Dawkins vs Craig

I have blogged before on the atheist vs christian wars, most recently in Atheist vs christian internet wars. The latest instalment is the verbal slanging match between US christian philosopher William Lane Craig and UK atheist biologist Richard Dawkins.

I think there are some things we can learn from this unedifying exchange.

The non-event

William Lane Craig is a respected academic philosopher who in recent years has engaged in public debates with atheists who are philosophers, scientists, journalists, historians, etc, and generally appears to win the debates. Critics say this is simply because he is a masterful debater, while supporters say it is because his arguments are better. Supporters have pressed for Richard Dawkins to debate him, but Dawkins has so far refused.

Craig is currently touring the UK, giving lectures and engaging in debates where he can find suitable opponents. On 25 October, at Oxford, he will give a lecture on the topic Is God a Delusion?, with obvious reference to Dawkins’ famous book. Dawkins has been invited to present his side of the question, but has declined. Nevertheless, the tour program continues the invitation, and it is even said that a chair will be kept empty in case Dawkins shows up.

Making the same point will be bus ads reminiscent of the atheist ads partially funded by Dawkins: “There’s Probably No Dawkins. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Oct 25th at the Sheldonian Theatre

Dawkins’ response

Dawkins has explained his ongoing refusal to debate Craig:

“I have always said when invited to do debates that I will be happy to debate a bishop, a cardinal, a pope, an archbishop – indeed, I have done both, but that I don’t take on creationists and I don’t take on people whose only claim to fame is that they are professional debaters. They’ve got to have to have something more than that. I’m busy.”

He has given other reasons for his refusal to accept Craig’s invitation on the present tour:

  1. He has belittled Craig’s credentials as a philosopher: “Don’t feel embarrassed if you’ve never heard of William Lane Craig …. He parades himself as a philosopher, but none of the professors of philosophy whom I consulted had heard his name either. Perhaps he is a “theologian.”
  2. He has attacked Craig’s view that killings in the Old Testament commanded by God were justified (“You might say that such a call to genocide could never have come from a good and loving God. Any decent bishop, priest, vicar or rabbi would agree. But listen to Craig. He begins by arguing that the Canaanites were debauched and sinful and therefore deserved to be slaughtered.”) So he concludes: “Would you shake hands with a man who could write stuff like that? Would you share a platform with him? I wouldn’t, and I won’t.”

So who wins?

I don’t think either of them come out of this all that well.

William Lane Craig?

Richard Dawkins has the right to choose who he debates with and who he refuses to meet, without having to put up with scorn and cute tricks. Dawkins appears to me to be somewhat shy, and may not find such debates easy, nor may he excel at them. Christians should not try to manipulate people into making different choices, nor should we be insulting other people and their motives. As Tirian said in CS Lewis’ The Last Battle: “No warrior scolds. Courteous words or else hard knocks are his only language.”

Craig and his supporters have every right (even responsibility) to expose what they see as weaknesses, errors and ignorance in Dawkins’ arguments. They have every right to point out that Dawkins is unwilling to debate the matter. But making accusations about his motives (which they cannot know) or insulting him are using “the weapons of this world” (2 Corinthians 10:4), are unseemly and unhelpful.

Craig’s defence of the Old Testament commands to kill the Amalekites is a tricky question. Some christians believe the Old Testament is a record of what people believed about God, and thus can say that these stories don’t reflect the true God. But Craig believes these were truly God’s commands. He admits we find these stories troubling because they are contrary to what we see of God revealed in Jesus. I think it may be best to leave it there, as a paradox we cannot explain, but Craig has chosen to try to explain the paradox, and in a sense justify God’s behaviour. He is an apologist and apologists provide answers, but I feel in this case it may have been better not to have.

I have a lot of respect for William Lane Craig. He generally conducts himself with dignity and courtesy. His arguments are well developed, and I think his book, Reasonable Faith, is the best christian apologetics book I have come across. He doesn’t need to indulge in these slightly petty tactics.

Richard Dawkins?

Dawkins’ responses have also been unseemly and unhelpful – and unpleasant. Suggesting William Lane Craig is an unknown philosopher is both ignorant and petty – he is a well-recognised philosopher in the academic world and an expert on the Kalam Cosmological argument. Calling him a “ponderous buffoon” sinks even lower.

Craig is not a creationist in the normal sense of the word (i.e. a ‘young Earth Creationist’).

In the past, Dawkins and others have denigrated philosophy and philosophers as being virtually worthless in this age of science, apparently oblivious of the fact that when he discusses the non-existence of God, he is doing philosophy – but unfortunately doing it badly as both theist and atheist philosophers agree (see here, including the comment of atheist philsopher Michael Ruse: “The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist”). Some commentators feel Dawkins has let the side down.

