manicstreetpreacher analyses the apologetics of William Lane Craig following his debate with Christopher Hitchens at Biola University, 4 April 2009.
I used to hate William Lane Craig. I first saw him debate one Professor Mike Begon at Liverpool University in 2007. Unfortunately his opponent on that occasion did not know enough to refute Craig properly and was far too passive; playing for the draw as opposed to the win. Craig walked all over him.
Since then, I saw Craig debate several other atheists and my loathing of him grew and grew. His style was far too lazy; trotting out the same five “arguments” in respect of God’s existence and the same four “facts” in relation to Jesus’ resurrection. I also found him thoroughly pompous.
In arguing that objective morals can only be grounded in God, Craig made the grotesque assertion that “an atheist cannot say that torturing children for fun is wrong”, when of course someone who will torture a child – possibly not for fun, I grant you – but certainly because they feel that they are objective moral in so doing will do it precisely because they acting in accordance with God’s will. Female circumcision anybody?
When I first heard that Craig and Hitchens were going to debate on 4 April 2009 at Biola University, I very nearly bought a plane ticket to Los Angeles to see it for myself. Hitchens is by far my favourite writer/ speaker/ public commentator at the moment. I can’t get enough him verbally and logically crushing an opponent at the lectern. I was looking forward to the prospect of him giving Craig similar treatment.
Therefore, it was with great dismay that the newspaper reports and the blogs gave a resounding victory to Craig. Hitchens was, they said, too rambling and unfocused, evasive of Craig’s arguments and going off on his own tangents. One atheist blogger commented, “Frankly, Craig spanked Hitchens like a foolish child”.
Oh God, how could you have let this happen?
I was dreading watching it for myself. My agony was only prolonged by Biola University guarding the video like a jealous child. Bootleg clips and recordings were swiftly banned from YouTube. I eventually saw the full video after downloading it from a torrent website.
Whilst it is true that Hitchens wasn’t on his usual top form, he actually acquitted himself very well. Reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated. He conducted himself with an understated dignity that I have never seen in him before. Hitchens didn’t massacre his opponent like his usually does, but I saw something better perhaps.
Craig wheeled out the same five arguments he’s been using since the George Bush Senior administration and topped them off with his usual brand of smugness; declaring that Hitchens had failed to answer his arguments and presenting no positive evidence for atheism. However, I don’t hate Craig any more. If anything, I feel a little sorry for him.
I was confronted with the sight of an apparently intelligent and rational adult indulging in the worst kind of childish wish fulfilment. This was the first time I’ve seen Craig argue so vehemently about the coming of the Kingdom of God and the promise of eternal life after we are returned to the dust.
Craig waxed lyrical about the purpose of human life is, as Hitchens rightly pointed out, to end up in some theme park in the sky. Mark Twain once said that most people cannot bear to sit in church for one hour on a Sunday, so how are they supposed to cope being stuck somewhere very similar to it for an eternity? Are we sure that’s what we really what? Worshipping and singing your leader’s praises for eternity? Sounds like hell to me!
Craig also displayed a detestably Richard Swinburne brand of theodicy. When asked by a member of the audience to answer Epicurus’ objection that God is unable or unwilling to preventing evil then he is not omnipotent/ omniscient/ omnibenevolent, Craig replied that an atheist would have to show that God had an immoral purpose for allowing suffering an evil to occurring. This is simply making excuses for your lord and master and simply shows how desperately Craig wants it all to be true and will grovel in the dust and undergo any humiliation. He is God’s plaything and will allow himself to be abused and humiliated and be thankful for it. I was reminded of Richard Dawkins’ tale of Swinburne arguing on a television panel debate that the Holocaust gave the Jews a splendid opportunity to be noble. Apparently their Oxford colleague, Peter Atkins, growled at Swinburne (in an exchange that was alas edited out of the final broadcast version), “May you rot in hell!”
Craig is desperately trying to hold on to the idea that someone up there loves him, that’s it’s all about him and he will twist and distort his opponents’ arguments and declare himself to be right no matter what. In the Hitchens debate he finally showed his true colours: he’s a fundamentalist, not an academic scholar.
After debating (actually, during the debate itself would be more accurate!) bookish Christian apologist Peter S Williams at Liverpool University earlier this year and seeing how different our approaches were, all the ontological and scriptural arguments for God’s existence seemed so trivial. We don’t have sophist philosophical conundrums to argue for the circumference of the Earth or the historicity of the Holocaust. We have good old-fashioned, undeniable evidence.
I could accept every one of Craig’s five arguments; you still have all your work ahead of you convincing me that the Pope, the holder of the keys of St Peter, Christ’s vicar on Earth is objectively moral to go to Africa and say, “AIDS might be bad, but condoms might be worse”. This is a sinister and immoral aspect to religion that interests me more than the mere existence of God and the truthfulness of the scriptures; one which Hitchens tackles head on, but Craig wilfully evades.
Craig’s arguments, particularly the resurrection of Jesus, seem so petty and irrelevant. As Richard Dawkins has contended, having a “skyhook” to come in and arbitrarily change the laws of nature is an affront to the majesty of the natural order. Carl Sagan’s famous passage from Pale Blue Dot hits Craig’s nail on the head:
In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.”
