Q and A on ABC1 on Monday night promised an epic debate between pre-eminent representatives of atheist and Catholic thought. As it turned out, the standard of debate was something of a letdown; a clearly jetlagged non-thiest Professor Richard Dawkins struggled to cope with the audience’s sense of humour while Australia’s top Catholic, Cardinal George Pell didn’t help the situation with some fairly nonsensical contributions.
What became apparent over the course of the program was the vast gap in language and theory employed by the two men – Dawkin’s very specific understanding of meanings was being drawn from scientific terminology, in sharp contrast to Pell’s less formal language that was heavily reliant on personal anecdote, metaphor and analogy.
The disparity between the discourses of science and religion meant the men wasted time squabbling over the meanings of terms such as ‘nothing’ in relation to what might have existed prior to the creation of the known universe and ‘random’ selection in evolution. This was never more obvious than when, after Dawkins expressed his incredulity over the inaccuracy of Pell’s identification of Neanderthals as an ancestor of modern man, the debate deteriorated into a disagreement over what it meant to be a ‘cousin’.
The assumptions made by Pell in some of his explanations were unsupported by evidence or logic. In an amusingly ill-considered example Pell described the Jewish people at the time of Christ as not being intellectual on the basis that they were shepherds who did not show the ‘fruits of civilisation’ – unlike their contemporaries the Egyptians and Persians. Upon further questioning from host Tony Jones, Pell affirmed that Jesus Christ was of the same ilk however declined to agree that, by extension of his own argument, Jesus was ‘intellectually not up to it’.
Pell made several other statements of questionable veracity, including asserting that the Catholic Church has a great record of compassion towards homosexuals. Confusingly equating being homosexual with having HIV, the church’s assistance for people living with HIV was given as an example of this compassion. Pell claimed that ‘the Catholic Church looks after more HIV sufferers than any other non-government organisation’ a statement that is news to Australia’s AIDS Councils.
I checked Pell’s statement with Rob Lake, Director of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, who explained that when it comes to Australia the assertion that the Catholic Church is the leading provider of services to people living with HIV is ‘absolutely not true’. In a global sense, Lake acknowledged that historically many progressive priests and nuns have been involved in working with people with HIV over the course of the HIV epidemic. However Lake also pointed out that Pell’s statement was ironic given that often the support provided by progressive nuns and priests to people living with HIV and communities at enhanced risk from HIV came under severe criticism from church authorities. The Catholic Church in particular has vehemently opposed proven HIV prevention strategies such as the recommendation, widespread provision and use of condoms.
Pell reiterated that Christians love everybody, however gave an unusual response when host Jones enquired whether homosexuality ‘is part of God’s natural order? ‘Pell replied ‘Creation is messy, I think it’s the Oriental carpet makers always leave a little flaw in their carpet because only God’s perfect.’ He clarified that this did not necessarily mean that homosexuals are necessarily flawed human beings – describing homosexual ‘practice’ as learned and controllable.
Yet it was not only Pell that was disappointing. Dawkins got the audience offside with a lack of humour – possibly a result of the acknowledged jetlag and the vapidity of some of the audience questions; however his churlishness over questions of meaning was off putting. While Dawkins acknowledged that a search for purpose was a human concern, his assertion that only questions that are investigable by scientific method are worthwhile did not resonate with an audience clearly in touch with their human side.
As a mostly agnostic queer journalist I am probably not well placed to have a particularly high opinion of Cardinal Pell. Yet after two days I am astounded by the depth of sorrow and frustration that I am still holding onto after this debate. For me, as the leader of the organisation that holds so much sheer political power over the LGBTI community when it comes to questions of our secular rights to live free from discrimination and have our relationships recognised by the State like other Australians, George Pell resoundingly failed to demonstrate that his arguments or understanding are worthy of the respect or veneration that they have received.
In the end it was Tony Jones’ command of the follow-up question and the ripostes from Twitter that provided the best entertainment of the night;
‘Homosexuals are not a carpeting flaw. The gay community do not tolerate shoddy fabrics #qanda W_Godfrey.’
Despite some of the disappointing elements of the debate it was good to see an attempt to bring religion and science up for intelligent and extended public discussion.
What did you think? Did Dawkins and Pell open up new ideas or simply entrench the status quo? Login and add your thoughts below.
You can watch the entire debate on ABC’s iview