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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, April 09, 2012

Dawkins and Pell on Q&A

I've been watching the special Q&A program with Richard Dawkins and George Pell. I'm not actually going to say much about it, at least tonight. I could debate Pell's points, but it's not as if any of them were terribly new to me (nor were the points made by Richard Dawkins or by the audience). The only thing that surprised me was how strongly Pell claimed that religious belief is not necessary for spiritual salvation, and that even atheists are likely to go to heaven if they have been honest about it. That's a far more liberal position on that particular point than I would have expected him to take.

I don't think either of them was as sharp as might have been hoped - Dawkins said that he was jet-lagged, and he did actually seem tired and a bit prickly, though he was engaging whenever he was able to get on a roll in explaining something.

Pell was often maundering when confronted with difficult questions, e.g. about his climate change scepticism, and about the Problem of Evil. As to the former, it was (slightly) interesting that he strongly denied being influenced on climate change by any non-accommodationism from scientists like Dawkins (Chris Mooney please take note). It seemed to be more based on his intuitions about how the weather is always changing or some such thing. On the latter, he twisted away from the question pretty quickly after admitting the difficulty in giving a satisfying answer.

But Pell did do a good job of seeming calm, indeed almost placid, throughout, with just a couple of debating points that he'd obviously prepared. He probably did himself some damage when he tried to explain transubstantiation in terms of medieval metaphysics, so that was a good debating point for Dawkins to use. He also shot himself in the foot a couple of times with highly unscientific claims about evolution.

Both panelists got a lot of applause from the studio audience, but there were no real fireworks.


jon said...

No doubt Barney Zwarz will chalk it up as a great win for the god botherer.

Russell Blackford said...


I think the format suited George Pell better than a formal debating one would have - the rather placid, maundering approach wasn't too bad in this format. It would have been embarrassing in a formal debate (as happened when he debated Dan Barker a couple of years ago and did badly).

rorschach said...

This was terrible. If Hitchens had been there, we would have mass deconversions from Catholicism now. It was not difficult to refute Pell tonight.

Russell Blackford said...

Pell was pretty much how he always is. He seemed calm and relaxed, mostly, but not especially sharp.

I think Richard was genuinely suffering jet-lag, and I know what that feels like.

Neil said...

"As to the former, it was (slightly) interesting that he strongly denied being influenced on climate change by any non-accommodationism from scientists like Dawkins "

Why is this interesting? This is not the kind of thing Pell is in a position to know.

Anonymous said...

I thought Dawkins was well off form and obviously tired, not as sharp as he could be,but made some good points.

The tiredness came out in the answer to the hostile (and silly) question about the big bang; he might have done better to stop at pointing out that he was not a physicist and the theory of evolution did not cover the big bang - instead of getting into a complicated explanation of what Krauss meant by "nothing".

The exchange pointing up Pell's ignorance about Neanderthals was moderately amusing.

It's clear that the remark Dawkins made some time ago which left the impression that he was now an agnostic will keep on haunting him, even though it was nothing but a repetition of what he'd said in The God Delusion.

He looked pretty weary explaining yet again that that on the scale of 1 to 7 (from absolute belief to absolute disbelief) he was a 6, and hadn't changed his view at all. His opponents will take any chance to misrepresent him.

I also gather that Tony Jones virtually took over the running in asking hard questions of Pell in the latter stages - I had to miss the last bits.

Yes, Pell was fairly measured and even avuncular, but can't hide the smarminess.

On the whole, I wonder if Dawkins isn't spreading himself too thin these days.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

If Adm is a "sophisticated myth", how do you explain the geneological record of Jesus in Luke 3:23 eg Jesus the son "of Joseph, son of Heli.......son of Enosh, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God."