Evangelism Through Debate: A Profile of Christian Apologist William Lane Craig

You know, if I were going to write a profile of a Christian apologist, I probably wouldn’t bring it up in front of Richard Dawkins… but that’s what Nathan Schneider did:

When, during a conversation in a swank hotel lobby in Manhattan, I mentioned to Richard Dawkins that I was working on a story about William Lane Craig, the muscles in his face clenched.

“Why are you publicizing him?” Dawkins demanded, twice. The best-selling “New Atheist” professor went on to assure me that I shouldn’t bother, that he’d met Craig in Mexico — they opposed each other in a prime-time, three-on-three debate staged in a boxing ring—and found him “very unimpressive.”

“I mean, whose side are you on?” Dawkins said. “Are you religious?”

That’s quintessential Dawkins for you right there :)

William Lane Craig

It’s actually a very interesting article about Craig, if for no other reason than it explains his usual debate game plan, which amounts to little more than a Gish Gallop:

In the opening statement [Craig] pummels the opponent with five or so concise arguments — for instance, the origins of the universe, the basis of morality, the testimony of religious experience, and perhaps an addendum of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Over the course of the rebuttals he makes sure to respond to every point that the opponent has brought up, which usually sends the opponent off on a series of tangents. Then, at the end, he reminds the audience how many of his arguments stated at the outset the opponent couldn’t manage to address, much less refute. He declares himself and his message the winner. Onlookers can’t help agreeing.

The biggest surprise: Craig doesn’t even give his email address to his students — they have to contact him through his ministry’s website just like everybody else.

None of it points to Craig being right about what he believes, only that he’s had an impact through his debates. I agree with him on one thing, though: It’s much more powerful to spread one’s beliefs on theoretically neutral turf (like a debate) where you’re guaranteed to be heard by people who disagree with you. It’s better than preaching to the choir, anyway.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • David Mock

    Does anyone else find Dawkins to be too whiny? And Lane Craig is the unapproachable king of circular reasoning. His Kalam cosmological argument is laughably transparent.

    • primenumbers

      Yes, his KCA is circular. Not enough people point out the well-known logical flaws in his (and other apologists) arguments.

      • David Mock

        He’s an extremely good debater, so he knows how to use rhetoric to get around the flaws in his arguments, but I must say that I thought Lawrence Krauss handled WLC quite well in their debate. It’s probably because he is an actual cosmologist who can call out WLC on his bullshit.

        • primenumbers

          And Stephen Law turned the tables….

    • Michael W Busch

      That’s the one where Craig first makes the unfounded assumption that something had to cause the universe to come into existence, and then the second unfounded assumption that that thing was his particular version of the Christian god?

      That’s not even circular. It’s assuming the conclusion.

      • Stev84

        Yeah. Even even you granted it, at most you have “something created the universe”. That still doesn’t prove that whoever or whatever it is cares about what we do with our genitals.

        • Tait

          That’s why he has debates, with Ehrman, for example, that focus specifically on why Jesus Christ and not some other desert hippy. If you’re a Christian looking for an answer, he’s got one for you at every level.
          I’m not saying they’re correct, but his works constitute what some may call a total package for a Christian looking to defend their faith.

          • Michael W Busch

            No, they don’t. As witness such nonsense as the cosmological argument.

            • Tait

              That’s pretty much what I said.

              I’m not saying his answers are correct. Just that he has answers. From the universe to the individual, he’s got something to say. He’s never left speechless and his fans love it.

    • Artor

      Dawkins is right, and he knows his shit, especially in his own field of evolutionary biology, but a master debater he ain’t. He’s a little too smug and not very patient.

      • Brian

        I agree. Dawkins is brilliant in his field, and an excellent author, but he is a very timid debater. Just watch his mini-debate with Wendy Wright, he seemed as if he was trying so very hard not to offend her while simultaneously putting up with her repetitive nonsense.

        Compare that with WLC who is an excellent debater. We may disagree with his stance and assertions, but he definitely knows how to sway the crowd through debate, just look at him going toe to toe with Hitchens in their debate to see how good WLC really is at it.

        • David Mock

          Dude, I’m a huge Hitchens fan but WLC kicked his ass in that debate.

      • David Mock

        Exactly. He might be the leading expert on biology and zoology, but he just gets too testy. I think that’s why he doesn’t do as many debates as the others.

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

    Complex ideas and lengthy explanations usually suffer in the format of a formal debate. A debater’s strategy to use the opponent’s lack of adequate time as an advantage is, I think, more telling than anything relevant he has to say about the position he is there to present.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Craig appeals frequently to cosmology and mathematics, but if the audience actually knew anything about those subjects, they would know that his use of them is ridiculous.

