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Why are the atheists shy of debate?

12 October 2011

Paul Vallely probes the New Atheists’ thin arguments

Polly Toynbee is a prolific journalist. She is certainly not a woman of few words. Yet she has been uncharacteristically reticent for the past three months over why she pulled out of a debate with the Christian apologist William Lane Craig, the philosopher and New Testament scholar whose “Reasonable Faith” tour of the UK begins next week (News, 12 August).

Professor Craig has emerged in recent times as the scourge of the New Atheists. Over the years, he has debated persuasively, as video evidence on YouTube shows, with Peter Atkins, Daniel Dennett, Laurence Kraus, Lewis Wolpert, and Sam Harris. His exchange with the man who was once the world’s leading atheist, the philosopher Anthony Flew, was said to have been instru­mental in Professor Flew’s late conversion to deism. Sam Harris has described Professor Craig as “the one Christian apologist who has put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists”.

Perhaps that is why Richard Dawkins and the philosopher A. C. Grayling refused to meet the American in debate. So it was all credit to Toyn­bee when, as president of the British Humanist Association, she agreed to open Professor Craig’s tour on Monday with a debate on the existence of God. That was in April.

But then, in August, she pulled out, with the bald statement: “I hadn’t realised the nature of Mr Lane Craig’s debating style, and having now looked at his previous performances, this is not my kind of forum.” She has said nothing more since, apart from apologising for the inconvenience that her withdrawal has caused, after many tickets had been sold. Perhaps she had seen Professor Craig’s debate with Christopher Hitchens, of which an atheist website said: “Craig was flawless and unstoppable. Hitchens was rambling and incoherent, with the occasional rhetorical jab. Frankly, Craig spanked Hitchens like a foolish child.”

Professor Craig is not the Dawkinsites’ preferred fundamentalist-creationist opponent. He is an analytic philosopher who has attempted to breathe new life into the old cosmological, ontological, teleological, and moral arguments for the existence of God. But when Professor Grayling was invited to debate whether objective moral values can exist as more than social conventions without God, the atheist scornfully riposted: “I would be happy to debate him on the question of the existence of fairies and water-nymphs.” I’ll bet he would.

Professor Dawkins has responded similarly, accusing Professor Craig of being a “deeply unimpressive . . . ponderous buffoon” who uses “chopped logic” for “bamboozling his faith-head audience”. He had, he said in a phrase that recalls pots and kettles, “no intention of assisting Craig in his relentless drive for self-promotion”.

To outsiders, all this looks bizarre. So much so that an atheist philosophy lecturer from Oxford, Dr Daniel Came, has written to Professor Dawkins, warning him that his refusal to debate with Professor Craig was “apt to be interpreted as cowardice”.

In a way, that is true. The classic Dawkins-Grayling-Toynbee style of debate is a relentless catalogue of historical outrage, cheap jibes, and dismissive phrases about the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Professor Craig, by contrast, focuses relentlessly on his opponents’ failure to address the internal logic of his philosophical theology.

In the face of this, the New Atheists’ ad hominem insults get only more shrill. Professor Dawkins has called his opponent “a truly disgusting person”, and blogged on his “almost visceral loathing of ‘Dr’ Craig’s odiously unctuous, smug and self-satisfied tone of voice”.

Why the doctorates are apostrophised is unclear, since one was a Ph.D. under John Hick at Birmingham, and the other a Th.D. from Munich. And objecting to his voice is as per­suasive as dismissing Professor Grayling on the grounds of his bouffant hairstyle. The British Humanist Association lists as one of its core values “engaging in debate rationally, intelligently and with attention to evidence”. We are waiting.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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