Richard Dawkins Won’t Debate William Lane Craig Because Craig Rationalizes Genocide

Though I’d like to see Richard Dawkins debate William Lane Craig, I actually think that Dawkins has given a good reason for not debating him, highlighting the following passage from Craig’s writings in which Craig rationalizes genocide:

I have come to appreciate as a result of a closer reading of the biblical text that God’s command to Israel was not primarily to exterminate the Canaanites but to drive them out of the land. […] Canaan was being given over to Israel, whom God had now brought out of Egypt. If the Canaanite tribes, seeing the armies of Israel, had simply chosen to flee, no one would have been killed at all. There was no command to pursue and hunt down the Canaanite peoples. It is therefore completely misleading to characterise God’s command to Israel as a command to commit genocide. Rather it was first and foremost a command to drive the tribes out of the land and to occupy it. Only those who remained behind were to be utterly exterminated. No one had to die in this whole affair.

Craig’s observations here are repugnant, and of genocide he’s managed to say some even more repugnant things as well (see here).

So, just as antisemitism rightly damaged the reputations of Heidegger, Pound, and T.S. Eliot, Craig has crossed a moral line that (ought to) permanently damage his general reputation among academics (even if he still retains a lay evangelical fan base).   

And, since the Bible’s land grant of Canaan to the Israelites is still (presumably) in effect, Craig’s rationalization of genocide is especially noxious, as it could readily be used to justify the destruction of contemporary Palestinians because they aren’t willing to abandon the land either.

So, though I think a debate between Dawkins and Craig would be great entertainment, I support Dawkins in his decision not to interact with someone who can talk like Craig does in the 21st century. When you think about it, after the Holocaust, it’s just too gross to share a stage with someone who speaks of genocide as if the Holocaust never happened. It’s proper for Dawkins to highlight Craig’s moral obtuseness, and to shun him for it.

After quoting in the Guardian some of Craig’s more noxious genocide passages, including the one above, here’s Dawkins:

Would you shake hands with a man who could write stuff like that? Would you share a platform with him? I wouldn’t, and I won’t. […] And if any of my colleagues find themselves browbeaten or inveigled into a debate with this deplorable apologist for genocide, my advice to them would be to stand up, read aloud Craig’s words as quoted above, then walk out and leave him talking not just to an empty chair but, one would hope, to a rapidly emptying hall as well.

Amen.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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10 Responses to Richard Dawkins Won’t Debate William Lane Craig Because Craig Rationalizes Genocide

  1. There is something about this situation that leaves me feeling uncomfortable, like someone has “pulled a fast one”. I’m finding it hard to figure out exactly what my opinions are, as there are several intermeshing problems, so this is a first attempt to get some ideas on paper.

    I think there are two questions at issue.

    A1. Are there any opinions which render someone so far beyond the pale that merely to meet and engage with this person is morally wrong?

    A2. If yes, does WLC fit this category?

    On A1, I am still unsure. There are certainly plenty of people who agree that holocaust deniers should never be allowed to speak about their opinions (and it should be stressed, WLC is NOT a holocaust denier). Incidentally, this kind of argument also applies to Dawkins. Unless he is morally perfect in every respect and in every statement he has ever made, no-one should debate him. I can suggest an argument which might make him on the same level as his accusation of WLC in many peoples’ eyes. But I won’t follow this line of thought any further, it all feels rather too ad hominum to me.

    My values around academic freedom and freedom of speech find the idea of A1 problematic. I also note that the issue Dawkins and WLC would likely debate is not the issue of whether God ordered genocide at some point in history, which means WLC’s opinions on this may not even be relevant in this particular debate.

    So I have to leave A1 unresolved at this point, though I lean towards “No, no person is so far beyond the pale that they should not be debated”. (There may even be an argument that they SHOULD be debated, for exactly the reason that they need to be publicly defeated.)

    So then, question A2: Does William Lane Craig have morally horrific opinions? Specifically does he consider genocide morally permissable?

    I think this question is too vague. It seems to me that some people are trying to argue:

    B1. WLC argues that God commanded genocide at a specific time and place hundreds of years BCE.

    B2. Ergo, WLC argues that God agrees with genocide now and in the future.

    I don’t think you need me to show the flaw in connecting B1 and B2.

    Considering B1, I think we then have to argue: Anyone who believes that genocide has ever been morally acceptable is wrong. This leads to the essential problem with B1, which I think is: How do we know God would never command genocide? I think it is possible that God could command genocide. A morally perfect God could have reasons for commanding genocide which we don’t understand, especially when we don’t have all the facts. I think WLC is trying to discover what those reasons might have been. So far he may not have come up with good reasons, but this leads to an important point:

    All Christians and Jews have to make sense of those Biblical passages. To be consistent, Dawkins would have to refuse to debate any Christian or Jew (and possibly Muslim). He has not done so, and as far as I know is willing to debate believers again at some point. I have to say I find this all rather convenient for Dawkins.

    Let me make two assertions which I don’t have evidence for other than my sense that WLC is actually a very compassionate and morally sensitive man, based on some of his writing which I’ve read.

    C1. William Lane Craig does not approve of any modern-day genocide, including the Nazi holocaust of WW2.

    C2. WLC believes that God will not and cannot command genocide again, and anyone claiming God can do so is wrong, and always will be.

    I bring these up, because I think this is the position of many believers today and is likely to be that of WLC. Regardless of what may have happened in the past, never again. Including in modern-day Israel.

    What if WLC were to publicly agree with my second set of points? Would Dawkins debate him then? I suspect not. I think at bottom, Dawkins is looking for an excuse not to engage.

