Just in: Cardinal Pell and Richard Dawkins don’t exchange Christmas cards

A contentious debate about religion and a few other hot button items

The two men—one of the leading light of the Catholic Church in Australia and the other the most well-known of the so-called “new atheists”—met in a highly anticipated (and highly rated, as it turned out) televised debate one (or two?) days ago. The Sydney Morning Herald reports:

It was a match-up made in Q&A heaven: two pugilists of opposing convictions going head-to-head in a debate about the existence of God.

Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic and Sydney’s archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, spent an hour with evolutionary biologist and celebrity atheist, Professor Richard Dawkins taking questions covering everything from evolution, resurrection and eternal damnation.

Frustration and something bordering on barely concealed mutual disdain boiled over more than once during the ABC television show.

The hour-long debate can be viewed online; the transcript is also available. Here is one exchange regarding the afterlife:

RICHARD DAWKINS: Well, the answer to the question of what’s going to happen when we die depends on whether we’re buried, cremated or give our bodies to science. 

TONY JONES: Can I say this: if you’re actually an agnostic and you keep aside a small portion of your brain for subsequent proof, I mean, you might get presented with that proof when you die.

RICHARD DAWKINS: The brain is what we do our thinking with. The brain is going to rot. That is all there is to it. I am intrigued by the Cardinal saying that Christians believe you’re going to be resurrected in the body. I mean that’s an astonishing idea and I don’t believe you really mean that and I think – just as I don’t believe you really mean that the wafer turns into the body of Christ. You must mean body in some rather special sense.

GEORGE PELL: Mr Dawkins, I don’t say things I don’t mean.

RICHARD DAWKINS: Well, then what do you mean then? 

GEORGE PELL: I’ll tell you and I’ve just explained what the bodily resurrection means to the extent that I can understand it. I certainly believe that when the words of consecration are uttered that they become the body and blood of Christ. Now, I have had a little kid come up to me when that was explained and say, “Can I have a look in the challis and see if it has turned to blood?” Of course it hasn’t. We don’t believe that. It’s not against reason. I believe it because I believe the man who told us that was also the son of God. He says, “This is my body. This is my blood,” and I’d much prefer to listen to him and take his word than yours.

RICHARD DAWKINS: But other Christian denominations are quite happy to take that as a symbolic metaphorical meaning. Catholics take it as a literal meaning and I take it – I’m trying to be charitable by trying to suggest that it’s that same sense in which you say that the body is resurrected because the body is certainly not resurrected in terms of the cell, the protoplasm, the proteins, the DNA. That doesn’t happen any more than the wafer turns into that. You’re right when you said that to the child. So you do not mean that the wafer turns into the body in any sense in which normal English language usage would understand. You mean it in some other sense and I take it it’s that same sense that the body is resurrected.

It is curious how often the Eucharist comes up in Dawkins’ talking points; he seems rather obsessed with it, even though he shows a quite crude understanding of what the Church teaches about the Sacrament, and a complete cluelessness regarding the various theological and philosophical considerations and insights offered by Catholic and Orthodox theologians.

The moderator, Tony Jones, announced at the debate’s conclusion the results of a poll taken among viewers:

TONY JONES: Okay. That’s all we have time for tonight. Before we go, let’s check the final results of tonight’s qandavote, with more than 20,000 of you voting. We have a 76% saying, no, religious belief does not make the world – religious belief does not make the world a better place.

What to make of it? Probably not too much, as debates that try to address such a wide range of territory in an hour’s time are going to weak on extended argument and substantive explanation. My sense, in reading the transcript, is that Cardinal Pell was trying to cover too much ground at times; Dawkins came off better in some ways because he stuck to a few points that likely resonated well with the atheist choir, even though those points were mostly flimsy and superficial (which matters little when one is seeking to score rhetorical points on television). Still, my hat is off to the Cardinal, who clearly was in the minority; it was especially appalling to see that the crowd laughed, apparently with perverse humor, when Cardinal Pell began to tell an anecdote about “preparing some young English boys” for first communion, to the point that Jones was obviously annoyed. I do hope the poll result does not reflect the beliefs of Australians as a whole. But it does provide further evidence, if any was needed, that people in the West are generally oblivious to the facts of history and how Western culture was shaped and formed from the melding of Greek philosophy, Roman law, and, especially, Christian thought and theology, and that a world without Christianity would likely be a dark, nihilistic, and barbaric one. 

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1220 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.