Pell Versus Dawkins: the Answers We Would Give

Editorial FAITH Magazine July – August 2012

“New wine is for fresh skins" (Mark 2:22)

Staged debates between prominent secular and religious figures have become a fashionable format in the worldwide media. Like all debates they have a certain unsatisfactory, knockabout air which does not lend itself to a sincere dialogue in search of truth. The constraints of the TV format can reduce deep issues to sound bites, and "reality show"-style viewer voting often serves to confirm existing prejudices, which are largely secularist at the moment. Nonetheless they can have influence well beyond their initial broadcast because usually they are quickly posted on the global video forum YouTube.

Cardinal Pell recently found himself pitted against Professor Richards Dawkins on Australia's ABC channel as part of its Q&A series (9 April 2012) to debate questions of science and belief. What follows are the questions submitted from audience and home viewers, with our own transcription of the gist of Dawkins' answers, plus a summary and paraphrase of contextual exchanges (the original is available at\_AVZA). We then give our own answers and commentary to the points raised.

In doing so we do not wish to imply criticism of the Cardinal, who scored some effective points and gave impressive witness by his willingness as a Prince of the Church to engage seriously with Dawkins on live TV. However, given the questions raised, we feel we have a particular contribution to make, especially as these are issues that deserve longer and more considered responses than a live event allows.

Q: Is it possible for an atheist to be a peace loving, socially responsible person?

Dawkins: "Yes." Christianity has "adopted the best values of humanity, but they don't belong to Christianity or indeed to any other religion. It would be very sad if it were true that you could only be good if you were religious. ... That would mean you got your values from the Bible or the Koran only because you were frightened of God.”... The Bible has "an occasional good verse" but the fundamental idea of the New Testament is that "we are born into sin and the only way we can be redeemed is through the death of Jesus".

FAITH: Of course there are people who sincerely profess to be atheists who also sincerely profess to be peace loving and socially responsible, but the real question is whether atheism gives us a sufficient and coherent basis for social and personal peace. Professor Dawkins says that Christianity has "adopted the best values of humanity". But what is his account of that human identity and meaning from which these values arise? He seems to presume there is an inbuilt and self-evident set of values that derive from human nature.

Catholic moral thinking is based on the rational idea of the Natural Law, which affirms that the fabric of our being is built according to principles of order and harmony, meanings, values and purposes. Ultimately this derives from our relationship to God through creation, and it is only in relationship with God that we fully understand ourselves. In God, too, we find that harmonic order of relationship, which we call grace, that enables us to live as we are intended. God is for us as the environment is to the animals - the source of life, health, happiness and growth to fulfilment. As far as morality goes, the unfolding revelation presented to us in the Bible confirms and clarifies the law that is within us, underlining it with the personal authority of God's infinite Wisdom in a fallenand confused world.

When Dawkins says that Christianity has adopted "the best" human values, he is implying that he has some independent standard for judging what it is to be human. It would be interesting to know the source of his infallibility. We would argue that, like most secular humanists, he is cherry-picking whatever he finds personally comfortable from the heritage of Judaeo-Christianity while leaving aside whatever doesn't suit the tastes and fashions of the times. Whether such a subjective philosophy makes for peace and social responsibility in the long run is a matter of debate. Even those Christian values he wishes to uphold can only last and pass between the generations if they are grounded in a convincing and objective account of human nature. After just a few decades the fruits of thesecularist social experiment leave a great deal to be desired.

Professor Dawkins was then allowed to answer two related questions in a row. His responses were revealing.

Q: If your scientific understanding of why we are here is just for survival, why should we bother?

Dawkins: "We do not have a scientific understanding of why we are here, and we therefore have to make up our own meaning to life. We have to find our own purposes in life, which are not derived directly from our scientific history ... As atheists ... we face up to the fact that... we must make the most of our short time on this planet and ... make this planet as good as we possibly can and try to leave it a better place than we found it".

Q: Without religion, what is the basis of our values? Will we revert to Darwin's idea of survival of the fittest?

Dawkins: "I very much hope we don't revert to the idea of survival of the fittest in planning our policies and our politics and our way of life. I am a passionate Darwinian in explaining why we exist, ... but if we lived our lives in a Darwinian way, that would be a very unpleasant society in which to live ... One of the reasons for learning about Darwinian evolution is as an object lesson in how not to set up our values and our social lives".

FAITH: Well, Professor Dawkins has just confirmed what we said in our first response. His position is undermined by a fascinating self-contradiction. On the one hand he insists that there is nothing other than matter-energy, with patterns of life evolving according to the survival of the fittest. On the other he says we must be above and beyond all that. What, then, is the principle is at work in human nature that sets us apart from the entire heritage of material evolution?

