Atheist vs christian wars seem to be a permanent feature of life, and the internet, these days. The latest instalment is the verbal slanging match between US christian philosopher William Lane Craig and UK atheist biologist Richard Dawkins. It’s not really all that pretty.
The empty chair
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 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:
- 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.”
- 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.
- Craig and his supporters have every right to expose what they see as weaknesses, errors and ignorance in Dawkins’ arguments and to point out that Dawkins is unwilling to debate the matter. But making accusations about his motives (which they cannot know) or insulting him is petty.
- Craig’s defence of the Old Testament commands to kill the Amalekites seems to me to be counter-productive. He admits we find these stories troubling because they are contrary to what we see of God revealed in Jesus, but his explanation doesn’t help me much.
- I have a lot of respect for 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. I don’t think he needs to approach Dawkins in this way.
- Dawkins’ response 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.
- 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 questionable. He quotes Craig selectively, and he has shared the platform with Peter Singer and Sam Harris, who have endorsed infanticide, treatment of the disabled that some have labelled (perhaps unfairly) as genocide and a nuclear first strike against Muslim countries, torture, and killing people for believing dangerous propositions. So how is Craig ‘worse’ than Singer and Harris?
- 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?
The longer this petty name-calling goes on, the more we must doubt that either side believes that reason is an important part of deciding belief or lack of belief in God. There are important arguments and evidences both ways, and I for one would prefer to see them discussed on their merits rather than the discussion becoming more like two opposing football team supporters shouting at each other.
What do you think?
Note: I have edited one reference to Peter Singer and Genocide to reflect a reader comment I thought valid.