Atheism: Dawkins vs. Craig

From Nelson Jones:

Richard Dawkins stands accused of cowardice for refusing to debate with an Amercian theologian, William Lane Craig. He responds that he’s too busy and that Craig is nothing but a professional debater.

Naturally, Dawkins is under no obligation to take part in someone else’s publicity tour, but the allegation does have some force, not least because Craig has a reputation for eating atheists for breakfast.

Even Christopher Hitchens, it is generally conceded (even by atheists), lost his encounter with Craig on points….

Perhaps the atheists’ collective failure in debates with skilled believers such as Craig is only to be expected. Essentially, they have to try harder.

An atheist is like the lion running for its dinner – victory is desirable but not crucial. Theists need better arguments – like the gazelle running for its life – because they need to, as the default setting of our society is now atheist, or at the very least agnostic.

Whatever the beliefs of individual scientists, science is a fundamentally atheistic endeavour. By which I mean that no single scientific theory – if one ignores the quasi-scientific concept of Intelligent Design – relies on or invokes God. An explanation of science that depended on God would not, in scientific terms, be an explanation at all.

But then no historian, searching for the root causes of significant events, considers divine intervention, either: even the Holocaust, which clearly raises questions for theology, does not raise theological questions for historians….

To articulate a convincing case for God in a society that functions almost entirely on the assumption of his non-existence is, therefore, no easy proposition. It requires intellectual flexibility, imagination, an ability to look beyond the obvious. As such, we should expect believers to win debates with atheists. Needless to say, it does not mean that they are right.

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  • Fish

    We put “God” on our money. That’s hardly an assumption of non-existence.

  • From what I’ve seen of WLC, he hardly “eats atheists for breakfasts”… it’s pretty standard fare “arguments for god” and “atheists need faith too” stuff really…

  • I have to take a certain degree of issue with the notion that the default position of “society” is that of atheism. Which society? What components of it? And “atheistic” meaning “there is no god” or “atheistic” meaning “we will not concern ourselves with god?” The first amendment is atheistic, in that it does not claim a god, but how many practicing religious folks (or even just plain ol’ theists) would cite it as such?

    An interesting piece, certainly, but this whole atheists-debating-theists thing seems pretty unnecessary. There’s no empirical evidence for a god, and there’s little philosophical evidence (such as it could be) for God’s nonexistence, so I don’t know. I also don’t really know where I was going with this, except that I like this blog. So, uh, hooray!

  • EricW

    not least because Craig has a reputation for eating atheists for breakfast.

    They must be pretty ill-prepared atheists, then.

    Several years ago (when he had braces, IIRC), I saw William Lane Craig debate Keith Parsons, an atheist, in Dallas.

    Though the show of hands at the end (mostly Christians in the audience) made it appear that Craig had won the debate, I personally felt that Parsons’ abrupt and curt manner worked against him re: the vote, because it seemed to me that he had made a better case for his position than Craig had.

    I was not very impressed with Craig.

  • Fred


    Are you saying that it doesn’t take much to eat atheists for breakfast?

  • “Craig has a reputation for eating atheists for breakfast.”

    According to whom, judged by what criteria?

    Craig’s mother?

    His best friend?

    A show of hands in a *Christian* audience?

    Really, eats atheists for breakfast?

  • EricW

    @Scott Bailey 7.:

    I think W. L. Craig is highly regarded by people who think C. S. Lewis’ Trilemma is the final word in proving the truth of Christianity, or that Lee Strobel’s books are fatal nails in atheists’ coffins.

  • Kenny Johnson

    Every debate I’ve seen or heard with Craig, it seems Craig has won hands down… without even really trying.

  • Rick

    Now that it has been deterimed that the writer’s wording is a little over the top, please note that he is linking (“allegation”) to an atheist’s opinion on how well Craig debates.

    So the question remains: should Dawkins debate him?

  • I’m not usually very comfortable promoting my own blog but I once wrote a parable about just such a debate:

    It was written as a reaction to some strong forms of apologetics that I’ve encountered.

  • Kenny Johnson


    You’re right, I’m just an ignorant dolt because I think Craig is a brilliant debater.

  • I wonder, what is the purpose of these debates? Do they actually change anyone’s mind? Or does each side believe they won and everyone goes home more convinced about what they already believe?

