During my Catholic Answers Live interview last Monday, I noted that Richard Dawkins refuses to debate philosopher William Lane Craig. Dawkins’ representative Sean Faircloth, who was also on the show, did not contradict this. On the contrary, Faircloth defended Dawkins’ refusal to debate Craig. Still, after the interview, Patrick Coffin, the host of the show, received the following email from Dawkins:
Dear Mr Coffin
Contrary to what was repeatedly said on your show, I HAVE debated William Lane Craig, in a nationally televised debate in Mexico in 2010, and he was DEEPLY unimpressive. I hope you will correct the record in your next show.
Now, I certainly want the record to be correct. But if it isn’t true that Dawkins refuses to debate Craig, where could anyone have gotten the idea that he does refuse? Well, for starters, from the fact that Dawkins published an article in the Guardian just this past October with the title “Why I refuse to debate with William Lane Craig” -- an article reprinted on the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and widely discussed online. That does rather give the impression that Dawkins refuses to debate Craig, no? So, perhaps Dawkins should send himself an email demanding a correction. And if, in future, he doesn’t want people to get the idea that he refuses to debate with William Lane Craig, he might consider not saying -- loudly, publicly, online and in print -- things like “I refuse to debate with William Lane Craig.”
The reader of Dawkins’ weeks-old Guardian article will also notice that after recounting Craig’s repeated challenges to debate him, Dawkins does not say “I HAVE debated Craig, in Mexico in 2010, and found him DEEPLY unimpressive!” No, not a peep about that. Instead he explicitly affirms that “I would rather leave an empty chair than share a platform with him.” (This just repeats a policy he had earlier expressed in some now famous remarks you can view on YouTube.)
But then, what is all this “Mexico in 2010” stuff Dawkins made no reference to in his Guardian article but now cites in his email to Coffin as evidence that what I said in the interview needs “correction”? Dawkins is referring here, not to any one-on-one matchup between Craig and himself, but rather to a six-person panel exchange in which both he and Craig participated. And from Craig’s own account of the episode, it seems that the participants didn’t necessarily know, before the fact, who the other participants would be; certainly Craig himself says that he found out only after he arrived, and to his surprise, that Dawkins would be there -- which raises the question of whether Dawkins even knew in advance that Craig would be there. Moreover, Craig reports that when he conveyed to Dawkins that he was surprised by his participation, given Dawkins’ longstanding refusal to debate him, Dawkins replied: “I don’t consider this to be a debate with you. The Mexicans invited me to participate, and I accepted.”
So, two years ago Dawkins insisted that his encounter with Craig in Mexico was not a debate; and only weeks ago he loudly and publicly acknowledged that he refuses to debate Craig. Yet, in response to my statement on the air that he refuses to debate Craig, Dawkins now insists that this is “contrary” to the truth and needs to be “corrected,” citing the 2010 non-debate encounter as evidence. What is going on here?
What’s going on, I suspect, is a farcical attempt at damage control. Dawkins’ recent Guardian article received much criticism, some of it from people Dawkins cannot easily dismiss. In a response to Dawkins published in the Guardian, philosopher Daniel Came writes that though he “tend[s] to agree with Dawkins's conclusion regarding the falsehood of theism,” he also regards Dawkins’ refusal to debate Craig as “cynical and anti-intellectualist.” Oxford historian Tim Stanley judges Dawkins “either a fool or a coward.” Paul Vallely notes that Craig is widely acknowledged to be a formidable debater even by prominent New Atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, and is also acknowledged even by atheists to have bested Hitchens in debate -- the implication being that Dawkins is afraid to debate Craig and is desperately seeking an excuse for not doing so. Perhaps the criticisms and accusations of cowardice have gotten to Dawkins. I conjecture that, finding that the “Craig defends genocide!” shtick isn’t working as an excuse for not debating him, Dawkins has now decided to shift gears and try a different excuse, viz. “Oh, it’s not that I refuse to debate Craig. It’s that I’ve already debated him and won, and there’s no need to do so again!” Unfortunately, he’s forgotten -- or at least hopes that others have forgotten -- what he said to Craig two years ago and what he said in the Guardian only weeks ago.
In short, whether or not Dawkins will ever debate Craig, he certainly now seems keen on debating himself. The Dawkins of 2010 and October 2011 versus the Dawkins of December 2011. “Never mind what I said before! We are at war with Eastasia. We have always been at war with Eastasia!” Come to think of it, it all sounds very familiar…