Pell V Dawkins on #QandA - An Insider's Response (Part 1)

Earlier this year Dr Ken Collins of Asbury Theological Seminary was in Sydney for the Booth College Summer Seminar. He suggested there (and I was dubious of the claim at the time) that he’d never heard of a debate between an atheist and a Christian being “won” by the atheist. In the light of that, perhaps Monday night’s episode of “Q and A” was groundbreaking. But then, no one really “won”. To suggest that anyone actually “wins” in these things is an erroneous assumption.

I had the privilege of sitting in the studio audience for the “debate” between Cardinal George Pell and Professor Richard Dawkins aired on ABC Australia’s program “Q and A”. I want to share some thoughts on the night as someone who was present in the room.

‘Debate’ is an unfortunate term because it tends to be loaded with aggressive overtones, and certainly that was the way it was promoted in the lead up to the night; and that’s the way it played out. Both Pell’s and Dawkins’ body language revealed a level of contempt for the other that meant that rather than us viewing a ‘dialogue’ we observed ‘duelling monologues’. Each panellist tried to debunk the others arguments with wit, rationalism or just plain mockery. Pell tended to look to Tony Jones when he spoke, Dawkins the audience members directly in front of him. Incidentally, it appeared that the section of the audience in Dawkins line of sight was filled with Pell supporters, and those in Pell’s line of sight with Dawkins supporters.[1] Both groups snickered frequently, and immaturely, at their opponents comments. This was why, at one point, Dawkins ejected forcefully with “What’s funny about that?!?”. I have to say, Dawkins was absolutely right to say that, but I suspect it wouldn’t have come across well to TV viewers.  

Neither the panellists gladiatorial approach, nor the clapping, interjecting or commentating of the audience, was particularly helpful (although the latter was encouraged prior to the show by Tony Jones himself who called it “Democracy in Action”).

Before the show commenced the scene was set by the “warm up” guy. He asked the audience to show, by raising their hands, whose “side” they were on. Well I didn’t want to take sides. I wanted an informed discussion. I didn’t realise that I needed to take sides here, and definitely not before the debate had happened. That certainly wasn’t the way I was approaching the show, and it certainly wasn’t the way I approach the task of “theologising” in general. I guess that’s what you get when a political show steps into a theological discussion.

When the guests were introduced it was clear that “sides” had indeed been taken within the audience. Instead of greeting the guests respectfully and equally it seemed much more like a football match with parts of the audience seeking to encourage their “team mascot” with cheers louder than the other. Unfortunately this continued throughout the show.

Enough on the audience...

My interests were in the debate itself. I’d like to comment on some of the topics that were raised and offer a suggestion on how I might have responded. I say “might” because I recognise that the pressure of a live audience, both in the studio, on TV and online could be quite overwhelming (especially if jet lagged) and I’ve had the benefit of some time to process my thoughts and consider my response. I’d like to be gracious enough to both parties and recognise that writing a post in a blog is a very different setting to a televised debate.

I will break my responses into several posts over coming days.

Morality and Ethics
The first question of the night was around the basis of morality. The question was a basic “yes or no” question that each tried to embellish in their own way. Can atheists live a moral life? Well of course they can! Dawkins, in attempting to describe the basis for his answer, suggested the following: 
“We do have a scientific understanding of why we’re here and we therefore have to make up our meaning to life. We have to find our own purposes in life which are not derived directly from our scientific history…I as an atheist, my friends as atheists, lead thoroughly worthwhile lives, in our opinion, because we stand up, look the world in the face, face up to the fact that we are not going to last forever, we have to make the most of the short time we have on this planet, we have to make this planet as good as we possible can and try to leave it a better place than we found it.”[2]
(I’ll gloss over the fact that Dawkins earlier made the ridiculous suggestion that the question “Why?” is “silly” and so he refused to answer it, yet he suggests here that we have “scientific understanding” of “why we’re here”... and why is that again?)

