Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Craig Debates an Empty Chair

It’s the dream match-up, the ultimate showdown in the contemporary God debates: In one corner we have William Lane Craig, a prolifically published professor of philosophy with dual PhD’s in philosophy and theology, and arguably the most prominent living Christian apologist.

In the other corner we have Richard Dawkins, Oxford biologist, bestselling author of books explaining and defending evolutionary biology to a general readership, and—largely by virtue of his hugely bestselling The God Delusion—arguably the most prominent living apologist for atheism.

Or not.

When Craig began to plan a fall 2011 series of debates and lectures in the United Kingdom, many thought it was the ideal opportunity for Craig to finally face off, one on one, against Richard Dawkins. Instead, on Tuesday evening Craig--at least if the event lived up to its billing--lectured opposite an empty chair, one symbolically placed to remind the audience of Dawkins’ absence.

It is true that the two have appeared once before on opposite sides of a debating stage. The event, however, was a tag-team panel debate in Mexico between three atheists and three theists, on the question, “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” And that event gave little opportunity for either of them to probe the other’s views.

The most substantive interaction in Mexico was a kind of straw man exchange. Craig, focusing narrowly on the topic of the debate (as he is wont to do), defended the view that theism makes life objectively meaningful in a way that atheism does not. He made sure to note explicitly, however, that this conclusion does not as such give us reason to believe that God exists—a view that Craig defends on other grounds. Dawkins responded by attributing to Craig the argument that God must exist because a universe without God is too unpleasant to contemplate.

Theists and atheists alike have been hungry for something more substantive—an opportunity for Dawkins to respond explicitly to the objections Craig has been leveling against The God Delusion for the last few years; or a chance for Dawkins to directly challenge the arguments for God’s existence that Craig didn’t have a chance to develop in Mexico.

But Dawkins has steadfastly refused to play. The pressure to debate Craig during his UK visit was strong. There were separate debate invitations from the British Humanist Association, the Cambridge Debating Union, the Oxford Christian Union, and Premier Radio. There was even a much-publicized insinuation of cowardice by a fellow atheist and Oxford don, Daniel Came.

But the final blow to those hoping to see a face off between Dawkins and Craig came last week, days before Craig’s scheduled Oxford lecture, when Dawkins felt called to make a public defense of his decision. It appeared in the form of an essay in The Guardian, “Why I refuse to debate with William Lane Craig.”

In that essay, Dawkins begins by minimizing the significance of Craig as a public intellectual and defender of Christianity. “Don’t feel embarrassed if you’ve never heard of William Lane Craig,” he begins. “He parades himself as a philosopher, but none of the professors of philosophy whom I consulted had heard his name either.”

To get this result from a consultation of philosophy professors, Dawkins must have been careful to consult only philosophers long dead. Indeed, as a professional philosopher myself I would be hard-pressed to find colleagues who haven’t at least heard the name of William Lane Craig. And in the sub-field of philosophy of religion, it would be hard to find any who weren’t well-acquainted with at least some of his work.

This is not to say he enjoys universal respect. In fact, many would likely make a low growl or roll their eyes on hearing his name. Some might say he’s not really a philosopher in any true sense, because he uses what are admittedly substantial philosophical skills mainly in the service of Christian apologetics.

But in a discipline that still practices blind refereeing in professional journals, Craig has enjoyed enormous output. And few would deny the significance of his scholarly contributions to the philosophy of religion, especially in connection with his revival and defense of the so-called Kalam Cosmological Argument.

And over the years, Craig has had one-on-one debates with a veritable who’s-who list of academically astute atheists: Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchen, Victor Stenger, Paul Kurtz, Anthony Flew, just to name some of the more renowned. Indeed, one might make the case, given Craig’s reputation as a formidable debater, that Dawkins’ absence from this list is a bigger credit to Craig’s reputation than would be his appearance on it.

Nevertheless, in his account of why he refuses to debate Craig, Dawkins dusts off the dismissal he’s borrowed from a former Royal Society president to rebuff creationists’ debate invitations: “That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine.”

