A headline in The Telegraph (London) reads as follows: “Richard Dawkins accused of cowardice for refusing to debate existence of God.” After a short introduction about Dawkins’ fierceness, he article continues with these words:
But he now stands accused of “cowardice” after refusing four invitations to debate the existence of God with a renowned Christian philosopher.
A war of words has broken out between the best selling author of The God Delusion, and his critics, who see his refusal to take on the American academic, William Lane Craig, as a “glaring” failure and a sign that he may be losing his nerve.
In response Dawkins has said merely that such a debate would look better on Craig’s CV than it would on his, though he has been urged by a fellow Oxford academic, Dr. Daniel Came (also, The Telegraph reports, a fellow atheist), to reconsider this refusal. In his letter to Dawkins, Dr. Came says this:
The absence of a debate with the foremost apologist for Christian theism is a glaring omission on your CV and is of course apt to be interpreted as cowardice on your part.
“I notice that, by contrast, you are happy to discuss theological matters with television and radio presenters and other intellectual heavyweights like Pastor Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals and Pastor Keenan Roberts of the Colorado Hell House.
Of course, this is the most awful tosh! Dawkins “interviewed” Ted Haggard and Keenan Roberts for the TV series The Root of All Evil?. There is no sign that he would have agreed to “debate” with them. Indeed, there is every sign that he would not. Dawkins is on record as saying that he refuses to debate creationists, and both Haggard and Keenan are undoubtedly that, whatever other nonsense they are hiding under their Christian con exteriors (as Haggard was, at the time he was interviewed, hiding his homosexual tendencies and liaisons). We’ll come back to that.
It is worth noting that the accusation of cowardice has been happily taken up by Christians, determined to make as much mileage as they can out of Dawkins’ refusal to be part of William Lane Craig’s upcoming tour to the UK. Some of their undigested comments can be read here, here, here, here (linked on The Times of India homepage), and here, on the site, Cranmer, where the blogger pretends to be the great Archbishop of Canterbury who oversaw the reformation in England. (The last is a particularly egregious display of religious arrogance.) The suggestion is, according to “Heresy Corner”, that William Lane Craig is unbeatable in debate, and that atheists do not prepare well to respond to Craig’s arguments. Yet last night I deliberately sat down, and – at great personal cost, I might add – listened to the debate between Craig and Lewis Wolpert, and, not only did Craig’s arguments not convince, in the end he showed his creationist hand, and discredited his whole argument. The debate, which argues the motion, “Is God a Delusion?”, can be accessed here. But I will give you a closing clip, where Craig talks about evolution.
As Lewis Wolpert says, “Oh Boy! Are you ignorant!” But notice how Craig simply sloughs it off as if there is no problem with his position. He is impenetrable to genuine criticism. His spiel is apologetics through and through. He speaks like a philosopher, but he acts like a Christian apologist. It’s a con.
This in itself is sufficient reason for Dawkins’ refusal to debate Craig, since he is on record as refusing to debate creationists, since to do so would simply dignify the creationist’s delusions. However, there is a deeper reason why people like Dawkins and others should refuse to debate Craig. It is not that his arguments are so good and unanswerable, nor is it that atheists do not prepare adequately to respond to those arguments. The simple reason is that Craig is playing the game of Christian apologetics. In his debate with Lewis Wolpert, he quite casually announced that he hoped that the debate would help searchers amongst his primarily young audience to find the answers to their questions and dilemmas about life. If you listen to his arguments, however — and it is painful to endure the confident arrogance of the man and his display of dialectical pyrotechnics — it is obvious that Craig is an old-time Christian with his ducks all in a row.
