Richard Dawkins v. William Lane Craig (and Daniel Dennett?)

William Lane Craig is a smart guy, and I learn a great deal whenever I read him. He makes me think. I don’t agree with him on a lot of things (most obviously, the veracity of Christianity), but he’s a very clear and rational writer. He makes as good a case for theism and Protestantism as one can reasonably do in the 21st century.

Other pretty effective intellectual apologists for Christianity are N. T. Wright, Alvin Plantinga, and Edward Feser. Craig is of their tribe and caliber. Which is why I have difficulty understanding the frothing at the mouth that Richard Dawkins displays whenever Craig is brought up to him. He won’t debate him one-on-one and he doesn’t want journalists to give him the least oxygen. This, for example, was reported by journalist Nathan Schneider in The Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday:

When, during a conversation in a swank hotel lobby in Manhattan, I mentioned to Richard Dawkins that I was working on a story about William Lane Craig, the muscles in his face clenched.

“Why are you publicizing him?” Dawkins demanded, twice. The best-selling “New Atheist” professor went on to assure me that I shouldn’t bother, that he’d met Craig in Mexico—they opposed each other in a prime-time, three-on-three debate staged in a boxing ring—and found him “very unimpressive.”

“I mean, whose side are you on?” Dawkins said. “Are you religious?”

Dawkins’s response to Schneider is itself strikingly religious–indeed, fundamentalist in style.

Far more level-headed is atheist Daniel Dennett’s attitude toward intellectual opposition. In his new book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (Norton 2013), Dennett argues that intellectual errors are beneficial to all of us collectively wherever they are aired in a free and open marketplace of ideas (26-27):

One big difference between the discipline of science and the discipline of stage magic is that while magicians conceal their false starts from the audience as best they can, in science you make your mistakes in public. You show them off so everybody can learn from them. This way, you get the benefit of everybody else’s experience, and not just your own idiosyncratic path through the space of mistakes.

In the context of Dawkins’s response to Craig (which I emphasize is not Dennett’s context), I read Dennett’s passage as a rebuke: given Craig’s influence, Dawkins should encourage air and sunlight on Craig’s ideas, trusting audiences to follow the arguments and counter-arguments that might come out of such exposure. Dawkins should debate Craig and encourage journalists to profile him. He should not be playing the magician, seeking to control the public stage with mystification, authority, rewards and punishments, and personal charm.

But, of course, debating in public is risky. In trying to expose your opponent’s errors, you yourself may make mistakes and suffer the embarrassment of having your opponent expose them. And so Dennett also writes the following (27):

I am amazed at how many really smart people don’t understand that you can make big mistakes in public and emerge none the worse for it. I know distinguished researchers who will go to preposterous lengths to avoid having to acknowledge that they were wrong about something. They have never noticed, apparently, that the earth does not swallow people up when they say, “Oops, you’re right. I guess I made a mistake.” Actually, people love it when somebody admits to making a mistake. All kinds of people love pointing out mistakes. Generous-spirited people appreciate your giving them the opportunity to help, and acknowledging it when they succeed in helping you; mean-spirited people enjoy showing you up. Let them! Either way we all win.

That is, we all win if we are primarily interested in truth, not policing which “side” each of us is “on.”

The alternative to the Dawkins-style magic show (with the strongest competitors kept from the stage) is Anatol Rapoport’s public debate “rules,” which are four. Dennett dubs them “Rapoport’s Rules” (33). Based on correspondence between himself and Rapoport, Dennett paraphrases the rules this way (33-34):

1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Dennett, who has a combative streak akin to Dawkins’s, admits that “Following Rapoport’s Rules is always, for me at least, something of a struggle. Some targets, quite frankly, don’t deserve such respectful attention, and–I admit–it can be sheer joy to skewer and roast them” (Ibid.).

Since Dennett has debated Alvin Plantinga, I presume that he doesn’t put Craig–certainly one of Plantinga’s intellectual peers on the theist side–in the category of one who doesn’t deserve at least some “respectful attention.” But I could be wrong about this.

In any event, what’s the point of such respectful debate and dialogue? From a purely rhetorical perspective, at least it gets you a hearing from those who might otherwise tune you out. You’re not stuck just speaking to the choir. And you might even get the thoughtful attention of the individual you’re confronting. Here’s Dennett (34):

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said).

Dennett’s calm trust that the truth will out when we are attentive and civil with one another strikes me as an intellectual attitude worthy of our collective Enlightenment heritage. It’s admirable. By contrast, Dawkins’s anxious policing of the public square, punishing thoughtful dissenters with expressions of contempt and ridicule and advising journalists to not attend to them, seems to me exactly what a person committed to Enlightenment values shouldn’t be doing.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Richard Dawkins v. William Lane Craig (and Daniel Dennett?)

  1. keithnoback says:

    I’m afraid I have to lump Craig in with Dawkins as a person who is more interested in pushing an agenda than in provoking thought, at least in his public appearances. When speaking, he seems to religiously follow a debate model – win by creating a relatively positive impression in the minds of the audience – rather than an educational one.

  2. Amyclae says:

    Let’s be real, Dawkins hated Craig–and, to a lesser degree, anyone who agreed with him–because that’s who he is. Disagree with him? Well, then you must be delusional, idiotic or probably both.

    It probably didn’t help too much that Craig, at the very least, held is own and may have even got the upper hand against Dawkins in their public debate. For someone like Dawkins, who so clearly believes in his own infallibility, his very human foibles should never be seen publically. If they are… Well, to put a sharp edge on it, there’ll be hell to pay.

  3. cchung90 says:

    Dawkins has debated a large number of people in the same camp as Craig over the years, so if he is irritated and impatient about this topic, I would give him the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to an idiosyncratic dislike or perception of some sort. Dennett has a 10-min. YouTube clip where he gives his views on Craig’s debating approach.

    Also, I really like Rapoport’s Rules, and I think they are ideal in a tract-length or book-length format. I’m afraid they may not work so well in a debate format, because debates are often driven by rhetorical flourish and getting in “zingers” to win debating points. People who try to state their opponent’s position in charitable terms often get snippets of what they said thrown back at them “so my opponent concedes that it is very difficult to believe X, and yet he persists in believing it…”, etc. And if you spend too much time on points of agreement, that may squeeze out time to fully explain the contentious areas of debate. But perhaps the rules can be followed in an abbreviated way in a debate, by way of a quick preamble…

  4. Pingback: To Debate or Not Debate William Lane Craig - Hillside

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