I’ve been watching and listening to numerous debates on Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Carrier (whom I wrote about in my last post), and on the theist side (among others) Dinesh D’Souza, Rabbi David Wolpe and, most eminent of all, William Lane Craig.between eminent atheists and Christian/theist apologists on subjects like “Does God Exist?”, “Does the Exist?”, “Did the Resurrection Happen?”, “What’s the ?” and so on. The debaters on the atheist side include
If I had to score the debates he’s been in, though I disagree with him about virtually every point he makes, I’d give by far most wins to the phenomenal Dr. Craig. As atheist and debate aficionado Mark Smith notes about Craig, “He usually wins his debates. However, he wins his debates usually due not so much to being a great debater (which he is), but rather from debating people who haven’t the slightest clue how to debate.” A non-Christian rooting for one of Craig’s atheist opponents and caring about the outcome will probably wind up feeling like a Red Sox fan did last season suffering another visit from the Yankees at Fenway.
Here is Smith’s appraisal (from the late 1990s) of why Craig is so deadly an opponent:
Debating is a skill that has to be learned and requires experience to perfect. Dr. Craig is a PROFESSIONAL debater- he has both 8 years of debate experience and training from High School and college, and has probably gotten in dozens upon dozens of debates each and every year since then. He could probably show up for a debate suffering a major hangover, unshaven, unslept in 24 hours, and still kick the other guy’s ass. Compare this to who he usually goes up against: some academic recluse schlub who couldn’t debate his way out of a wet paper bag, having had no training or experience in debating, and to make matters worse, arrogantly underestimating the opposition (Craig) as evidenced by the usual lack of preparation. Time after time after time, Craig blows these people out of the water, and any non-Christians who think otherwise are just being loyal to the party flag. Freethinkers have GOT to get over their naiveté in thinking that all it takes to win a public debate, is being right. Putting up some professor who’s had little or no debate experience to debate against Craig is like taking someone who’s never even ridden a bicycle before and entering him to race next week one-on-one against the winner of last years Tour De France. It’s not really a long shot to predict who’s going to win, is it?
Craig may be a master debater (no rude puns intended–please!), but his tactics are steady and constant. In his standard opening, he unflappably enumerates a list of premises that he contends are all but universally accredited by scholars of the New Testament and that follow from each other, and using unforgiving logic, he shows, or he claims to show, that unless his opponents can refute any of them, they must conclude, as most scholars conclude, that Craig’s position is “true.”
Most of Craig’s opponents have evidently failed to watch the highlight reels of Craig’s previous bouts because by far most ignore his challenges and proceed to unleash a disorganized litany of standard atheist claims about theism unrelated to anything Craig has neatly elucidated. This enables Craig, as he eruditely and ruthlessly tears apart many of his opponent’s points, to claim his opponents are unable to refute his argument, so, again, it must be true. The opponent will often return to defend his points while steering clear of most of Craig’s. He or she may be thinking Craig’s single-minded tack makes it seem that the debate is taking place on two planes–or as Mark Smith said of one debate he saw, more like two ships passing in the night. In fact, from the outside it looks like Craig is dispensing with his opponent’s arguments and strengthening his own, while the opponent can only defend a weak position and leave Craig’s entirely untouched.
You can see for yourself Craig’s mastery in the video below. It’s based on a blockbuster debate in Puebla, Mexico, on the question of purpose in the universe between Matt Ridley, Richard Dawkins and Michael Shermer on the negative side and Craig, Wolpe and Douglas Geivett on the affirmative. You’ll see that the Mexican producers staged the event like a boxing match, complete with “rounds” and even a podium behind ropes, underscoring the ultimate unseriousness of the spectacle, despite the “seriousness” of the subject and the erudition of the guests. Whoever made the original video provides helpful commentary in English (perhaps, a little difficult to follow amid the Spanish translation of the speeches) to make clear (as if it weren’t clear enough) why Craig “won” the debate for his team hands down:
By far the most challenging debaters I have witnessed Craig facing (via the miracle of the Internet) were Hitchens, in a match-up at Biola University over the question “Does God Exist?” in February 2009, and Jesus Seminar scholar Robert Price, in an epic battle at Ohio State University in 1999 over the historicity of the Resurrection. Hitchens was, of course, a formidable debater and an unstoppable force all his own. And though Craig played exactly the same game he has perfected over years of debating, he was unable to outdo the outsize Mr. Hitchens at entertaining and charming the spectators.
Price, a bearish former Baptist preacher who has turned skeptical about the historicity of Jesus, is another pretty outsize personality. He looks a bit like Jerry Garcia and sounds a lot like Jack Nicholson. Next to the breathlessly officious presentation of the fastidiously clipped Craig, Price’s slicing, sometimes sarcastic approach must make him seem to some Christians in the audience like he studied at the hoof of the very Devil himself. Based on the warmth of its response to Craig’s speeches and its cool reaction to Price, the OSU audience was evidently comprised of a large number of evangelicals, and if the debate were scored by audience approbation alone, Craig would have won yet again.
But Price did something most of Craig’s opponents do not do: He returned fire full bore, offensively and defensively. His opening statement was a brutal attack on the fundamental flaw in the underpinning of Craig’s apparent “reasonableness.” Price published a slightly different version of this attack under the title By This Time He Stinketh: The Attempts of William Lane Craig to Exhume Jesus in 1997. The meat of his attack is summarized by an epigraph from Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all.” In his own words, Price says:
I’m not saying Craig is wittingly distorting the truth to win his point. No, it’s worse than that: he is so committed to a dogmatic party line that he cannot see “truth” as meaning anything but that party-line dogma. By definition, his gospel could never prove untrue because he has begun by defining it as the truth. In Craig’s lexicon, you look up “truth” and it says “see ‘gospel’.” To borrow Francis Schaeffer’s terminology, for the apologist “truth” has become merely a “connotation word.” As when liberal theologian Albrecht Ritschl said “Jesus has the value of God for us,” Craig might say, “Christianity has the value of Truth for us.” As for William James righteous endeavor was “the moral equivalent of war,” for apologists Christianity is “the moral equivalent of truth.” Only it doesn’t work. For Ritchlianism, Jesus was in fact not God; for James, moral endeavor was in fact not war. Even so, anything that substitutes for the truth may be preferred to the truth, but then it is a lie.
Mark Smith’s dissection of Craig’s Christian unreason, which I linked to above, is also very much worth reading. But Price’s scathing delivery of his critique to Craig himself is breathtaking. Here is a YouTube “video” of Price’s opening taken from an audio version of the full debate:
In the face of Price’s rude exposure of Craig’s method, Craig’s claim to set doctrine aside and focus only on facts is shown to be pure fraud, and he ends his case (at around the 1:23:14 mark on the link to the full debate above) by throwing all caution to the wind and begging unbelievers within range of his voice to let Jesus into their hearts .
In fairness to Craig, he is not actually a historian, nor is he strictly a philosopher, though that is what he calls himself. He is a professional “apologist” for Christianity, essentially a PR man for the faith. He’s good at his job, which is making the case that belief in Christianity is reasonable. Toward that end, he puts on a good show, but as Price’s attack makes clear, a show is exactly all it is.