Playing Dirty Pool with Non-Believers: How William Lane Craig “Wins” Debates
Plato referred to rhetoric as “the art of winning the soul with words.” I like this definition because it seems to capture one of the most troubling aspects about debates in general. Namely, that the best argument is not always the accepted argument. Recently a philosopher by the name of Dr. William Lane Craig has appeared on the scene as a formidable combatant to the arguments of what popular culture has, rather problematically labelled, the “New Atheist movement.” Now, in both philosophical and scientific argumentation, anytime a point of contention is debated it is always taken as a matter of course that the correct and honest thing to do is attack the most favourable interpretation of your opponent’s argument and avoid the use of fallacies to strategically win over your audience. Recently, William Lane Craig has relinquished this nicety of discourse and taken up the gauntlet of dirty rhetorical tactics upon his opponents in public dialogue, thereby winning his audiences hearts instead of their minds. But what tactics are these that he is employing? In other words, how does Dr. Craig “Win” these debates:
The first tactic you will almost always see Dr. Criag employ is use of the straw man fallacy, or perhaps more apt in this case, the straw men fallacy. Typically, within his introductory speech of any debate Dr. Craig will lay out various arguments and surrepticiously attribute them to his opponent's position. These arguments are carefully crafted and laid out in such a way that Craig can provide nice refutations of them, with the end result being he has refuted his opponent without so much as a word comming out of their mouth. Now, his opponent is left with two options, they can either 1) use up valueable time pointing out why they never advocated these positions attributed to them and other reasons why the arguments presented are inccorect in their interpretation. Or, 2) they can simply refuse to acknolewdge the arguments. Note that this is a lose-lose situation for Craig's opponent and here is why: In the first case they have to spend so much of their limited time correcting Craig's arguments (which usually require a indepth philosophical anlysis) that his opponent does not actually get to present a full thoughtful argument, in which case Craig simply asserts "they have given you no good reason to think [insert debate topic] here is the case." In the second case, because they have not adressed Craig's straw men, Craig can simply assert: "notice my esteemed opponent did not address my [insert one of Craig's straw man arguments here] or my [insert one of Craig's straw man arguments here] or my [insert one of Craig's straw man arguments here]" and so on.
Another stratagem which Dr. Craig is fond of using is to attack the word "Atheist." "Atheism," Craig will charge, "means that you think that God does not exist" and he will frequently challenge his opponent - who just by the vary utterance of the question has been automatically labelled an Atheist - to prove or provide evidence that God does not exist. However, there are a few problems here:
I) People who frequently consider themselves “Atheist” in contemporary society do not mean that they are categorical Atheists in the sense that they believe with 100% certainty that God does not exist. The meaning of Atheist, if the most favourable interpretation is to be given, is something akin to a scepticism about a Personal God. Regardless of the etymology of the word, or even how the word has been interpreted in the past, this is how most so-called “Atheists” prefer to interpret the word. Atheism is essentially just a synonym for “scepticism of a personal God.” Another possible interpretation is “an absence of belief about a personal God,” and belief, it should be understood, is not a knowledge claim. In either case, Mr. Craig is well aware of the use of these interpretations and yet frequently refuses to acknowledge them in debates precisely because he knows that interpreting “Atheist” in the 100% “there is no God absolutely” style gives him an easy tear down argument since it is neither possible to 1) provide a valid deductive proof where the premises cannot be questioned nor 2) provide any inductive evidence for the non-existence of a unfalsifiable entity. Now, should such favourable interpretations as those I have mentioned be given by his opponent, then Dr. Craig will predictably charge: "so that means you are an Agnostic then, doesn't it?" Note the trick being played here by Craig. Agnosticism is the belief that you cannot, in principle, ever know if God really exists. Craig, by labelling his opponent in these ways (e.g. Atheist or Agnostic), is trying to get his opponent to accidentally confess to some kind of absolute certainty and then force him or her to justify it; either a certainty that God does not exist (as the label Atheist implies), or certainty that God is, in principle, not knowable (as the Agnostic label implies, which would force the opponent to acknowledge that God is at least possible). By not interpreting his opponents argument in the most favourable position possible Dr. Craig is resorting to underhanded rhetorical tactics. It is pretty easy to see the game being played here by Dr. Craig.