    • David Mock

      Here’s what’s so funny about WLC. He bitched at Dawkins for arguing against the existence of god (in The God Delusion) using philosophy, something that Dawkins had never studied. But WLC himself has never studied cosmology but has still written close to 10 books on the subject.

  • Keyra

    Dawkins is clearly a coward. This is a guy (who is completely intolerent towards anyone who believes what he himself doesn’t, confuses his opinions with facts, has a superiority complex and is overconfident to the point of hubris), who dedicates his life towards New atheism, so when debating Craig (which he repeatedly backed out), he wouldn’t have anything to lose

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      Nobody is under any obligation to debate anyone, especially repeatedly. Waiving arms and squawking don’t even cut it as childish taunts.

    • Carmelita Spats

      Liar for Jesus…Dawkins is an advocate for science education…He is dedicated to improving science standards & motivating people of all ages and abilities to become interested in science…Revealed “truth” is opinion. Science operates very differently from revealed “truth”. The question I have for you is why the hell won’t William Lane Craig debate John Loftus of “Debunking Christianity”? Mr. Loftus was a student of WLC and claims to be the only atheist WLC won’t debate. Why is that?

      http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2013/03/an-update-on-why-william-lane-craig.html

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      You may want to ask yourself why you are conflating “being too cowardly to debate” with “being aware that the debater in question uses documented dishonest tactics” only when libeling someone you don’t like.

    • Michael W Busch

      Dawkins is many things – a biologist, an atheist, an advocate for science education, and sometimes bigoted and unaware of the social privilege that he enjoys. But that doesn’t make him a coward.

      His not engaging Craig is simply a way of not agreeing to play Craig’s game, which has been explained above. And it does nothing to support any of Craig’s claims, which are all nonsensical.

    • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ TBJ

      Now if I remove the bracketed language this is how your statement reads: This is a guy, who dedicates his life towards towards New atheism, so when debating Craig, he wouldn’t have anything to lose.

    • sk3ptik0n

      Debates don’t prove anything. Debates are only helpful to show who is a better, clever or more experienced debater, and even at that, not always.

      They are indeed helpful to explain arguments to those receptive to one or the other of the opinion presented, but not in a format conducive for personal growth.

      Can they be fun to watch? Absolutely. Are they useful? In a very limited way.

      In regard to Craig and Dawkins, to state the latter is a coward is simply to repeat the lies of those that are trying to bait him. Craig bases his arguments on the unprovable and on circular reasoning. For a scientist he is the easiest apologist of all to debunk. Dawkins has gone head to head with far more formidable foes than Craig.

      A few years back, creationist found themselves at a very key point in their history. Somehow they were convinced that science would indeed prove them right. That was not the case and they failed to come up with any credible research to put against evolution.

      However, and I have to give them credit for their cleverness, they figured that it was not the scientists and the atheists that they were trying to convince. It was the population at large. And they came up with a brilliant strategy by which they presented their fantasy with just enough scientific jargon and confusing statements that a non scientist or anyone that has not actually looked into evolutionary sciences would actually find their arguments if not convincing at least worthy of being listened to.

      And that’s their only goal. Trying to pass their pseudoscience as a valid “alternative” to the creation Theory. Their famous “Teach the controversy”.

      Of course, the only controversy out there is not in the halls of academia, but in middle and high schools and their own minds.

      Their claim of equality is based on a false dichotomy because if Evolution is a scientific explanation for life as we know it, ID is only one of the many religiously based creation stories available out there. Only one of the possible fantastic explanation for the diversity of life on earth.

      Whatever Evolution by natural selection may not be able to explain (which is very little) is not automatically answered by ID. In fact, ID will also claim ignorance and then declare a supernatural agent must have been at work. I cannot fathom anything lazier than that. Even if the supernatural was a viable explanation for the shortcoming of science, it doesn’t mean that the Christian narrative is by default the most likely explanation.

      Getting back to Dawkins, the real reason he refused to debate Craig and others is because:

      1) Craig doesn’t make any arguments that he or others haven’t already debunked

      2) There is nothing in it for Dawkings. There is no upside to him and Craig sharing a stage as far as he is concerned. If he “wins”, the other side will claim victory anyway and things will be left as they were.
      On his resume, debating Craig is not even worth a mention. On Craig’s resume` it would be a highlight no matter the result and it would give ID even more legitimacy.