He says there is no meaning or purpose to life, so we simply have to invent one for ourselves, and yet he says we ought to "make the most" of our time here - our city centres on a Friday and Saturday night are evidence that many people are doing precisely that! - and make the world a "good" place to be. We might ask where that obligation comes from? What law within our being commands us to seek what is good and do what is better? And what gold standard of "goodness" is he appealing to when he makes these ethical assertions?

In philosophical terms he denies any notion of the Transcendent - because he rejects what he sees as a flawed system of thought about the meaning of life, although in truth it seems he hardly understands it - only to appeal covertly to transcendent moral ideals in order to construct some new theory of his own, which cannot stand up to scrutiny. He might argue that it should be obvious what is good; unfortunately for the human race, that does not appear to be so. But what meaning can "goodness" and "better" have if nothing transcends the passing moment and the ultimately meaningless flow of material events?

What is most interesting is that he cannot help but implicitly affirm that there is something about human beings that is beyond the patterns of purely material laws. Indeed there is. We are spirit as well as matter, and as St Paul said when he was talking to the best minds of the ancient Greek world in Athens, it is in God that "we live and move and have our being", and in communion with God through Jesus Christ lies our personal and social destiny.

In his answer Cardinal Pell pointed out that science tells us how things happen, but not why we are here, and that to question things is a part of human nature that distinguishes us from animals. Dawkins reaction was as follows:

Dawkins:"... Science is working on the antecedent factors that lead to our existence ... 'Why is there a sense of purpose?' is, in my opinion, not a meaningful [question]... what you can ask is 'What are the causal factors that lead to the existence of mountains ... life ... the universe?' ... You have said it is part of human nature to ask the question 'why?' in the sense of purpose. It may very well be part of human nature, but that does not make it a valid question ... 'Why?' is a silly question!... 'What is the purpose of the universe?' is a silly question. It has no meaning."

FAITH: Frankly, that is a very silly answer! It may be true that the question "why?" is sometimes beyond the strict remit of scientific inquiry, and so is not a valid question for laboratory research, but it is highly relevant to and valid for human existence. Dismissing it out of hand doesn't make the question go away. Asking "why?" is a question that arises from all human observation and is thus inherent to all science, so why should we stop when we come to the ultimate question of why we exist at all? To claim that this question has no meaning is to deny the core of human reasoning.

In fact, once again, the ability to ask "why?" about our own existence and the meaning of the whole existential order is a symptom of the transcendent in man. If we are capable of thinking about the universe as a whole and pondering the context of it all, there must be something about our own minds that is greater than the material cosmos because we can encompass it with our minds and question it. The question does take us beyond the scientific method, which may make someone like Dawkins uncomfortable because human beings cannot answer it from our own mental powers. But that does not make it invalid. It just means that our own minds are not the final measure of everything that is.

There is, in fact, a Mind that is greater than the whole and that defines every meaningful pattern and "causal factor" in creation, including our own identity and destiny. Our own minds can take us to the very boundaries of the universe, but science cannot answer every question. As Shakespeare might have put it: "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Richard."

Q: What proof [of God's existence] would change your mind?

Dawkins began to answer saying: "That's a very difficult and interesting question ...". When Cardinal Pell interjected that the problem for Dawkins is that he only accepts sense experience as proof, the presenter let Dawkins off the hook and turned the question on the Cardinal, asking: "Why would God randomly decide to provide proof of his existence to a small group of Jews 2,000 years ago and not subsequently provide any proof after that?"

FAITH: What happened 2,000 years ago was not God providing proof of his existence: what he gave was proof of his wisdom and love - in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

With regard to God's existence, Catholic teaching is that we can know about God by the light of natural reason from the evidence of creation all around us. In fact we would say that the whole of science, and the whole scientific order of the universe, points to the Mind of God.

When we speak of "evidence" we must look for the kind of evidence that is appropriate to the issue in question. Scientific research looks for physical, "test tube" evidence. Yet it would be absurd to demand that kind of evidence as proof that someone loves you. Love cannot be proved in a test tube. Does that mean that love is unreal? Of course not. We look for evidences of a different order when it comes to personal relationships and decisions.

