Edward Feser on Dawkins’ Refusal to Debate WLC

As I’ve written before, I’m a huge fan of the work Richard Dawkins has done to promote science and reason. I think he is at his best when he he talks or writes about science and especially his primary area of expertise, biology. Dawkins’ book, The Blind Watchmaker, had a big influence on me a long time ago, so much so that I dedicated The Empty Tomb to Dawkins.  On the other hand, philosophy of religion is not Dawkins’ area of expertise; his book The God Delusion is not nearly as well argued as The Blind Watchmaker.

I find myself in an odd situation. I agree with Dawkins’ decision not to debate Craig, but not for the reasons he has given (more on that in a moment). With all due respect to Dawkins, I don’t think he should debate Craig because he simply isn’t qualified to do so. If The God Delusion is any indication, Dawkins clearly isn’t familiar with contemporary philosophy of religion, whereas Craig is an expert on the philosophy of religion.

The idea of Dawkins debating Craig would would be like a championship bodybuilder, who just happens to have a green belt in Taekwondo, agreeing to a fight with an eigth-degree black belt. Bodybuilding is not completely irrelevant to Taekwondo and the bodybuilder may be the best bodybuilder in the world, but bodybuilding and Taekwondo are clearly not the same thing. The black belt would easily and decisively beat the bodybuilder.

There is no shame or dishonor in declining a mismatch. If the black belt challenged the green belt (bodybuilder) to a fight, the bodybuilder would be rational–indeed, wise–to decline the invitation. The bodybuilder needs to clearly acknowledge, however, that he is declining because it would be a mismatch.

And if Dawkins did decline the invitation on the grounds it was a mismatch, theists shouldn’t act as if they’ve scored some major victory, just as, say, Billy Graham’s refusal to debate an atheist philosopher of religion shouldn’t be viewed as a victory for atheism.

Enter philosopher Edward Feser. Feser has written a well-argued, prima facie case for the conclusion that Richard Dawkins has contradicted himself on the topic of his reasons for refusing to debate Craig.What is the (apparent) contradiction? On the one hand, this past October, Dawkins very publicly stated that he refuses to debate Craig because Craig defends the genocides attributed to the God of the Old Testament. On the other hand, Dawkins just emailed the host of a Catholic radio show stating that he had, in fact, already debated Craig in Mexico in 2010. In my opinion, Feser makes a good case that Dawkins has apparently contradicted himself.

Apparently the radio show host has invited Dawkins to debate Feser. I don’t think Dawkins should accept that debate invitation and for the same reason as Craig’s: both Craig and Feser are philosophers and Dawkins is not.

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/09716412032074416331 Lazarus

    I think this is a perfectly fair analysis. But the problem arises because Dawkins doesn't recognize that there's anything serious to be said philosophically in favour of theism: to admit that there is -and he's not competent to deal with it- is to admit that there is a serious intellectual case to answer.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04982524614308121228 Mark Jones

    Well, it may be the case that Dawkins shouldn't debate Craig because Craig is a better debater, but that doesn't mean it's the reason Dawkins does refuse to debate Craig. It's kind of hard to know what someone else's reasons actually are, but I recall hearing Dawkins say at a debate at Wellington College that it takes more than someone just being a good debater for him to debate them:

    http://edthemanicstreetpreacher.wordpress.com/2009/12/13/dawkins-refuses-debate-craig/

    That was 2009, and strikes me as a reasonable response. Interestingly, he already knew then about Craig's views on genocide, but didn't use them as the reason for not debating him. The reason? Well, he says he forgot about them, in a comment on RichardDawkins.Net:

    http://richarddawkins.net/articles/643584-why-i-refuse-to-debate-with-william-lane-craig/comments?page=11#comment_883013

    "Yes, I'm embarrassed to say that I evidently completely forgot it. You are right that in Mexico Craig was brought in late, as an understudy, after a genuinely distinguished speaker backed out of speaking on the religious side. If I had remembered Craig's defence of genocide I would have been very reluctant to go on with him, although I might still have done so because I would not have wished to let down my gracious hosts in Mexico and break a previous agreement. The present case is quite different because there never was an agreement to break.

