An hour of my life stolen

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.

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9 Responses to An hour of my life stolen

  1. Pappinbarra Fox says:

    I didn’t watch it but I have read this critique and the discussion over on Lavatus Prodeo and I cannot make up my mind whether I am sorry I missed it or glad I did, either way I no longer have faith in my own opinion.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I gave up watching QandA over a year ago when it seemed that they were completely lost if they couldn’t steer the conversation into a Government v Opposition point scoring exercise. As if there’s a shortage of that kind of stuff around?

    Panel shows generally are pretty awful I think. I think if you’re sitting up there in front of a few hundred people you should put a bit more effort into it than just having a bit of a chat.

  3. James Farrell says:

    Thanks for the LP tip, PF: I’ve updated with a link.

    Nicholas, I agree in general. But this particular episode wasn’t about politics, far less a point-scoring exercise. It was just low quality, and ducked the real issues because that happened to suit all participants.

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I forgot to mention that one of Tony Jones’ less appetising qualities on the show is to intervene when a particular aspect of the debate is actually starting to get somewhere. He then steps in and ‘moves things along’. He’s pretty good in most of his other roles, but doesn’t seem to have the skill of subtly guiding the conversation.

  5. paul walter says:

    Well, I didn’t mind it, it was a change from the vicious and infantile antics of some of the more political episodes, or the tabloid stuff on politics in general. At least they had people on who had the decency to let other people finish what they were saying.
    Can’t people live without adversariality on all levels, anymore?

  6. john walker says:

    Thought it pretty inoffensive, and that was mainly down to the fact that it did not pitch two very artificial constructs: ‘science‘ Vs ‘religion‘ against each other in some sort of bear pit.

    Presume it was a sort of rest day.

  7. Mr Denmore says:

    I thought the problem with the show was its premise. A religion vs atheism discussion is always bound to go nowhere – pitting us it does two completely incompatible world views against each other.

    The better premise would have been ‘Whatever happened to separation of church and state?’. That’s one that is pressing in my view because it covers the increasing enchroachment of theism in public education and public policy.

    The churches pay no taxes, yet more and more stick their noses into our lives through their proselytising and moralising on such issues as gay marriage.

  8. john walker says:

    Mr Denmore
    I am a member of a mainstream small town Anglican church. Donations made by the community for the running expenses of the church are not tax deductible; the priest pays income tax like anybody else and we are not eligible for many forms of public support for repairs to the publicly used hall that we ‘own’, because we are a church. All of which is fair enough but it sometimes rankles, that so many secular ‘economic institutes’ or think tanks that have not for profit DGR status, have far better tax deductibility status than broad community orientated church organisations, and they are never questioned. The growing issue of thousands of tax deductible, not for profit entities is yet another one of the Henry tax reforms that was dodged. There are plenty of weird and obnoxious people who purport to be religious, as there are secular versions.

  9. Donkeyotee says:

    I think I saw a different show to those at both LV and here at CT! Lennox struck me as being indistinguishable amongst the other lightweights, at least away from his field of mathematics. He was certainly a calm, respectful (there’s that word), well spoken chap, but I found his opinions on the religious side of things to be pretty standard, fuzzy-headed fare. For example:

    “[..] I believe in God because I believe there’s evidence for God. First of all in the very fact that we can do science. We believe that the universe is rationally intelligible. Now, why does a scientist believe that it’s rationally intelligible? Atheism tells me that the human mind is the human brain and it’s the end of product of a mindless, unguided process. Why should I believe anything it tells me, if that’s the case?”

    Here, the initial statement and the following opinion are virtually a non sequitur. Statement 1: There’s evidence for God. Statement 2: That evidence is that we can do science and understand the universe. Huh? That’s just a random assertion. What happened to the evidence?

    “I’m not sure that God’s quiet. I think we’ve stopped listening […]”

    He paused at this point, awash in a bit of a smug reverie, perhaps waiting for the audience to wrap their minds around this searing insight. To her credit, Trioli called him on this. He went on to explain:

    “[…] in the end supreme test of any religion is does it work in life? Does it change people’s lives? I don’t see – I see plenty of evidence, certainly in other parts of the world – remember, in the west, we’ve had a lot of opportunity and we have, particularly in Europe. I can’t speak from Australia, and we’ve, in a way, turned away from God and I’m not surprised that other countries, like Russia, where I go frequently, are getting the chance and there you can see real things happening.”

    Okay, a bit ramble-y, but at least there’s a genuine point of departure here, which could have formed the kernel of an interesting discussion, if the panel weren’t required to give up the conch every few nanoseconds to the next nodding head: Is this actually the supreme test of a religion? Or can we posit others, such as: Does a religious world view produce claims that are true, testable, and supported by evidence? But sorry folks, the conversation must move on.

    Obviously others’ taste as to what’s an “interesting” discussion may not coincide with mine, but my general point is: Too much time is spent cycling through broad opinions at a high level per question, rather than settling on good, provocative questions and getting a dialogue going. I think the one-hour format, the number of panelists and the desire to involve the audience as much as possible simply doesn’t leave enough time to create the kind of show that I’d like to see. My question is: Are others of you thinking the same thing, but with different “visions” of your preferred show? Are we all getting a compromised format that few of us enjoy? How much is down to the panelists? The moderator? The format?

    With such short sound-bites from and little dialogue between the panelists, it’s no wonder the show comes out looking “respectful of others’ views.” There’s no time for potential contention! I’m of the school where you don’t by default respect a “view”: You respect the right of someone to hold one, and to not be personally abused in lieu of reasoned argument, but if the view itself is questionable, it should be shown as such, and discussed. But some seem to find it disrespectful to even go this far.

    This has ended up a big longer than I’d intended, but then I do love a digressing discussion …

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