And as Hitchens pointed out in the debate, even if it were all true and could be proved beyond doubt, it changes nothing with regard to our daily lives. All our problems would still be with us.
Craig’s style of arguing is deeply flawed. He will only consider his five arguments and nothing else. In the debate with Hitchens he avoided defending the Bible, stating that the immoralities of the Old Testament were irrelevant to the questions of whether God actually exists and was the arbiter of objective moral values, but was determinate of whether the Bible is inerrant and whether the Israelites had interpreted the will of God in slaughtering the Canaanites, which was “not on the table tonight”. What we weren’t told was that Craig teaches at Talbot School of Theology at Biola which teaches that the Bible is inerrant. I’m still waiting for a convincing answer as to how we are supposed to know which are the nice bits of the Bible that we are to follow in the 21st century.
Prolific blogger Steven Carr made a very amusing point in a dry, sardonic way that only he can with respect to Craig’s four facts surrounding the resurrection of Jesus on the Premier Christian Community forum:
Craig comes up with four pseudo-facts and demands people explain them. Imagine if people used that approach in other fields. Suppose a Holocaust-denier came up with these four facts. And these are real facts, unlike Craig’s pseudo-facts:
Fact 1: Hitler never signed a document ordering Jews to be liquidated in Europe.
Fact 2: No German ever recorded hearing Hitler saying orally that all Jews were to be killed.
Fact 3: The building now known as Gas Chamber 1 at Auschwitz was an air-raid shelter in 1944.
Fact 4: After the war, trained historians like David Irving and clergymen like Bishop Williamson testified that there was no systematic killing of 6 million Jews.
Now these are all genuine facts, unlike Craig’s claim that it was a fact that a person called Joseph of Arimathea (where’s that?) buried Jesus. Imagine if Holocaust-deniers suddenly demanded that people explain these four facts, and refused to consider anything else in a debate. Craig’s four facts approach to a debate is so bad that even Holocaust-deniers do not use that kind of logic!
In the Hitchens debate Craig drew upon John Barrow & Frank Tipler’s The Anthropic Cosmological Principle and posited an argument that sounds utterly ridiculous. Apparently Barrow and Tipler give ten points that make the evolution of Homo sapiens so improbable, that if it did occur on Earth, then it would be a miracle and thus be good evidence for Christian theism. While I would be certainly be grateful for an evolutionary perspective from any scientists reading this, even as a layman this sounds like anthropic nonsense.
I would strongly recommend a marvellous little book called Irreligion by mathematician, John Allen Paulos. He puts paid to Craig-style tactics of frightening audiences with massive improbabilities. The chance of being dealt any combination of cards in a game of bridge is something like 600 billion to one, but we would only say that the eventual hand was improbable if it were determined a priori.
Watch and listen to Craig’s debate from 2003 with American cosmologist, Victor Stenger, author of the superb Has Science Found God? and God, The Failed Hypothesis. The video stops half way through, but stick with the audio and Stenger truly wallops him for his God of the Gaps mentality and on the reliability of the New Testament documents. “Dr Craig keeps mentioning ‘the majority of scholars’. I don’t know where he takes these polls of scholars. You take them at Bob Jones University?!”
And a classic from Stenger’s first rebuttal:
Low probability events happen every day. What’s the probability that my distinguished opponent exists? You have to calculate the probability that a particular sperm united with a particular egg, then multiply it by the probability that his parents met, and then repeat that calculation for his grandparents and all his ancestors going back to the beginning of life on Earth. Even if you stop the calculation at Adam and Eve, you will get a fantastically small number.
To use Dr Craig’s own words, ‘improbability is multiplied by improbability by improbability until our minds are reeling in incomprehensible numbers.’
Dr Craig has a mind-reeling, incomprehensibly small probability for existing, yet here he is before us today.
Craig is so obsessed with probabilities that he even used Bayes Theorem to argue for the probability of miracles contra-Hume in his debate (video/transcript) against Bart Ehrman on the resurrection! Ehrman wisely didn’t respond to all the equations and later in the Q & A section condemned such idiotic reasoning as capable only of “convincing people who want to be convinced”.
Once again, John Allen Paulos recounts an amusing fable that perfectly sums up Craig’s approach:
Catherine the Great had asked the famous French philosopher Denis Diderot to her court, but was distressed to discover that Diderot was a vocal atheist. To counter him, she asked the mathematician Leonhard Euler to confront Diderot. On being told that there was a new argument for God’s existence, the innumerate Frenchman expressed a desire to hear it. Euler then strode forward and stated, “Sir, (a + bn) / n = x. Hence God exists. Reply.” Having no understanding of math, Diderot is reported to have been so dumbfounded he left for Paris.
I seriously doubt the story, but it is perhaps suggestive of how easily nonsense proffered in an earnest and profound manner can browbeat someone into acquiescence.
As Ehrman rightly stated in his closing remarks in that debate, Craig is an evangelist masquerading as an historian (and certainly masquerading as a scientist!) who wants people to follow his false prophet. I have no doubt now that he does believe all he says.
I just don’t see the point in arguing with anyone like that…