Why Dawkins Should Debate William Lane Craig …

I apologize for not having a clever title for this post, but I thought I’d get right to the point. By now, pretty much everyone who would possibly be interested has heard that William Lane Craig challenged Richard Dawkins to join in on a debate at Oxford, Dawkins declined, and Craig decided to place an empty chair on-stage to represent Dawkins’ “cowardice” at not attending. And so far, in my opinion no one should care. But Dawkins decided to write an article in a newspaper outlining why he wouldn’t, when I read those reasons I have to come to the conclusion that Dawkins really should debate Craig if those are the primary reasons he won’t debate him.

In the article, Dawkins spends a long time talking about Craig’s … controversial view of the genocides in the Old Testament, as Craig spends a lot of time trying to defuse them by arguing that they weren’t as bad as they might look for various reasons, none of which Dawkins finds appealing, to say the least. Thus, to Dawkins, Craig becomes an apologist for genocide, which Dawkins finds most disturbing. Because of this, Dawkins concludes:

Would you shake hands with a man who could write stuff like that? Would you share a platform with him? I wouldn’t, and I won’t. Even if I were not engaged to be in London on the day in question, I would be proud to leave that chair in Oxford eloquently empty.

And if any of my colleagues find themselves browbeaten or inveigled into a debate with this deplorable apologist for genocide, my advice to them would be to stand up, read aloud Craig’s words as quoted above, then walk out and leave him talking not just to an empty chair but, one would hope, to a rapidly emptying hall as well.

This, of course, has led to charges that Dawkins is just afraid to debate Craig, presumably on the grounds that these aren’t Dawkins real reasons for not showing up. That charge has led to some of Dawkins’ supporters being at least slightly annoyed by such characterizations. To me, though, that objection would be actually quite charitable compared to what we get if we actually take Dawkins at his word.

So, let me start with a few similar examples so that we can get a gist of what’s at stake here: this reply is essentially, that Dawkins won’t debate with Craig because he thinks Craig’s view on the genocides is utterly heinous and so much so that he simply cannot deign to treat with Craig in any way based on it. But this is exactly like saying that someone will not debate Sam Harris because his comparing torture to collateral damage is heinous, or his view that it might be justifiable and even necessary to nuke the Islamic world to prevent them from doing it first is heinous. Or like saying that because someone supports censoring pornography and so supports censorship that that view is heinous and so they won’t debate that person. Or like saying that because someone supports pornography they support the objectification of women and so aren’t worthy of debate because that’s a heinous position. Yes, those other cases aren’t genocides and so we might be able to split hairs over the level of “heinousness” involved, but to some level all of those can be held to be heinous positions. And that’s what leads to the problem.

There are two cases to consider here. The first is to presume that the actual heinous position is indeed relevant and likely to be brought up in the debate, which means that it is directly relevant to the discussion. If it is, what should Dawkins do? There are two cases here. The first is that the viewpoint really is heinous and wrong. If it is, then presumably Dawkins could justify and prove that it is indeed heinous and wrong. If he can do that, then he has an obligation to do so, and to do so in as public and relevant an arena as possible. A direct debate under the auspices of a recognized academic institution seems an ideal way to do that, and Dawkins surely would want to tell everyone what was wrong with that view if he knows what is wrong with that view. Moreover, the “marketplace of ideas” notion demands this; Dawkins cannot merely dismiss it as being heinous and wrong, but must engage in the marketplace of ideas to demonstrate it such. Especially since we have to consider the second possible case: Dawkins cannot prove it wrong. If he cannot prove it wrong, why should our intuitions that it is so heinous or our emotional reaction to it mean that it is wrong and can be dismissed without engagement? Maybe he’s right and those really do create reasonable justifications for genocide. In both cases, by refusing to debate this relevant issue Dawkins is not doing his intellectual duty. If Craig is wrong, then Dawkins should debate him to show that it’s wrong. If Dawkins can’t show that it’s wrong, then he cannot rely on intuitions or emotions to bury the idea, since it may well be right and surely Dawkins wants to know that.

So, the other possibility is that it isn’t relevant to the actual discussion they’d be having. But then this turns into an argument ad hominem: Dawkins won’t engage Craig’s specific arguments and encourages others not to do so on the basis of a position that Dawkins and others find distasteful but isn’t, in fact, relevant to the actual argument under debate (see that advice for other atheists in the last paragraph). But even if Craig is horribly wrong about genocide, if this position isn’t relevant Dawkins would effectively be saying that we can dismiss his discussions of an argument because of something else about him that we all don’t like. None of that means that Craig is wrong about every other argument he’s making, including the one they’re actually debating. Thus, argument ad hominem, by definition.

So there’s no way out for Dawkins. Either way, he’d be letting his emotions outweigh his reason and failing in his intellectual duty. And charging him with failing his intellectual duty is far worse than simply charging him with being afraid that he might lost the debate.

Dawkins should have simply stuck with “I’m too busy”. At least that’s a credible argument.

4 Responses to “Why Dawkins Should Debate William Lane Craig …”

  1. Helena Constantine Says:

    So you learned from Craig how to tell lies about Harris. Good going.

    The point is that anyone who envisions a soldier who spends six hours dashing babies’ brains out against walls and has compassion for the trauma suffered by the soldier is quite clearly insane, so it would be useless to talk to him.

  2. Helena Constantine Says:

    Now I see why why you have so few comments: because you have the integrity to subject your ideas to hostile scrutiny.

  3. verbosestoic Says:


    I was actually very careful to limit my comments to precisely what Harris says in “The End of Faith”, which I just read. He directly compares the morality of torture in extreme cases to collateral damage (presumably in as extreme cases) and claims that it might be justifiable to make a nuclear first strike against the Islamic world before they do it to us (presuming that they have nuclear capacities, of course). What would be mistaken would be claiming that he actually advocates either; they are only advocated in extreme cases and even then at least for torture it isn’t clear that he advocates it.

    Your second point makes a presumption: that the solider is evil and morally wrong to do so. In that case, it is absolutely the case that we won’t — and shouldn’t — feel any sympathy for the solider. However, imagine another case where someone, say, has to shoot their loved ones to prevent a deadly virus from spreading, a common moral dilemma in movies. In that case, we would and should feel much sympathy for the person forced to do something terrible by moral obligation. While I disagree with Craig’s argument there, since he considers it to be morally correct he would get the sympathy angle. And, of course, by making it about that specific comment you misrepresent Craig’s argument and, in fact, Dawkins’ reply (that was a minor point in Dawkins).

    None of that, of course, in any way means that Dawkins is not obligated to argue AGAINST the supposedly insane position.

    As for your second comment … I don’t get it. Did you leave a “don’t” out of there somewhere?

  4. JoeM Says:

    Dawkins is a lying hypocrite. His emotions are getting the best of him. Yet, he accuses Christians are being guided by emotions, rather than rationality. Is Dawkins being rational? No. He is scared because he knows he is touting pseudoscience that has no real basis of evidence to support the assertion of evolution. There is no proof because its made up. And he knows that Craig will well versed in science and religion both. “Prove all things” God said.

    Dawkins reminds me of the GOP party. They didn’t want to debate because their rhetoric and lies would get the best of them. And it did every time a Democrat pawned a Republican in a debate. They were also caught in major hypocrisies. Dawkins is no different here. He spouts his usual technical sounding explanation for how men came from apes. Yet, has yet to prove it. And he runs and hides when a real educated religious man shows up. He really is a fraud. And because this generation has a much lower IQ than past generations, he is getting away with it…for now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: