Richard Dawkins was accused of cowardice when he repeatedly refused to debate the existence of God with the famous Christian apologist William Lane Craig. And while he tried to shrug off such invitations by saying he is too busy to “take on people whose only claim to fame is that they are professional debaters,” I think Dawkins has a good reason to be afraid. Craig will eat Dawkins alive - that is, if the debate has more or less the same structure as the ones in which Craig had previously engaged with other atheists.
In a timed debate where each participant is awarded a point for every argument and counter-argument, Craig will surely win because he can state several arguments for the existence of God within a relatively short time. Now whether these arguments would crumble under critical scrutiny is beside the point; there is simply not enough time for Dawkins to effectively rebut each of these arguments especially with his slow British accent.
But if Dawkins will change his mind and decide to accept Craig’s challenge, I think the debate should be focused on only one of the arguments for God’s existence, say, the cosmological argument or the teleological argument, so that Dawkins could whittle it down and expose the fallacies. More importantly, Dawkins should insist that key terms like ‘evidence’ be clearly defined before agreeing to go into such debate. This was the mistake of Lawrence Krauss in the debate Is there evidence for God? In his opening statement (which was after Craig’s), Krauss said, “Dr. Craig came here to talk about evidence, which is, I take to be, empirical and scientific.” Too late. Craig had already defined ‘evidence’ in such a way that there is evidence for hypothesis H if:
Pr (H | E & B) > Pr (H | B)
Pr = probability; H = a hypothesis; E = some specific evidence; B = our background information
“At one level it seems to me indisputable that there is evidence for God. To say that there is evidence for some hypothesis is just to say that that hypothesis is more probable given certain facts than would have been without them. It is to say there is evidence to some hypothesis H if the probability of H is greater on the evidence and background information than on the background information alone.”
And Craig argued that there is evidence for God if:
Pr (G | E & B) > Pr (G | B)
Pr = probability; G = God exists; E = some specific evidence; B = our background information
“It seems to me indisputable that God’s existence is more probable given certain facts like the origin of the universe, the complex order of the universe, the existence of objective moral values and so forth, than it would have been without them.”
While it is clear that Craig’s definition of ‘evidence’ is that of circumstantial evidence and not direct evidence, the debate is simply titled “Is there evidence for God?” and therefore Craig’s victory is inevitable.
Craig is a seasoned debater, and his years of experience have taught him not only to identify the red herrings in his opponents’ arguments but also to get away with a few dishonest tricks of his own. A good example is his debate with Sam Harris, Is Good from God? In his opening speech, Craig flashed a slide with his own version of the title: “Is the Foundation of our Morality Natural or Supernatural?” While he stuck to the issue up to this point, what he did next was nothing short of sleight of hand. Craig said:
“The question before us this evening, then, is, ‘what is the best foundation for the existence of objective moral values and duties? What grounds them? What makes certain actions objectively good or evil, right or wrong?’ In tonight’s debate I’m going to defend two basic contentions:
1. If God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.
2. If God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.
Now notice that these are conditional claims. I shall not be arguing tonight that God exists. Maybe Dr. Harris is right that atheism is true. That wouldn’t affect the truth of my two contentions. All that would follow is that objective moral values and duties would, then, contrary to Dr. Harris, not exist.”
Take note that Craig’s contentions have nothing to do with the debate’s title, Is Good from God? or even with his own subtitle, Is the Foundation of our Morality Natural or Supernatural? Both titles are questions answerable by yes or no, not with conditional claims.
Then after Harris mentioned the problem of evil and the problem of the unevangelized, Craig rebutted with:
“Both of these, as I explained in my opening, are irrelevant in tonight’s debate because I’m not arguing that God exists. Maybe he’s right; maybe these are insuperable objections to Christianity or to theism. It wouldn’t affect either of my contentions: that if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for moral values and duties; if God does not exist, then we have no foundation for objective moral values and duties. So these are red herrings.”
But while he may sound righteously indignant about Harris’ red herrings, the problem with Craig’s contentions is that they are red herrings themselves. The debate’s title question, Is Good from God? can only be answered in the affirmative if God’s existence has been proven in the first place, and yet Craig insists that God’s existence is irrelevant to the debate.
Unfortunately, Harris did not seem to notice this (or if he did he didn’t seem to care enough to point it out), and it’s only after carefully reviewing Craig’s arguments that we can see through his deception.
Now would Dawkins fare better? I doubt it. And when he said that such a debate would look good on Craig’s CV but not on his own, I don’t think it’s because Dawkins finds Craig unworthy of his attention. I think it’s because Dawkins knows he would lose.