From the archives: The Sam Harris-William Lane Craig debate

Hey y’all. Very happy to be now joining Freethought Blogs. I intend to write a full-up introductory post later, but for now, the best introduction I can give is to re-post a piece from my old blog to give people not familiar with that blog a taste of what they can expect here. Two pieces, actually–in the original version of this post, I said some things I later changed my mind about, so I’m also including the post where I changed my mind. (I’ve made other minor edits as well.) Enjoy.

I saw this debate live; you can hear the audio of it here. Luke of Common Sense Atheism has a nice round-up of other reactions to the debate, as well as his own comments. Here’s what I took away from it:

Harris is a really good speaker

How good? Good enough that, if I ever wanted to brush up on my public speaking skills, watching videos of Harris would be at the top of my to do list. Good enough to make me question whether Craig is even all that great of a debater.

With that last comment, I emphasize that I’m talking about rhetoric here, not quality of arguments. I went into the debate expecting Craig’s arguments to suck: I’ve said before that Craig doesn’t deserve to be praised as logical and rational. I’ve dissected his moral argument in detail here, and I’ve had some fun with it here. (But cf. my criticisms of Harris.) In the past, however, I’ve always thought Craig is very rhetorically effective, and often gets the rhetorical win even when his arguments suck.

Seeing him against Harris made me re-think that. I still think Craig is good at beating up on weak opponents–ones who ramble and run out of time, who let him control the framing of the debate, or who just aren’t good public speakers. However, against Harris, he seemed less impressive, at after the debate I got some reminders that many people find Craig’s style off-putting. One audience member (Christian, I think) complain about him being repetitious; another described him as “smarmy.”

When Craig was speaking, Harris spent a lot of time smiling and typing furiously on his Macbook, as if he were thinking of brilliant things to say in response to Craig. But when he actually got up to speak, it sounded a lot more like a carefully prepared talk than a statement in debate: lots of carefully crafted lines (many of which got a good laugh out of the audience), only a few quips explicitly responding to things Craig had said in his speeches.

This isn’t to say he didn’t respond to Craig: he spent a lot of time explaining and defending his moral views and critiquing Craig’s divine command theory. He just didn’t make a big deal of saying “hey, I’m responding to Craig now.” He just didn’t go for a tedious point-by-point, which was probably the right move.

Not taking Craig too seriously

In particular, Craig spent a lot of time attacking Harris for not believing in free will, and at one point accused Harris of hiding an admission that he doesn’t believe in moral responsibility in his endnotes. Craig quoted Harris as saying that moral responsibility is a “social construct,” and that “In neuroscientific terms, no person is more or less responsible for any other for the actions they perform” (actually a quote from Michael Gazzaniga, though one Harris says he agreed with).

This was misleading, since Harris was saying that moral responsibility applies to “people and not to brains,” and that “it is a social construct that can make more or less sense given facts about a person’s brain.” Worse, it was obviously irrelevant to the God and morality question, but Craig pretended he was saying something about atheism, at one point calling it his most important objection to Harris. Then he complained lots when Harris went off-topic.

The difference between what Harris did and what Craig did was made clear to me in the post-debate discussion when someone, defending Craig, said that at least Craig faked being on topic. But it’s that very fakery that offends me so much. It tends to confirms my suspicions that he really doesn’t care if his arguments are any good. It’s just what he can get away with saying.

I did want to raise the hypocrisy issue in the Q&A, but made the mistake of letting a bunch of people cut me in line, so I didn’t get to. And maybe Harris should have pointed out the hypocrisy briefly. But I don’t think going over the above in tedious detail would have done him any good. It would have been taking Craig way more seriously than Craig deserves.

The debate underlined a lot of things about Craig

In addition to the issue of Craig’s hypocrisy over relevance, there was a revealing exchange at the end of the Q&A:

Harris: This is the kind of morality that you get out of divine command theory that, again, offers no retort to the Jihadist other than, “Sorry buster, you happen to have the wrong god.”
Craig: But that’s exactly your retort, Sam, that God has not issued such a command, and therefore, you’re not morally obligated to do it.
Harris: No, if God did, he would be evil. So I can get behind that God, if God is issuing that command, he’s an evil bastard.
Craig: The problem is that you see, on atheism, you don’t have any basis for making that kind of moral judgment.
Harris: I’ve tried to give you a basis, sorry.
Cue laughter and MASSIVE applause from the audience.

This is a great example of why I find Craig obnoxious: he tries to interpret his opponents views in whatever way he thinks is convenient for him, and when cornered, changes the subject and repeats old talking points as if his opponents’ rebuttals never happened. It also makes clear why Craig’s moral views are so indefensible: all he can say about Al Qaeda and the Taliban is that they’re mistaken about what God commands.

