Saturday, October 29, 2011

Debates: Are they Useful?

I have in my personal library, a book entitled Does God Exist? The Debate Between Theists and Atheists, (1993, Prometheus Books).  It's a book in which several philosophers from both sides of the debate contribute; primarily J.P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen, with contributions from Peter Kreeft, Antony Flew, William Lane Craig, Keith Parsons and Dallas Willard.  In the course of some 300 pages several arguments for God's existence, as well as arguments for atheism along with rebuttals are presented.

Since I've read much larger individual works from several of these authors, I would have to say that the book is a much condensed version of the larger arguments these gentlemen prepared prior to and since it's publication some 18 years ago.

Such is the very essence of live debates of this nature.  They are necessarily brief and condensed versions of larger arguments.

Recently at Uncommon Descent there has been much discussion centered around WL Craig's recently completed speaking tour of the UK in October, and the reasons why some materialist atheists have declined invitations to join Craig in debate.

One of those invited to a debate in Oxford was the well known British Zoologist Richard Dawkins.  Dawkins has had several opportunities to debate Craig over the years and he has declined.  Last year Dawkins was involved in a panel discussion involving Craig in South America, but he has never debated Craig in the common one-on-one format for which Craig is known.

I sense the real reason some of these materialists don't want to debate Craig is due to the one-on-one format.  It requires being able to condense an argument into an hour and a half or two hours.  Craig has been at it for a while and so he knows how to condense his argument, and he does so by both researching the views of his opponents and planning to address some of their views as well as preparing the best argumentation for his primary argument.  He doesn't go in there unprepared.

Dawkins' reason for not joining in the debate is peculiar.  Allegedly blogger Greta Christina of Alter Net alerted Dawkins to a piece she wrote back in April of this year, in which she accuses Craig of defending genocide and infanticide due to his views defending the Israelite slaughter of the Canaanites as depicted in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy.

Her article was in response to a question and answer piece from Craig's site Reasonable Faith, wherein Craig answers in-depth two questions, one from an anonymous reader of his site and one from an identified reader, concerning his views in defense of the charge that God is a "moral monster:" a charge that many of the new atheists have made, including Dawkins in his book The God Delusion.

Dawkins here responded to Craig's article in May of this year, stating:

She [Greta Christina] has a devastating exposé of William Lane Craig, exploding the myth that he is a sophisticated 'theologian' rather than some fundamentalist nutbag. Or, actually, maybe it exposes the greater myth that there is such a thing as a sophisticated theologian at all. It is worth following the link to Craig's own post, which lays bare Craig's truly shocking Christian 'morality'. I knew he was over-rated, but I didn't know quite how evil his 'theology' is.

As vjtorley of Uncommon Descent has pointed out however, Richard Dawkins knew about Craig's views on the matter as early as 2008, and blogged about it on his blog.

So his statement from May of this year: "I knew he was over-rated, but I didn't know quite how evil his 'theology" is." seems rather out of place.

And then in mid-October of this year, Dawkins wrote this piece in The Guardian, explaining why he "took pleasure in refusing" to debate Craig in Oxford and further explaining that he "turn(s) down hundreds of more worthy invitations every year."  And then this little ditty in response to Craig's intention of placing a chair on stage symbolizing Dawkins' absence: 

In an epitome of bullying presumption, Craig now proposes to place an empty chair on a stage in Oxford next week to symbolise my absence.  The idea of crashing in on another's name by conniving to share a stage with him is hardly new.  But what are we to make of this attempt to turn my non-appearance into a self-promotion stunt?  In the interests of transparency, I should point out that it isn't only Oxford that won't see me on the night Craig proposes to debate me in absentia: you can also see me not appear in Cambridge, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow and, if time allows, Bristol.

His reason?  Because:

You might say that such a call to genocide could never have come from a good and loving God. Any decent bishop, priest, vicar or rabbi would agree. But listen to Craig. He begins by arguing that the Canaanites were debauched and sinful and therefore deserved to be slaughtered. He then notices the plight of the Canaanite children.
I'm not convinced that this is the real reason why Dawkins wont debate Craig.  If that was the case it would seem more reasonable that he had responded in the Guardian much earlier, and soon after he received the invitation.

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Society recently chimed in on Craig's presence in UK, and why many humanists, atheists, materialists are uncomfortable with debating Craig.  I recently blogged what I call Copson's cop out.  Copson stated:

Well I understand why a lot of people don’t want to debate him one-on-one. The one-on-one occasions that he does uh, micromanage, really in terms of format to his advantage; they’re often set up occasions with largely Christian audiences who come to see him, and a lot of people find his arguments contradictory and contorted and very obscure, but plausible to the untrained eye, so really, they take a lot of refuting, and it’s (something you have to?) refute in writing afterwards. Live, it’s quite difficult. So a lot of people don’t like to debate him one-on-one and I completely understand that.