    If I had remembered Craig's despicable writings on the Canaanites and decided not to let my Mexican hosts down, I would undoubtedly have read his words out verbatim and the Mexican audience would have been shocked. This is what I would encourage all his future debaters to do. I would also encourage members of the audience to stand up in question time at all Craig's events and read out his own words. Don't let him weasel his way out. Ask him point blank about his Christian morality, which leads him to justify the massacre of the Canaanites, and don't let him get out of answering."

    So, he hasn't really contradicted himself, has he? He would refuse to debate Craig because of his views on genocide, but as a matter of fact he did debate Craig (sort of – it was a group discussion) because he had completely forgotten about Craig's views, and, in any case, he may have made an exception because of the unusual circumstances. Is it possible that Dawkins had forgotten about Craig's views? Seems reasonable to me, and that's what he says happened, but others, like Feser, may view this less charitably.

    He does contradict himself a little when he urges future debaters to read out Craig's views, after having urged them not to debate him, but I guess he's being realistic in assuming that potential debaters won't take his more 'strident' advice.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    I take it that for very similar reasons Craig should refuse to debate his views on Adam and Eve being specially created by God from non-living matter – views he put his name as a doctrinal statement to when getting his paychecks from Talbot School of Theology.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05962018593312392087 Leo

    Maybe Dawkins can challenge Craig on a Inteligent Desing vs Evolution debate ?

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

    Hi Steven — I don't understand what your point has to do with my post.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    I was just saying that Craig should not debate those parts of his belief system he is not an expert on, just like Dawkins should not debate those parts of Craig's belief system that he is not an expert on.

    I agree with you that Dawkins should not debate those parts of Craig's beliefs that he is not an expert on.

    It is well known that Craig has a whole list of topics that he is not prepared to debate.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05354664906045226955 triscele

    Dawkins doesn't recognize that there's anything serious to be said philosophically in favour of theism.

    Because there isn't. I have heard Craig numerous times and always come away wondering who in the world could find his arguments compelling. He's built a tower out of marshmallows. It only makes sense if you really, really, really want it to.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09716412032074416331 Lazarus

    @triscele

    Perhaps. But it's clear that to provide a philosophical response to it rather than just a sneer is still beyond Dawkins' competence.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01337080662357591452 Birdieupon

    I have made a number of videos covering Dawkins' cowardly and incoherent excuses:

    This video is a detailed response to his Guardian article and lists 12 excuses in total, all of which are self-contradictory:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIbyAqDlq-c

    A report from the night of the The Empty Chair, and even Private Eye Magazine weighs in:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49VNwdpSxEs

    My blog also covers Dawkins' more recent tantrums and online trolling:

    http://aatheism.blogspot.com/2011/11/richard-dawkins-i-am-ashamed-of-my.html

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    I agree with Jeff that Dawkins is unqualified to debate Craig.

    However, Dawkins has stated and argued that philosophers of religion and theologians don't know what they are talking about. Given his view of philosophy and theology, he should debate Craig and other philosophers of religion.
    Such a debate would help to either confirm or disconfirm his views.

    I could care less if Dawkins makes a fool of himself in a debate with Craig. That would disconfirm his negative view of philosophers and theologians. And if he managed to hold his own in the debate, then that would be great too.

    Also, it is probably not such a bad idea to encourage cross-discipline debates, especially in veiw of the fact that many important issues are interdisciplinary.

    The resurrection issue, for example, involves: (a) history, (b)theology, (c) philosophy, (d) NT criticism and interpretation, and (e) medical science, to name the most obvious disciplines.

    Since Dawkins believes that the issue of God's existence is a scientific issue, then on his view, he is the real expert. So, a debate between a scientist and a philosopher on God's existence is an opportunity to test Dawkins' view of the nature of this issue.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    Jeffrey Jay Lowder and Bradley Bowen are coming across in this post in what seems to be a very fair-minded way. I say this as someone committed to Jesus Christ. Fair-mindedness is a pleasant thing to experience no matter in which quarter it resides.