  • Robert

    Dr. Craig is a reputable, informed apologist who does well to humbly articulate the claims of Christianity when in the midst of these kinds of debates.

    If you’ve never met him, listened to him, or read him Dr. Craig does well to keep the life changing effect of the Gospel at the forefront of his work.

    The article above is oddly written, since it attempts to say that most people don’t believe in God. This is odd because most surveying data reinforces the position that the majority, the vast majority, of people believe in God (though those conceptions vary.) The arguments Craig uses are good ones and it is difficult to understand why Dawkins won’t engage with him. The hubris of the New Atheism movement is likely the culprit.

    One of the best points Dr. Craig always makes in his debates and books is that every believer is the best argument for the existence of God to those who they know.

  • Nancy Janisch, I was wondering the same thing. These events seem to just reinforce camps, intent on destruction rather than on assimilation. Do these debaters, on either side, truly hope to change the heart of their opponent? And if not then what is the point? To conquer? To defeat? And since when is it our job to change hearts, rather than to demonstrate love, patience, compassion, etc.?

  • Kenny Johnson

    Nancy & Joey,

    Most of the debates are held at universities and are often sponsored and/or promoted by philosophy departments. Do you think it’s impossible that some in the audience may not be affected by the arguments one way or the other?

    I don’t know if it would actually affect the opponent’s views or not. But Flew did debate many theists in the past and look what happened to him. :-p

  • Kenny Johnson, I’ve actually planned and organized debates similar to this in the past. I just found it to bear little fruit. The “fruit” if there were any was to spark conversations between people in the audience. This was not a faith vs. atheism debate but was an inter-religious debate. We had an Imam, an Anglican priest, a Theravada Buddhist, and a representative from the Ba’hai faith. We held it at six locations – universities, schools, town hall, etc. It was interesting but in hind sight I’m not convinced that it was really productive.

  • EricW

    Kenny Johnson:

    Let me caveat what I wrote.

    And, no, you’re not a dolt.

    Disproving atheism (i.e., the expressed and held belief/knowledge that there is no God of whatever shape, form, religion, etc.) is not, to me, as difficult as proving the truth of Christianity and the Christian God of the Bible being the one true and only God.

    To the extent that Craig or others prove or show the illogic or untenability or weaknesses of atheism, I think they do a good job.

    But to the extent that they prove or try to prove the truth of Christianity, I think their fans may give too much weight to the apologetics they use.

    As it’s been quite some time since I’ve read transcripts of such debates, maybe the climate and terrain have changed. Maybe Craig is indeed now eating atheists for breakfast.

    My apologies if my comments seemed rude or insulting.

  • Kenny Johnson

    Thanks for that. Maybe I’m just sensitive. I did almost cry at Toy Story 3. 🙂

    I do agree with you somewhat. But I will say that Craig never claims that he proves that Christianity is true. At most, he would claim that he believes it’s more probable than the alternatives. But, from what I’ve read/heard, he’s mostly concerned with defending Christian faith as reasonable.

  • Ryan

    Contrary to those here commenting that Craig has hardly been dominant in his debates against atheists, those who review debates and attempt to cut through the style to the substance, would disagree.

    Dawkins is much like Mahr in that he is a evangelistic, atheist-bully. He realizes that he is way out of his depth in actually pursuing the truth of the question about the existence of God, so he resorts to making a mockery of fringe preachers, and radio personalities.

    Here is just a snippet of a debate that WLC had with esteemed British scholar Lewis Wolpert, who by his comments shows he is frankly unprepared, and poorly reasoned on this topic.

  • rjs


    Only almost? … I’m just glad the theater was almost empty.

    I think there is an important point to be made with respect to the “reasonableness” of faith … but beyond this I find this kind of debate and apologetic relatively useless.

  • Kenny Johnson

    It was dark in the theater. I won’t admit to anything more.

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    The debate’s over:

    Craig approves of Genocide.

    “According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God. Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself, He has no moral duties to fulfill. He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are. For example, I have no right to take an innocent life. For me to do so would be murder. But God has no such prohibition. He can give and take life as He chooses.”

    And, if God tells you to commit Genocide, then it’s OK:

    “So the problem isn’t that God ended the Canaanites’ lives. The problem is that He commanded the Israeli soldiers to end them. Isn’t that like commanding someone to commit murder? No, it’s not. Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder.”

