suggested science can tell us how things happen, but nothing about the why. Why was there a Big Bang or a transition from inanimate to living matter? And nothing about ethical problems of life, like “Why be good?” This drew out an honest answer from a Darwinian materialist, when Dawkins said
“Why?” is a silly question. “Why?” is a silly question. You can ask, “What are the factors that led to something coming into existence?” That’s a sensible question. But “What is the purpose of the universe?” is a silly question. It has no meaning.
But Christians welcome the why question. As Cardinal Pell replied, it’s “a very poignant and real question” to ask, “Why is there suffering?” By contrast, in chapter 4 of his book, River out of Eden, Dawkins has said that the universe has “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” and that such things as the crashing of a bus are just “meaningless tragedies”. This is honest atheism. It rules questions of purpose out of bounds and ridicules those who ask them, but has little comfort or meaning to offer of its own.
Cardinal Pell is creedally orthodox, and conservative on personal and sexual ethics. However I am very unhappy at having him as a spokesman for biblical Christianity. Because on Q&A, he managed to insult the Jewish people, question the existence of Adam and Eve as merely mythological, forget whether or not God actually inscribed the Ten Commands for Moses (it’s Exodus 24:12, 31:18, George!), stated that atheists can certainly go to heaven, and pushed the unbiblical ideas of purgatory and transubstantiation (that the bread and wine of Holy Communion literally turn into Christ’s body and blood, but don’t taste any different).
Worse still he said nothing defending the historicity of the central Easter event, the resurrection of Jesus, which is, I believe, a strong point for us. And he did not point people to Jesus for salvation. In fact, of the two, it was the atheist Dawkins, who clearly stated the meaning of Christ’s cross in these words, although sadly only to mock it as a “horrible idea”:
…the fundamental idea of New Testament Christianity […] 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.
Ironically, as God once spoke through Balaam’s ass, Richard Dawkins spoke the truth there.