    By contrast, Dawkins demeanor does him no favors. I think it was Lazarus above who used the word "sneer" with regard to Dawkins and it struck me as particularly apt. Sneering is an unpleasant thing to experience no matter in which quarter it resides.

    Of course, truth should win the day and demeanor is secondary. However, with Jesus Christ truth and demeanor go hand in hand.

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

    Mark Jones FTW.

    @Jeff, a question: in The God Delusion, Dawkins mentions having been on a television panel alongside Richard Swinburne. Do you think he ought not to have done this, on the grounds of not being qualified?

    I think it would be just bizarre to claim Dawkins should not have done this. If there's any sense in which a Dawkins-Craig debate would be a mismatch, it would be because Craig is a professional debater and Dawkins is not.

    Philosophical ability doesn't have much of anything to do with who is going to "beat" who. As Stephen Law said: "I have debated Swinburne, a much better philosopher than Craig, and Swinburne was much easier to debate. I probably won that won debate easily. Despite Swinburne being a much more eminent philosopher than me."

    Because of things like this, I think the Taekwondo analogy is wildly off base. Philosophy isn't very much like Taekwondo at all. And Dawkins' stated reasons for not debating Craig don't really have any martial arts analog, so I don't see what is accomplished by thinking of it in those terms.

    Also, if you step back from the apologetics nerd mindset for a second, I think it's totally obvious that Craig's behavior here is wildly inappropriate. Craig is famous among apologetics nerds as a debater, and that's it. As Law says, he's not an eminent academic philosopher.

    Imagine if Michael Tooley asked to debate Francis Collins, and Collins said "who's Michael Tooley?" and turned him down. Then imagine if Tooley kept publicly badgering him about it for years, got the atheist blogosphere talking about how cowardly and ignorant Collins is, and eventually made a big show of giving a talk opposite an empty chair to represent Collins.

    That's how Craig is behaving. And we really need to be careful not to encourage such behavior.

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

    Hallq — I don't have a strong opinion about Dawkins' or Swinburne's debating skills; I've only seen 1 debate with each of them (Dawkins-Lennox and Swinburne-Tabash). So my point was NOT about debating skills.

    Rather, my point was about knowledge of philosophy of religion. No, I don't think Dawkins is qualified to debate Swinburne any more than pastor Rick Warren is qualified to debate Quentin Smith.

    Erik Wielenberg, an atheist philosopher of religion, wrote a very balanced but critical review of Dawkins' book _The God Delusion_ which identified the weaknesses in Dawkins' book. As I wrote earlier, if Dawkins' book is representative of his thinking about philosophy of religion, then Dawkins isn't qualified to debate Swinburne.

    Nothing I have written should be interpreted as "encouraging" Craig's behavior. Whatever one may or may not think about his behavior is independent of the issue of Dawkins' qualifications.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09695856427586801682 HyperEntity111

    I agree with Jeff that this should be considered a victory for theists. Given that The God Delusion consists primarily of puerile nonsense, the opinion of Dawkins (or anyone who takes that book seriously) on philosophy of religion should carry no weight whatsoever. And given Dawkins's deified status in the New Atheist movement, it is clear that the public humiliation of this man by someone they consider an intellectual midget would have an intolerable effect on the minds of his followers (if not on Dawkins himself). That this debate is not taking place is a mercy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09695856427586801682 HyperEntity111

    'Should not'.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    'I agree with Jeff that this should be considered a victory for theists.'

    I take it you are not from Britain.

    The trip was a public relations disaster for Christianity.

    Dawkins simply printed Craig's words about defending genocide in a national newspaper.

    While Craig's clique got to see and applaud him, the general public became aware that the world's leading intellectual for Christianity was all in favour of killing whole tribes of men, women and children.

    Dawkins simply skewered Craig where it hurts – not in Craig's carefully set up debate conditions, where Craig gets to choose even the time people speak for, but in the court of public opinion.

