Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dawkins, religion, and some Australian politicians

There was an interesting panel discussion on tv last night: ABC's Q and A (subtitled Adventures In Democracy) - you can view the telecast at their website here.  The panellists were:

- Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, currently visiting Australia;
- Julie Bishop, deputy leader of the (conservative) opposition;
- Steve Fielding, conservative independent MP who holds a critical balance of power position in the Senate;
- Tony Burke, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry;
- Jacqueline Ninio, a (very!) liberal rabbi, not elderly but not young;
- professor Patrick McGorry, mental health expert and Australian of the Year.

Most of the discussions revolved around evolution (/creationism) and religious belief (/atheism).

Those discussions drew their basis in a series of questions from the studio audience (obviously hand-picked to cover a spectrum while having something to say) and live questions from the internet.

The results were surprising in some ways.

Richard Dawkins, very precise and learned, garnered the most frequent and the most sustained applause from the varied studio audience.  He was very cogent in his reasoning and insightful in his points.  Yet he was consistently maladept - almost autistic - in his people skills.  He claimed - quite wrongly - to be respecting other peoples' point of view, or right to hold that point of view.  He claimed a courtesy/respect that he didn't notice he wasn't paying.  Having said that, in other ways he did garner the most respect from the studio audience.

Jacqueline Ninio (rabbi) came across as particularly intelligent and thoughtful.  She went out of her way to respect alternative opinions, yet didn't come across as particulary wishy washy.  She had a religious leader's respect for religion, yet a real thinker's approach to comparative religion and philosophy.

Tony Burke (primary industries minister) was a surprise - to those who have not seen him in action (myself included).  He was a particularly practical, down-to-earth man, while showing a high level of thoughtfulness and intelligence - a bit like a farmer's temperament with a professor's thoughtfulness.  He very sharply pulled up Dawkins for the latter's ill-considered claim to respecting others' view.  Yet at the same time, he wouldn't have strongly disagreed with most of Dawkins' words - apart, maybe, from the strident atheism.

Patrick McGorry (professor of mental health) tried to - and succeeded in - avoiding controversy.  His most memorable contributions were when he was called upon for some thoughts on the mental health aspects of such topics as religion and asylum seekers.

Julie Bishop (deputy opposition leader) displayed intelligence, by and large.  On occasion she could be caught out falling back on her conservative, religious background.  But she was by no means the worst offender, who was...

Steve Fielding (independent - Family First - MP).  Let's face it: the bloke is a clown.  The only reason he is ever paid any attention to anywhere is because of his - accidental - pivotal role in federal politics.  On occasion he claims to have a science degree, but it was really engineering, and he displayed an appalling lack of interest in, or understanding of, science.  To make matters worse, he vascillated on pretty much everything.  He patently found himself an intellectual midget on the panel - and, no doubt, as compared to those in the studio audience. He persistently refused to tie himself down to any belief or understanding at all, and fell back on the "everybody has their right to..." mantra, especially when directly asked for his own views.  He professed to being a creationist, but when pressed as to whether or not he was a young earth creationist (ie the world is less than ten thousand years old), his evasion suggested he hadn't even thought about it.

As a visitor and internationally the most well-known of the panel, Dawkins was obviously the centre of attention for the evening - not because he intentionally monopolised the conversation, but because he was called upon for comment so much - to the point, in fact, that much of the discussion was reaction to his comments.

Yet it was particularly worthwhile to hear the contributions of Burke and Nunio, both of whom consistently instilled levelheadedness to the discussions.

Conversely, Fielding was the comic relief; the only way he could have avoided that would have been to refuse to say anything.

It's worth listening to the whole of the discussion, to gain insight into those people, those topics, and in particular how different people approach those issues differently.