Why Won’t William Lane Craig Debate John Loftus?

On the Debunking Christianity website, John Loftus has recently posted an article, “Let’s Recap Why William Lane Craig Refuses to Debate Me.” The article even includes a picture of Craig’s face digitally edited into the picture of a chicken, with the caption, “Is William Lane Craig Chicken to Debate John Loftus?” According to Loftus, in 1985 Craig apparently told a class at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, “the person I fear debating the most is a former student of mine.” Loftus then considers potential explanations for Craig’s refusal to debate Loftus: (i) such a debate would not be good for Loftus spiritually; (ii) Loftus is not qualified; (iii) Craig doesn’t want to help turn Loftus into “Mr. Anti-Christian Apologist”; and (iv) Craig is afraid to debate Loftus. Loftus concludes that (iv) is the best explanation, calling Craig a “coward.”

I completely agree that (i) makes no sense. If it would be spiritually harmful for Loftus to debate Craig, why wasn’t it equally spiritually harmful for Craig’s other previous debate opponents to debate Craig? If the spiritual harm to those debate opponents did not prevent Craig from debating them, then how would debating Loftus be any different?

Explanation (ii) is absurd. Even without a Ph.D., Loftus is surely much more qualified to debate Craig than are several of Craig’s previous debate opponents who do have a Ph.D. in whatever, but no specialization in the philosophy of religion. Furthermore, as Loftus points out, Craig has previously debated people without a Ph.D. (Christopher Hitchens, Eddie Tabash) and agreed to debate people without a Ph.D. (me!). To this list, we may add that Craig has previously debated at least one person without an undergraduate degree (Ron Barrier of American Atheists).

Regarding (iii), I take Craig at his word that he does not want to help turn Loftus into “Mr. Anti-Christian apologist.” But, using the same reasoning, notice that all of Craig’s previous debate opponents could use the same logic to justify not debating Craig: they don’t want to help turn Craig into “Dr. Anti-Atheist Apologist.” (Even Craig would have to admit, I think, that his apologetic resume has benefited considerably from the willingness of large numbers of non-Christians to debate him.) This opens Craig up to the accusation of a double standard.

Regarding (iv), we do have hearsay testimony from Loftus regarding what Craig allegedly said about fearing a former student as a debate opponent. (By calling this “hearsay testimony,” I am not disputing the accuracy of the testimony; rather, I’m simply pointing out that, for everyone not present for the original conversation, this is secondhand testimony to us.) On the other hand, Craig has debated numerous atheists and other non-Christians. This opens Loftus up to the accusation of having delusions of grandeur and engaging in personal attacks. If Loftus’s hearsay testimony is accurate, though, Loftus could argue that none of the previous opponents were former students of Craig.

So where do I come down on all of this? I want to know Craig’s side of the story. Did he say he is most afraid to debate a former student? Did he say it would be “inappropriate” to debate a former student? If yes, how would it be inappropriate? In sum, I think it would be most useful if Craig were to reply Loftus’s post.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10817974804323066290 shreddakj

    It seems strange that Bill would be afraid to debate John. I think it would be more likely Bill just doesn't want to, and doesn't have any good reason not to. It's extremely hypocritical of him to not debate John when he has criticised Dawkins for refusing to debate him.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    I can see why you would want some sort of quality control in whom you would debate. There are plenty of crackpots out there, more than a few on the atheist side. Debating crackpots is a total waste of everyone's time except for the crackpot's, who gets his moment in the spotlight and who will strut and preen after his "victory." Atheist crackpots disdain the debate performance of others, but their own arguments are the most naive village atheist sort (e.g., "Well where did Cain get his wife? Huh?"). I can see why Craig would not want to waste his time debating someone like that.

    However, making possession of a Ph.D. his criterion is unjustified, even if he adhered to it consistently. Having a Ph.D. is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being a qualified debater. Jeff and John are obviously highly qualified debaters, though they lack Ph.D.'s. On the other hand, you can find someone with "Ph.D." after his name who will say just about any nutty thing in the world.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10817974804323066290 shreddakj

    Case in point, Deepak Chopra is a qualified physician, and he's the biggest quack on earth.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    shreddakj — Good point about Dawkins. This is another thing I would like to hear Craig's explanation for. How can Craig criticize Dawkins for refusing to debate him (Craig), while Craig (so far, at least) refuses to debate Loftus?

