Reply to Randal Rauser on Craig and Harris

Randal Rauser has put up a response to my post on William Lane Craig’s misrepresentations of his opponents, focusing on my (very brief) comments on the Craig-Harris debate. Let’s have a look:

In the discussion thread for my article “Would you want an atheist for a neighbor?” R0c1 took issue with my suggestion that William Lane Craig was worth reading. He pointed to Chris Hallquist as one who had persuaded him that “Craig is not a trustworthy source of information on the subjects he debates.” And he provided a link to an essay by Hallquist. I appreciate Hallquist’s work here, and I think he has clearly established that Craig sometimes speaks incautiously and sometimes says things that are inaccurate. But I don’t think the essay establishes that Craig is so unreliable a resource on the matters he addresses that he cannot be read for profit. Indeed, I think that aspects of Hallquist’s analysis reflect that one-sided case building procedure which arises from motivated reasoning and confirmation bias.

A few comments on this. First, from the original thread, it’s not clear to me that R0c1 was disputing the claim that Craig is worth reading. Here’s what Randal originally said:

Look at the frenetic and uninformed screeds that atheists purchase and read by the truckload: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens, god is not great: how religion poisons everything, David Mills, The Atheist Universe, Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation. Distortion, caricature, ad hominem, non sequitur and countless other blunders fill these writings. When it comes to philosophy of religion and theology, each of these authors writes with all the sophistication of a college freshman.

I wish that more atheists would seriously engage both with serious atheists like Austin Dacey and Quentin Smith, as well as equally serious theists like Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig. (Of course I also wish that more Christians were reading intelligent critiques on both sides.)

To which R0c1 said, “Serious like William Lane Craig, seriously?” R0c1 is taking issue with holding up Craig as someone who is clearly so much better than those awful Gnu Atheists, and I agree with him. It’s ridiculous to complain about “distortion, caricature, ad hominem, non sequitur and countless other blunders” and then hold up Craig (who does those things habitually) as someone so much more “serious.”

You can point all that out without denying that Craig is worth reading. For the record, I think that Craig is clearly one of the leading living proponents of natural theology (a sorry commentary on the present state of natural theology), so he is worth reading if you have a serious interest in such things. You just can’t read him the way you might read other authors, assuming their portrayal of the current state of scholarship and their opponents is at all accurate.

Another thing I need to point out: yes, the post Randal links to (and other posts which it in turn links to) are building a case against Craig, in the sense that I’m trying to persuade in a fairly concise manner of the conclusions I’ve come to after years of observing Craig. It’s not the full (boring) story of how I reached that conclusion; I don’t know if that contributes to the perception of “one-sided case building.”

Now, on to what I said about the Craig-Harris debate: we need to emphasize that the view Harris referred to as “psychopathic” is the view that intentionally blowing up a bus full of schoolchildren is OK if it’s what God told you to do–that in fact, it’s not just OK, but a moral obligation. That’s actually Craig’s view.

Furthermore, when I talk about “what Craig insinuated” in my original post, I’m talking about the fact that Craig made a big deal of denying that Peter van Inwagen and Tom Flint are psychopathic. That only would have been relevant had Harris said all religious believers are psychopathic, which he didn’t. By bringing this up in spite of that fact, Craig is insinuating that Harris did say that.

You might doubt that such debating maneuvers can really do much harm, but I suspect they do. It’s hard to remember every detail of the positions someone takes in twelve minutes of speaking, and worse, there’s a lot of psychological research showing that people’s memories of what they’ve experienced can be influence by what other people tell them after the fact. So rhetorical ploy’s like Craig’s may often work.

Now the meat of Randal’s response:

Why is Hallquist “sickened” and “angered”? He doesn’t say but I take it he’s referring to Harris’ appended caveat: “Now, I’m obviously not saying that all that Dr. Craig, or all religious people, are psychopaths and psychotics….” But Craig never said that Harris said he was a psychopath. Rather, Craig accurately describes Harris’ charge that his view is psychopathic. Harris never retreats from that claim. He simply clarifies that having a psychopathic tendency is not sufficient to make one a psychopath. And this is indeed true. Psychopathy is diagnosed based on scoring Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist of twenty traits. Evincing one trait isn’t sufficient to make one a psychopath.

So then let us ask: Does Craig’s ethical view evince at least one psychopathic trait? Unfortunately for Harris, the answer is a resounding no. If you read through the twenty traits on the Psychopathy Checklist you’ll find qualities like callousness, shallow effect, grandiose sense of self-worth, and lack of empathy. But you won’t find adherence to a divine command theory of meta-ethics among them.

This means that Harris was clearly incorrect to accuse Craig of having a psychopathic trait in virtue of the meta-ethical theory he defends. And that’s no small error. It’s not far off falsely accusing somebody of having a “pedophilic tendency”. So where’s the outrage at this smear of Craig?

I almost have a hard time believing Randal is serious here. When he talks about “adherence to a divine command theory of meta-ethics,” what he means is believing that blowing up a bus full of children is right if that’s what God told you to do. That may not be explicitly listed in the Psychopathy Checklist, but neither are things like actually blowing up a bus full of children. And being willing to approve of such an act just because you think God approves certainly sounds like something that would require a shocking degree of callousness and lack of empathy.

Yet as Harris says in the debate, “this to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own.” The horror here is in the fact that there may people with a perfectly normal helping of empathy, who would normally never think of hurting a child, but who would approve of blowing up a bus full of children if they thought God wanted it.

Importantly, I’m fairly certain that not all religious people take that position, but quite a few do, and Craig is one of them. And rather than address the obvious objections to his view, Craig chose to insinuate that Harris was calling all religious believers psychopathic.

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