William Lane Craig –v- Christopher Hitchens: Second Thoughts

With his 100th post :o manicstreetpreacher begins his reassessment of a notorious debate as he tries to figure out where his hero went wrong.

Craig was flawless and unstoppable.  Hitchens was rambling and incoherent, with the occasional rhetorical jab.  Frankly, Craig spanked Hitchens like a foolish child.

So went the verdict of the web’s most fawning atheist Craigophile, Lukeprog, over at Common Sense Atheism a year ago today in respect of Christopher Hitchens’ debate against Christian apologist, William Lane Craig, at Biola University on the motion “Does God Exist?”.

Luke subsequently commented that his piece was linked all over the web.  Craig himself quoted it in his post-debate newsletter to his flock.  Lee Strobel quoted it in his foreword to Craig’s latest apologetic, On Guard.  I linked to it in my original comment piece back in June last year when the Biola DVD hit the torrents sites.  I’m certainly not giving Luke the satisfaction of linking to it again here.

I have mixed feeling about my original piece.  After the damning verdict against Hitchens on the blogs was clearly exaggerated, I wanted to stick up for the guy.  At the same time, my blood was very much up that he had let Craig get away with so much and smugly declare that his five pathetic “arguments” for God’s existence were unassailable and that his opponent had provided no evidence or argument that God did not exist, that it turned into an ad hominem rant against Craig.

I originally titled it “We should all feel very sorry for this man”, which irritatingly still appears when the post is automatically generated by WordPress as a “possibly related” post.  I even made some very unkind remarks about Craig’s spindly hands that since he is obviously close to punching his last ticket, he is dreaming of eternal life next to the Father’s right hand more than usual but will be sorely disappointed.  “What a great analysis,” I thought when I hit “Publish”.  Until one of the post’s first commenters pointed out that Craig suffers from a neuromuscular disorder that affects the appearance and movement of his hands.  Damn.  It has been my most reviewed and re-edited post.

So one year after the actual debate, I have taken a step back and watched the tape again with the benefit of having seen and heard a lot more lectures and debates by Craig.  The remainder of this post and my second and third posts will present what I now think.

Hitchens and Craig meet at the Christian Book Expo

Two weeks before their debate, Hitchens sat on a panel with four Christian authors: Craig, Douglas Wilson, Lee Strobel and Jim Denison at the 2009 Christian Book Expo held in Dallas, Texas on Saturday, 21 March 2010.  The debate moderated by Christianity Today writer Stan Guthrie, who in reality turned into a sixth discussion participant.

The full audio of the discussion can be downloaded here; the full tape video is uploaded to YouTube below.

Hitchens dominated the discussion and received most of the airtime and audience questions.  However, in his closing remarks, Craig baited him by saying that his arguments amounted to “I don’t like it”, as opposed to “I don’t believe it’s true” and condescendingly asked him to engage more with him and his cohorts’ wonderful arguments in their upcoming debate at Biola.  In an Apologia podcast immediately afterwards, Craig sounded incredibly pleased with himself, saying that Hitchens did not have the “intellectual capacity” to answer his arguments.  The clip with Craig and Hitchens interviewed can be listened to here.  Following the encounter, the blogs predicted a beat down for Hitchens at Craig’s hands, including former student of Craig and evangelical preacher turned atheist author and blogger, John W Loftus.

Letters from Biola

I’ll come right out and say that Hitchens lost the debate.  No two ways about it.  While he didn’t come off as badly as Lukeprog’s infamous sound bite implied, he simply didn’t prepare enough in advance to answer Craig’s arguments.  Hitchens is more concerned with the social effects of religion.  Craig wanted to argue over its truth and after all, that was the debate’s motion.  Craig boasts a great delivery at the lectern.  He compresses his points very well and splits his arguments up piecemeal.  Hitchens sears, flows and mixes it all up into one.  He also has a habit of making “throat-clearing” precursors before answering points.

Even so, I had severely underestimated Craig.  A very few others aside, I had only seen his debates against Bart Ehrman and Victor Stenger which were the two occasions when he had been convincingly beaten.  Having now seen and heard many more of his debates, I can see that Craig does not debate his opponents has such, but executes premeditated hit-jobs on them.  Craig makes a point of not debating anyone without a doctorate.  He made an exception with Hitchens, who has been a visiting professor at several universities, but as far as I know does not hold an actual PhD and during the debate, Craig referred to him as “Mister” rather than “Doctor” or “Professor”.   Was this an attempt on Craig’s part to discredit the leading debater of the Four Horsemen?  Very possibly.

