Since some episodes are good and others bad, I could never see the point of being either a declared friend or enemy of Q&A. But the bad have so thoroughly outnumbered the good this year that I’m about ready to concede it’s not worth watching. It hit rock bottom last night with what had been billed (at the end of last week’s show) as a discussion that tackles ‘the existence of God and the great moral challenges of our time.’
In fact, the panel didn’t debate the existence of God at all, apart from one set piece by John Lennox about the complementarity of science and religion. Lennox was the only intellect of substance on the panel. He’s an Oxford mathematician and Christian apologist, who’s debated many of the prominent atheists, including Dawkins, Hitchens, and Michael Shermer. In addition to his debating skills and knowledge, Lennox benefits from a happy combination of scholarly gravitas and disarming humility, the latter aided by a charming Irish brogue which is in winning contrast to the superior English accents of Dawkins and Hitchens.
He also helps his case by outdoing his atheistic opponents in his enthusiam for scientific enquiry, and by agreeing emphatically with any criticism they make evils committed by fundamentalists and extremist Christians. In short, if you need someone to bat for your Christian God against a convincing atheist in front of a sophisticted audience, Lennox is your man; indeed he’s in Australia to debate Peter Singer in the Melbourne Town Hall tomorrow. So it would have been nice if they could have found some adversaries who, even if not of the same calibre, were at least willing to bare their claws.
But it was not to be: there was no Singer, Dawkins or Hitchens (though all three have been on the program), nor anyone in their league. It wasn’t just that Eva Cox and John Safran are lightweights, but that neither of them had any interest in refuting theism or criticising religion. Cox was more interested in establishing her credentials as an enlightened champion of pluralism, and Safran in demonstrating his limited comedic talent. They both bent over backwards to agree with Lennox that the ‘new atheists’ are the real zealots and enemies of social harmony. The only moment of uncomfortable disagreement in the whole evening arose over whether Muslim face-covering was oppressive, and that was amongst the theists themselves — the nonbelievers siding with the Muslim.
If religion amounted to no more than innocuous private beliefs, whether vague speculations about the life-force of the universe and the eternal interconnectedness of all being, or more precise claims about God the creator and saviour, why would any dissenter feel it necessary to waste time contesting such propositions? Even when the claims are testable, for example the story of the flood or the dictation of the Quran, there’s no point in getting into fights with believers or criticising their rituals as long as they don’t affect anyone else.
But when religion gives rise to actions that harm or limit the freedom of others, that’s when it’s time to call its practitioners and defenders to account. I desperately wanted someone to ask Jacqueline Grey, the ‘Pentecostal scholar’ for her views on evolution and gays, or to ask Susan Carland if she thinks Muslim apostates should be killed or cartoonists reined in. Lennox’s own views seems pretty harmless, but I wish someone had interrogated him on where he stands on the doctrine of Hell, and whether children should be taught to fear it as a consequence of denying Jesus.
Maybe Tony Jones would have steered things in a more interesting direction than Virginia Trioli did, but the producers deserve the blame for a crummy panel and selection of questions. Next time I’ll watch it on the strength of the panel; never again on the basis of the topic. And yes, you told me so.
Udate: Kim from LP must have seen a different show.