    Keith Parsons — Thanks for the vote of confidence.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    Every atheist should follow the link and ask themselves, "if someone posted a picture of my face photoshopped onto a chicken, would that tend to increase or decrease my desire to give them the time of day?"

    A good followup question would be, would such behavior tend to indicate any kind of general character trait which might — might — have manifested itself in past encounters in such a way as to discourage someone form appearing with this person in a public forum?

    I should probably state that I regard "debates" to have all the epistemic relevance of a circus act, so that's the teapot I think this tempest is raging in.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13637123083165490693 unitedandy

    Hi Jeff. I agree with your assessment, particularly in light of the recent calls for Dawkins to debate, even though I think Craig would probably get the better of JL. Off topic, just wondered why your debate with Craig never happened, and if you would be looking to debate again, given your previous debate with Phil Fernandes is regarded by many (myself included) as probably one of the very best performances from an atheist in that kind of debate? Cheers.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    unitedandy — Wow! Thank you for such kind words about my debate with Fernandes.

    Regarding the Craig debate, I'm not exactly sure what happened. If I remember correctly, Craig said he would be willing to debate me and then nothing happened. In fairness to Craig, I have not made any effort whatsoever to follow-up. Until very recently, I've had almost no time whatsoever for philosophy since then. I would like to debate again, but I'm no real rush to do so.

    I have mixed feelings about public, oral debates. On the one hand, I think they can be useful for encouraging dialogue between opposing sides, especially when both sides treat each other with respect. Along the same lines, they can be really useful for tearing down stereotypes. On the other hand — I'm not quite sure how to word this — I'm kind of turned off by just how partisan the atmosphere can be, especially when things degrade into ad hominem attacks, armchair psychoanalysis, etc.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09565179884099473943 The Uncredible Hallq

    Craig is definitely a hypocrite for making a big deal of Dawkins' refusing to debate him, while he himself refuses to debate a qualified opponent. But "not wanting to give someone credibility" is, in itself, a perfectly good reason to refuse a debate, and I wish atheists would exercise that option more often. In particular, I think Craig is a hack who mostly doesn't deserve the reputation he's built up by debating.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    how about (v) Loftus has a head full of puddin'?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06707383740611116793 A is for Atheist

    There is no doubt that Craig is a skilled rhetorician, and if he was as secure in his beliefs as he says he is, he should welcome the opportunity to "defeat" someone of Loftus' caliber. This tells me he cannot be all that secure….

    The only valid reason I can see for refusing is because Loftus knows what Craig knows, and he will not be able to get away with straw-manning–which he does very consistently during his debates. Loftus would make him explain himself–which Craig knows cannot be done logically. The illogical and inconsistent nature of the bible and Christianity would then be revealed to the audience–something Craig wants to avoid.

    It would, however, be entertaining if it ever took place. Let's hope Craig reconsiders so he does not appear as not only a hypocrite for making an issue of Dawkins refusing to debate him, but also a coward for avoiding a very worthwhile opponent.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06137890891223067672 Morrison

    Did Craig make the statement about being being afraid to debate a former student?

    Maybe. But so what? It was over 25years ago.

    But we can't know if he made it based on John's testimony.

    By John's own admission, he has lied in critial situations, to his family, and to his congregation…he talks about it in WIBA.

    Beause he knew it would come out.

    And he has been caught faking blogs and posts.

    John is not a good representative for atheism.

    If he does debate Craig, he will most likey lose and then whine about it and say debates don't matter anyway. This is about John somehow, someway, making some money.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    WIBA is a serious book that deals with serious arguments. It may not be as sophisticated as, say, Graham Oppy's Arguing About Gods (not much is; certainly nothing I have ever written), but it is two or three cuts above most of the "new atheist" polemic. Allow me to reiterate that having a Ph.D. is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being a qualified debater (or even for having a lick of sense).