Craig employed every single one of his dirty tricks at Biola: scientific distortion, quote-mining of authorities, dropping in as many points as possible, patronising and intimidating erudition, demagogically pandering to the audience… the lot.  It can take ten times as long to answer a question than to ask it.  Craig fires out arguments in quick succession and then chides his opponent for failing to answer all of this arguments and objections.  He also presented straw man versions of Hitchens’ own arguments, which took up a great deal of Hitchens’ time in his rebuttals, only for Craig of course go on and then say that Hitchens had not properly refuted his original arguments!

Craig also constantly appeals to authorities.  During the Hitchens debate he quoted external sources no fewer than 19 times!  However, he is extremely selective in the way that he uses quotes.  In their debates against Craig on the resurrection, Bart Ehrman and Bishop John Shelby Spong exposed Craig’s use of authorities on New Testament scholarship who in reality are deeply opposed.

Richard Dawkins was quite right to refuse publically a debate against Craig on the grounds that the man is simply a “professional debater” rather than a proper academic worth taking seriously.  Hitchens was too respectful and had clearly been taken in by the Craig hype, as his slightly nervous demeanour at the pre-debate press conference showed.

So with the dust well and truly settled, let’s take a look at Craig’s arguments now he is unable to hide behind his debating tricks.  My next post tomorrow will begin the deconstruction of Craig’s arguments and tactics piece by piece.

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10 Responses to “William Lane Craig –v- Christopher Hitchens: Second Thoughts”

  1. Stuart Says:

    Happy Easter MSP, and to all your readers!

  2. Craig –v- Hitchens: Fourth Thoughts – Sleepless in Biola « manicstreetpreacher Says:

    [...] third and final part (Part I / Part II) of manicstreetpreacher’s reassessment of Christopher Hitchens’ debate against [...]

  3. Craig –v- Hitchens: Third Thoughts – Deconstructing William « manicstreetpreacher Says:

    [...] …religion, politics, philosophy, history, debate… « William Lane Craig –v- Christopher Hitchens: Second Thoughts Craig –v- Hitchens: Fourth Thoughts – Sleepless in Biola [...]

  4. chancy Says:

    So, apparently there is a re-match between these two today? (May 2, 2010)

    http://www.ccn.tv/programming/event/broadcast.php?evtID=evt_02may10

    Hopefully someone with access to ccn (someone who has glorystar sat tv equipment?) will post the debate.

  5. Márcio Says:

    Hitchens was massacred and didn’t present any arguments for his so called “truth” that God doesn’t exists. In the end Hitchens only attacked christian religion.

    • Nick Munno Says:

      Only the Christians use the name “God” as a personal name. People of Islamic faith call their deity “Allah” while the jews call it “Yahweh” and the list goes on for other religions. When somebody mentions a god, and uses the word in a context similar to “Does God exist?” it is quite clear which one they are talking about. That could be why he chose to stick to the topic at hand.

      And remember, you are NEVER called upon to prove non-existence. Otherwise we’d all still believe in each god, super-hero, alien, and sea monster ever to have a claim made about its existence.

  6. DJ Says:

    i just watched it again… i’m getting more and more annoyed at bill craig every time i see his face.. and you’re right, he has a kind of shotgun method of debating. craigs arguments are shit, he might be a better debater – but at least hitchens isn’t living in fairy land.

  7. Leigh Harwood Says:

    Who was the superior debater; ‘Hitchens’ or ‘Lane’? Impossible to say – because one is always appealing to the value set of the individual.

    Craig presented no evidence whatsoever for the existence of God. This is an impossible task for any individual – because it is simply unanswerable. Therefore, he has to rely on biblical texts combined with the suggestiveness of intelligent design as being ‘sufficient evidence’ for his argument.

    Sorry Craig, this will not do. Suggestiveness/biblical texts do not constitute evidence because these can both be interpreted in a multitude of ways to suit the argument of the person arguing their case.

    Atheism will always will out in terms of logic – because it does not presume to know the meaning of life either way. It is only when you commit to a stance that the burden of proof then rests upon you’re shoulders.

  8. Christopher Hitchens Debate Reviews: The Not So Good | manicstreetpreacher Says:

    […] Exist?”, Biola University, Los Angeles, 4 April 2009 (Video / MSP review / MSP review one year on in three parts).  This one hurt quite a lot.  While not the massacre that the first blog reports had […]

  9. Sam Harris beats William Lane Craig in their debate on morality | manicstreetpreacher Says:

    […] fully accept that one of the other “Four Horsemen”, Christopher Hitchens, lost his debate against Craig on the existence of God at Biola University in April 2009.  Hitchens conceded the […]

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