This entirely subjective and individualistic view of morality (i.e. “make up our own meaning”, “find our own purposes in life”) is entirely unsatisfactory in practical terms. It becomes severely problematic when these individual meanings intersect or even collide. What happens when what I think is “a thoroughly worthwhile life” actually impedes upon the life of others? This can be as simple as whether I refuse to help wash the dishes at home because I’m too busy watching TV thus impeding on the life of my family, or it can be bigger issues, such as the source of the Easter eggs that I buy and whether child labour is involved in their production or not. I agree with Dawkins that Christianity doesn’t hold exclusive rights to a definition of morality, and neither would I say that atheists don’t have a voice on the matter, but rather it is to say that morality and ethics need to be socially constructed and are not so individually focused as Dawkins makes it out to be. Christianity, and not the atheism that Dawkins espouses, does provide a framework for morality and ethics that is socially constructed but individually applied. What Dawkins has suggested operates in reverse. Christianity seeks to provide an objective framework for morality which we are subjectively involved in. In its simple terms this is the love of God, as demonstrated by Jesus Christ, made known to us by the Spirit which we then return to God and others.

The love of God becomes our love for God and for our neighbour.

While we’re talking about “Love thy neighbour”, Dawkins, in The God Delusion, goes to great lengths to suggest that this command was meant only for the “in-group”[3] but this could not be further from the truth. According to Luke’s gospel Jesus is asked about inheriting eternal life and the discussion comes to the conclusion that the most important part of the law is to love God and your neighbour as yourself (10:25-28). But the lawyer wants to clarify and so asks “And who is my neighbour?” (10:29). Jesus' answer does not say “only the Jews” as the lawyer was most likely hoping it would. This is where the story of the Good Samaritan is told. We’ve been desensitised to the power of this parable by its retelling throughout the centuries. Initially this would have been quite a shock to the lawyer. Jews despised the Samaritans and so the thought of the “hero” of the story being the Samaritan would have been a huge surprise for the lawyer and revealed within himself his own prejudices and the limits of his love. Jesus says to the man “Go and do likewise” and so even if “Love thy neighbour” was restricted to Jews alone, Jesus’ interpretation of this law now clearly includes all people, not just the “in-crowd”.

I even think that if Jesus were telling this same story to a group of Christians today then the two characters who pass the injured man might, for example, be a Catholic Cardinal and a Salvation Army Officer and the hero would probably be an atheistic Oxford Professor of Evolutionary Biology who stops, aids the man, genuinely cares for him and sponsors his recovery.

To which Jesus would tell his Christian audience asking who their neighbour is... 

“Go and do likewise”.

[1] This was not intentionally done by Q and A producers. I observed the audience members rush for first available seats when the doors were opened.
[3] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006), 254-262.


  1. Even more serious and fundamental to christian belief than whether or not atheists are moral human beings is the cross of Christ. It's the cross that points to the fact that all our moral efforts, all our 'do gooding' stink before a Holy God. No, not one single atheist or 'Christian' (by name) will be welcomed into the prescence of the Almighty God, EXCEPT by the the blood of Christ, except by receiving the forgiveness of sins through the redeeming work of the cross.Otherwise we are just spitting at the sacrifice of Christ-including MR Pell. Shame on you Archbishop Pell, for not alerting people to this one essential truth!

  2. An interesting account of what it was like to be in the studio. I notice, however, that you didn't understand Dawkins' statement that science can explain why we are here;
    "(I’ll gloss over the fact that Dawkins earlier made the ridiculous suggestion that the question “Why?” is “silly” and so he refused to answer it, yet he suggests here that we have “scientific understanding” of “why we’re here”... and why is that again?)"

    He is completely right. The way in which you ask the question 'why' is presupposing that the answer must assign a purpose to human existence. Dawkins is saying that science can explain the series of evolutionary events that led to human conscious existence, and led to our ability to ask the question 'why' in a search for a puropose.

    There is no reason for that question to have an answer. In fact, our understanding of the process of evolution and our connection to the animal world, would suggest that it is very unlikely that there is a purpose to our existence. This is his key point... and it is worth considering and properly understanding.

    Further, to claim that an atheist's perspective on morality is subjective and individualist is an incredible hypocracy. Religious morality is, at it's root, based on your individual decision to follow a religion based on 'faith'. This is hardly an objective decision. It is also a very personal, and hence individualist, decision.


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