When the debate invitations come from creationists who want to attack the theory of evolution, this rebuff actually makes sense. Such creationists are people with little or no legitimate scientific background who want to challenge the credibility of evolutionary theory in debate with a renowned evolutionary biologist. Even if Dawkins could easily wipe the floor them, the act of dignifying them a place next to him on a podium would lend a false stature to their arguments and credentials.

But in this case the proposed debate has almost the opposite character (and not just because Craig is uninterested in denying the science of evolutionary theory). In this case, what we have is an established professional in the philosophy of religion inviting Dawkins—who has no philosophy of religion training but who’s nevertheless written a popular book on the topic—to discuss issues in the philosophy of religion. Let me say that another way: Dawkins, a non-philosopher, is being invited to take the stage with an accomplished philosopher to discuss philosophical arguments. Under these conditions, Dawkins’ invocation of the Royal Society president’s rebuff rings hollow.

But Dawkins saves his main argument for last, when he points to some deeply troubling dimensions of Craig’s apologetics: specifically, Craig’s effort to defend Old Testament reports of God commanding genocide. Craig seeks to argue that these reports might be taken as veridical, as genuine accounts of divine commands, without thereby undermining the moral perfection of God.

These arguments are hardly central to Craig’s public apologetics. The passages Dawkins quotes don’t come from Craig’s published works or lectures, but from the Q&A section on his website, practically buried among hundreds of questions on more traditional apologetic topics (one wonders how and why Dawkins came across them). Nevertheless, Craig said the things he said there, and he stands by them—and Dawkins largely lets them speak for themselves. He quotes them and invites us to look upon them with horror.

Like Dawkins, I find Craig’s efforts seriously disturbing—even after looking at the quoted passages in their broader context, in which Craig (among other things) confesses that they “offend our moral sensibilities” and then roots this aversive response in the jarring contrast between the genocide passages and what he takes to be the holistic ethical message of Scripture.

In my view he should’ve stopped there. In purely pragmatic terms, do we really want to say, as Craig does, that since children are innocent and will be ushered into heaven at death, God might very well command their slaughter since such slaughter would do them no harm (and might do them some good by taking them out of the world before they can fall into mortal sin)? Do we really want to lend this sort of presumptive credibility to the claim that indiscriminate slaughter of children and adults can enjoy divine sanction? What implications does Craig’s argument here have for how we should assess contemporary terrorist claims to be acting on God’s will?

If this were legitimately Dawkins’ reason for refusing to share a stage with Craig, one might at first see it as principled, even heroic. Can we really dignify such apologetics-run-amok with a public platform?

Of course, this argument may be nothing but a pretext. Perhaps, as one author recently insinuated, the obscure source of these quotations suggests that  Dawkins did "a little internet trolling" in order to dredge up a rationale for a decision already made. There is, after all, a much more obvious reason why Dawkins might refuse to debate Craig: He was afraid he'd lose.

This wouldn't be an idle fear, given Craig’s years of experience debating atheists, and his extensive training in philosophy and theology. He's a more formidable debating opponent than, say, the bishops Dawkins has expressed a willingness to take on (since the latter are devoted to ministerial and administrative tasks rather than to honing their arguments for theism). And even though Dawkins is clearly convinced that he has the truth, he knows full well that in a debating context, having the truth doesn't guarantee a win.

If so, I’m not at all convinced that “cowardice” is the right word for such motivations. Consider: In the recent book that John Kronen and I wrote defending Christian universalism, one of our targets was Craig. I’ve challenged Craig’s views on hell before—in what I think is one of my best philosophical articles. I still think my critique of Craig is brilliant and devastating. In broader terms, I’m pretty darned confident that, on the issue of hell, my arguments are better than Craig’s.

But if he challenged me to a public debate on the doctrine of hell, I think I’d refuse. Why? First, because I don’t think the public debate format is the best way to explicate and assess the arguments on both sides with the degree of precision that’s required. Second, because I’m a plodding thinker who needs to consider and think about arguments for awhile before responding to them, and who generally feels compelled to rewrite and revise what I say multiple times before I’m confident it expresses what I really mean. I feel an obsessive need to qualify and nuance my remarks, sometimes to the point of losing my audience.

And I say “Um” a lot.

And so, in a debate with Craig, I’d be trounced. And I’d lose convinced I had the better arguments on my side—and I’d rush home and write up what I should have said, publishing my crushing refutation of Craig in a book that nobody will read.

