Sunday, 15 May 2011

Should Dawkins be scared of William Lane Craig?

Is Richard Dawkins a scaredy-cat?

The renowned evolutionist and professor, it is reported, has declined no fewer than four invitations to debate with a prominent American theologian, William Lane Craig (also a professor) during the latter's forthcoming visit to Britain this autumn. Dawkins claims that he has better things to do than "assisting Craig in his relentless drive for self-promotion". But an Oxonian philosopher, Dr Daniel Came of Worcester College, has written to Dawkins that "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."

Dr Came - described as an atheist - adds, sarcastically, that Dawkins shows no such reluctance when it comes to having discussions with "intellectual heavyweights like Pastor Ted Haggard". In a personal communication, he tells me that he has no connection with Craig or his tour, but as someone who studies the philosophy of religion "finds Dawkins' dabbling in this area infantile". He accuses him of superficiality and lack of intellectual rigour, adding that The God Delusion "could be used as a handbook of logical fallacies". Cranmer meanwhile suggests that "It speaks volumes for Richard Dawkins’ character (and academic priorities) that he only appears to debate with those who will somehow enhance his own career."

Clearly, Dawkins is under no obligation to support Craig in his promotional tour (if that is what it is) but could there be any truth in the allegations of cowardice? The American has a formidable reputation as the one Christian apologist that atheists really fear. Luke Muehlhauser of Common Sense Atheism has called him "the best debater – on any topic – that I’ve ever heard". He warns fellow atheists that if they are foolhardy enough to enter into debate with him, they will almost certainly lose. Even Christopher Hitchens has come seriously unstuck.

Atheists underestimate Craig. They think it will be easy to win an argument with anyone who has a wish-granting invisible friend. Atheists do not properly prepare for Craig’s arguments, and they do not prepare for his remarkable skill and experience in live debates.

Muehlhauser offers a list of debates involving Craig and various atheists, most of which Craig apparently won - even though "he uses the same arguments all the time". The chemist Peter Atkins - who will be taking on Craig this time - fared badly, we learn, because he seemed "more interested in lecturing about the nature and glory of science than in debating the existence of God. Atkins also does himself no favors by speaking with condescension." As for the Hitch, he fell short by failing to read up on the science, offering paltry "common-sense" objections to Craig's impressive-sounding appeals to theoretical physics. Craig is no more a cosmologist than Hitchens is, but he has mastered the art of sounding as though he knows what he's talking about. It's a trick that most public atheists, especially perhaps those with a genuine scientific background, are just too honest to pull off.

If Craig really is that good - at least when it comes to swaying an audience - then Richard Dawkins might be forgiven for running scared. He has his own reputation to keep up, his own books to sell, and no interest in being a stooge in Craig's stage show. Muelheuser suggests that it's worthwhile for atheists to debate Craig, even if they lose, because his high profile will at least offer a prospect of bringing atheist arguments to a public that might not otherwise hear them. But while that may be true of the United States, in Britain Craig is hardly a household name. Dawkins is. It is clearly much more in Craig's interests than Dawkins' that the debate takes place.

But is Craig actually all that he's cracked up to be?

A scientist who was seemingly bested by Craig, Lawrence Krauss, took to the Richard Dawkins website to complain about the "self-congratulatory hype" from the theologian and his supporters that followed a debate between the two in North Carolina in March. He writes that

Any effort I made to show nuance and actually explain facts was systematically distorted in Craig’s continual effort to demonstrate how high school syllogisms apparently demonstrated definitive evidence for God.

And he bemoans the

disingenuous distortions, simplifications, and outright lies that I regard Craig as having spouted. I was very disappointed because I had heard that Craig was more of a philosopher than a proselytizer, but that was not evident the other evening.

I find it hard not to feel sympathy for Krauss's anguish as he admits his failure:

What I hoped I could convey to the truly open minded intellects in the audience, of which of course Craig was not one, was that the amazing effort to understand how the universe works reveals wonders far more remarkable than those presented by Bronze age myths, developed before we had any clear understanding of how the universe works. Simply arguing that one doesn’t understand the results, or doesn’t like the results and therefore one has to resort to supernatural explanations, which was the crux of Craig’s rather monotonous repetition of his syllogisms, is indeed intellectually lazy, as I did say at the time.

Responding, Dawkins himself expressed scepticism about Craig's performance:

I can't think why some people say Craig is a skilled debater. It is true that he seems to do nothing else with his life EXCEPT travel around debating, so he has had plenty of practice at debating against people who have better things to do. But the only time I have been in a debate with him (in Mexico) I found him pedantic and surprisingly unimpressive. He seemed to think he had scored points of logic when, to anyone of any intelligence, he obviously had done nothing of the kind.

On a previous occasion, (YouTube) Dawkins has said that "I will debate a bishop, a cardinal, a pope, an archbishop... but 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 more than that. I'm busy."

Now at first glance, William Lane Craig IS more than that. He's the author of numerous books and academic articles, a trained philosopher and holder of a professorship in philosophy at Talbot School of Theology. He presents himself as the world's foremost Christian apologist - and as we've seen he has apparently convinced an Oxford philosophy lecturer to back up the claim. Greta Christina notes that "when believers accuse atheists of ignoring sophisticated modern theology, Craig is one of the people they're talking about."

