Atheist Richard Dawkins is in Australia this week for the Global Atheist Convention which started in Melbourne on Good Friday, and on Monday night the academic faced up against Archbishop of Sydney George Pell, the highest ranked clergyman in Australia, in a televised debate on faith and religion.
Pell, the Australian cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia, who has served in his position since 2001, took on Dawkins in a Q&A session hosted by ABC TV. Journalist Tony Jones moderated the debate, which he predicted would be an intense encounter between the two prominent figures.
''This is a remarkable match-up -- a title fight of belief,'' Jones said, according to the Canberra Times.
As expected, the debate was a largely evenly-matched affair, but the audience at the end gave the edge to Dawkins, author of the bestselling book, The God Delusion.
"Billed as a kind of final countdown, a day of reckoning for the chattering classes, the exchange was often not much better than a feral snarl-off. Pell ran circles around his own arguments (frequently of the how-many-angels-can-you-fit-on-the-head-of-a-pin type) while Dawkins threatened to bite off the heads of those in the audience who dared titter at his crisp assertions of scientific verity. 'What,' he snapped more than once. 'Why is that funny?,'" The Age shared.
The television program also conducted a poll beforehand, in which 76 percent of the 20,000 Australian respondents apparently voted that religious belief does not make the world a better place.
Archbishop Pell was given the early lead in terms of points by the audience when he highlighted that science could not answer some of life's most profound questions, such as "why are we here."
"The question why is not necessarily a question that deserves to be answered," Dawkins fired back. "'What is the purpose of the universe?' is a silly question."
According to the report, Pell started losing points when the debate turned to evolution, and he mistakenly said that humans probably descended from Neanderthals. Dawkins was quick to correct him that Neanderthals are only considered cousins of the human lineage, as opposed to direct ancestors.
Secularism in Australia has grown significantly in the past century, the Sydney Morning Herald reported, citing that in 1901, a census found less than one percent of Australians said they belonged to no religion, but by 2006 that number had risen to 18.7 percent.
The Global Atheist Convention may significantly be coinciding with one of the holiest Christian holidays of the year, Easter, but several Australian churches made sure their voices were heard by writing an open letter addressed to Dawkins and nailing it outside their buildings.
The letter apparently challenges some of the famed atheist's most prominent beliefs which he penned in The God Delusion. Among the biggest points the letter argues is the historical evidence for the life and death of Jesus Christ, which Dawkins denies. The churches also challenged the notion that the universe has ''no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference'' and the assumption that religion is '"a significant force for evil in the world."
Dawkins has never held back when pointing fingers at religion, and at one of his most recent public speeches, at the Reason Rally in Washington D.C. in March, called for atheists to outright target and mock religious people.
"Do you really believe, for example if they're Catholic, that when a priest blesses a wafer, it turns into the body of Christ?," Dawkins professed.
He added, "Mock them, ridicule them in public. Don't fall for the convention that we're all too polite to talk about religion."