Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Atheist Richard Dawkins vs Cardinal George Pell on Q&A

I enjoyed the debate between atheist Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell on Q&A last night. Being an atheist myself, I just couldn't be swayed by many of Pell's arguments. However he certainly landed some punches.

One point in particular struck me as very powerful. The transcript's not yet up so I'll just go from memory on this. They were talking about hell, and Pell related a story in which a kid asked him about who would have ended up there. Pell suggested Hitler. He then went on to opine that if someone as clearly evil as him just got the same "punishment" (that is, death) as everyone else then it would be a terribly unjust universe.

That's not proof of the existence of God, of course. But it's certainly a good reason to have religion, particularly one like Christianity that lays out some sort of final judgement -- with clear consequences -- on how good or bad a person's life has been. I mean, hell, if megalomaniac mass murderers don't get punished for what they do then why should anyone even try to be good?

Now some non-religious types might argue that there is still some kind of universal justice at work since people like this are punished during their lifetimes by being inherently miserable, deeply angry, shunned or whatever. But quite often such A-grade arseholes are happy as Larry! They can have good health, be very popular, and sleep very well. They don't suffer a guilty conscience because they don't have a conscience in the first place. In any case they don't think that what they're doing is bad, wrong, or evil. If anything, they see themselves as heroic crusaders for good. 

And that gets back to the idea of original sin. Dawkins and many other atheists bristle at this Christian idea that we are somehow inherently bad, and that we have to redeem ourselves. But while I don't agree with the details of it, I think original sin is a very good and useful concept. You just have to look at nature to know why.

Nature is obviously amoral. It's just a rolling shit-fight, let's face it. Animals are brutal, craven beings. They just get what they want in whatever way they can without any concern for other creatures except those of their own species (and even that consideration doesn't hold very often).

At our core that's what we humans are like, too. Just look at what happens when civilizing influences disappear, such as in the wake of a natural disaster. They can even happen when they're still there, but have been heavily eroded. The London riots are a case in point.

Sure, it's not only religion that gives us these inner restraints. Atheists can still be good people. That said, religion is still one of the best ways of creating and maintaining them. While we do live in a secular society here in Australia, many of our moral laws and ideals come from Christianity. They work very well and we should keep them. It would be a horrible place without them.

So, just from a very pragmatic point of view, I think Christianity in particular, and religion in general, are very civilizing. I don't subscribe to them in an official way by joining one church or another, but I certainly respect them, and I respect the right of people to follow their faiths. If religious types started trying to ram their beliefs down my neck then my feelings would be different, of course. But I've never once been sermonized to about how defective I am for being an atheist by any religious person in my life. Ironically, the closest thing I've ever heard to a sermon is from zealous atheists bitching about how evil and wrong religion is, and who would clearly be a lot happier it were outlawed.


  1. Two points you fail to make Matt. Religion preaches forgiveness so shouldn't even Hitler be given that concession? He was a victim of a brutal childhood and was made by his parents into the monster he became so shouldn't he be forgiven for this reason? How civilised is the notion of revenge and who decides who gets forgiven and who gets sent to hell? There will always be wrong-doers on the planet due to bad parenting, religion has and never will control that. (Many wrong-doers are religious anyway!)Secondly, religion is very civilising except if you are a woman. Many religions still place men at the top of the tree (all the heroes of Christianity are men - except for the whore and the virgin!) Women are second-class citizens within most organised religions and that's not very civilised. And shall we talk about the treatment of gays....

    1. Forgiving people who've committed wrongs is an admirable goal but it is often a lot easier said than done. And ordering the slaughter of several millions people is a pretty severe moral transgression no matter how you look at it!

      That's why I don't think Hitler should be forgiven. And I suspect that while many religious people including Christians do believe strongly in forgiveness they would be more than willing to make an exception in his case.

      Re the "abused child" excuse: You've got to be joking, right?

      But if you're not, the obvious counter is that the vast majority of abused children don't grow up to be anywhere near as destructive as Hitler was. And some of them who suffered far more than he did ultimately become comparatively well adjusted and even quite happy individuals.

      I think labeling the belief that someone like Hitler should be punished as "revenge" is missing the point. It's more about justice. I think the idea that he should suffer for the suffering he caused is just. And it's certainly a lot more civilized than making excuses for what he did and saying he should be forgiven and receive a "get out of jail free card".

      That said, I don't believe in God, heaven or hell so I don't think he was punished, unfortunately. But I can see the value of having a belief system in which people do feel that they will be punished for the destructive, brutal things that they do. If becoming religious is the way someone gets to that point, I'm okay with that.

      And yes, religious people do a lot of bad things, sometimes in the name of religion. But exactly the same can be said of atheists.

      Yes, many religions have a bad track record when it comes to the treatment of women (and gays) but they vary greatly. For example, Christianity is way ahead of Islam on these particular issues (as well as several others).

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I guess it all depends on how you see hell. Certainly God offers forgiveness to everyone but there are conditions attached. You have to be genuinely contrite for a start.

      Hell, though, is not a place God consigns anyone to. It is a place or state of being to which people consign themselves through the exercise of their free will.

      People are free to accept or reject God. Sin is the rejection of God. The Catholic Church teaches there are two forms of sin - mortal and venial. Mortal sin destroys sanctifying grace and opens the door to hell to anyone who wants to enter. All they need do is continue to reject God.

      There has to be a debate, however, as to what constitutes mortal sin. Is a teenager who misses Mass on Sunday going to warrant the same fate as Hitler? Of course not. It is the acceptance or rejection of God on which our fate depends.