Knowing this, is it cowardice to refuse to debate Craig? Or is it simply an honest recognition of my own limitations, and a recognition of the fact that debates are sometimes lost by people with the better arguments on their side, simply because the opponent is the better debater? Perhaps Dawkins, although convinced he has the truth on his side, knows full well that the debate format will favor Craig and thus hurt Dawkins’ cause and hence the truth as Dawkins sees it.

If so, this the decision not to debate isn’t cowardice but an expression of certain virtues—among them, honesty with oneself.

But if this is Dawkins’ real motivation, he isn’t being honest with the rest of the world. While his decision not to debate for reasons of this sort may be legitimate, his overall behavior remains less-than-admirable. So let’s assume that his stated reasons are honest: He is so offended by what Craig stands for that he doesn’t want to lend those ideas the kind of platform that a public debate with Dawkins would generate.

The problem, of course, is that Craig already enjoys an enormous public platform. The controversy around Craig’s visit to the UK virtually guaranteed a large audience for his UK lecture/debate tour, whether Dawkins was a part of it or not. And while there’s something to be said for refusing to dignify certain arguments with a response, it’s sometimes necessary—and, we might think, the job of public intellectuals—to take on bad arguments and explain why they are bad. This is especially true when the bad arguments are being voiced by prominent figures who happen to enjoy a substantial audience. Do we really want to allow their claims to stand unchallenged?

But there is, a think, a deeper reason why, if Dawkins was being sincere about his reason for not wanting to debate Craig, he should’ve reconsidered. As a reason to refuse a debate with Craig, his moral objection comes off sounding like a smokescreen whether it is or not. It’s painfully easy for a jaded public to roll their eyes, dismiss his moral indignation seriously, and conclude, “He’s just afraid he’ll lose.” And under those circumstances, his moral message itself is lost behind its perceived insincerity.

Another, more powerful gesture in support of this moral message would have been possible if Dawkins had actually shown up for the debate. Dawkins says he doesn’t want to shake Craig’s hand. But one needn’t shake someone’s hand to debate them. Consider the impact of showing up for the debate—a context in which handshakes are customary—and refusing to shake Craig’s hand…and then explaining why with all the moral indignation of which Dawkins is so eminently capable.

Rude? Yes. But people couldn’t cynically dismiss the moral message as nothing but a smokescreen for cowardice. The refusal, precisely because of its deliberate violation of normal etiquette, would carry no small measure of symbolic weight. In fact, this is why I think it's sometimes morally right to be rude.

As it is, the weightiest symbol of this event may have been an empty chair.


  1. I agree, this definitely smacks of "refuse to debate and then dig up some dirt on my opponent to justify why I won't". Dawkins displays his characteristic arrogance and self-righteousness in this article, and frankly I'm not at all surprised that he did so. It's completely in keeping with his public persona of late.

    I don't always agree with Craig, and I've always felt that his attempt at explaining/justifying the Caananite slaughter rang hollow. (I have my own complex views on this which I won't get into). Nevertheless, as you point out, he is a legitimate philosopher. I personally think he does as well as any philosopher I've ever heard or read at clearly articulating his terms and arguments, and really cutting to the chase of an argument. I also have to say that I find many of his arguments compelling, including his cosmological argument, the nature of which is routinely misunderstood by many of its detractors. I also truly believe that his heart is in the right place, and that he desires to serve Christ with his work. On that note, it made me grumble a bit myself when you mentioned that some philosophers wouldn't consider him a "true" philosopher because he does so in service to Christian apologists. From my perspective, every philosopher has a worldview or agenda of some sort, and they perform their philosophy at least partially in service to them. If they are willing to level this criticism at Craig, well and good, but I would encourage them to also be willing to turn such criticism against their own motivations. If Craig wants to use philosophy in service of Christian apologetics, I say let him! It doesn't follow that such philosophy is thereby "tainted" or bad. Now, to clarify a bit, this is not to say that one cannot go too far in service to some viewpoint, such that one distorts the methods one's using (whether it be philosophy or science) beyond their breaking point. Perhaps Craig has done that at least in some areas. I'm not sure.

