Cardinal Pell debates Richard Dawkins on Q&A: a commentary

Cardinal Pell debates Richard Dawkins on Q&A: a commentary

Frank Mobbs

Many readers will have watched the lively debate between Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell during the Q&A program, aired on ABC TV on 16 April, 2012, with Tony Jones in the chair.

Unfortunately, for all its promise, the program exemplified a pronounced deficiency of this sort of television presentation, in that discussion tended to be superficial because of the constraints that go with the search for ratings by TV channels. The format demanded short answers to complex questions, slick replies, and frequent verbal blows. Viewers had to be entertained.

I propose to give depth to points made during the debate and to provide background to Dawkins' thinking. I shall restrict consideration to questions about the existence of God.

Science and God

Dawkins showed his obsession with the view that science has made belief in God incredible. This is puzzling because atheistic scientists and theistic scientists perform equally well. What is this science? Dawkins voices the popular view that only science gives assured knowledge of the existence of things because science relies on direct observations of them.

A moment's reflection shows that this is untrue. Lawyers can establish the meaning of a statute without resort to science - the meaning exists but cannot be sensed. Lots of things exist which are not physical for example, numbers, the validity of arguments, minds with their contents (e.g., beliefs); and we know they exist without observing them.

All inquiry begins from puzzlement: one is puzzled so one seeks an explanation. Science is a method of inquiry: a set of rules, the main one being, I repeat, that the existence of entities can only be established by either observing them or inferring them from what is observed. To the scientist Dawkins, God cannot be observed and cannot be inferred from what is observed.

Sophisticated theists use the same scientific method. They are puzzled by such facts as: the universe exists without an apparent cause and it continues to exist even while it is the sort of thing liable to cease existing. Puzzling is the fact that the physical universe is governed by a multitude of regularities we call "laws" which were operating at the time of the Big Bang and ever since. Why is the behaviour of things not chaotic?

The theist is puzzled by the fact that there is one spot that we know of in the universe, Earth, on which that marvel, the human person, can both exist and also flourish. All the vast universe, except Earth, seems extremely hostile to life. Why is Earth exempt? Further, how can we explain religious experience? Claims to experience God are universal and have occurred ever since humans began.

Scientists seek explanations. Just so do theists. Scientists say the simplest explanation is most probably the true one. Theists agree, positing God as a very simple being with enormous explanatory power.

We saw that the format of the Q&A program constricted explanation as when Dawkins said, about six times, that God could not be the explanation for the existence of a highly complex universe, including that remarkably complex thing, a human being, because God would have to be even more complex. I doubt whether the audience grasped his point because he had no time to explain it.

Dawkins' point is that it is a principle of scientific method that when there are competing explanations, the simplest one is most probably true. A theist agrees. But is it true that for any complex thing its explanation must be even more complex? In answer to a remark of Cardinal Pell about random evolution, Dawkins gave a crisp summary of the conditions of organic evolution.

His explanation was simple compared to the vast and complex history of changes in living things. Thus he showed that the complex can have a simple explanation. Here is another example: some physicists say there are four fundamental interactions between particles, and all forces in the world can be attributed to these four interactions. So explanations of the complex can be simple.

Dawkins and others trumpet the question: If God explains the existence of everything, what explains God? They have not grasped that something can be an explanation without itself having an explanation. If you ask: "Why is blood flowing from your finger?", my explanation is that I cut it. That is an explanation even though I have no further explanation in terms of physics for why knives cut flesh.

Why does he think God is not a simple being? The concept of God in the Christian tradition is of a being with the characteristics of a person - God knows, plans, chooses, decides, prefers; with no limits to his powers or his knowledge he is perfectly free and exists at all times.

Seeing that God is a person, we then have a personal explanation for the existence of the universe containing the features I have mentioned. Now personal explanations are simple. Why do I mash potatoes? Because I like the taste. That explanation is simple and complete. What explains the universe? God decided to create it. There could not be a simpler explanation.

According to Richard Swinburne, the hypothesis that there exists a being with infinite degrees of the qualities essential to a being of that kind is the postulation of a very simple being. If we posit God as the explanation of features of the universe which he cited, then we have the simplest possible explanation and that simplicity adds to the probability that it is true. In fact, the hypothesis of the existence of God makes sense of the whole of our experience. It does so better than any other explanation which can be put forward and is hence grounds for believing it to be true.