Material things are relatively easy for our minds to understand. With time and effort, through empirical tests and the insights of clever minds, we can unravel the secrets of material laws. Matter is subject to mind from its very constitution. It is because it is organised by a principle of Mind, Intelligence or Wisdom that it is open to investigation by our own rather more circumscribed minds. But when it comes to people, who exist on an equal level as spiritual persons, we find each other much harder to understand - harder but more fulfilling. Human relationships cannot be reduced to mathematics, but they are no less real for that, and even more vital for our well-being. So when it comes to seeking the ultimate Mind, the first and final cause of everything, we cannot expect simply tofit the answer inside our heads and grasp ultimate Reality with natural human reasoning, let alone within purely material categories of understanding.

We can know by reason that God is real, but to know God in a personal relationship we must rely on God's initiative, on God revealing himself to us and inviting us to know and love him. We believe that throughout history God has invited human beings into friendship and communion with himself, culminating in Jesus Christ, who is God revealed in the flesh.

His coming was specifically prepared for through the Hebrew prophets and the Jewish religion, although with hindsight we see that his coming was planned from before the beginning of the world (cf. Ephesians 1:4,1 Peter 1:20, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Proverbs 8:23). He is the Word of Wisdom in whom creation is conceived, and he is the goal and fulfilment of every aspect of the unfolding cosmos - matter as well as spirit. Everything is aligned upon him like the keystone in a classical arch.

The primary purpose of his Incarnation is that we "might have life and have it to the full" (John 10:10) and that his own joy may be in us (cf. John 15:11). At the same time, in view of the damage and destruction wreaked by human sin, he bore the awful cost of restoring and reconciling all things in his own body and soul. It is through union with him in the Church that we find our true identity, forgiveness for our sins, and the only way to true blessedness in God. This is the true perspective of New Testament Christianity.

Q: If the Big Bang is true, how can something come from nothing?

Dawkins: "Obviously you are not a physicist and nor am I... Of course it's counter-intuitive to say that you can get something from nothing ... My colleague Laurence Kraus ... has written a book about how you can get something from nothing ... something pretty mysterious had to give rise to the origins of the universe ... If you want to replace a physical explanation with an Intelligent God, that's an even worse explanation... It is very mysterious". The presenter then commented that Thomas Aquinas had said "something can't come from nothing". Dawkins replied: "Something can come from nothing ... Matter and antimatter react together to produce nothing. It can work in reverse ... It is not solved by postulating a creative intelligence."

Cardinal Pell then made his best hit of the debate by saying: "Dawkins dumbs down God and soups up Nothing. He continually talks as if God were some sort of upmarket figure in space and time. God is outside space and time; God is necessary, self-sufficient, uncaused... What Kraus ... describes as 'nothing'... [has] forces working upon it".

Dawkins: "You can dispute exactly what is meant by 'nothing' ... What a sophisticated physicist means by nothing is ... much, much simpler than a creative intelligence [something very complicated and very improbable]. We are all struggling ... to explain how we get the fantastic order and complexity of the universe out something very simple ... Krauss calls the substrate of his explanation 'nothing' ... whatever it is, it is very, very simple and therefore is a worthy premise for an explanation, whereas a God, a creative Intelligence, is not a worthy substrate for an explanation because it is already something very complicated ..."

No comeback to this was invited from the Cardinal.

FAITH: Of course Dawkins misses the fundamental point here. We would put it this way:

"The laws of physics, in whatever mathematical formulation we come to express them, do not suddenly start up randomly out of absolute emptiness and then bring in stability and directionality everywhere ... At all times in the history of the universe we are in the presence of an equational harmony of being, and of mutual control and direction within that 'Equation' by which the developing cosmos is held in stable order. In all fields, and in all relationships, from the ecologies of life in field, air, and ocean, to the poising and movements of the galaxies, there is a unity of control and direction. ... This unity of control and direction that harmonises all things at all stages of evolution and in all relationships of being within the whole universe [is what] in Catholicism: A NewSynthesis we call The Unity-Law of the Universe'. To what is this ordered purpose and mutual control of one aspect of being upon another, one form of life upon another, orientated? Just to one purpose and to one peak." [Edward Holloway, Editorial, Faith, May 1984, published in Perspectives In Theology,]

Dawkins is so steeped in the modern Western mindset of reductionism that he thinks that by searching for the simplest substrate to matter he will find the ultimate cause of its existence. What he misses is that at every stage of development, even the simplest matter-energy will always be an ordered system. It is this meaningful and developmental order as a unified system that shows its fundamental relationship to Transcendent Intelligence as its abiding cause and context. In fact, matter at its most basic and generic could simply be called "organised information", which is why Einstein said that the universe is "made of mind stuff". This definition of matter could also be expressed as "matter is that which is controlled and directed by mind".

