Why Dawkins says he won’t debate Craig

Posted on 10/20/11 22 Comments

Ray Ingles helpfully provided the following link  to a hot of the presses statement by Richard Dawkins (if things posted on the internet can be considered hot off the press) explaining why he won’t debate William Lane Craig:


As always Dawkins is fun to read. His prose crackles like a live wire. Scientists shouldn’t write this well. But what is Dawkins really saying here and does it hold up?

I understand Dawkins to be providing two reasons for refusing to debate Craig. The first reason is that he considers Craig unworthy of debate. He opens by noting that he asked some philosopher friends whether they had heard of Craig. (He doesn’t tell us who these people were.) They hadn’t. Dawkins seems to think this is good evidence that Craig is not a philosopher worthy to debate him. (His friends have probably all heard of Pat Robertson. Does that mean Pat Robertson is worthy to debate him?)

I think Dawkins would be better off to look at Craig’s CV which includes thirty books and a hundred peer reviewed articles in fields ranging from the historical Jesus to the philosophy of time. He might also consider the fact that Craig has two earned doctorates at two of Europe’s leading research universities. Perhaps most importantly he might consider that a who’s who of academic atheists over the last twenty years from Peter Atkins to Sam Harris have considered Craig worthy of debate.  By insisting that he won’t debate Craig because he and his friends hadn’t heard of him, Dawkins just makes himself look ridiculous.

At this point you might be wondering, if Craig isn’t worthy to debate Dawkins then which Christian would be be? Dawkins tells us:

 I have publicly engaged an archbishop of York, two archbishops of Canterbury, many bishops and the chief rabbi, and I’m looking forward to my imminent, doubtless civilised encounter with the present archbishop of Canterbury.

Note the people that appear on his list: archbishops and rabbis. In other words, individuals who have as their day job not academia but rather the administrative tasks of their respective religion. So perhaps the real problem is not that Craig is an unworthy philosopher but rather that he is a professional philosopher.

This strikes me as a reprehensible instance of cowardice. It is akin to a leading Marxist refusing to debate Joe Stiglitz because he only debates politicians like George Bush and Barack Obama. Everybody would recognize that the Marxist was in fact a coward afraid to tangle with a leading economist. Likewise Dawkins’ decision to debate church administrators rather than professional academics makes him look like a coward and a joke.

Dawkins’ second reason is on the surface more serious. Craig defends the Canaanite genocide and Dawkins refuses to sully his reputation by debating somebody who holds such a view. I’m afraid this too reveals nothing more than Dawkins’ own cowardice.

Before I explain why, let’s understand the reasoning that presumably motivates Dawkins. He seems to depend on a principle like this:

When a person is arguing a reprehensible and ridiculous view which is widely rejected it is wise not to engage the person because doing so will grant them greater credibility and could ironically lead to the further dissemination of their view.

For example, if a Holocaust denier comes to your university wanting to debate a historian of World War 2 you wisely shut him out because engaging his views at all will probably be counterproductive, granting the man credibility and possibly leading to the further dissemination of his view. (At the very least, he will then be able to say he debated Professor X at University Y, and that fact alone will grant him more credibility than his view deserves.)

So I suspect Dawkins is reasoning in that way. But there is a real problem with that. And here it is: there are two billion Christians on planet earth. Most of them accept the Canaanite genocide narratives at face value and thus believe that in that particular instance God sanctioned genocide. A minority of Christians like me don’t read them in that way, but that’s irrelevant to the fact that millions do.

And that’s the problem for Dawkins. Craig’s view on genocide (and that of a majority of Christians) may indeed be reprehensible and ridiculous. But the reality is that this view is not like Holocaust denial which is a fringe position that can best be dealt with through neglect. This is indeed the view of millions of Christians and thus is one well worthy of Dawkins’ expert refutation.

So in sum, I find the two reasons Dawkins provides for why he won’t debate Craig unconvincing. He would have done better to come clean with the real reason: he’ll probably lose.

Footnote: if you really want to show that Dawkins’ genocide protest is bunk, ask all the churchmen he’s debated whether he interrogated them regarding their reading of Joshua before consenting to debate with them.

  • http://www.trinitygrenfell.org Jared

    re: the issue of Craig’s apologetic of the genocide this question has been on my mind recently:

    Given the recent historical trend toward the conclusion that the genocide described in the Pentateuch and Joshua did not, in fact, happen as described – or at all – does the fiction of genocide make it more or less ethical to defend?

