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Cardinal Pell and Richard Dawkins


I tend to avoid watching debates on issues such as evolution and atheism, because such debates can usually be accurately described in the words we used to say back when I worked in the U.S. Senate: “Everything has already been said, but not everyone has said it yet.” But this hour-long discussion on Australian TV between George Pell (a prominent conservative Catholic cardinal) and scientist/anti-theist Richard Dawkins was quite captivating, because both men did justice to the issues with which they were grappling. Pell has a reputation of being combative, but he comes across in the video as thoughtful, decent, and generous. And Dawkins surprised me: I have enjoyed his books on science immensely, but have generally found his arguments on matters of religion and philosophy both abrasive and unconvincing — and yet, in this appearance, he impressed me with his engagement on those subjects.

A couple of highlights: Cardinal Pell was asked whether atheists can go to Heaven, and responded, “Certainly, certainly!” He explained that, in his view, atheism can be an honest attempt to seek the truth, and that God’s judgment on a person will have to do with that person’s relation to truth, goodness, and beauty. On the question of Hell, he expressed the hope that nobody will actually end up there — a hope and prayer that our late friend Father Neuhaus was also eloquent in expressing — but said that Hell does nonetheless exist.

And there was an interesting exchange between the panelists on the existence of Adam and Eve. Cardinal Pell expressed the view that they were not historical individuals, but mythological figures in a story designed to communicate religious truth. To which Dawkins responded, If they didn’t really, historically, exist, where did Original Sin come from? Ironically enough, on the site on which I found the video, some conservative religious comboxers take Dawkins’s side: If no Adam and Eve, no Original Sin; if no Original Sin, no need for Christ’s Redemption; if no need for Christ’s Redemption, no Christianity; therefore there must have been an Adam and Eve. (I have actually, in the past, encountered the very same argument from e-mailers responding to my own Corner posts on Biblical interpretation: Pull that thread, of admitting that one set of verses in the Bible are not intended literally, and the whole thing will fall apart like Kleenex.)

But the fact of the existence of Original Sin does not depend on the historical existence of Adam and Eve. To say that it does seems to me the equivalent of declaring that if Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was not, in fact, responsible for the Great Chicago Fire, then the Great Chicago Fire must not have happened at all. Original Sin is a fundamental choice in which man declares his prideful rebellion against God, and we see that choice in our own hearts. (Chesterton once called original sin “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”) As to where, specifically, it started, your guess is as good as mine; the story of Adam and Eve is a masterful account of the meaning of what happened. 

I recommend the video, as a fascinating encounter between two worthy intellectuals. (Try to ignore the studio audience, which is rather thuggish, as such audiences can be.)