    And exterminating children is also all right because they go to heaven faster:

    “Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.”

    A superb argument for abortion. Kill’em early and they get a non-stop ticket to heaven.

    And he sypathizes with the poor Jewish soldiers exterinating those babies;

    “Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.”

    So, Craig oargues that genocide is OK if God tells you it’s OK. Hmmm, images of planes and World Trade float in my head.

    Craig would be destryed by any atheist in a debate. Hence, I agree with Dawkins. From an atheist’s standpoint it’s a waster of time equivalent to crushing a bug to debate a genocide proponent. From a Christian standpoint, well…we could come up with a more coherent champion, I’m sure.

  • Rick

    Ryan #20-

    Here is how the atheist, that is linked to in the post, saw that debate:

    “Wolpert has no idea how to do a debate. Wolpert is merely snarky, and Craig flogs him.”

  • Greg Clark

    While Dawkins is philosophically naive, he is right to say that Craig amounts to a professional debater.

  • Timothy

    Ultimately, after the debate between atheism and believers, in the end, after all is said and done, LOVE WINS… 🙂

  • Blake

    Craig vs Dawkins would be incredibly dull and they’d spend the entire time talking past each other. That’s what Plantinga and Dennett did when they debated at the American Philosophical Association meeting in 2009. Plantinga and Dennett are both much higher quality academics representing Christianity and atheism than Craig and Dawkins. The problem is that all these debates are between Western analytic minded thinkers. I think it would be far more interesting to see Dawkins or Dennett take on a prominent Christian continental philosopher of religion (e.g. Merold Westphal, Jamie Smith, etc.) even if the talked past each other it would still be more interesting than analytics talking past each other.

  • Ryan

    Is “professional debater” supposed to be a pejorative of some kind?

    This is just untrue. Dr. Craig has two PHD’s and is published at the highest levels in his field of philosophy. To act like all he has to offer is great rhetorical skills is just uninformed. Considering Dr. Craig has been published by both Oxford and Cambridge (ironically where Dawkins taught) its kind of silly to try and minimize his academic credentials.

    If by professional debater someone who can debate in adeptly in many fields such as physics, biology, and philosophy than yeah I guess he is.

    For more evidence you can see him just this last month engage Lawrence Krauss an esteemed American physicist

    Or then just the next week debate Sam Harris on the philosophy of morality at Notre Dame.

    I found it quite telling that in the Harris debate, Sam opens by explaining many of his atheist friends strongly conveyed to him that he needed to beat WLC. Why? I would imagine it is because they are aware that so few atheists who have stepped to the podium with him have actually left victoriously.

  • Why would a debate – that is generally decided by rhetoric and verbal nimbleness – be the best way at arriving at truth? A written debate, at the very least, would seem to be more promising in that regard…

  • Craig has many published articles, chapters, and books, has edited, and has major roles in academic societies. Dawkins charge of him being a professional debater is way off.

    I’m also not sure I agree with the statement “science is a fundamentally atheistic endeavour.” Wouldn’t it be better to say it is neutral?

  • Salah Said

    Richard Dawkins recently asked whether atheists should promote Christian missions in Africa, as “Islam is an unmitigated evil”, “Atheism has not shot in Africa”, and “the enemy of our enemy is a friend.” Why this man, Hitchens, and Harris are not considered in the same league as BNP thugs or Pamela Geller is a source of endless fascination to me.

    Personally, I’d like to see Dawkins and his band of thuggish bigots debate with experts on the areas they make ignorant claims about-anthropology, political scientists, experts on the middle east, things of that nature. It’s hilarious to me how willing they are to discard the scientific method when it comes to their own ignorant analysis.

    Here’s a link to Richard Seymour’s blog dealing with the Dawkins “unmitigated evil” comments:

    Here’s a link to an article in The Nation which completely eviscerates Sam Harris-

  • Robert

    I see some people here are claiming that Dr. Craig is only highly regarded among other Christians the same way someone like Lee Strobel is. But, frankly, that’s just not true, and that’s why I like him so much. Here’s an example of the respect he gets from “the other side”:

    Common Sense Atheism: What William Lane Craig Is Right About