    Curious to see people’s thoughts.

    • randal

      In that case the question is not “How could God command genocide?” but rather “How could God appropriate texts into his canon which would lead many people to think he had commanded genocide?” That question is not as difficult but it is still a problem.

  • Mark

    I thought to myself: there is no way Randal could have commented on this story. I can defeat his strange prophetic skills of my interests if I go to his blog now. He may comment later, but I will beat him now. UWH HA! HA!

    Well, you won. Again. :D

    I was actually particularly interested in what you would have to say about the genocide claim and Dawkins refusal to debate for that reason. You make a good point about there being a power in numbers in regards to views that should be debated.

    • randal

      Having spent some time to look into these matters today, I can now report over a dozen different Christian conservatives, bishops and Jewish rabbis that Dawkins has shared the platform with in various debate, discussion and interview formats. I guarantee his precondition for interacting with these individuals was not that they deny a historical reading of Joshua. The man makes himself look completely ridiculous by pulling that canard out of his hat at this late date. He’s like the skinny kid at the bar who refuses to make eye contact with the bully trying to pick a fight. Richard, just admit that you’re scared, and the bully will leave you alone with your umbrella drink.

      • chris

        “Dawkins’ second reason is on the surface more serious. Craig defends the Canaanite genocide and Dawkins refuses to sully his reputation by debating somebody who holds such a view. I’m afraid this too reveals nothing more than Dawkins’ own cowardice.”

        Randal, let me attempt to be extra-generous and charitable to Dawkins (only God knows how much of an effort that is for me) – the issue (or at the least the entire issue) doesn’t seem to rest on the fact that Craig holds that view. It’s that he holds that view *and* he also argues vigorously and prominently for that view. Presumably, the other people he has debated have not really argued for that particular view on the Caananite genocide. I’m not sure the distinction amounts to much – if anything – but there you go.

        Personally, I’d love to see Dawkins read some of your, Thom Stark’s, or Wes Morriston’s work on the issue and use that in a debate against Craig, but that doesn’t seem very likely. :D

  • clamat

    Dawkins seems to think this is good evidence that Craig is not a philosopher worthy to debate him.

    Dawkins refers to “more worthy invitations,” not more worthy opponents. (As you acknowledge, Dawkins is an eminently skilled writer; this choice of words seems significant.)

    Dawkins’ refusal doesn’t have anything to do with Craig’s credentials as a philosopher, because Dawkins’ agenda is not to rigorously defend atheism on intellectual / philosophical grounds (although this doesn’t mean he’s wrong, of course). On the issue of atheism/religion, Dawkins is first and foremost an advocate, not an academic. Consequently, Dawkins apparently prefers to accept those invitations that afford him the opportunity to best promote atheism (or anti-theism, if you prefer) to larger and more influential audiences.

    Dawkins is an atheist figure, perhaps the leading one. Craig does not enjoy equivalent stature as a religious figure — nor as an academic figure. As much as you and I might like to see a Dawkins / Craig debate, Dawkins’ assessment is correct: The debate would indeed look far better on Craig’s resume than on Dawkins’. This is reason enough to decline the invitation.

    Consider: John Loftus has engaged in a campaign strikingly similar to Craigs’, largely intended to “cajole, harass or defame” Craig into a debate with him. (Sorry John.) Loftus repeatedly asserts there is no explanation for Craig’s refusal other than simple cowardice. Maybe so. Or maybe now that Craig has debated two of the Four Horsemen and Stephen Law he aims to continue frying bigger fish than John Loftus? (Again, no offense, John.)

    On religion, in the public arena, where Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury are groupers, Craig is a goldfish. Conversely, were Pat Robertson foolish enough to invite Dawkins to a debate, I suspect Dawkins would fairly leap to accept.

    • eemma

      Being a philosopher, Craig often talks about things that are beyond the understanding of the vast majority of people, but he is a good orator, and makes most of what he says sound credible. Even though the average person will not understand what Craig actually means, they may think they are just not educated or intelligent enough to quite grasp it, but that just proves Craig is smart, and therefore right, right?

      From where I stand, it looks like a very sensible step for Dawkins to refuse exposing his public to Craig’s inspirational rants. If he believes atheism, or non-religiousness (for the lack of a better word) is the right thing, and he obviously does, then such a debate, stimulating as it may be for a small part of the listeners, would in no way be conducive to the spread of common sense, which is his primary purpose. As you pointed out, he is first and foremost an advocate and not an academic.