Dawkins also shows a profound misunderstanding of what "intelligence" means, most probably because of his presumption that consciousness and "mind" are epiphenomena of complex organic structures such as the brain. His image of God seems to be that of a highly developed alien wandering the interstellar spaces like something out of Star Trek or Dr Who.

Q: As a young Catholic scientist, I'd like to ask the Cardinal to clarify the Roman Catholic Church's position on evolution and comment on whether the dichotomy between science and religion is in fact real.

Cardinal Pell began to answer, saying that evolution cannot explain everything, when the presenter interrupted with the question, "Do you accept that we are descended from apes?" When the Cardinal indicated that he had no problem with physical descent from non-human ancestors, the presenter asked: "At what point in this evolutionary scale was a soul imparted to humans from God?" When the Cardinal pointed out that "Adam" and "Eve" are strictly speaking mythological (or symbolic) names, Dawkins seemed to show genuine curiosity:

Dawkins: "I am curious to know, if Adam and Eve never existed, where did original sin come from? ... Successive popes have tried to suggest that the soul did indeed get added, rather like gin into tonic, at some point during evolution ... Now, we have rather a good fossil record from Africa ... at what point does the soul get injected? ..."

FAITH: In 1952 Pius XII did indeed write in Humanae Generis that the Church is not closed to "the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter", but that it "obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God".

And the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms clearly: "The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God - it is not 'produced' by the parents - and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection." (CCC 366)

For a philosophical approach which successfully underpins the Catholic position as well as contemporary insight, we turn again to the 1984 editorial already quoted:

"However wonderfully versatile it may be, the order of purely material life is programmed, controlled and directed through the interplay of the brain with the environment around, within which the brain of any living thing finds the law of its own specific life, its round, its times and its seasons, and responds accordingly, each according to its kind. The answer to the question 'what is Man?' is much more wonderful, and yet so simple in principle, as the things of God always are. In the brain of man there occurs a mutation for power, energy, and 'form' of life which cannot be programmed to the material environment around, because the energy begotten is so totally in excess of the power of that static, deterministic environment to provide a law. For all that 'nature' around can determineis a life bounded by food, procreation, mating and lair building, holding of territory, evading predators, etc. The brain that is to become a constituent of man would be a diseased sport within nature, an energy without a 'form' within the universe to which it was directed, and without a life cycle within the environment around to which it could be programmed for its law of life. Because however versatile the animal brain, however much it mocks the 'intelligence' of true man, it is actually always within the order of the programmed and controlled; it is instinctual and repetitive. It cannot do any 'programming', it is made to be programmed, just as much as any computer is.

"The miracle of man is that the material mutation which is born within nature to be this new form, with this super power of energy in the brain, is by its very nature as physical directed to the order of the spiritual principle, to the soul, made in the likeness of God, and which only God can give. There is no question of God 'deciding' to give this animal a soul. That would be an arbitrary action ... The two principles of being that make man - the material, the body, and the soul - must be mutually made for each other. The physical 'formula' that is the brain of man was ordered in the beginning as the unique and peak achievement of that 'Unity-Law' which framed the universe in exactitude in the moment of the 'Big Bang'. It is the final and utter achievement of that Law of harmonic ascentof being, and in its very physical reality man's body calls for, and is intelligible only in relationship to that personal 'soul' which God alone can create. This 'soul' God must give, under the very Law of His own wisdom in creating, within the womb at the moment of Man. In this way, 'Man' is at once a product of the evolution of the material creation, and is also a special creation, through the soul."

As far as original sin is concerned Dawkins is right to say that if we simply ditch "Adam and Eve" then we cannot credibly maintain the traditional doctrine of original sin as a wound introduced by a historical individual and passed on to all further generations by inheritance. The Magisterium addressed this question too in Humanae Generis. We are not obliged to hold that Adam and Eve are the personal names of identifiable individuals known to history, but we must hold that the first human couple sinned and fell from grace, thereby damaging the integrity and the destiny of human nature itself, a wound which we all inherit.

Q: You [Cardinal Pell] demand a high standard of evidence for global warming. Why do you not demand the same standard of evidence for the existence of God?

In the course of his answer, the Cardinal said that most scientists reject "random selection" as an explanation of evolution. Dawkins intervened:

Dawkins: "I strongly deny that evolution is random selection. Evolution is non-random selection ... It's my life work. There is random genetic variation and non-random survival and non-random reproduction, which is why across the generations animals get better at doing what they do - which is quintessential^ non-random. This does not mean that there is a purpose, in the sense of a human "purpose", a guiding principle which is thought up in advance ... there is a pseudo-purpose".