There's no doubt that he is a highly intelligent man, and an intellectually sophisticated one. If nothing else, Craig is a good example of the phenomenon I mentioned some while back, that the mental flexibility required to be a serious religious believer in the modern world is much greater than that needed to justify atheism. But there probably is nothing else. Having read a few of his online essays, I find it hard not to conclude that Craig is much more of a Ted Haggard than a Rowan Williams.

As quickly becomes obvious if you trouble yourself to find out what they are, Craig's views verge on fundamentalism. Indeed, there's enough old rope on his website for any atheist prepared to stoop low enough to build the theologian a fully-functioning gallows. In one online article picked apart by Greta Christina, Craig defends a notorious Old Testament story in which God commanded the children of Israel to smite the Canaanites (every last man, woman and child) by arguing - seriously - that the Canaanites were wicked and so had it coming.

She writes: "If I were trying to make up a more blatant example of ethical contortionism, of morality so twisted by its need to defend the indefensible that it has blinded itself to its own contradictions and grotesqueries, I couldn't have done a better job."

I've read Craig's original article, and I can confirm that it's even more bone-headed than Greta Christina says it is. He argues, for example, that God is the source of all morality ("If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist") and that therefore "since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself, He has no moral duties to fulfil." Problem solved! God can just excuse himself from the demands he imposes on others. Do as I say, says God, not as I do; except when I'm expressly ordering you to exterminate rival tribes, in which case you'll be in trouble if you don't. (I seem to remember Saul's great crime, for which he was stripped of the Kingdom of Israel, was not being quite as tough on the Amalekites as God had demanded.) As Craig writes: "the act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their on initiative, it would have been wrong." (Why does he write "Israeli" rather than "Israelite", by the way? Is it a Freudian slip?)

It would be hard to think of a clearer example of the dark places to which theodicy can take you. Craig is aware of the alternative offered by more liberal theologians - that the Bible, in this instance, is not to be relied upon either as an historical source or as a guide to what God commanded. But he prefers, if possible, to stick to "inerrancy" and play pseudo-intellectual games. He claims that, since life is hard and God's mercy is infinite, the Canaanite children were probably better off dead (but in that case, isn't everyone better off dead?). Taking at face value the Bible's uncomplimentary remarks about the Canaanites (including allegations of cultic prostitution and child sacrifice) and ignoring archaelogical evidence suggesting a sophisticated and literate culture, he asserts that God let them off lightly by permitting them to survive for as long as they did:

Think of it! God stays His judgement of the Canaanite clans 400 years because their wickedness had not reached the point of intolerability! This is the long-suffering God we know in the Hebrew Scriptures. He even allows his own chosen people to languish in slavery for four centuries before determining that the Canaanite peoples are ripe for judgement and calling His people forth from Egypt.

If Craig has any moral qualms about the episode, it's not for the slaughtered Caananites but for the "Israeli soldiers" who must have been traumatised by having to carry out the righteous commands of their God. "Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children?" he asks, chillingly. But of course it would have been sinful not to, they were "just following orders", and you can't blame God, because God is good. This man calls himself a philosopher!

There follows a highly troublesome passage in which Craig discourses upon the superior sanctity and chosenness of Israel, the need for them to separate absolutely from the surrounding tribes just as kosher law separates meat from milk and wool from linen fabric. ("These serve as daily, tangible reminders that Israel is a special people set apart for God Himself.") And it gets worse. He claims that "the Eastern mind" has "a tendency towards amalgamation" - using as evidence a concept from Hinduism - and thus the Jews, being Oriental, needed teaching the "Law of Contradiction" in particularly stark terms. Go massacre the Canaanites, saith the Lord. That'll put some basic understanding of logic into your slipshod oriental minds.

Craig isn't just a Biblical literalist, he also espouses a fairly hardline form of predestination. This leads him to a neat reconciliation of scriptural inerrancy with the obvious fact that the text of any Biblical book is the work of a particular individual writing at a particular place and time. "God knows under just what circumstances Paul would, for example, freely write his letter to the Romans. By creating Paul in those circumstances, God can bring it about that Romans is just the message He wants to convey to us." But - as a smartarse on his website points out - in that case you could claim that the atheistic outpourings of Christopher Hitchens are divinely inspired, since God presumably also created Hitchens. I find his response to that very pertinent question somewhat lacking. Perhaps you disagree:

The essential difference lies in God's attitude toward what is written. In the one case, God wills to communicate via the author His message to us. He intends that the letter to the Romans be His Word to us. Romans is therefore a case of appropriated or delegated speech, much as a boss makes a letter composed by his secretary his own by affixing his signature to it. By contrast, God merely allows Hitchens to write what he does without endorsing its truth or adopting it as His own. God lets Hitchens put forth his falsehoods because in His providence Hitchens' books have their part to play in God's overall plan for human history. But God does not see Hitchens' books as His Word to us, to be trusted and obeyed.

I mean really, is this "the foremost apologist for Christian theism"? Bad news for Christian theism if it is. Even worse news, though, for atheists if they are regularly defeated in debate by someone like that.