Take his use of the Kalam cosmological argument. The argument goes something like this. The physical universe cannot be infinite either in time or in space, because the concept of infinity leads to all sorts of mathematical and logical paradoxes. For example, infinity multiplied by infinity equals infinity, which means, of course, that a subset of infinity is also infinite, and so on. So, Craig concludes, the physical, natural, universe cannot be infinite. Since it came into existence at some time — since it is not infinite — there must have been a cause that brought the universe into being. As Aquinas says, this first cause is what we call god. However, Craig makes a desperate speculative leap here, and suggests that, since the only non-physical thing that we know is mind (is he quite sure of mind’s non-physicality?), the cause of the universe’s existence must be mind, and since minds are also personal, the creator must be personal. You can see how, at each stage of the game, the ante is upped, so that, in the end, we get a caring, personal creator.
Now, this scholasticism is all very nice in its place. It’s the same kind of tricksy dialectics that is used in the so-called ontological argument — which I will spare you. But there are a number of questions we might ask of Craig, the first of which would be why he thinks this kind of dialectical wordplay proves anything. Take the idea that the universe cannot be infinite, since, when we think of infinity we end up with all sorts of paradoxical results. Now, I’m neither a mathematician nor a physicist, but, from my understanding, anyway, quantum theory is highly paradoxical, and yet it is believed to be a correct account, so far as it goes, of the behaviour of very small physical particles. The same thing goes for infinity. Parmenides and Zeno tied early Greek philosophy up in knots with the One and the Many and the paradoxes of infinity. Zeno purported to show that, despite his greater speed and endurance, if you give a tortoise a head start, Achilles could never beat the tortoise to the finish line. Despite this very paradoxical result, we know that Achilles would beat the tortoise every time.
In addition to this, while mind is the only thing we know that has properties which seem to be immaterial — though the immateriality of mind is by no means a settled question, since the identity of mind and brain is too compelling simply to dismiss outright — it does not follow that whatever brought the universe into being must be mind. It could be, as contemporary physicists suggest, nothingness, which is itself, apparently, highly unstable!
The point needs to be made, in other words, that, while Craig is clearly a clever debater, he debates, not really to find out what might truly be the case, or to uncover what is really real, but merely to buttress his Christian faith, which, despite all his wordplay, remains without any adequate or satisfactory evidence. Craig is very much a self-conscious showman, and winning debates is his goal. Winning debates, you might say, is Craig’s ministry. In his letter Dr. Came speaks of Craig as “the foremost apologist for Christian theism.” Well, that might indeed be so, but it’s the characterisation “apologist” that should send up warning flares. Apologists are not impartial advocates of a particular point of view. This point was made very clearly in the Craig-Wolpert debate. Wolpert said that there were things that would cause him to reconsider his views regarding the existence of God. A few undoubted miracles, he suggested, would certainly lead him to revisit religious belief. But Craig offered no such possibility. His response was a simple: “I have more arguments,” grinning with self-satisfaction like a Cheshire Cat. In fact, he grinned so much during the debate that one had the uncanny feeling that, like the Cheshire Cat, he might have disappeared, and left his grin behind.
Craig’s whole purpose is vested in convincing audiences that his arguments are better than those of his opponents. Whether they are good arguments or bad arguments matters little, if members of his audience take away the message that he is the more able debater, and that they should really consider the Christian option more seriously. That’s why, despite the fact that the old scholastic cosmological arguments have been tried over and over again and found wanting, Craig centres his debate strategy around arguments such as this, as well as the old worn out idea that only the existence of a god can provide the basis for objective absolute moral laws. Well, first, whether one accepts this as a viable foundation for ethics or not, Kant’s defence of the categorical imperative shows that this is not true. But, second, there is no reason to think that morality is a list of absolute moral laws. However, Craig will keep on insisting on the idea of moral absolutes, because Christians believe that there are such rules. But there is no reason why anyone should accept this prejudice in favour of moral absolutes.
He succeeds, I am afraid — if this is what you choose to call success – by means of sheer bravado, and by the refusal to consider the arguments of his opponents. He has learned the art of making the weaker argument appear the stronger. To be quite frank, I find listening to the man a genuine struggle. After awhile, I find his voice, his gestures, and his smug assurance very unattractive, and when I was watching I had to resist the temptation – not always successfully — to speed Craig’s parts through, so that I could listen to Lewis Wolpert, who is a genuinely interesting and appealing thinker.