But Dawkins’ latest, and perhaps strongest, charge, about Craig’s defence of genocide, is also perhaps the most devious:

  • Dawkins doesn’t quote the context of these remarks, and by ignoring it and quoting selectively he is able to make the quote seem much worse than it is. Craig was questioned about the slaughter of the Canaanites, and he begins by making clear that he finds the whole episode difficult and contrary to later christian teaching. He says his views of the Bible make it difficult for him to write the stories off, so he has to grapple with them as best he can. He definitely doesn’t endorse genocide as his opponents suggest, but tries (unsuccessfully in my view) to show how we may be able to justify God’s command.
  • Dawkins has shared the platform with Peter Singer and Sam Harris, who have endorsed infanticide, perhaps genocide and a nuclear first strike against Muslim countries, torture and killing people for believing dangerous propositions. So his condemnation of Craig, who doesn’t support anything as bad as do Singer and Harris, looks contrived and inconsistent.

So Dawkins’ responses to Craig and his supporters do not seem to be worthy of an academic of renown. He would surely have done better to simply decline with dignity.

The end of the matter?

I have no right to expect any particular behaviour from Richard Dawkins, so I should simply take him as he is. But no matter how much christians think he has been devious or even “cowardly”, we have no right to behave in a similar manner. We would do best to lift these discussion from the level of two warring football team supporters.

What do you think?


7 thoughts on “Dawkins vs Craig

  1. tylerjourneaux says:

    Perhaps I would like to say a brief word in reflection. First, I think that part of the fun of academic debates is that there is something analogous to the fan-base mentality we see in professional sports, at least so-far as the audience is concerned. I don’t think that this is a necessarily bad thing so long as it all remains in good fun. I will say in defense of Dawkins that, as you rightly point out, he has every right to decline debating with people. However, I think that given how vocal he continues to be about his position, it seems that his attacks on William Lane Craig are not only uncalled for, but petty and disingenuous. Dawkins not only deserves to be challenged, but he is asking to be challenged.

    I think Craig’s concern is to allow a reasonable voice of faith to be heard, and that is why he is so intent on debating Dawkins. I certainly don’t think Craig is responsible for any of the rhetoric or accusations leveled against Dawkins, but he is certainly trying to provoke Dawkins to debate him and take the issue seriously. I think both he and Dawkins are relatively confident that the result will be Craig achieving his goal of making a position of faith seem reasonable when compared to Dawkins’ position. I suspect that this is at least a contributing factor to Dawkins stubborn refusal to debate Craig.

    Finally, concerning theological paradox, I would like to suggest that while some apparent paradox clearly exists when approaching the Biblical narrative, an apologist who is intellectually honest will not be able to help herself (or himself) from engaging those paradoxes and dissolving them; to attack the issues head on and try their hand at a satisfying explanation. This is not only called for, but Craig’s explanation is very satisfying (I find). You can hear that on the “Unbelievable?” Podcast where the recording of the event where Dawkins failed to show up is archived, and this same issue comes up in the course of the Q&A. I highly recommend giving it a listen. I also intend to blog on this very issue over the Christmas holidays when I have more time. Perhaps then you can tell me how you think I did in the comments section.


  2. unklee says:

    Yes, I think there is something a little gladiatorial about these things, but I feel a christian should probably try to minimise that aspect. Our aim is to win people, not points, and sometimes these two are aligned, and other times they are not.

    I think apologists should try to find a satisfactory explanation, but I didn’t think what I had read of Craig’s efforts was satisfactory. Perhaps he has improved his arguments on the Old Testament.

    Thanks for your comments.


  3. tylerjourneaux says:

    Sure. As a final note it may be worthwhile to say that there’s nothing wrong with a little ‘gladiatorial’ excitement, if I can employ the phrase. Obviously the Christian aims to introduce people to Christ (I, perhaps ironically, do not like the term ‘win’ – as though their conversion were a prize). However, the Christian is necessarily informed by a Christian anthropology according to which our aim might just as well be to help people including Christians think more cogently. This is as true for what Christian anthropology implies of the mind as it is for what it implies of the body – health is a mundane good which Christians, barring some defeater (such as the need for fastings etc) ought to aim towards realizing. In other words, I think debates should be construed as victories not strictly on the basis of how many people convert as a result of them, but on how they help people to engage the issues in an intellectually honest way such that they at least recognize the ‘Christian-option’ as a intellectually live. I am often more concerned about Christians recognizing this than non-Christians.


  4. unklee says:

    You are pardoned! : )

    All you say is true, but I also think it is true that often argument polarises more than it convinces. We need to be thoughtful and sensitive (two things I’m not always good at!).


  5. unklee says:

    That was a good blog post. I was interested in his two examples, and how some in the media characterised the two “no-shows” inconsistently.


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