How do you think? Lessons from Q&A (ABC1, 9 April 2012).

Last night’s Q&A show comprised only two panellists, Prof Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell. Plenty of people were excited about it, and it was billed as a kind of definitive discussion on the debate between religion (specifically Catholicism in this instance) and atheism. This isn’t going to be a post about science and atheism, there are plenty of blogs out there that deal with all that (including Dawkins’ own).

The whole show is available on the Q&A website, if you’re interested in watching it, or reading the transcript. It was not a fair fight. Religion, by its nature, is indefensible because there is no evidence for what is being said. So Pell was on the back foot from the very start. However, Pell did himself absolutely no favours any time he opened his mouth. He had some very ‘woolly thinking’, to borrow a phrase from my PhD supervisor.

The audience was confused between biology and theoretical physics. Dawkins is a biologist. Asking him to explain the big bang is the same as asking Pell to discuss the intricacies regarding Allah’s teachings in the Koran. It’s simply not his jurisdiction (or, field of expertise). Why people expect Dawkins to have all the answers to questions that physicists don’t even have yet is beyond me.

Dawkins may have been jet lagged, but Pell had no such excuse. The more time Pell had to discuss an answer to a question, the more contradictions and inconsistencies became apparent. Human evolution seemed to bamboozle him, when it should have been straightforward, as the teachings he subscribes to say that God created humans. His comment that he “probably” believed that evolution is true, and his suggestion that modern H. sapiens, as a species, is descended from H. neanderthalensis, is damaging for two reasons. The first is that it goes against Catholic dogma and teachings, which I’d assume he’d uphold. Second, it highlights how ignorant he is on the topic of human evolution, of which, if he ‘probably’ believed it, he should at least know the basics. Dawkins didn’t quite know what to say, so he asked “Why Neanderthals?” Pell: “well, who else would you suggest?”. Hmmm.

Dawkins gets derided for coming across as pompous and being too provocative. But last night, he was neither and he need not have said a word. Pell dug himself into holes and tripped over himself numerous times. Perhaps it was nerves, I don’t know. What this highlighted to me was that I was seeing the result of learning in two completely different ways. In the bios on the Q&A site, I learned that both men were born in the same year, and both received numerous degrees, including PhDs. Yet, while Dawkins has spent his professional life developing his ability to critically question the world around him, develop his skills of analysis and sharpen his inquiring mind, Pell was indoctrinated into accepting that God was the answer to everything, and therefore there is no need to question anything.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

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