In short, then, there is every reason in the world why Dawkins should refuse to debate this smiling Christian con-man. When evidence is presented, he won’t accept it — viz., his incredibly uninformed criticism of evolutionary biology. On the other hand, when he uses his dialectical techniques, he thinks he is really presenting evidence. The Kalam cosmological argument is pathetically weak, yet he continues to rely on it unreservedly. His belief that the resurrection of Jesus is well supported by evidence is laughable, but that does not prevail upon him to moderate his claims regarding this supposed “event”. The old chestnut about god and morality is truly a waste of time, and yet he goes on using it as though it were the latest thing in apologetics. Craig is an able debater. He is arrogant, confident, and enthusiastic, no doubt. But he is also, it needs to be said, despite this, unconvincing. The main reason for this failure is that he is an evangelist, not a philosopher. He has the old arguments down pat, but he hasn’t come up with anything that is even remotely new or interesting. The fact that he can claim for Christianity a truth that he would not be prepared to accord to Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism — and endlessly more — is completely defeating.
You can see this by considering some of the things that Craig puts up on his blog, Reasonable Faith. There is, of course, the notorious post about the justness of the Israelite slaughter of the Canaanites. Or he has another post, where he writes about his participation in the “La Ciudad de las Ideas” debate on “Does the Universe have a purpose?” (You have to subscribe in order to get on the inside, but once you get there, Craig turns out to be a particularly unwholesome type of person. If you do subscribe, you can find his La Ciudad de las Ideas posting here.) There he met Richard Dawkins, who was invited to participate because someone else had backed out. Here is Craig speaking about meeting Dawkins.
At the reception, Professor Roemer shocked me by telling me that Michio Kaku didn’t want to be part of our debate (he later described himself to me as “a waffler”), and so Richard Dawkins was on the panel instead! I could scarcely believe my ears! It just seemed unbelievable that Dawkins and I were going to finally cross swords in a public forum.
We were then taken by bus to a second reception back at the hotel. As I stood there, talking with other conference presenters, I saw Richard Dawkins come in. When he drew near, I extended my hand and introduced myself. I remarked, “I’m surprised to see that you’re on the panel.”
“And why not?” he replied.
“Well,” I said, “You’ve always refused to debate me.”
His tone suddenly became icy cold. “I don’t consider this to be a debate with you. The Mexicans invited me to participate, and I accepted.” At that, he turned away.
“Well, I hope we have a good discussion,” I said.
“I very much doubt it,” he retorted and walked off.
So my first encounter with Richard Dawkins was a pretty chilly one!
And then he describes his and his colleagues’ participation in the debate in these words:
At first the atheist debaters seemed to agree with out [sic] first contention but then switched to saying that we can create purpose for our lives, not noticing the difference between objective purpose and the subjective illusion of purpose. They never disputed the second contention or addressed specifically our arguments for theism. The two arguments for atheism disappeared from the debate as soon as they were answered. So we felt really great about how the debate went. While Doug and I dismantled the atheists’ arguments philosophically, David really connected with the audience emotionally, so our styles beautifully complemented each other.
This is just an empty boast — to anyone who actually listened to the debate — and particularly unattractive. Add to this the fact that William Lane Craig is also a business, where you can buy clothing — including shirts, jackets, trousers, accessories, etc. — not to mention “the master’s” books, as well as a boxed CD set of Craig’s top ten debates, and you begin to get a picture of Craig as religious huckster, selling himself, amongst other extraneous and uninteresting things. Richard Dawkins does well to steer clear of this circus. Good sense alone should convince him of this. The question of courage or cowardice doesn’t even get a look-in, once you see how desperately tacky William Lane Craig turns out to be.