  • http://www.mandm.org.nz Matthew Flannagan

    I am less sympathetic to Dawkins here.

    First Craig’s view is that genocide is permissible if a morally perfect fully informed being commanded it. Despite emotional outbursts That counterfactual does not seem to be obviously ridiculous. After all you are talking about a situation where a loving and just person aware of all the facts endorsed it, and in those circumstances its hard to see how it could be wrong.

    Moreover, it seems to me that any meta-ethical view will have the same conclusion, take a position that states moral obligations are X it will be true that if genocide has X then X is permissible. Unless people want to say nothing is identical with wrongness counter factual s like this are unavoidable.

    Perhaps its the idea that a loving and just being could condone such activties thats obviously silly. But then Dawkins really is being a tad inconsistent, because contemporary secular ethics today its not uncommon to hear ethicists endorsing infanticide such as Tooley, Rachel’s, Singer and so on. Similarly, there is an important position in the ethics of war advocated by people like Kai Neilson, Walzer and so on which states that the rule against killing non combatants can be overidden by utilitarian concerns in rare situations. I don’t necessarily agree, but its a widely held view I don’t see why its obviously incoherent to claim a perfectly good being could on rare circumstances command such an act. I bet Dawkin’s has no problem sharing the stage with Peter Singer for example.

    Finally, this is all irrelevant, suppose Craig has nutty views about Joshua, that does not mean his views about Theism or his Kalam or Telelogical or Moral arguments for Gods existence fail. These arguments are logically independent of Craigs view on the Canaanite issue.

    • Robert

      First Craig’s view is that genocide is permissible if a morally perfect fully informed being commanded it. Despite emotional outbursts That counterfactual does not seem to be obviously ridiculous.

      I agree with this. The mistake is in saying that the counterfactual actually applies to the Biblical genocides, and Craig believes that it can.

      He says, “By setting such strong, harsh dichotomies God taught Israel that any assimilation to pagan idolatry is intolerable. It was His way of preserving Israel’s spiritual health and posterity. God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel. The killing of the Canaanite children not only served to prevent assimilation to Canaanite identity but also served as a shattering, tangible illustration of Israel’s being set exclusively apart for God.” — Subject: Slaughter of the Canaanites

      Where did Dr. Craig get these ideas? Of course, from his interpertation of other parts of Bible.

      I don’t know if he affirms inerrancy, but it’s pretty clear that Dr. Craig thinks the commands – if historical – are in line with moral perfection based, in part, on the Bible’s claims that Yahweh needed to set his people apart. In other words, the Bible gives us an excuse or reason, and Dr. Craig is willing to take that at face value to build a defense of killing toddlers and infants. This is his mistake.

      Randal, Wes Morriston, and Thom Stark have pointed out at length why the Bible should not be (mis)used in this way, so I am very interested in what Dr. Craig and/or you and Paul Copan have to say about it. Counterargument requires probability, not just possibility. If all the possible defenses of Biblical inerrancy, and by extension Biblical genocides, are improbable, the arguments against them carry.

    • randal

      Matt, I know this is off topic, but is your debate with Loftus going ahead?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Randal –

    if you really want to show that Dawkins’ genocide protest is bunk, ask all the churchmen he’s debated whether he interrogated them regarding their reading of Joshua before consenting to debate with them.

    Hold up. Not everyone goes on record actively defending the idea that the Canaanite infants should have been slaughtered. If Dawkins comes across something like that, he can’t make a judgment about it?

    It’s not like Dawkins has ignored religious genocide in his rhetoric until Craig came to his attention, either…

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    First Craig’s view is that genocide is permissible if a morally perfect fully informed being commanded it.

    And how do you establish with sufficient reliability that the priests are, in fact, in communication with “a morally perfect fully informed being”, and thus are justified in ordering you to impale the baby in front of you?

    (And why doesn’t the “morally perfect fully informed being” carry out the sentence Itself, anyway?)

    • Walter

      (And why doesn’t the “morally perfect fully informed being” carry out the sentence Itself, anyway?)


      We are told that God just killed an entire world of people in a global flood, not to mention that he supernaturally slew the firstborn in Egypt to secure the release of the Hebrews, so why would God require the Hebrews to commence a great slaughter to clear out the Holy Land, when he could easily have caused the Canaanites to drop dead in their tracks?

  • supersysscvi

    Why do you use the “view of millions” as a valid premise for refuting one’s position?

    Can’t the majority be wrong?

    • randal

      At no point in the article did I depend on the premise “the majority is always (or even usually) right”. All I did was point out the fact that the position Dawkins despises is socially relevant because it is believed by millions and thus it should be well worthy of his refutation in a public setting.

      While your question isn’t relevant to the argument I’ll happily answer it anyway. Yes, the majority can be wrong. But the majority is also often right. Let’s say you’re blind. You ask people what color the sky is in the daytime and the overwhelming consensus is “blue”. That’s pretty good evidence that the sky appears blue to most people, isn’t it?

  • Brad Haggard

    Doesn’t it seem like Craig is more interested in defending inerrancy than genocide?

    But maybe what WLC needs to get Dawkins’ attention is a highly rated cable TV news show…

  • http://www.thepolemicalmedic.com Thrasymachus

    The moves here rather neatly ape how prize-fighting used to work. If you’re a prize fighter, you want to keep (and expand) your reputation. Winning fights increases your reputation, whilst losing fights decreases it. So rational prize figher’s will want to maximize their chances of gaining reputation.

    Dawkins’, rightly or wrongly, is far better known than Craig, particularly in the UK (he is the leading atheist figure). Craig is not as well known: although he’s the hero among the apologetic/christian blogosphere, he simply is an unknown to most Christians (and most atheists) in the UK. So if Dawkins’ wins, the payoff is minor, and the cost of losing is huge; for Craig, the opposite is the case.

    If Dawkins’ could guarantee he’d probably win, then ‘another notch on the belt’ might be worth his while. But, as most debate pundits suspect, his chances of winning are slender. So accepting Craig’s challenge would be a bit like the established prize fighter accepting a bout with a blinding-good youngster: high risk, low reward.

    A far better strategy is to duck the fight. Although ducking is bad, it has negligible cost if the opponent is an unknown. The reasons given can be purely cosmetic – because people probably aren’t going to care if the reasons don’t make sense if they don’t care about ducking in the first place. This protects prize-fighters rep.

    So the way to challenge an established prize fighter to a bout is to a) increase your rep and b) increase the costs of ducking. If rising star becomes an established star with high rep, then the established prize fighter might be willing to gamble now the reward is greater if he wins. Related to this, if he keeps ducking an established fighter, then that looks like cowardice, and the fighter can add to this by pulling stunts designed to embarrass him into the ring. This is, of course, exactly what Craig is doing.

    Unfortunately, Craig needs to be better known in the UK, or at least increase the storm-in-a-teacup to storm-in-a-soup-bowl surrounding Dawkins ducking to make it worth Dawkins while to debate. At the moment, ducking is the safer strategy.

  • http://RichGriese.NET Rich Griese

    I can’t see any reason for anyone to give someone like Craig. If Craig wants to demonstrate that gods exist, he should submit his attempted demonstration to a major reputable science journal like “Nature” or “Science”.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

    • eemma

      I do not like Craig, and I do not agree with his views,nI am a scientist and a completely non-religious person. But your comment shows that you haven’t really heard (OR listened carefully) to what Craig argues for. He is an ardent believer in God (and a bit fanatic, to my mind. I think I can safely say that after listening to him live), but he does not try to win over his audience by proving that god exists (which is just not possible really), he operates more subtly. He often uses the argument of ‘this is NOT what we are arguing on tonight’ (dodging the question, obviously) and he debates on topics like ‘Is good from god’ or ‘is god a delusion’. THIS sort of articles DO get published, as his resume demonstrates, but not in journals like Science, which do not focus on philosophy or ethics.

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  • eucaryote

    So Craig’s view of genocide, though in your view “reprehensible and ridiculous” is also “indeed the view of millions of christians”. Yes we know that about xtians, both the reprehensible and the ridiculous. Yet, because their views are so disgusting and disreputable, Dawkins “would lose” this hypothetical debate.

    It’s remarkable that you want to make such apologies for what is just a crock of shit. Though the jewish tribe of the time may very well have committed genocide, there was no yahwek of dog to justify and rationalize their bad behavior. xtians are idiots. There was no reason for Dawkins to “debate” Craig.

    There is no debate to be had over insane tribal bullshit. Theologians are just wrapped up in delusional nonsense. Dawkins would only have “lost” a debate with idiots. Complete waste of time.

    You need to get a real job.