    • santitafarella says:

      Spritzo:

      Well, you make very good qualifying points. I feel a similar unease. On first hearing Dawkins’s response, I felt that it was a defaming rationalization. But, on second thought, I tend toward the position I outlined in the post above. On third thought, however, your points are completely valid as well.

      Do I, personally, intend to give serious attention to Craig’s arguments on matters other than Canaan? I do. And I say this largely because Craig is the clearest articulator of evangelical positions that evangelicalism has, and so I want to give evangelicalism the fairest consideration possible.

      But, having said that, I understand why Dawkins has limits. Dawkins is over 70 years old now; he may feel that, with the time he has left, he prefers not to suffer fools too indulgently. He doesn’t debate young earth creationists either.

      The whole Heidegger-Pound-Eliot issue comes to mind here as well. Do we read and think about these intellectuals? Yes. Do we temper our reflections about them with a proper repugnance for their embracing of Nazism (Heidegger), fascism (Pound), or antisemitism (Eliot)? Yes.

      As to academic freedom, no one is booting Craig from his academic post, or preventing his writing and speaking. But a prominent professor like Dawkins also is free to say of this particular academic something like the following: I will not be in Socratic dialogue with Craig because he has crossed a moral line that places him beyond my community of scholars. I simply cannot consider a man with such opinions to be a part of my community. He is outside of it.

      That, to my mind, is a valid response to Craig’s statements.

      As to Muslims, I think it’s a fair consideration for a feminist academic (for example) to decide that she simply cannot be in dialogue with a conservative Muslim male academic on other matters so long as women in the Islamic world are not free. It may be enough for her to leave an empty chair and call on the like-minded to do the same. Conservative Islamic attitudes toward women’s rights and equality are arguably beyond the pale of 21st century civility—something one might not wish to leave off to the side while discussing other things.

      —Santi

      • Josh W says:

        Isn’t it pretty dodgy to only debate with people in your community? Surely we need some kind of debate structure that doesn’t require both participants to recognise each other as academics at the start?

        In fact, it’s almost like this invalidates his position on reason, if he suggests the correct response to someone you disapprove of morally is not merely to refuse to chat with him, but to refuse to listen to him (hoping the audience quickly walk out). Surely reason applies to the methods used and not the results, so no-one should be considered beyond the pale for the conclusions of their reasoning. The only restriction consistent with the standards he proposes should be on the basis of methods.

      • Josh W says:

        Ugh, when I say invalidates his position, I don’t mean that it invalidates positions he advocates in his books and speeches, rather that it shows that he does not hold consistently to them himself.

        Now as the wonderful example in the book “the diamond age” shows, this fundamental hypocrisy does not automatically mean that his positions are invalidated, merely that he doesn’t always achieve them, they are a moral standard that his behaviour sometimes does not reach.
        It does however mean that he cannot stand as an example of these ideas applied, because he operates both according to them and according to principles of intuitive moral repulsion etc a topic that I’ve never heard him speak on or justify.

        There’s a thing that is hard to explain which is essentially that a position is not merely a proposition, but a self consistent sphere of life underwriting that proposition. If it is to be more than just words, you have to live it, and living it consistently is a kind of partial proof of it’s consistency: This idea can be implemented without simultaneously acting for and against it.
        If you do not expect people to hold to this, then people can talk with ideas of incredible elegant purity that they never actually live by, and nor does anyone else, while lambasting others for their compromised and muddy formulations!

  2. On another note, very sad to hear T.S. Eliot was anti-semitic. I like his writing. :/

  3. Paradigm says:

    I think WLC:s quote makes sense. There was no command to committ genocide. Most invasions do not lead to extermination of the original inhabitants. That said the Bible is full of contradictions so it’s not a good source of guidance at a literal level anyhow.

    As for not talking to bad people it’s kind of silly. WLC no doubt finds Dawkins to be a bad person, and yet he is willing to talk. And it’s not controversial to talk with murderers, rapist like many intellectuals do and write books about it. Al Sharpton once said: “White folks was [sic] in caves while we was building empires…. We taught philosophy and astrology and mathematics before Socrates and them Greek homos ever got around to it.” Would Dawkins refuse to debate him? I doubt it.

    As for antisemitism, that’s a matter of definition. I think it is legit to criticize Jewish culture without being antisemitic if you define this as discriminating against someone exclusively because of their religious and ethnic heritage. Eliot writes “Jews” but we can’t know if he means Jews per se or Jewish culture.

    • santitafarella says:

      Paradigm,

      I don’t disagree with you, but I’m not quite as emphatic as you are about talking to just anybody. I think dialogue is important between people, especially people very different from one another. So, at this level, Dawkins’s response is unfortunate. But I understand why Dawkins might prefer to make responses to Craig via the internet only (as opposed to ones in which he might have to exchange a sporting handshake, a smile, and general sociability). There are some people to which that gesture signals a general approval that Dawkins obviously doesn’t want to send Craig’s way.

      And I can’t blame him. Craig’s rationalizations surrounding genocide are obscene (especially after the Holocaust). Some people don’t learn anything from history. On the issue of genocide and demonization of outgroups, Craig appears to be one of them.

      Of course, Craig is a formidable debater and Dawkins could also be unconsciously rationalizing a bit. I don’t know.

      —Santi

  4. “permanently damage his general reputation among academics ”
    what reputation?
    you think a person who’s on record saying that no argument or evidence could convince him his god doesn’t–which is the antithesis of everything academia stands for– exist has any reputation among academics?

  5. gruesome_knight says:

    Well, the order of killing babies from Canaan is in crass contradiction with other biblical passages. For example, it is said somewhere in Proverbs that God hates the hands who shed innocent blood. If the Bible were innerant, this would mean that God commanded to the isrealite soldiers to kill innocent babies and afterwards hated them for that.

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