It is hard to credit that Dawkins defended the idea that the universe came from nothing, a theory propounded by his friend, Lawrence Krauus. Cardinal Pell was prepared for this and said that Krauus was not actually talking about nothing but a "soup" of particles, electromagnetic forces, a vacuum, etc. Krauus even says nothing is "unstable", so that when it is slopping about over billions of years it is bound to produce a universe.

Let us call to mind some of the things Dawkins said about nothing. It is very simple as an explanation of the occurrence of the universe, as compared to God who has a number of characteristics. What insight on Dawkins part! Could anyone less brilliant have thought of such a simple solution to the problem of the existence of the universe? Note that he, too, owes his existence to nothing at all. I am tempted to comment that the idea that the universe came from nothing is childish but this would be unfair to children. Treating nothing as if it is something is a desperate attempt to avoid attributing the causing of the universe to God.

The Bible

The first question asked in the program concerned the basis of our moral values. Though the question contained no reference to the Bible, Dawkins quickly moved to condemn, first, the morals of the Old Testament and, second, those of the New Testament because God required Jesus to endure hideous torture to obtain forgiveness of our sins.

Behind this lies Dawkins' obsession with a particular notion of God which he thinks he finds in the Old Testament. He describes God therein as "arguably the the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud, a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak, a ... capriciously malevolent bully."

He has in mind accounts of God ordering massacres (Numbers 31:7) and giving commands such as to put a man to death for gathering wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 14:37). This is the God of Jews and Christians, he thinks.

Here Dawkins has a problem - no one has ever believed in such a God. Rather, the dominant concept of God is expressed in the Psalms. Consider the best-known Psalm:

'The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for His name's sake. (Ps 23)

Is this the moral monster envisaged by Dawkins?

Consider Psalm 138:

For it was you who created my being,
knit me together in my mother's womb,
I thank you for the wonder of my being.
for the wonders of all your creation

Or Psalm 144:

The Lord is kind and full of compassion,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
How good is the Lord to all,
compassionate to all his creatures.

That is the God in whom Jews and Christians believe.

Dawkins, having made no serious study of the Old Testament, believes God's obviously immoral commands were taken literally by Jews. In fact, the great rabbis interpreted them benignly. (When did you last hear of Jews stoning to death a woman for adultery, which you might expect after reading Ezekiel 16:40? Or of Jews putting to death a son who was disrespectful to his father?)

Dawkins' foe is nearly always biblical fundamentalists. He deems them to be the defining expression of Christian belief. Instructed Catholics do not belong to that camp, and a very well instructed Catholic in the person of Cardinal Pell was quick to reply that there has been "development", but his audience would not have understood because he had no time to explain what he said.

He was able to say that Christians do not get their morality from the Old Testament but from Jesus himself and his disciples as recorded in the New Testament. There is a New Covenant and a New Law. It is worthy of note that in the longest document of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et spes (The Church in the Modern World), which ranges over a wide field of morality, the Council never cites the Old Testament laws.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church in its moral teachings includes the Ten Commandments but mainly as a framework for organising moral teachings not contained explicitly among the Commandments. Instructed Catholics don't consider themselves bound by all 613 commandments in the Old Law.

But is not the Bible guaranteed by God to be true, so that one must believe God ordered massacres of innocent people and that disobedient children be put to death? Christians can deny that these events ever took place. Why? Because the character of God as revealed in the person and teaching of the Lord Jesus rejects such a notion of God. In short, Christians have good reason to believe that we have much more reliable knowledge of God in the New Testament than in the Old because the New was written soon after the events recorded in it and the writers had access to eyewitness reports.


A mark of a good critic is his sympathetic understanding of that which he intends to adversely criticise. In this respect, Dawkins is a failure.

Dawkins evidences this lack of understanding when, in the Q&A program, he was asked whether an atheist could have sound moral values. Exercising his talent for irrelevance, Dawkins said it would be awful to gain moral values from the New Testament which portrays God as inflicting horrible torture and death on his Son, Jesus, just so he could forgive himself.

This is a caricature of what a Christian reads in the New Testament. No Christian views the matter in that way. More likely he regards the death of Jesus as confirmation of the words of Jesus as found in the Gospel of John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." Jesus' sufferings show dramatically the depth of God's love for sinful humans.

The best result that I can envisage for the airing of the Q&A program is that its Christian viewers will feel the need to equip themselves with powerful arguments for the existence of God, arguments which are readily available.

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