After the debate, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the audience reaction. Did they laugh because they thought Harris got Craig, or were they just laughing at the “no you don’t, yes I did” character of the exchange? But re-listening to the debate and hearing how much applause Harris got, I think a good chunk of the audience got what happened. And if I ever had to debate Craig on the existence of God or morality, I’d certainly bring up his admission about what his views entail re: Jihadists.

I tend to think Harris should have said these things sooner. When something happens this late, Craig (or whoever’s) supporters can tell themselves, “nah, that’s not what he really meant.” Better to have hammered it over several rounds. Still, great work on Harris’ part.

Craig’s internet fanboys need to be taken with a grain of salt

If you take a look at Craig’s Facebook pages, you’ll see a bunch of people congratulating him on his performance, saying “Sam Harris got creamed!” stuff like that. I confess that if I hadn’t been there, I might have concluded from that that Craig had won on rhetoric, if not substance. But when I went around talking to people after the debate, no one was saying anyone creamed anyone. (And to be clear: I wouldn’t say Harris creamed Craig, just that he got across some strong points.)

The lesson here is that the reactions of Craig’s fanboys aren’t any indicator of general audience reactions. In the future, atheists need to not assume Craig was even *rhetorically* effective based on what a few people say online. If you look at the comment thread on the “Sam Harris got creamed” comment, you see one guy (“Alex”) chiming in to say he thought it was a draw–and here’s here’s one of the responses:

Well the fact that Alex is still an atheist (rather than a more reasonable agnostic at the very least) after allegedly watching every Dr. Craig debate with diligence, says something in itself. If such an extensive bombardment of sound logic… and clearly argued syllogisms are not enough to sway one’s stance in favour of the truth which they all point towards, then clearly either a presuppositional antipathy towards theism is at play, or otherwise an intellectual deficiency in cumulative reasoning – being unable to, or refusing to draw an OBVIOUS conclusion about reality even when you’ve got all the resources and compelling reasons in front of you to do so.

[I'm taking the liberty of inserting a paragraph break here--Hallq.]

I mean we saw last night how objective morality doesn’t exist without God – so why choose to believe that God DOES NOT exist? It’s self-defeating on every front. It would be a great prospect in humanitarian terms/ends to see people begin to use their minds and actually reason with common sense. Choosing atheism in these modern times should be considered intellectually detestable by any person who values reason and moral living – why it seems the other way around is beyond me!! Clearly a vast number of people are just plain stupid! :O

These are not rational people.

Craig is petty

I don’t have a lot to say about this, but it strikes me as incredibly petty for Craig to need to attack not only his opponents, but his opponents’ supporters. And two relevant observations:

(1) I’ve managed to verify that tickets were given out to students for free before being sold to the general public. This guarantees most of the audience was in fact Notre Dame students, and makes the idea of an outside group trying to “pack” the debate ludicrous.

(2) The idea that Notre Dame students wouldn’t have asked such bad questions is silly. I’ve TA’d for Notre Dame undergrads, and while many of them are fairly bright, they’re still undergrads. Of course they’ll ask things that won’t seem “high quality” from the point of view of someone with years of philosophical training.

A final thought

These debates are a lot of fun for debate nerds, but I think we debate nerds have blown the importance of “winning” them all out of proportion. In the long run, Craig does not matter–among other things, much of his shtick is playing to the prejudices people walk into the auditorium with. He’s half-admitted this, saying that he thinks his moral argument works because people have been “indoctrinated” to believe its premises.

One of the great things Harris did in his opening speech was to start off talking, not about Craig’s arguments, but about all the e-mails he gets from believers around the world, and to say that he sympathizes with some of their concerns and is going to address them. Harris has been going around doing that all over the place, and not just in debates with the likes of Craig. And I think doing *that* is what matters in the long run.

Harris is right, I was wrong

Sam Harris blogs about his debate with Craig:

While I believe I answered (or preempted) all of Craig’s substantive challenges, I’ve received a fair amount of criticism for not rebutting his remarks point for point. Generally speaking, my critics seem to have been duped by Craig’s opening statement, in which he presumed to narrow the topic of our debate (I later learned that he insisted upon speaking first and made many other demands. You can read an amusing, behind-the-scenes account here.) Those who expected me to follow the path Craig cut in his opening remarks don’t seem to understand the game he was playing. He knew that if he began, “Here are 5 (bogus) points that Sam Harris must answer if he has a shred of self-respect,” this would leave me with a choice between delivering my prepared remarks, which I believed to be crucial, or wasting my time putting out the small fires he had set. If I stuck to my argument, as I mostly did, he could return in the next round to say, “You will notice that Dr. Harris entirely failed to address points 2 and 5. It is no wonder, because they make a mockery of his entire philosophy.”

