A proposal for all future debates with William Lane Craig

Richard Dawkins has written quite a bit on why he refuses to debate William Lane Craig. I think you could take his arguments further to argue that atheists should stop agreeing to debate Craig period. But if atheists are going to keep debating Craig, I have a proposal for all those debates from now on.

On the “atheists shouldn’t debate Craig” side, part of the problem is that Craig is a C-list scholar (at best), who’s managed to convince people he’s an A-lister in large part based on his debating resume. I’ve actually heard people make the argument that, “Hey, Harris and Hitches agreed to debate Craig, therefore Dawkins is obligated to do the same!” (because Dawkins is obligated to do everything Harris and Hitchens did?) There’s something to be said for breaking the cycle of that nonsense.

But arguably there are some benefits to the atheist side from debates with major Christian figures like Craig, so I have a slightly less harsh proposal that I think all atheist writers and speakers should be able to agree on: Craig never gets to speak first in a debate ever again.

If you’ve followed Craig at all, you’ll notice that the debates he does almost always use the same format, and Craig almost always speaks first. This is because, apparently, Craig is a control freak when it comes to organizing debates. From a behind the scenes account of his debate with Sam Harris:

Craig took part in the planning from the start. He insisted on particular details of the debate’s format, down to the timing of each speech and the placement of the clocks. (”Probably the most important technique to master,” he has told me about debating, “is managing the clock.”) Craig made sure that he would go first. He also suggested the topic, which bears on the subject of Harris’s latest book, The Moral Landscape.

It doesn’t always happen this way; for example, Eddie Tabash spoke first in his debate with Craig, and I understand that it happened because Tabash challenged Craig’s attempts to totally control how the debate was organized. But usually Craig’s opponents don’t do that, and Craig benefits.

Being able to speak first in a debate gives a substantial benefit to any debater, because speaking first means that in that first speech, you can focus on laying out your case without having to worry about rebutting your opponents’. But with Craig, the situation is even worse, because Craig has persistently abused the privilege by using his first speech to misrepresent his opponents’ views before they’ve even had a chance to speak.

You can see good examples of this behavior from Craig in his debate with Sam Harris and his debate with Stephen Law. In the case of Law, Craig wrote a post-debate article on his website where he continued to misrepresent Law’s views on even after Law had corrected him on it. Craig has even shown a willingness to lie outright, claiming Bart Ehrman as supporter of Craig’s “four facts” about Jesus’ resurrection even after Ehrman told him otherwise in very clear terms.

I’d like to think that by doing this, Craig only gives his opponents opportunities to expose him as a fraud, but the sad fact is that these tactics probably benefit Craig no matter how clearly his opponents’ call him out on them. The reality is that once people have been told a lie, it’s rarely enough to say “that’s not true.” They’ll often continue to believe whatever they heard first until you put in five times as much work as it took to tell the initial lie.

The solution to this is for Craig’s opponents to always speak first, so the audience can always hear what their real views are first. In a sense this isn’t fair, the fair thing to do would be to always flip a coin to see who goes first, but by his persistent dishonesty Craig has forfeited the right to 100% fair debates. After getting that very same unfair advantage through the vast majority of his debating career by taking advantage of naive opponents, Craig should be able to handle that. And if he can’t, atheists should refuse to debate him period.

For more on Craig, see my post series on his arguments, which I’ve also turned into a draft chapter for my forthcoming book.

Update February 4th, 2013: Before you try to defend Craig in the comments on this post, I have a challenge for you.

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