Religion and Atheism on Q&A

Australia has no state religion and, like the U.S., its constitution prohibits the federal government from establishing any religion or interfering with freedom of religion. Unlike in Miami, you don’t see a church on every other corner, but you do see more divisions along ethnicity. For example, the Chinese Christian Church and the Arabic Baptist Church. As secular as it appears, Australia is predominantly Christian and minority religions here face similar issues as those in the States.

Last year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on rising bigotry. A report by the Australian Human Rights Commission revealed distrust and hostility towards Muslims and Pagans.

It says there is a current of anti-Muslim discourse that suggests an entrenched hostility often related to overseas events. Meanwhile, genuine religious differences have not become any easier to manage. Pagans (nature-based religions, such as Wicca) in particular claim to face prejudice and discrimination.

It’s really no wonder then that minority religions are rarely considered in mainstream religious discourse. By religion, what the media really means is Christianity and, occasionally, Judaism and Islam. And so it was this week on the Australian talk show Q&A.

On Easter Monday no less, Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, and atheist Richard Dawkins went head-to-head on history, faith, God, and religion. That is, the Christian concept of god and Christianity. Overall, it was an entertaining show. Both Cardinal Pell and Dawkins made interesting points and could barely hide their disdain for one another. I expected Dawkins to be obnoxious (he often is), but Cardinal Pell certainly gave him a run for his money.

The audience members posed some good questions: How are values dependent on the existence of god? On what basis can an atheist be peace loving and socially responsible? Is religion (i.e. Christianity) a force for good? What values could we have without religion? What happens when we die? Why is there suffering in the world? Cardinal Pell was also challenged with questions about evolution, climate change, and gay marriage, while Dawkins was confronted on his use of the label “atheist” for shock value.

Both men are intelligent and prepared, but stumbled in various ways. Cardinal Pell seemed simply at a loss for words at times. I was most surprised by his assertion that the story of Adam and Eve is a mythological account and not literal. Dawkins was quick to challenge him on this because the story of Adam and Eve forms the basis for the Christian doctrine of original sin, which requires redemption, the cornerstone of Western Christian theology. Due to Eve’s tempting of Adam with the forbidden fruit, a Christian tradition of misogyny developed that led early Church Fathers to question whether woman even had a soul and helped to justify the persecution of “witches”. It really sweeps the rug from under you to hear the Church admit it’s just a metaphor.

As for Dawkins, he does what many atheists do; he discusses religion within the frame of Christianity. This is to be expected from Cardinal Pell, but inadequate for an atheist, even a cultural Christian one. Even as Cardinal Pell suggested that Christianity and evolution do not have to be entirely mutually exclusive, Dawkins cannot concede the same point. In his narrow view of religion – that is, Christianity – there is no room for science, and in his framework for science, there is little room for human needs that have led to the natural development of spirituality. I wonder if he’s ever explored the evolution of spirituality and religion. Dawkins rejects personal gnosis and  is dismissive of the life questions people ask themselves every day.

Why?” is a silly question. “Why?” is a silly question. You can ask, “What are the factors that led to something coming into existence?” That’s a sensible question. But “What is the purpose universe?” is a silly question. It has no meaning.

Did you catch Q&A this week? What did you think of the show? If you haven’t seen it, you can still catch the show on the Q&A website or read the transcript.

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