As I observed once during the debate, but should have probably mentioned again, Craig employs other high school debating tricks to mislead the audience: He falsely summarizes what his opponent has said; he falsely claims that certain points have been conceded; and, in our debate, he falsely charged me with having wandered from the agreed upon topic. The fact that such tricks often work is a real weakness of the debate format, especially one in which the participants are unable to address one another directly. Nevertheless, I believe I was right not to waste much time rebutting irrelevancies, correcting Craig’s distortions of my published work, or taking his words out of my mouth. Instead, I simply argued for a scientific conception of moral truth and against one based on the biblical God. This was, after all, the argument that the organizer’s at Notre Dame had invited me to make.

In two paragraphs, Harris just owned Craig and proved he’s smarter than probably everyone else who’s ever written about Craig, myself included. I’m embarrassed to say that, in my initial write-up of the debate, I unthinkingly accepted Craig’s claims that Harris had strayed off topic. This was partly, I guess, because I knew going into the debate that Craig would try to frame it as a debate about the conditional claim “if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.” Had I been debating Craig, I probably would have figured it wasn’t worth the energy to fight him on the framing.

But thankfully, Harris was debating Craig, not me, and he never forgot that Craig’s interpretation of the topic wasn’t the actual topic. They were supposed to be debating “Is Good from God?” and it’s completely ridiculous to claim that questions like “does God exist?” and “if there were a God, what could we infer about his character?” are irrelevant to that question. Similarly, it isn’t at all obvious that the “God” there can only be referring to some very abstract god, and not the god that Craig actually believes in.

I still think Harris would have benefited from taking 30 seconds to point out how ridiculous and hypocritical Craig’s accusations of “irrelevance” were. Nevertheless, I think he largely had the right strategy, and it’s humbling to realize I’m still vulnerable to such silly debating tricks after years of watching Craig.

  • Tony

    Hi Chris! Glad to have you here.

    • Robert

      Hi, you have the gaul to talk about fanboys? You and your smug atheist band which infest the internet think that proponents of any religion are at best stupid and probably dishonest as well and the atheists always “own”, “crush”, and “destroy”-just to pick three verbs at random from YT land -the blind religious fools.

      By the way, the reason Hedges got under Harris’s skin (thin as it is) is that he refused to concede to him what the Four (sorry, now the Three) Horsemen always assume belong to them (along with science and reason)-namely, the moral high ground.

  • davidct

    The thing about Craig is that his main technique is to shift the burden of proof and make sure he is in front of a friendly audience. When he does not have the “Home Field” advantage, it is easy to notice that none of his arguments is really new. They have all been found wanting.

    Kudos to Harris for not getting caught by that dishonesty.

    Welcome to FTB by the way.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM.

    Welcome Chris.

    I’ve seen several videos of Craig’s debates. He is a practiced debater who isn’t above lying about his opponent’s views. I wouldn’t want to debate him. His dishonesty would make me too angry to be an effective speaker, let alone a debater.

  • otrame

    Welcome to the lair of evil. Looking forward to reading you.

  • Brothersen

    I really agree with your analysis and i was rather surprised to read such a good analysis of Craig’s techniques from Harris. I must say that I accepted Craig’s accusations, too.

    This reminds me of a debate between Craig and Dr. Shelly Kagan, where they used a slightly different form of debate with more direct contact between the speakers. The motion was something like “Is God necessary for morality” and Kagan was first speaker. I must admit that i am not a trained philosopher and i don’t think that I am really able to say with certainty who actually won the debate but i do remember that Craig had some problems arguing against a real philosopher, especially because Kagan didn’t let Craig the chance to talk about the difference between epistemology and ontology for half an hour.

    As you can see, i am neither a native english speaker not a trained philosopher so if there are things i misunderstood i’m glad to get corrected.

  • Owlmirror

    Minor nits: The paragraph beginning “As I observed” should be inside the blockquote, since that’s still Sam Harris writing. You might want to make another proofreading run, too. There’s a “quips quips” in the text, and possible stuff that I missed.

    William Lane Craig is both interesting and repellent. Interesting for his polish and rhetorical skills; repellent for his implicit hypocrisy and double-standards.

    I find myself wondering if it would be possible to successfully expose the nonsense underlying his unquestioned premises, in a live debate, or if the audience could understand that he plays stupid word games but expresses that nonsense so eloquently.

  • DobermanGuy

    Not that i agree with anyhting he says, but Craig voice seems to permeate my skull more efficient than any other. I have trouble maintaining focus on non american accents (if that makes sense). Sam Harris makes me hot too.