FAITH: Again this assumes the vast stability of the "non-random" structures of selection for survival and well-being and their meaningful interplay across the whole developmental order of the universe from the beginning, of which the biology of life on our planet forms but one facet. Atheists are so often guilty of smuggling meaning and purpose in by the back door, because it is undeniable on the evidence of nature, while denying that anything really means anything or has any purpose in the first place. It is atheism that is irrational, not belief.

It is incoherent and intellectually dishonest to insist on random mutation and then introduce the idea of "non-random" stability at the environmental level, enabling the purpose of survival. Dawkins is admitting a constructive balance, though for him it is one that comes out of nowhere, being measured against no value system whatever, and grounded in no wider meaning or context.

There is increasing evidence that the language of the genetic code is not arbitrary, nor is it random in its shifting patterns. This should not surprise us. The genetic material is formed out of and is itself part of the massive structure of stability and meaningful data that is the fabric of matter-energy in the space-time continuum. All mutations occur at the level of a syntax derived from that atomic-molecular-biochemical order. Genes are not closed off from and independent of the environment in which they operate. There is now considerable evidence of feedback mechanisms from the environment to the chromosomes. The French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) may have expressed things crudely and inaccurately in his ideas of evolutionary change, but it is emerging that he wasnot wholly wrong.

However, we do not look for proofs of God's intervention in this or that ordered pattern or creative venture within the system.

That is what the supporters of the Intelligent Design school do and we think it a mistake. Rather we see the whole universe as dynamically poised for coherence and developmental order from the very start. Genes are just part of the bigger picture of chemical elements and physical wave-particles framed according to mathematical principles that we are only just beginning to understand. Professor Dawkins says he is looking for the simplest underlying cause to everything. If he keeps looking he may find that it is possible to reduce everything to mathematics from a certain point of view, but what is that except a language of the mind? Ultimately we would have to say "in the beginning was the Mind", or to put that in the Greek idiom "In the beginning was the Word"!

Q: I am an atheist. What do you think will happen when I die? How do you know?

As the Cardinal began to answer about the importance of searching for truth, following a good conscience and not doing evil acts, the presenter interrupted asking, "Is atheism an evil act?"

FAITH: A conscious decision to reject God as an act of self-assertion against what you know or suspect to be true but find inconvenient or morally challenging would indeed be sinful. But that is a different matter from having genuine perplexity and lack of belief. We all have questions, things we don't fully understand, although a question is different from a doubt, which is a positive will to disbelief.

Quite often atheism is based on misunderstandings about what it is we are being asked to believe. To many atheists one might say: "I don't believe in the God you don't believe in." Professor Dawkins' intellectual vision of Christianity seems based on post-Victorian Anglicanism and American Evangelicalism. His notion of God and Christian faith is often based on deep ignorance as well as prejudice. Sometimes Christian believers themselves are responsible for giving a false impression or deficient account of their faith, and indeed they may give scandal to others that create barriers to belief. We are taught that God sees and takes account of all.

The presenter asked: "Can an atheist go to heaven?"

We do not know and cannot judge the consciences of individuals as to why they may be atheists. But God is in fact the supreme Reality, in whom we "live and move and have our being", so to live without that relationship is to be like a plant cut off from the sunshine. Fortunately for all of us, God can still get through the clouds of our ignorance and wilfulness, and if we sincerely search for truth and goodness then we will find what we are looking for.

In the end there is only one Truth and one source of Life in its fullness and that is Jesus Christ, but there may be many and sometimes tortuous routes that people take to find him. He may well have mercy on us as individuals, especially if others have put a block in our path to him, but if we ourselves put up barriers to shut God out, we are undoubtedly harming our spirits and risking our eternal souls.


Other questions arose which space does not allow us to explore here. At one point the discussion led to an exchange about the meaning of the resurrection of the body and Catholic teaching about the Holy Eucharist. We offer some lines of thought on that part of the debate in our Truth Will Set You Free column.

What is very clear from this debate is that the likes of Dawkins can be answered, but for the most part he is not being answered in a way that shows the credibility of Catholic belief in a scientific age. Like so many of his fellow fashionable atheists he bases his attack on Christianity on a very partial understanding of Christian belief.

Simply reasserting Catholic orthodoxy in the language of traditional catechesis is not going to be enough to re-evangelise our culture. We need a new development of Catholic theology and philosophy which is true to the defined teaching of the Church and which can also answer the valid and sincere questions which have far-reaching implications for Christian faith. We hope we have been able to show that we already have at least the outlines of such a new development, not from our own cleverness to be sure, but received as a gift and legacy from others - ultimately, we would claim, from the prompting of God for the needs of our times.

Faith Magazine