    Allow me also to reiterate a request that commentators to SO refrain from ad hominems and personal attacks. These are the stock-in-trade of some sites. One popular theist blogger devoted two full columns to foaming attacks on me. I enjoyed these very much; I love to give those guys apoplexy. But here at SO I would like to set a higher standard. Thanks.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13565890121197051580 John W. Loftus

    I hesitate to respond to Morrison. It's like wallowing in the mire. Still he has been banned so many times on my blog using so many different alias's that I've lost track of them all. He specializes in the use of ad hominems, mischaracterizations and outright lies. He dogs my steps whenever I link to another blog and has written several different reviews of my books under different alias's, especially KC_James. He is obsessed with me. As a Christian he fears me. So for him to say I'm not a good representative for atheism means nothing. After all, as a Christian, if that is true he should relish the fact not bemoan it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    John,

    As I've noted before, some people must have a verse in their Bibles that is not in any of my copies:

    "Love thy neighbor, unless he disagreeth with thee, and then shouldst thou revile him and bear all manner of false witness against him, for, verily, thine own opinion is sacrosanct."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09019385490238632365 ChristianJR4

    With all due respect to Mr. Loftus, the idea that Craig is afraid to debate him is ridiculous, and does tend to reek of grandiosity. Craig has debated more atheists than any other person I can think of, many of them very prominent and formidable opponents. It's also generally well accepted that he has done well in virtually all of them so it's hard to see how, under any circumstance, that Craig would actually be fearful of debating him. Even if Craig was literally telling the truth when he said he was afraid to take on a former student of his (if indeed Craig actually said this), I somehow doubt that would apply to John anyway. The reason I say this is because of his performance against Dinesh D'Souza. From all of John's claims of Craig being afraid to debate him, and that if such a debate had occurred John would no doubt "crush" him, it sure was rather ironic that his performance against D'Souza (who is in my opinion far less formidable than Craig) was extremely unimpressive, so much so that even the atheists organizers of the debate wrote about his dismal performance. The same was echoed on his blog to which Loftus wrote a number of follow up posts trying to challenge his fellow atheists to back up their claims on why they thought he lost the debate. My point? Well, let's just say that ever since that debate John's claim to present a credible challenge to Craig has been seriously undermined. Given from what I saw of that debate (and a few others), if Craig was to debate John, I would be absolutely confident that Craig would come out on top, and I say that as a person who is not afraid to admit that Craig lost his debate against Shelly Kagan, or Arif Ahmed.

    Lastly, I would like to point out that Craig's "Ph.D rule" is just a starting point. It's not a hard rule of his. He makes exceptions for notable individuals. Anyone can see how Hitchens might be an exception to this rule, or Shabir Ally, or Ron Barrier. They have significant standing within their communities. Is the same true for John? Being as objective as possible, it's hard to see how. He's not, like it or not, very well known, he doesn't have much of an academic reputation, and contrary to what he has stated on his blog, he is NOT a leading atheist. Far from it. While this is a bit more subjective, I would also add that I think his childish and immature attitude towards theistic belief and religious people in general further helps disqualify him from taking on such a formidable opponent as is Craig. Many people have complained about the way he conducts himself on his blog. Without going into the details on this, let me just say that a true scholar or intellectual would not conduct himself in the way that he does.

    On another note, I wouldn't mind seeing a debate between Craig and Lowder. A long time ago I saw Lowder debate (I think he was debating Fernandez) and I was actually impressed by how well he argued his case. Keith Parsons was also a very good opponent for Craig, and obviously both of you undeniably qualify to debate him.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13565890121197051580 John W. Loftus

    All I'm saying is that Craig said what I claim he did, and that none of his stated reasons for not debating me are good ones. Whether someone will lose a debate with him isn't the issue, since Craig bests most of his opponents. If that were a criteria then he should debate only a few people. Whether someone is popular or well-known has only been a criteria for Craig once as far as I know, Hitchens, and maybe some others. If one had to be well-known in order to debate Craig then he would debate very few people. As far as my scholarship goes, well, I'll let that go.

