The debate about the debate

The debate about the debate

It’s not as compelling as the debate itself of course, but the ensuing discussion about Monday’s Q & A is nonetheless quite interesting.

I made a rare visit to the Catholica forum board on Tuesday, to gauge the reaction of Catholics who don’t think like me. I didn’t perservere with the whole thread, but the first few posts credited Pell for not embarrassing the cause. In Catholica land, that’s high praise indeed!

In contrast, a similar discussion on Fr Z’s blog was critical of Pell, especially for his claims about Adam and Eve. Fr Z himself posted the video without comment, though he does defend the Cardinal’s claim that atheists can go to Heaven.

Andrew Bolt, as is his wont, turned to the data. In his blog on Tuesday, he awarded the debate to Pell, on the basis that Pell’s citations were vindicated, while Dawkins’ were not. Quadrant, too, refutes Dawkins’ assertion that Hitler was a Catholic.

In his newspaper column yesterday, Bolt (a self-described agnostic) developed Pell’s argument that Christianity restrains the pursuit of power while atheism gives it license. But he also unearthed an admission from Dawkins himself that Hitler was no Christian. (An online subscription is normally required to access News Limited columns, but if you arrive at an article via Google, you can read it in full.)

Most interesting of all was Greg Sheridan’s analysis. Here’s how he starts:

There were times in Monday night’s great debate . . . when you felt the boxing authorities would step in and call a halt to the bout. Dawkins was so obviously boxing above his weight division, was so completely outclassed in all aspects of the encounter, that you felt the event promoters were being cruel to him.

Sheridan’s piece most closely accords with my own analysis. Dawkins landed very few blows; he really was outclassed. Pell landed several, though it must be admitted he also clobbered himself a few times, without any help from Dawkins. Still, I’d argue that Pell won emphatically.

Not everyone agrees. The Age’s Karl Quinn declared it a draw (a judgement apparently lost on his sub-editor). Others insist that Dawkins won hands down. Which goes to show, I think, that one’s pre-established position on the question of God determines how one judged the debate.

Pell versus Dawkins

Pell versus Dawkins

One of my very first posts on this blog related to Cardinal Pell’s effective witness as a controversialist. (I’ve given up trying to retrieve the archive. No great loss to posterity, I’m sure.) It seems apt that the subject should be revisited so early in the blog’s second incarnation.

Last night’s Q&A discussion between Pell and Richard Dawkins was entertaining if nothing else. If you missed it, you can catch it on iView, or watch it on YouTube:

It was good TV. It didn’t have to be. The recent debate between Dawkins and Rowan Williams proves that! The BBC compared that exchange to “a rather polite philosophical chess game.”

I don’t think anyone would characterise last night’s encounter in such terms. A few cheap shots were attempted on both sides. And the disagreements weren’t exactly friendly. But it not only made for better TV, it also made for a more satisfying intellectual exchange.

We tend to say that passion obscures reasonable argument. I’m not so sure. Pell v Dawkins was a contest filled with a passion which lent itself to a clarity of ideas. In contrast, Williams v Dawkins was urbane and arcane, and frankly obscure.

I’d be surprised to learn that Pell or Dawkins won over any of their respective antagonists. But that’s not really the point. Both parties succeeded in revealing the heart and soul of the debate over God. They each presented the big ideas which underpin their competing philosophies. For that reason, last night’s debate was a worthy exercise, and it was also an edifying one. In the life of the mind — and, I would argue, in the life of the polis — robust debate is better than no debate.