My response:

Copson in particular thinks that the one-on-one debate format does not leave enough room for effectively addressing the arguments. Well too bad. It’s called research. Research that is done prior to the debate. A debate is not held in a vacuum. Craig’s writings are available. If one hasn’t done the necessary research (as Craig has done) to know what the opponent is arguing, then yes, I can see how a one-on-one debate will not have an outcome to one’s advantage. So it’s a Copson cop-out

What is it about these debates that causes such a rumble over the internet and in other media?  They seem to me like rather simple affairs, and they're over in a matter of hours.  I would imagine that with his many books Dawkins has spent much more time in strenuous study to prepare a piece that would attract much more attention from his followers and others than a  two hour debate. So it couldn't be that he simply didn't have the time to prepare.  I really believe that Dawkins is intimidated by Craig.  With his insulting tone and diminished (or rather non-existent) respect for Craig's credentials as a philosopher, there seems to be an almost subconscious avoidance of anything Craig-related.  The late response in The Guardian would seem to also lend credence to the observation that Dawkins is afraid to debate Craig.  What would it do to his image; his following, his CV?  I would propose that it would do very little.  He would still have his image, his following and his impeccable CV, and added respect for his courage to at least face those he has accused of being supporters of a moral monster.

Would such a debate be useful?  Perhaps, perhaps not, but I doubt that it would do anything to diminish respect for Dawkins.  If anything, not debating will have more negative repercussions on Dawkins' respectability than simply showing up and giving his hours worth of argumentation.

But it's over now.  The debate was held in his absence, and the chair sat empty on the stage as a testament to a man who is so concerned apparently with his own image, that to fill it would have in his mind meant intellectual doom.

Following are two very recent debates (involving those who did show up) - specifically between William Lane Craig and Peter Millican, and between Craig and Stephen Law  Both debates are featured on the website for UK's Premier Christian Radio show Unbelievable with Justin Brierley.

The first is embedded as a video, but includes only audio.

The second is a link, since no video was provided, only an audio player.

Craig/Law Debate - Monday, October 17th, 2011 - Westminster Central Hall

Additional thoughts:

I was more engaged in the Craig Millican debate.  I thought Millican was a very worthy opponent, and that he was well prepared.  I plan on looking into some of his writings.

Thoughts?  Contrary views?

Update - during the Sheldonian Theater debate in Oxford, Craig responded to Dawkins' charge during the Q&A portion.


  1. The chair bit gets me. He's being bullied by a chair.

    Here's how I would have handled it:

    Dear Professor Dawkins,

    When you don't show up in Oxford, I'll bully you with a chair there, and when you don't show up in Cambridge I'll bully you with a different chair there, and when you don't show up in Liverpool, I'll bully you with yet another chair there as well as in Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow and, if time allows, Bristol. I'll cash in on your fame in all of those places with an empty chair. I'll be rich, and you'll miss out.

    Your non-appearance is a publicity stunt on my part? How so? Don't Atheists believe in the non-existence of God precisely because they find no evidence, and the absence of evidence is the evidence of absence. So you're non-appearance or absence from these venues will be further evidence of your non-existence, so who's bullying who here? Maybe you really are transparent, but not in that way.

  2. F/N: Onlookers may wish to look here and here, with the comment here.

    Reasonably level playing field CIVIL debates force public accountability on participants, and those who hold power but not a truly sound case fear them.

    (Notice how advocates of evolutionary materialism far too often often want to lure people to fever swamp venues where they can prevail by distractive red herring issues, led out to strawman caricatures that are soaked in ad hominem smears and set alight through incendiary rhetoric that then clouds, poisons and polarises the atmosphere. Those are not the approaches of those who have high confidence in the substance of their views. The poisonous red herring issue mentioned above is a sadly revealing classic of this approach, for it is clear that here are ZERO responsible, Bible-believing Christian thinkers and leaders -- including Dr Craig -- who advocate genocide.)

    GEM of TKI

  3. "Reasonably level playing field CIVIL debates force public accountability on participants, and those who hold power but not a truly sound case fear them."

    Good point. It's interesting that in this case there was less focus on the debate itself and more on the circumstances of Dawkins' refusal. He seems to have drawn more negative attention to himself than he was probably planning on. It will hurt him.

  4. Long run. In the short term his media power and fellow travelers in the punditry gave what looks like a PR win. But, those who indulge in poisoned-well scorched earth tactics like that will find they are alienating those they cannot afford to alienate, long term.