Why Dawkins says he won’t debate Craig
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.