Richard Dawkins and the Saducees

Recently, a video of an old debate between Cardinal George Pell and Richard Dawkins appeared in my YouTube news feed. (Please see the video below.) I had to watch it twice to be sure I understood what I was seeing, but you can guess my impression of the debate from the title of this post.

The Saducees denied the resurrection of the dead, the existence of spirits, and the obligation of oral tradition, and emphasized acceptance of the written Law alone. I call Dawkins a Saducee because he denied the validity of metaphysical propositions, claiming that ‘life’ is sufficiently explained by Charles Darwin. In my opinion, this is very similar to the stance of the Saducees. However, what I learned from this debate is that the Church addresses this line of thought with sympathy and compassion.

The statement that started me thinking about the Saducees did not come from Richard Dawkins. It came from the moderator who asked Cardinal Pell whether atheists can go to heaven (Part 4). The context was a caller who stated that he was an atheist and wanted to know what the Cardinal thought would happen to him when he died. Cardinal Pell answered that of course Atheists can go to Heaven.

The more I thought about it, the more I saw the question as a trick question. As I understand it, the whole point of being an atheist is that you are not worried about whether you will go to Heaven. I concluded that the moderator must really be questioning the extent of Pell’s, and therefore the Church’s, good will and compassion. Until I watched this exchange a second time I had the impression that Pell felt pressured to answer the way he did. I no longer think so.

Jesus was asked trick questions during his ministry. According to an article entitled Four Questions: Four Questions: Matthew 22:15-46, they came from three distinct groups of people: Herodians, Saducees and Pharisees. The Herodians asked a political question; the Sadducees asked a doctrinal question; and the Pharisees asked an ethical question.

The Sadducees were a wealthy, aristocratic party. They said when you’re dead, you’re dead, so don’t worry about it. They were very logical, and said since there’s no proof, they won’t believe it, and if the Bible isn’t logical in some point, they will always choose logic over the Bible. And many today say that where science disagrees with the Bible in some point they will choose science over it…

At least I was right about one thing. When the moderator asked Mr. Dawkins’ opinion on this matter, Dawkins said it all depends on whether you are cremated, buried, etc. When asked whether he thought there might be some part of his mind that would wonder if there wasn’t something more, Dawkins answered that since it’s the brain that wonders such things, that would be impossible. The brain rots after you die.

I will admit that I sort of expected the Cardinal to respond to Dawkins with more force. I partly blame the debate format and the audience responses but I see now that I wasn’t thinking like a pastor. It gradually became clear to me that Pell wasn’t trying to win a contest. He was a pastor and more than a pastor–he was a fisherman. He was inviting Richard Dawkins and everyone who was listening to think about other possibilities.

It may be true that the logic of atheism indicates indifference, or at least the claim of indifference, as to what happens to you after you die, but Pell was probably thinking of people he actually knows, including Richard Dawkins. He may also have been thinking about the family members of atheists who have already passed away. Cardinal Pell believes and hopes they will go to Heaven. And this is not just his personal belief.

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9)…

…we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness (2 Peter 3:13).

Cardinal Pell, who was in the process of cleaning up corruption at the Vatican Bank, has been convicted by a court in Australia of molesting two boys. He was recently sentenced to 6 years in prison.