    Finally, I also agree that one can have a better argument or position, and still lose a debate, simply because one's opponent is a master of debate. The debate format is useful, but it's certainly not the final arbiter of truth, and I'm with you: it's not for me. Like you, I like to take time with constructing my arguments and often find myself wiping out entire blog posts because I'm not satisfied with them (this is one reason why I haven't written as much on my blog as I would like, a state of affairs that I hope I can overcome!).

  2. I have listened to Bill Craig debate many times. He is a master of organization, preparation, language and smoke-and-mirrors techniques - cleverly flipping the burden of proof, creating masterfully nuanced strawmen of his opponents' arguments, exploiting their legitimate weaknesses (both in terms of rhetoric and understanding of certain issues), etc.

    He is an amazing debater. I have only listened to one debate that I believe he soundly lost and that was a debate on morality with Shelly Kagan of Yale. And this was because Kagan was disciplined enough to stay on the subject (as you mentioned, Craig is a master of focus) and because he is an excellent speaker.

    Great thoughts, Eric. We all need to be reminded that debate is a sport. The winner is not necessarily the person closest to the truth!

    And yes, Dawkins would probably lose, based on skill. I am not a big fan of either of their philosophies of religion.

  3. Hi Eric

    My best guess, and I base this on having met and interviewed Dawkins, is that he is less the strategic political thinker that your painting suggests here (fear of losing, thinking how this might look etc). I agree that the article Dawkins wrote defending his decision is disingenuous, but his aversion to the debate is perhaps nevertheless a visceral one. With Dawkins, personality is the driving force.

    And I doubt we're missing much, insomuch as it isn't difficult to imagine in advance the line each would take. They would talk past one another, Craig because he would have been careful to set the terms of the debate in such a way that he could avoid difficult ground, and Dawkins because, well he's not always the best listener.

    I don't myself rate Craig as a debater, he's technically proficient but isn't flexible, and as such is unlikely to win over those not already converted to his point of view, the sign of a true debating talent.


  4. As long as we're engaging in vacuous speculation regarding Dawkins' intentions, perhaps I can offer a different story. Badgered by the constant requests and annoyed by the childish insinuations, Dr. Dawkins called up some handful of Oxford philosophers with whom he happened to be acquainted and asked who the hell this guy was and if his work was any good. Maybe the philosophers he knows are logicians or historians or philosophers of science. Given the often extreme specialization of such subfields within the discipline (and their strong representation at Oxford) is it completely implausible to take his word that the people he quarried weren't familiar with a philosopher of religion? It's a pretty small subfield, after all, with relatively little overlap in other areas. (I don't mean to suggest that there aren't, say epistemic questions in philosophy of religion, but instead, that it is philosophers of religion, for the most part, and not epistemologists who work on them.)

    On the point of the obscurity of the quoted material, I just don't find it hard to believe that he could have come by them honestly (no trolling necessary) and found them sickening in exactly the manner described. I often wonder what it is about my Christian upbringing that has rendered such accounts emotionally tolerable to me given how objectively disgusting they are (by any normal understanding of the words). Maybe he asked someone he knows on the new atheist party bus who happened to be familiar the views and know that they would rile him up. To be honest, despite their obscurity in his corpus, they would probably come up in the cartoon version I'd give if someone asked me, precisely because they demonstrate that Craig, while possessed of considerable rhetorical and analytical skill, as you say, applies them in unabashed service to a broader view that has such extremely low prior probability as to make what he says elsewhere largely irrelevant.

    All this to say, Richard Dawkins has plenty of flaws that can be pointed to without recourse to the kind of speculation that's being floated here, and none of it really serves the purpose of evaluating his views (views which, as you say, are hardly expert), the views of Craig, or the larger questions they address.

  5. Hey Eric,

    Is there some copy of your article on Craig floating around somewhere? Sounds fascinating.


  6. Craig is a master of the Gish Gallop, which is the spewing of misinformation faster than it can be corrected. In oral debates with time limits, this technique can be used to great effect, which is why Craig is so keen to debate Dawkins in person. This technique doesn't work in written debates where errors can be pointed out and countered in detail. Notice Craig turned off all comments on his Youtube video? Yeah, that's evidence of "cowardice" too. You would think if Craig's arguments really held up to the one format least suited to methodically fact checking.