      And legitimacy is exactly why, until they come up with something new (good luck) there is no point in wasting time debating creationists. They have been defeated not only in informal debates, but in plenty of courts of law. Over and over and over. Why would Dawkins or anyone else would want to debate Craig? For what reason? One can just fire up youtube and listen to Craig’s main arguments without having to debate him and especially without having to open one up to trick questions that once again only show one’s ability to debate, not the truth of the matter being debated.

      An open mind, discipline, research and experimentation is how one arrives at the truth. Not by humoring clowns.

    • Mike De Fleuriot

      Let WLC show how he goes from this creator god he talks about to his God of the Bible, without using faith or circular reasoning. If he can do that, then there might be a case to listen to what he has to say, otherwise why are we still giving this person a stage to talk from.

    • http://bearlyatheist.wordpress.com/ Bear Millotts

      FIFY

      Lane Craig is clearly a coward. This is a guy (who is completely intolerent towards non-Xians who believes what he himself doesn’t, confuses his Xian opinions with facts, has a superiority complex and is overconfident to the point of hubris), who dedicates his life towards Xianity, so won’t debate John Loftus (which he repeatedly backed out), he wouldn’t have anything to lose

    • DougI

      Craig has constantly avoided debating Matt Dillahunty. Obviously William Lane Craig is a coward.

    • DavidMHart

      In what sense does Dawkins ‘dedicate his life’ to atheism?
      (And please cut out the needless ‘new atheism’ – there is nothing new about atheism; for as long as there have people making up stories about gods, there have been people around to not believe those stories)

      If you read his books, which are almost all about biology, the subject he actually dedicates his life to, you get the strong impression that he would never have bothered to speak out against religion, at least to anything like the degree he does, were it not for the constant aggravation from religious activists trying to distort the teaching of science.

    • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

      Calling someone else a coward from behind a keyboard is a surefire sign of a coward.

    • RobMcCune

      Dawkins isn’t obligated to debate anyone. If any one looks bad it’s Craig for not taking rejection well, video below.

      http://youtu.be/mjFfH9imgws?t=50s

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Debates Lane Craig is widely considered to have lost:

    vs. Shelly Kagan on “Is God necessary for morality?” (available on YouTube)

    vs. Bart Ehrman on the historicity of the resurrection

    • Artor

      I’m pretty sure Craig insists he won those too.

      • GubbaBumpkin

        It wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

      • Tait

        I think the reason Shelly came off much better than other people Craig has faced is because of the informal, back-and-forth discussion style of event it turned out to be. You can see Craig start to squirm the further away from formal debate they get. And that’s simply because they’re outside his comfort zone, and it really shows.

        The Ehrman debate was a classic. In many instances where other opponents have conceded a point to Craig and moved on to other topics, Ehrman would come back fighting with his own well-prepared rebuttals. Ehrman, I think, has been the most prepared opponent of Craig’s, and he really took it to him better than any famous Atheist.

    • Tim Fort

      This seems like a complement to Craig as he has debated many people.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        Especially when you consider that Hitchens isn’t on that list.

        • Tait

          It seemed to me like Hitch underestimated Craig. Or maybe it was Hitch being Hitch, refusing to play his game.
          Unfortunately, that game is what he signed up for and what everyone came to see. As far as debate skills go, Craig outclassed him.

          • Guest

            Hitchens was classically trained in debate, and participated in debates at the Oxford Union in college. I haven’t seen the debate you refer to, but seriously doubt he was “outclassed”.

            • Tait

              Lol. Please watch first, comment later. Who cares if he’s classically trained? Great players have bad games. This was not his best.

            • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

              Hitch is no doubt a 1st class debater, but so is Craig. When I saw that one I had to double check the date, thinking Hitch’s cancer must have had something to do with it. He didn’t have his usual fire- he just seemed tired. And no, it was well before his diagnosis.

              It was the only time I thought Hitch did a lousy job of oratory.

            • David Mock

              No, he really did lose the debate pretty handily.

    • edgar ayala

      I think Mark Zindler did a great job as well.

    • David Mock

      I personally thought Lawrence Krauss won his debate with WLC.

    • Stephen Dunn

      I think it is fair to say that Craig came off pretty well against Ehrman, who, by the end of the debate was left growling that he did not know of any convincing theories of what had happened to the body, but that any crackpot theory was better than a belief in a miracle (Hume’s argument). He then went on to suggest that because historical journals do not deign to consider theories involving miracles, it was beneath his role as historian to treat the ressurection as a possibility. A prima facie cheezy and insipid position.