    Dinesh was actually a more formidable opponent than Craig, since I didn't know what he actually believes from reading his one book on the subject, whereas I do know what Craig believes. I was also given some bad advice on how to go about it from someone I respected and who had debated before. Dinesh has mastered the art of debate and I learned quite a bit from debating him. You miscaracterize my blog posts too. There was a pre-YouTube time frame when people said I lost the debate, and a post-YouTube time frame after I had watched the debate. I was asking people before it was posted on YouTube why they thought I lost the debate. I came away thinking something different after watching it, that I had lost. I also find it interesting when people judge one debate performance and then say he'll never amount to anything, or some such nonsense. No successful person would accept such an absurd claim. Most people failed at something more than once before achieving success.

    My publisher dubs me as "a leading atheist spokesperson," not me, so please get that straight.

    As for the accusation of childish behavior goes, my problem is that I write for the average educated person in the pew. People can understand what I write quite easily, and I write that way on purpose. I do not use a lot of Hebrew or Greek but I could. I don't need to do so, you see, since I have done that kind of work before writing and the scholars who know the original languages will know that I got it right, usually. And I don't write to impress people with big philosophical words even though I could do so, because of my target audience. But this means most any Christian can understand what I write and so they come to deride me. I can only take so much derision. Sometimes I blast back. There is at the present time a debate among atheists whether ridicule should be used. I think it should be used in some select instances, but one could hardly make the claim that this is most of what you see coming from me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12171593545895078337 Bret L

    What about a written debate with Craig? I enjoy the hell out of John's books and blog. But I agree that fast talking full bore debate may not be the best way for John to defeat him.

    I don't say this to demean, but in John's debates with David Wood or Dinesh, he didn't lay waste to his opponents arguments. I know he could have, because of the content of his written words prior to these debates.

    A written correspondence allows for precision and exclamation when arguments fail. So much slips through the cracks in oral debates. Physical appearance, vocal tones, body language, and quantity, not quality can win a debate.

    If a word limit were set and format predefined, I think John would smoke him. One example of this type of debate I really liked, though it didn't have predefined structure, was Sam Harris vs Dennis Prager. Prager is a bully on his radio show, and neither his nor Harris delve into the philosophers arguments for and against theism much. But point by point, if it's B.S., it gets called.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13565890121197051580 John W. Loftus

    Bret, thanks. I did contact Bill Craig about co-writing a debate book. He responded that it "would give me no joy."

    However, I am co-writing a debate book with Dr. Randal Rauser, as announced here. Part of my Introduction can be found here.

    Rauser's agent has taken responsibility for getting it published with a Christian publisher, but he's pretty well frustrated with her lack of effort. Baker Book House is looking at it now. If that falls through I'm pretty sure Prometheus Books will grab it up since, *well* I'm trashing him. ;-)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16132139727953703401 norsefire1

    It's a shame the debate between you and Craig never happened, Mr.Lowder. In my opinion, you are one of the best atheist debaters. Your performance in the debate against Fernandez was very impressive. Would you be willing to debate Craig should the chance rise again?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13935706704744482361 Poulantzas

    An important context here is William Lane Craig's UK tour (starting this week). He is making huge attempts to publicise it through Dawkins' refusal to debate him.
    People aren't sufficiently aware of HIS refusal to debate John Loftus. When I pointed this out in a comment on one of Craig's video spots, the comment was removed and I was blocked.
    In so fare as Craig has justified his position, hie response seems uncannily similar to Dawkins, effectively 'it would look good on his CV not mine!'
    I agree with those saying 'why I became and atheist' is a good book and contains more than enough to merit the author the kind of debating platform accorded to some other atheist authors.
    I do believe many of Craig's British supporters are not aware about the Loftus-refusal and they may get embarassed when Craig gets called on this in debate questions in the UK

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13565890121197051580 John W. Loftus

    Thanks! I would hope someone during the Q & A would ask him why he refuses to debate one of his former students, me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12030785676230758243 Dan

    This comment has been removed by the author.


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