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Bloody Pell! Q&A stoush with Dawkins fails to bridge the gap between faith and science

Cardinal George Pell needs to sharpen his ideas if he’s going to take on science populist Richard Dawkins. Mark Coggins/AAP/Dean Lewins

Watching the Q&A “debate” between Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell made me realise, for the first time, why Professor Dawkins has become so impatient and intolerant when expressing his atheism. His exasperation with narrow mindedness and wilful ignorance is as understandable as it is palpable.

If you are seriously going to go head to head with a leading scholar in his field – one who has written some of the best popular science books ever written – you really should know your facts. And aside from some of the more bigoted attitudes Cardinal Pell exhibited, which have understandably been the focus in the press, the most embarrassing moment in the debate came when he suggested that we had descended from Neanderthals.

Natural, not random, selection

It is probably one of the most grievous intellectual errors anybody can make to reject a position without knowing anything about it.

That error is compounded if you then purport to accept the position as “probably” true, but get the fundamental details wrong! This is not the kind of example we should set to our youngsters about how to pursue one of the greatest debates ever known in the history of humankind.

And as Dawkins rightly pointed out, the Cardinal repeated a prevalent misunderstanding about the doctrine of natural selection, namely, that we are here by chance. We are not. Natural selection is not a random process.

As Dawkins has explained, one of the assumptions that inclined English philosopher William Paley – and many people who are not aware of the power of Darwin’s evolutionary theory to explain life – to believe there must have been a designer was the notion that is impossible for something as complex, and as beautiful as the eye to have come about “by chance”. The probability assumed by a belief to the contrary, the argument goes, is just too great.

This assumption is one of the chief sources of bewilderment motivating the belief that there must have been some designer who is responsible for it. It is also one of the main reasons for the continuing rejection, by some, of Darwin’s alternative explanation of life.

But, as Dawkins points out, the belief that Darwin is committed to the view that complex natural things like the eye came about “by chance” is gravely mistaken. The eye itself is a result of a cumulative series of evolutionary steps, each of which consists of only a simple mutation.

It is, therefore, only simple, not complex, things that come about “by chance”. The probabilities assumed by Darwin are not great at all.

But more than this, the simple thing that comes about by chance, and is passed on genetically through several generations, is not passed on by chance either. Rather, it is “selected” by nature as the change or mutation that better enables its bearer (the organism possessing the mutated gene) to survive.

This combination of random mutation and non-random selection is the mechanism by which evolution occurs. It offers an explanation that is not saddled with any of the difficulties which motivated belief in the existence of a designer.

Religion for scientists

Where does that leave religion? I can only speak of Christianity, for that is the religion I know.

It is important to note that there a number of different takes on the doctrine of Christianity, all of which inform some church practice or another.

On the version of which I am fond, it rewrites the creation story in a fashion that is consistent with the creation of a new religion. The first verse in the Gospel of John, for example, speaks of “the word” as the source of life. And that, of course, is the message Jesus Christ said he came to bring: “I have come so that you might find life in all its fullness.”

It is not difficult to see that there may be some usurpation of a traditional belief system going on here.

Another interesting statement is this: “I and the Father are one”. This could mean many things, but one thing it could mean is: “forget about a metaphysical fairy in the sky. The way to divine happiness is to lead your life in the spirit that I lead mine, where you put others before your own interests, love rather than hate your enemies, turn the other cheek rather than exact revenge, etc. If you need to believe in God, I’ll be your God. But the most important thing is to live your life like I do.”

It’s a significant challenge, one that not many of us can live up to, but it certainly isn’t open to the kinds of objections that Dawkins makes, and there are churches that take this to be the essence of Christianity.

It is in this sense that Christianity is compatible with science. Is it just possible that the real Christian message has been lost by our having taken it in the wrong way?

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