Richard Dawkins, outspoken atheist and critic of religion, may be losing his nerve. He has just refused four British invitations to publicly debate with eminent philosopher William Lane Craig when he visits the UK this October. The requests came from The British Humanist Association, The Cambridge Debating Union, the Oxford Christian Union and Premier Radio.
William Lane Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, California and is arguably the world’s foremost defender of historic Christianity. He has debated with many leading atheists and academics across the world, including Peter Atkins, Daniel Dennett, Anthony Flew, A.C. Grayling, Christopher Hitchens, Lewis Wolpert and most recently, Sam Harris.
Dawkin’s refusal to debate Craig has led Oxford University philosopher Dr Daniel Came to write to Dawkins urging him to reconsider, saying his refusal to do so is “apt to be interpreted as cowardice on your part.”
Craig, however, throws down the gauntlet, saying “I am keeping the opportunity open for him to change his mind and debate with me in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford at 7.30pm on 25th October.”
Dawkins has claimed, “As for religion … nobody wields a sharper bayonet than Sam Harris.” Harris debated Craig on 7th April. In his opening statement in that debate, Harris declared that Dr Craig is “the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists.” After that debate, the atheist website Debunking Christianity reported: “Bill (Craig) has once again showed himself as the best debater of this generation.”
Following the debate with Christopher Hitchens in 2009, the website,Common Sense Atheism commented: “Craig was flawless and unstoppable. Hitchens was rambling and incoherent. Frankly, Craig spanked Hitchens like a foolish child.”
So what reasons does Dawkins offer for refusing to debate Craig? He gives six:
Firstly, he says that Craig is a professional debater and that is his“only claim to fame”. In fact, Craig is a highly distinguished academic with doctorates in both Philosophy and Theology. He has published more than thirty books and nearly 200 papers in peer-reviewed, academic journals.
Secondly, he says Craig is a Creationist. . . . Craig asserts that the universe had a beginning 13.7 billion years ago. He argues that the universe is therefore finite in the past and requires a first cause. It is therefore wholly inaccurate to describe Craig as a creationist in the standard sense of that term.
Thirdly, Dawkins says that Craig is not a senior churchman and that he will not debate a religious person less senior than a Cardinal or a Bishop. However, most senior churchmen are not distinguished academics. Few have done research in secular universities or have gained doctorates, either in science, philosophy or theology. Professor Craig therefore is a much more rigorous opponent. Dawkins has in fact previously debated with other Christian academics, namely John Lennox and Alister McGrath.
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Finally, he states “I have no interest in this.” This is surprising. He has made a fortune from his book, The God Delusion, and continues to promote his aggressive atheism but is not interested in exchanging views with a serious academic who wants to challenge his arguments in public.
Perhaps I am being unfair to quote extensively from a Christian apologetics website that is clearly in Professor Craig’s camp and not in Professor Dawkins’. But search the web. Focus, if you wish, on information published on Dawkins’ own foundation website. The answer is the same but for some wording.
Reuters described the encounter, just this past February and chaired by the philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny:
It was the intellectual version of a world heavyweight title fight when Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams faced evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion," on Thursday in a debate on the nature and ultimate origins of human beings.
Genetic pre-determination and the nature of consciousness were just some of the issues touched upon during an hour and a half of erudite jousting in the university town of Oxford.
[. . . ] So the time was ripe for champions of the religious and secular camps to step into the ring – or in this case, the Sheldonian Theatre, a distinctive 17th century building where Oxford’s venerable university holds graduation ceremonies.
Audience reactions were interesting:
"It was a points victory for Rowan Williams, but not a knock-out round," said Andrew Wilkinson, a theology graduate.
His friend Judy Perkins said "Williams was better at engaging with the science than Dawkins was at engaging with the philosophy."
[ . . . ] "The argument was a bit like afternoon tea and muffins," said Jane Kennedy, a schoolteacher.
[ . . . ] Camille Bonomelli, a doctoral student in biochemistry, emerged from the debate stimulated if not swayed. "Nobody is going to win this battle anyway," she said.
Short of getting Rowan Williams (whom John Bingham of The Telegraph described in a similar article on the debate as “having a grasp of 11 languages, been an Oxford professor and the leader of 77 million Anglicans worldwide”) or an equally eminent Cardinal to pose a Shroud of Turin challenge to Dawkins, I don’t think he will entertain the idea. Even so, the publicity value is there.