More often than not, Dr. Craig will also appeal to contemporary versions of the famous proofs of God—i.e. Aquinas’ Unmoved Mover, Uncaused Cause, Cosmological Argument, Argument from Degree, Telelogical (i.e. Design) Argument, and Anslem’s Ontological Argument. The important thing to note about his use of these arguments is that he appeals to only contemporary versions of them, which is usually fine. But there is a problem or two lurking here . . .
I) In a debate setting, to provide a off the cuff refutation of the contemporary versions of these arguments is next-to-impossible, unless you are both well versed in philosophy and know before hand which arguments he is going to use. Neither of which is the case in most of Craig's debates (especially the ones seen on YouTube where he debates Scientists and Journalists).
II) These arguments are frequently presented to an audience and against an opponent who is typically unfamiliar with them and cannot possibly be in a position to thoughtfully assess their presumed validity; thus, when such a person is placed in a situation such as a debate, one is forced to concede they are deductively valid and are indubitable without putting any real thought into the matter. To put it simply, the argument is so complex the opposing side is literally dumbstruck, for lack of a better word. Now if Dr. Craig's arguments were, without doubt, deductively valid then there would be no problem making use of them here. But these are highly contentious arguments within the philosophical domain and Mr. Craig gets a good deal of scholarly criticism about them, criticism which he does not acknowledge in the context of these debates [see link 1 below for a list of articles challenging Dr. Craig's ideas]. But not only is this criticism which he does not acknowledge, it is criticism neither the audience nor his opponent are likely aware even exists. In court this is tantamount to withholding evidence that bears a direct significance on the case.
III) But let’s assume for the sake of argument that all Dr. Craig's “proofs” are deductively valid. This still does not resolve the third and most damming problem with Craig’s use of these arguments, which is that he does not clarify what is meant when he says “God.” When philosophers debate arguments like the Telelogical argument, Ontological Argument, and so on, they do so with the understanding that these arguments apply to God in only the most general way (i.e. as some thing necessary for existence, morals, etc.). These arguments make no claims as to the denomination of God and apply equally well to any God you would like to name, Allah, Vishnu, Mithras, etc. The problem is that Dr. Craig offers these arguments as though they were proofs of a Christian God. Dr. Craig may likely retort that he has never claimed to use these as proof of a Christian God, and it may indeed be the case that he has never claimed this explicitly, but when he goes on Fox news or to a debate at a Bible college, and makes reference to these arguments, his use of the term “God” is always left unqualified and inevitably taken by the audience to mean the Christian God, because indeed that is what he advocates. He never provides the disclaimer to these largely naïve Christian audiences that “when I use these deductive proofs they don’t technically prove a Christian God, just a God in the most mundane sense.”
Another issue with Craig’s arguments is that he is careful never to be drawn into a discussion of Biblical ethics, and in those few scenarios when he is forced into these discussions he commits a red herring by turning the topic towards the idea that objective moral truths cannot exist without God’s existence. Here is the problem though:
I) The Arguments he uses to deductively “prove” the contention that objective moral truths cannot exist without God’s existence are the very same contemporary versions of the famous proofs already mentioned, and thus the very same problems that were applicable before are applicable again.
II) But even more problematic is the fact that these aforementioned arguments are only applicable to a generic God. If one can show, for instance, that the Abrahamic God or religion is immoral then Craig is forced to concede that some other God must be responsible for the objective moral truths (if God truly exists as he claims he has "proven"). This is why in debates, you will frequently encounter Craig saying something to the effect of “scripture is not what is at issue here.” But in reality it is what is at issue. In fact, when Sam Harris pressed him on the issue of Biblical ethics he responded by simply deferring the argument to another apologetic author not present in the debate, which is fine if you are willing to admit that you have no good response, but this is clearly not the case with Craig.
Some other honorable mentions of Dr. Craig’s fallacious rhetoric consist of citing scientific data that has not been peer reviewed, blocking public access to debate transcripts, and claiming historical evidence for Biblical events and people when countless impartial archaeologists, historians, and even theologians acknowledge there simply is none (e.g. evidence of Jesus crucifixition) [See former Anglican Priest Tom Harpur's book The Pagan Christ for a review of the historical basis of Jesus and theological proffessor Robert Price's book Deconstructing Jesus].