    Craig could not find any newspaper that was prepared to print his side of the genocide debate.

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

    Steven wrote:

    The trip was a public relations disaster for Christianity.

    That is an empirical claim. It would be interesting to see the results of a statistically valid public opinion poll to test that claim.

    While Craig's clique got to see and applaud him, the general public became aware that the world's leading intellectual for Christianity was all in favour of killing whole tribes of men, women and children.

    Hmmm… I'm not sure that's an accurate or fair representation of Craig's views. There's a distinction between:

    (1) It's morally acceptable to kill whole tribes of men, women, and children;

    and

    (2) It's morally acceptable kill whole tribes of men, women, and children when commanded by God to do so.

    Notice that (1) does not entail (2). And I think a careful reading of Craig's writings will show that he endorses some version of (2), not (1), combined with some additional statement, such as:

    (3) God did command humans to kill whole tribes of men, women, and children in the past (as described in the OT), but has not issued such a commandment since then.

    This strikes me as a more accurate representation of Craig's views. And there is plenty left to criticize even after you make the distinction between (1) and (2).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    Jeffery Jay Lowder,

    Re: your December 7, 2011 12:17:00 AM CST comment responding to Steven

    Uncommonly fair-minded.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09716412032074416331 Lazarus

    @ Steven

    I'm from Britain. Idle to pretend that most people noticed the tour or gave a damn either way. But to describe it as a public relations disaster for Christianity is sheer fantasy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04357647201205151852 Thomas

    I'm not really sure what such a debate would even consist of. Dawkins is a scientist, and Craig a philosopher. They are from different fields. Dawkins is an expert in science and biology, and Craig is not. So I suppose the 'winner' depends on the topic- not simply "is there a god."

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

    I just discovered this post:

    http://da.rryl.me/2011/dawkins-vs-craig-a-mismatch

    which appears to be a response to mine.

    However, as I recall, Dawkins already stepped into the ring when he wrote “The God Delusion”. Dawkins believed his philosophy is solid enough to publish. Why not debate it?

    I'm not saying Dawkins shouldn't debate the ideas in his book, but I am saying he is not qualified to debate WLC. A more evenly matched idea would be for Dawkins to debate a theistic biologist on God's existence, someone who has the same degree of formal training in philosophy of religion as Dawkins.

    The fact that it hasn’t stood up to analysis by religious philosophers merely demonstrates that his philosophy doesn’t measure up to the standards of philosophy

    For what it's worth, I happen to agree that it contains poor arguments for atheism.

    Perhaps it was unwise for him to step outside of his expert domain? But would he be so popular if he hadn’t?

    People with a variety of backgrounds and occupations write about God. I don't have a problem with Dawkins or anyone else writing about God, atheism, etc. But, with all due respect to Dawkins, having Craig debate Dawkins would be analogous to any team in the National Football League playing a game againat any high school football team. Not only would that be a mismatch, but if the high school team wisely declined, no one would seriously suggest, "Maybe the high school football team shouldn't play football?"

    So why not debate it? Or is this stubborn refusal to debate the foremost evangelical religious philosophy debater a quiet acknowledgement that it hasn’t stood up well before religious philosophers?

    I highly doubt that Dawkins cares enough about the opinions of religious philosophers to worry about their lack of endorsement.

  • David Marshall

    That simply shows what a sleazy low-balling coward Dawkins is. A like-minded theist could discredit Dawkins by taking out an ad (if the papers were at all inclined to be fair) citing Dawkin’s words in the God Delusion about how a Catholic education is worse than child abuse. (Maybe with some stats, such as those given by Chuck Edwards on pages 35-37 of our True Reason, showing that serious faith actually corresponds with much greater mental and social well-being.)

    Anyway, Craig isn’t “the world’s leading intellectual for Christianity.” He’s the world’s leading open public forum Christian debater. What he argues for is the truth of Christianity, not the truth of inerrancy, which is what got him into trouble in this particular case.

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

      No, that doesn’t show that Dawkins is a “sleazy low-balling coward.” Try again.


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