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.