The Pell-Dawkins Discussion

by Michael Potemra

Mark, I think the blogger you cite is rather too hard on Cardinal Pell. She chides him for “letting Dawkins’ hideous view of God and Christ’s sacrifice frame the beginning of the debate.” First of all, it’s not at all clear to me that Dawkins’s opening statement did, in fact, frame the debate from that point on. (On almost all of the issues in the rest of the hour, Pell gave as good as he got.) Second, and more important, Dawkins’s presentation of the idea of substitutionary atonement — what the blogger calls Dawkins’s “hideous view” of it — is exactly what St. Paul told us to expect: The Cross is indeed folly to the Greeks (I Cor. 1:23), and nobody can believe such things unless granted the gift of faith by God (John 6:44). Dawkins is merely expressing what seems commonsensical to what Paul called “the natural man” (I Cor. 2:14), and if you can disprove it in a 45-second on-the-spot response on a TV show, you’re a better man than I. (The format problem that Mark mentioned also played a part in Pell’s non-response on that issue. This particular show is driven by audience questions. Instead of attacking Dawkins’s statement on the atonement, Pell chose to answer the actual question the audience member had asked.)

The blogger phrases her overall criticism of Pell’s approach as follows: He let “the whole debate [take] place within the worldview of Dawkins.” But to get people to change their worldview, it really helps if you can show them that you understand their worldview on its own terms, which is what Pell was doing. (I also think it’s what Paul meant when he once said he was all things to all men, I Cor. 9:22.) There is a place for straightforward proclamation of the Christian Gospel, but there is also a need (both personal and apologetic) for intellectual engagement with opposing worldviews. I think of, for example, Pell’s discussion of the problems with Lawrence Krauss’s theory of how the universe arose from nothing: Krauss’s attempts to introduce counterintuitive definitions of nothingness show a real difficulty with the atheist position, and focus on this might help prepare someone to shift from an atheistic to a religious worldview. If Pell’s discussion of such things constitutes working “within the worldview of Dawkins,” then I say let’s have more of it.

I am especially glad to learn of Mark’s regard for Cardinal Pell; my own esteem for this bluff, rangy Australian prelate is on the rise.