Dan Fincke alerted me to an article on William Lane Craig in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. It begins thus:
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?”
The author, Nathan Schneider, seems to have included this incident to reinforce the picture of atheists as big meanies, but the rest of the article vindicates Dawkins’ suspicious that Schneider had an agenda: it’s a rather blatant puff piece, almost something I’d expect out of the evangelical mag Christianity Today.
I don’t follow the Chronicle of Higher Ed closely, so I don’t know if they normally let their writers slant articles this badly, but Dan tells me he was “surprised to see the Chronicle stoop to that.” If this is really outside their normal editorial standards, it may be worth people writing to the Chronicle to say, “hey, WTF?”
After the intro with Dawkins, the article shifts to discussing Craig’s debate with Sam Harris, which I reviewed here. Schneider quotes Harris saying that Craig is “the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists.” But he ignores everything Harris has said which indicates he does not think Craig should be taken as seriously as he often is.
This was a debate, mind you, where Harris got Craig to admit that on Craig’s view, the only moral objection he can give to the Taliban is that they’re mistaken about what God commands. But, Craig thinks, if God commanded the extermination of an entire tribe (as Craig believes his God did at one point), Craig thinks that would be morally right. Craig’s response to this during the debate was to first misrepresent Harris’ views, and then when called out on his misrepresentation, just repeat his standard talking points–setting Harris up to get an easy laugh out of the audience at Craig’s expense.
But to judge from Scheider’s article, you’d think the debate was unanimously agreed to be a victory for Craig. Some audience members may have thought that, but not any of the ones I overheard talking about the debate when I attended it. In fact, I was surprised to find Craig, after the debate, going into damage control mode, blaming some not-so-friendly questions during the Q&A on underhanded skeptics packing the audience with Harris partisans, and condescendingly trying to argue that the people who thought Harris had won were wrong. Seriously, who the fuck does that? (Which is not to say I think the debate was a route for Harris either, Craig’s damage control mode struck me as a symptom of insecurity and pettiness more than anything.)
Furthermore, the issue of Craig’s defense of genocide has been extremely well publicized. There’s so much else wrong with Craig, but his defense of genocide would be the obvious thing to include if you wanted to let the critics have their say but were being lazy about finding out what their criticisms are. That even that much ends up being omitted from the article is telling.
The one critical note in the article comes two-thirds of the way through:
Paul Draper, of Purdue University, is one of the leading nontheist philosophers of religion today, and though he has debated Craig, he doesn’t see these debates as having much philosophical merit in and of themselves. He does see value, however, in studying them closely with students in a classroom: “It helps them learn to distinguish persuasive arguments from good arguments.” Draper has recently co-written a paper, “Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion” in The Monist, alleging that the work of Craig and his ilk exhibits “a variety of cognitive biases operating at the nonconscious level, combined with an unhealthy dose of group influence.”
This line of questioning—about whether William Lane Craig is merely persuasive or actually correct, an honest philosopher or a snake-oil evangelist—arises every time another one of his bouts hits the Internet. Anyone can see that he is good, but is he for real?
You might have thought at least some of the article after that point would be dedicated to answering that question, but I cann’t find anything of substance in the rest of the article that would do so. Unfortunately, from the laudatory tone of the rest of the article, I fear naive readers may assume the answer is “yes,” so it’s worth stating a few basic facts:
Craig has little academic status outside the philosophy of religion world. His Kalam cosmological argument is taken somewhat seriously by people who are aware of it (but see my criticisms here). His other arguments, such as his moral argument, however, are not taken seriously at all by academic philosophers, and with good reason. To people who actually study the arguments, it’s transparently obvious that his debate strategy is one of quantity over quality, filling his speeches with bad arguments so he can declare victory if his opponent can’t find the time to address them all.
And as for his status among Biblical scholars, I think the nicest thing I’ve ever heard a non-evangelical scholar say about Craig is that he represents an extreme conservative point of view. Others have not been so kind, declaring he’s not worth bothering with or, in Bart Ehrman’s case, concluding that he’s really an evangelist masquerading as a scholar.
The article’s puffery gets turned way up for the concluding paragraph:
Philosophy was never supposed to be a narrow discipline, fortified from the argumentative swells of the agora by specialization and merely professional ambitions. That was for the Sophists whom Socrates regaled against. Philosophy was supposed to serve the polis, to educate and embolden its young, to raise up leaders. Whether one likes their preconceived conclusions or not, today it is evangelical Christians, with William Lane Craig in the lead, who are doing so better than just about anyone else.
Lol wut? If Schneider had merely claimed evangelicals were doing more than anyone else to bring philosophy to the masses, that would have been debatable (philosophy doesn’t have as good a track record as science in this regard, giving Craig less competition, but there are still some pretty serious competing efforts out there). But the claim that Craig is doing a superb job of serving the “polis” and educating the young, when the value to the “polis” is so dubious and the propaganda the apologists churn out would be more accurately described as miseducation… seriously, what was the Chronicle thinking?