      Finally, you mentioned treatment of gays. I think they have taken solid revenge on the church - men who assault post pubescent boys are gay and gay priestly assaulters have almost succeeded in dealing Catholicism a killing blow in the west.

      (deleted the previous post due to a missing word that altered the context.)

  2. Wanting something to be true has no bearing on whether or not something actually IS true. We may prefer to imagine that Hitler will be punished in some sort of hellish after-life, but wanting this to be so is not evidence for it actually being so; unjust and unfair as it may seem. It is not at all obvious that the universe owes any one of us "justice", nor is there any evidence that it wants any particular individual to suffer...or to prosper for that matter. This may seem disconcerting to some who don't like to look at the world as it really is; so what?
    The sum total of human and animal sufferring throughout the history of life on this planet, via natural disasters, disease, and famine, is of such a magnitude and scale that it would, as Sam Harris has pointed out, embarass the most ambitious psychopath (Hitler included). If one is to believe a "God" is responsible for designing all of this, then to whom should God answer for his role in setting up the fundamentals of this mess? And, excuse me for politely rejecting the "explanation" that some devilish creature known as "Satan" is the root of the problem, but I'd rather not view my life as some sort of Lord Of The Rings power struggle between invisible forces of good and evil; credulity piled upon absurdity bordering on insanity believed by the millions.
    As Dawkins remarked, the meaning of life is the meaning WE give it, and following from that, I say that justice and fairness is something WE must try to engineer into this mess to whatever extent that we can and to the best of our ability. It's an ongoing project and it doesn't come from the the supernatural or the spiritual. It comes from us wanting to create the type of world in which WE would want to live our own short lives. Yes human beings are capable of doing some terrible things, but we are also capable of being very nice too...a lot nicer than this creature "God" I keep hearing about.

    1. Totally agree that the meaning of life is the meaning WE give it. And if that's completely rational, scientific and defiantly non-mystical fine.

      But it's also fine if you want to give your life meaning through religion. Makes for more variety and diversity (something so many atheist lefties say they want, but actually abhor in reality).

      As long as you're not hurting people merely for not obeying the meaning that you give your life, then you can be as wacky as all get out as far as I'm concerned.

  3. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
    You are confused between religion and biblical christianity.
    Suggest you people seek some answers from God's word.
    eg "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God"
    Hence we all deserve to go to hell unless we are forgiven.
    "Its not God's will that any should perish but all should come to a saving knowledge of jesus Christ"
    If you don't believe in a hell why would you need a saviour?

  4. I think that individual atheists can certainly be good people. But I don't think an atheist society can be a good society. Atheism's track record is very poor - Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. Atheism seems to remove moral restraints from government. To an atheist politician telling lies is just a legitimate political tactic. Killing people who present an obstacle to a government is merely an unfortunate necessity. It's easy to justify atheism intellectually, but in practice it doesn't seem to work except at an individual level.

  5. @dfordoom: as Richard Dawkins will point out, motivation is key: the Mao, Stalin & Pol Pot regimes, although atheist, were not motivated to commit their atrocities because they were atheist. In other words, there is no logic path that goes from being an atheist to committing atrocities.

    On the other hand, religion does provide a logic path: christians killing muslims & muslims killing christians.

  6. So you support it as some sort of Santa Claus... for adults? "Be good or you'll get coal". And you think that could prevent more Hitlers?

    You don't believe in a god - so do you choose to do evil? If not, why not?

    Don't get me wrong. I used to think exactly like you - that religion was good... for other people. But I'd have to think myself superior to the masses in order to maintain that viewpoint.

  7. Pell's theology is surprisingly sketchy.

    There are numerous Biblical reference to counter his view, but for the time-poor, read the case of the "thief and the Cross" (Luke Ch.23 v.32-43).

    It not only debunks purgatory (i.e.: "This day you will be with me in paradise", no waiting rooms) but it is also one of the hinges of the widely accepted doctrines that a simple confession of sin and/or plea to Christ - 'and/or' depending on your denomination - are all that are required to ensure your place in heaven. In other words, if Hitler made a private deathbed confession in his bunker, according to the Bible he's in heaven right now.

    To quote the thief on the cross (anecdotally named Didymus) "we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong... Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom"


    You're in heaven.

    Christianity provides no more robust a foundation for morality than Darwinism.

  8. Self-righteous Christians almost always bring up the furphy about Hilter Stalin Mao etc etc.
    But what about all the slaughters which were a never ending feature of Christian history prior to the Second World war? All of those slaughters were "authorized" by the ecclesiastical establishments of their time and place - every warring party faction claimed to have "god-on-their-side".
    And he decades long post Reformation wars between the Protestants and Catholics in which hundreds of thousands were slaughtered and much of Europe ruined.
    And what about the Papal Bulls of 1455 and 1493 which "authorized" in the "name-of-god" the brutal colonial conquest of the America's, and by extension the entire world.
    And what about the brutal history of the British empire as described in britains empire by Richard Gott.
    And the fact that Christian America (supposedly the most "religious" of Western nations) is, by a very long country mile, the worlds largest maker, owner, seller and user of weapons of all kinds, including WMD's.
    And the fact that it was Christian Europe that gave the entire world both of the world wars.
    Applied Christian politics 101

  9. As a committed atheist from long before it was trendy (and that after I was dux of my catholic school and topped biblical studies) there is one thing that gets to me - I am never going to get to say "I told you so" when I die. Glad to hear I can still go to heaven though - just shows what a joke it all is. I have always said in Groucho Marx fashion that I could never believe in any god that allows the amount of suffering that goes on on this planet (animal and human) and have no trouble with where morality comes from - most aspects of what we generally refer to as morality would have assisted humans during evolution.