  • DLC

    PZ Myers says, go haze the noobs. So.. consider yourself hazed.

  • F

    Yeah, I stopped in for the hazing, too, and got more than I bargained for. I’m about fed up with reading about anything to do with WC (and debate, for that matter), but you have a very interesting post here.

    Welcome to this, the den of iniquity known as FTB.

  • piero

    Oh, no! One more blog to check daily. As it is, I already have no time for work.

    Seriously, though, welcome. I think your blog will be worth reading, and I will read it.

    Concerning the Harris-Craig debate, I still cannot understand why Americans are so keen on debates (I’m a foreigner, as you can tell). I really don’t see the point, much as I don’t see the point of baseball or football (the American version). Unfortunately, the fad is slowly creeping into my country too, as Halloween has recently done (there is nothing I could despise more than kids voicing the Spanish translation of “Trick or treat”; it doesn’t rhyme, it sounds absurd, and makes me want to bash their heads with a thick volume of Spanish poetry).

    As far as I can tell, debating is like a competitive sport. In other words, points are scored for stupid things like crossing a line with a ball in your hands or reaching a certain location before anyone else. In the end, nobody really gains anything, except an adrenaline rush which will probably harm you anyway.

    I’m glad Harris refused to play the usual game. I’m not so glad he claims to have played it.

  • RickFlick

    Hello and welcome Chris. I learned from this archive post you are wise and humble in your praise of Harris. Now I’m eager to learn more.

  • Justin


    It really isn’t supposed to be like that. The key problem that underlays the “point scoring” is that WLC debates like a high school student. That isn’t to demean, but to mention that, unlike real debates, there is a thing as competitive debate amongst high school students and undergrads. Most scholars that I know find that format useless, which is why you only really see craig playing at technical point scoring for a judge that hasn’t been present for 30+ years

    • piero

      I see. Nevertheless, I’ve seen reviews of Craig’s debates on several websites (Luke Muehlhauser comes to mind), and most of them seem to regard Craig as a master debater (sorry if that sounds like Master Bates) on precisely those grounds: use of time, addressing the opponent’s arguments, etc.

      But even if the debate were evaluated on the cogency of the argumentation, there are still extraneous factors that will influence our perception. For example, Bart Ehrman has a high-pitched and loud voice that makes him unpleasant to listen to. That’s why I much prefer a debate presented as a series of written articles. Granted, it is not as exciting; but again, I don’t see why debates should be.

      • Chris Hallquist

        Yeah. I largely disagree with Luke’s assessments of Craig.

        • piero

          Thank God for that!

  • Greggorey

    Great first post.

  • Chris Hallquist

    Justin makes a good point.

    A lot of the discussion of Craig’s “wins,” even from atheists, gets downright bizarre: they talk as if the standards of high school debate events are the One True Way to evaluate performances at these things.

    I’d rather focus first on the arguments, and secondarily on rhetorical effectiveness. To some extent, Craig does get rhetorical mileage out of his high school debating tricks, but it’s a mistake to think following high school debate protocol is the same as being rhetorically effective. As I note in the post, many people do find Craig’s style off-putting.

    • piero

      I am one of those many.

  • Kevin

    If I recall correctly, William Lane Craig routinely touts these events as academic debates. If these indeed are academic debates, then they should be judged on academia’s terms. If judged by these terms, are there any debates in which Craig could be said to have won?

  • Sastra

    I would suggest an additional value for theist/atheist debates: it helps promote the view that atheism is both a rational position and a live option. The value of the debate in this case is that the debate is acknowledged. God doesn’t win as a slam dunk. All the atheist debater has to do then is seem reasonable and avoid going down in flames.

    In a sense, the position of the atheist here is similar to the position of the creationist: both are marginal positions which gain legitimacy every time they are taken seriously. The difference, of course, is that the creationist is using tricks to appear scientific: the atheist has no need of tricks. We only need a fair hearing and a chance to speak.

    Such forums are rare in a culture which likes to pretend that the existence of God is the sort of obvious common sense knowledge that even a 3 year old can intuitively grasp and that atheism is not only incomprehensible and ridiculous, but mean-spirited. When the audience is packed with church-goers who have never had their faith challenged in their lives … there is no place for atheism to go but up.

    The joy of seeing Craig reinforce their views and sound all science-y and philosophical is probably tempered by the fact that it turns out that hey, the atheist does, too. He or she didn’t flee the room in confusion, hurling curses and kicking puppies. They’ve thought about the issue in a different way than the cartoon atheist version of the Sunday School — rebellion against divine authority or bitter disappointment with life.

    When the specifics of the debate are forgotten, the slight surprise over the unexpectedly academic nature of the opposition might remain. Point taken; a chip in the smug sense of certainty.

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