      And in any case, Daniel Wallace certainly came out on top of ehrman on the question of the reliability of the NT canon, available at http://www.csntm.org.

  • Jesus Smith

    Sam Harris won his debate with WLC as far as I could see.

    He simply ignored any completely disingenuous arguments presented by WLC. He also (largely) ignored his dirty tricks. (Sam Harris did point out WLC’s quote-mining and misrepresentations).

    WLC seemed exasperated as he tried on a couple of occasions to get Sam Harris to engage square-circlish or disingenuous arguments and Dr Harris pointedly and repeatedly ignored him.

    • Tofu

      I haven’t seen it, but it seems to me that if someone can win a debate by ignoring the “disingenuous arguments,” that really just turns the statement into a simple claim of affiliation. I’m guessing a theist wouldn’t find the arguments disingenuous, so this doesn’t really say much.

  • Robster

    Bill Craig, he’s up there with Depak(?) Chopra in using completely meaningless but impressive sounding words. He doesn’t really answer any questions or make valid points, he wanders verbally along a winding path lined with pretty flowers, he peppers his words with some psudeo science words that sort of sound intellectual and that sends his supporters confirmation bias meters into overload, without saying anything of value. Like the dogma he’s selling, it’s nonsense.

  • cipher

    Craig’s brother Mallory, who is an atheist, has said something interesting about him:

    I still remember when he got religion back in High School–the misfit debate team nerd had found a community to join. Over the subsequent years, his inexorable transition from science-lover to science-denier was fascinating, though heartbreaking, to witness. (http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2011/04/william-lane-craigs-brother-mallory.html)

    Craig is an excellent illustration of something I’ve been saying for years – that the particulars of a belief system matter far less to most people than does the sense of belonging. The belief system to which one subscribes has more to do with community than with metaphysics. One finds a group of people with whom one feels comfortable identifying, then does whatever mental gymnastics one has to in order to convince oneself one “believes”. Craig’s gymnastics are simply more sophisticated than those of most people.

  • Free

    I have watched most of Craig’s debates. He is a classical debater. What makes him that is that he stays on track and seeks to answer his opponent. He uses logic in it’s historic intent. Unfortunately, most debaters are not do disciplined. The evidence is what is important. If one is truly honest about their desire to follow evidences then Craig does a good job at setting the tick marks on the map. Unfortunately, it is rare for one debating Craig to stay on point and really tear down his logic and reasoning. The Cosmological argument must be addressed and not simply dismissed because the weight of implication.

    • Sven2547

      The Cosmological argument must be addressed and not simply dismissed because the weight of implication.

      The Cosmological Argument is self-refuting. It was shown to be false centuries ago. Continuing to raise the Cosmological Argument can only be done for one of two reasons: ignorance or dishonesty.

      • Shmuel

        The cosmo argument… if matter/space has a beginning – as current data suggests, it’s cause cannot be more matter…

        • Sven2547

          Physics holds that mass-energy cannot be created or destroyed. As such, there was no “beginning” for the mass-energy of the universe.

    • cipher

      You feel that way because you’re predisposed to agree with him. Debate has little-to-nothing to do with any attempt to ascertain truth. It is performance art, and Craig is very good at that.

      There are many atheists and liberal theists who fail to agree with every argument put forth by the people representing their side. Conversely, I’ve never met an evangelical who thought Craig was wrong about anything. They just keep cheering him on. As is the case with Lee Strobel, another evangelical hero, Craig’s end goal is not to convert the nonbeliever, but to bolster the morale of the already convinced.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        I had a Christian mutual friend on fb a few months back try to get me to watch a Ken Ham video. I gave it about 10 min and then offered a critique. She returned With Strobel, not realizing how different were the positions of her heroes.

        • cipher

          Yeah. As I said yesterday, the particulars of the belief system don’t matter much; frequently, I think, they scarcely matter at all. It’s really more about group identification.

          And as has been said on this blog many times, most people really don’t think deeply about their “beliefs” to begin with.

  • Philo Vaihinger

    Dawkins is not big on free speech. Wants to criminalize religious schools and parental efforts to raise their kids in their religion, for example. Fanatic.

    • Matt D

      Well, fanatics exist on both sides, so it’s irrelevant that you see him as a crazy or a fanatic.
      Only the truth is important, not who says it.

  • Sven2547

    A debate is two used-car salesmen trying to sell their wares onstage. It is not a useful format for revealing scientific truths, it’s pure salesmanship, which is precisely why religious apologists are so fond of them.

  • Nolan tee

    Eh………. The same old angry atheists who keep shooting them selfs in the foot.


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