The Encounter of Faith and Atheism

Fr. Varghese Paul, SJ
I saw a unique programme on You Tube more than once. The hour-long programme was originally telecast by Australian Television ABC on April 9, 2012 under the title Questions and Answers. Now it is available on You Tube to see anytime anywhere in the world. Two things in the programme specially attracted me. First, the topic of the programme: The Encounter of Faith and Atheism. Second, the two eminent personalities, who were answering the questions: Mr. Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell. Both the individuals are well known persons distinguished in their chosen fields.
Both Mr. Dawkins and Cardinal Pell answered questions on a wide range of topics of interest to people of our times. The first parents Adam and Eve, Life after Death, Heaven for Atheists and Rationalists, God’s Love and Justice, Darwin’s Faith in God and his Theory of Evaluation, the Existence of God, the Beginning of the Universe, etc. were a few of the topics of the questions on which both Mr. Dawkins and Cardinal Pell spoke with intellectual acumen. They both deeply impressed the audience. Before we face the questions and their answers let us get briefly acquainted with both the eminent speakers.


Mr. Richard Dawkins is a well known author of a book on atheism entitled The God Delusion. He is an expert scientist on Darwin’s theory of evaluation. Cardinal George Pell is the Archbishop of Sidney, Australia and a well known and articulate person in the Christian world and beyond. Both of them answered questions from the select audience and from others through video. They also answered questions from the moderator, who raised supplementary questions.
The intellectual encounter of both the eminent personalities was very interesting from beginning to the end and obviously the people in the audience were sitting on the edge of their seats with total attention and eagerness to listen to the two speakers. The theoretical, intellectual and religious thoughts raised in the question-answer programme were both inspiring and challenging.
Mr. Dawkins answered the questions about the theory of evaluation. Responding to Mr. Dawkins’ intellectual explanations Cardinal spoke about two things. First, Christians are not against the theory of evaluation; there are Christians and Christian scientists who uphold the evaluation theory. But the theory of evaluation does not give adequate and satisfactory answers to the question of existence. Human existence is not completely explained scientifically by the theory of evaluation. Second, we have information about Darwin’s faith in God, which challenges Mr. Dawkins words about Darwin’s atheism.

“This our great universe and all the beautiful living beings in it came into existence by themselves. Or they could not help themselves but come into existence. This was not so far Darwin,” Cardinal Pell said.
Mr. Dawkins countered Cardinal Pell saying that what Cardinal said about Darwin is not true at all. Cardinal Pell challenged Mr. Dawkins’ assertion. He asked Mr. Dawkins to read Darwin’s autobiography page number 90 as proof of his position on Darwin. The audience applauded Cardinal Pell for challenging Mr. Dawkins and proving his position.
In his autobiography Darwin wrote:
“Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason, and not with feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backward and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intellectual mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.” (Quote from “Charles Darwin views on God, religion and religious belief from his autobiography and letters)
When Mr. Dawkins tried to deny the existence of God on the basis of Darwin’s theory of evaluation, Cardinal Pell demolished Dawkins’ argument with Darwin’s own words about the existence of God! An interesting question was put to Cardinal Pell: Will the atheists be saved? Will they get into heaven? What answer Cardinal Pell could give as he believes that Jesus Christ is the only Son of God and his Saviour and he proclaims the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus. Did Cardinal Pell answer asking the atheist to believe in Jesus Christ and in the Gospel which Jesus preached? No. Not at all.
Instead Cardinal Pell said that there is place in heaven for those atheists who deny the existence of God if they are really seeking the Truth. The thing that makes a person worthy of heaven is his or her relationship with truth, goodness and beauty.
In ‘Genesis’ the first book of the Bible there is the story of Adam and Eve as the first human beings. Cardinal Pell was asked if those first man and woman were real human beings? Were they real historical figures? For Christian the Bible is the Word of God and so the question was like an invitation to play with fire. For, what Bible says cannot be wrong as the Word of God. On the other hand, if Adam and Eve are portrayed as historical beings as human person, then the enlightened scientists like Dawkins will object. In this situation the answer given by Cardinal Pell was enlightening and won the admiration of the television audience and their enthusiastic approval.
“The very first human beings Adam and Eve are not historical man and woman. They are not historical figures but they are characters a historical story. This biblical story of Adam and Eve is a legend with a message. The message is that, God is the Creator of the whole universe. God created human beings endowed with freedom and intellect. But the created human beings with pride rose against the Creator. The legend of the first-parents, Adam and Eve is precisely a practical story meant to convey this message,” Cardinal Pell explained.
If there are no first human beings Adam and Eve, then there is no original sin. Answering such argument of Dawkins, Cardinal Pell said that if there are men and women, there was a first man and first woman. The original sin does not depend the historical existence of Adam and Eve. The original sin means an understandable expression of the duel of good and bad in our human mind.
Here we may recall the words of St. Paul to understand further the meaning of original sin. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “I don’t do the good I want to do; instead, I do the evil that I do not want to do. If I do what I don’t want to do, this means that I am no longer the one who does it; instead, it is the sin that live in me” (Rom. 7, 19-20). As I see like St. Paul the duality, we experience in our mind, is sufficient to understand the original sin.
Both Mr Richard Dawkins and Cardinal Pell gave their answers to the questions of the existence of God. For Dawkins the existence of God cannot be proved scientifically. Therefore God does not exist. But Cardinal Pell’s answer to the existence of God catches our attention. The existence of God is beyond the experiments of science. But on the basis of the Son of God Jesus’ words, the existence of can be reached by the reasons of human intellect. But that path of human intelligence to the existence of God is inspired by the faith.