Did William Lane Craig smear Sam Harris? A response to Chris Hallquist
In the discussion thread for my article “Would you want an atheist for a neighbor?” R0c1 took issue with my suggestion that William Lane Craig was worth reading. He pointed to Chris Hallquist as one who had persuaded him that “Craig is not a trustworthy source of information on the subjects he debates.” And he provided a link to an essay by Hallquist. I appreciate Hallquist’s work here, and I think he has clearly established that Craig sometimes speaks incautiously and sometimes says things that are inaccurate. But I don’t think the essay establishes that Craig is so unreliable a resource on the matters he addresses that he cannot be read for profit. Indeed, I think that aspects of Hallquist’s analysis reflect that one-sided case building procedure which arises from motivated reasoning and confirmation bias. To illustrate my point I’ll focus on the section of the essay where Hallquist critiques Craig’s interaction with Sam Harris.
The section begins with Hallquist quoting Sam Harris in his debate with Craig:
“We are being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude… it is psychopathic because this is a total detachment from the, from the well-being of human beings. It, this so easily rationalizes the slaughter of children. Ok, just think about the Muslims at this moment who are blowing themselves up, convinced that they are agents of God’s will. There is absolutely nothing that Dr. Craig can s—can say against their behavior, in moral terms, apart from his own faith-based claim that they’re praying to the wrong God. If they had the right God, what they were doing would be good, on Divine Command theory.
“Now, I’m obviously not saying that all that Dr. Craig, or all religious people, are psychopaths and psychotics, but this to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own.”
Hallquist then comments on this excerpt:
“You can debate the words “psychopathic” and “psychotic,” but otherwise what Harris says is an indisputably accurate description of Craig’s moral view.”
I have a degree in English literature so I’d like to think I have some ability to find the topic sentence of a paragraph. And in this case the main point seems to be that Craig’s moral belief is “psychopathic and psychotic”. So when Hallquist says we can debate the use of those words he’s saying we can debate the charge itself which is to say we can debate the substance of the whole paragraph.
Harris could have said that Craig’s beliefs evince a denial of moral knowledge which constitutes a case of self-imposed moral retardation. This would be a strong charge but it would also be a defensible one. But instead he invoked a charge which is both emotional and, based on the evidence provided, inaccurate. More on that in a moment.
Hallquist then quotes Craig’s response to the Harris charge in a post-debate debriefing:
“[Harris] also says it’s “psychopathic” to believe these things. Now, that remark is just as stupid as it is insulting. It is absurd to think that Peter van Inwagen here at the University of Notre Dame is psychopathic, or that a guy like Dr. Tom Flint, who is as gracious a Christian gentlemen as I could have ever met, is psychopathic. Uh, this is simply, uh, below the belt.”
Is Craig’s description of Harris’ comment in this excerpt uncharitable or misleading? I don’t think so. Harris says that Craig’s moral view was psychopathic and psychotic and Craig repeated that charge and pointed out that it was “stupid”, “insulting” and “absurd” .That seems like a fair commentary.
So I am completely at a loss to explain Hallquist’s roaring moral indignation to Craig’s response. He writes:
“This is a disgusting smear against Harris, and I am sickened and angered every time I think about it. Harris explicitly said that he was not saying what Craig insinuates he was saying.”
Why is Hallquist “sickened” and “angered”? He doesn’t say but I take it he’s referring to Harris’ appended caveat: “Now, I’m obviously not saying that all that Dr. Craig, or all religious people, are psychopaths and psychotics….” But Craig never said that Harris said he was a psychopath. Rather, Craig accurately describes Harris’ charge that his view is psychopathic. Harris never retreats from that claim. He simply clarifies that having a psychopathic tendency is not sufficient to make one a psychopath. And this is indeed true. Psychopathy is diagnosed based on scoring Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist of twenty traits. Evincing one trait isn’t sufficient to make one a psychopath.
So then let us ask: Does Craig’s ethical view evince at least one psychopathic trait? Unfortunately for Harris, the answer is a resounding no. If you read through the twenty traits on the Psychopathy Checklist you’ll find qualities like callousness, shallow effect, grandiose sense of self-worth, and lack of empathy. But you won’t find adherence to a divine command theory of meta-ethics among them.
This means that Harris was clearly incorrect to accuse Craig of having a psychopathic trait in virtue of the meta-ethical theory he defends. And that’s no small error. It’s not far off falsely accusing somebody of having a “pedophilic tendency”. So where’s the outrage at this smear of Craig?
Hallquist might reply that Harris wasn’t intending to charge Craig with scoring high in one trait on the Psychopathy Checklist. He was merely speaking rhetorically when he called Craig’s views psychopathic. But that’s hardly a defense of Harris. Here’s the dilemma for Hallquist: Harris’ psychopathic charge is either both false and grossly incompetent or it is a cheap, immoral smear on Craig’s person which is intended to win rhetorical points. Since Harris seems to be a very competent individual — he is, after all, one of the four horsemen of the atheistic apocalypse — I am going to assume that he wasn’t that grossly incompetent. And that means that he was probably invoking the charge of psychopathic tendency as a smear which, as I said, is immoral.
Let’s summarize things so far. Our story begins with Harris smearing Craig. Craig responds by accurately describing (and protesting) the smear. And Hallquist then accuses Craig of smearing Harris! How’s that for ironic?
This is serious business, this matter of Harris smearing Craig and Hallquist distorting his whole account of the situation. It convinces me that Harris and Hallquist were both uncharitable to Craig’s views. But this hardly means I’m going to say I won’t read Harris or Hallquist anymore. Nobody’s perfect, and each of them clearly got swept up in the moment and let their prejudices get the best of them. But we can still read them and benefit from them just like we can still read and benefit from Craig despite his own imperfections.