‘New Atheism’ – to annex the term glibly used to describe the age-old intellectual movement rooted in the traditions of Lucretius, Socrates, Spinoza and Hume, inter multa alia – has come in for a spot of abuse this week, resulting from the latest round in the battle of egos between Richard Dawkins and the Christian apologist William Lane Craig. I won’t insult my reader by explaining who the former is, but for those unfamiliar with the latter, Craig is something of a hero in the online Christian community, lionised as their most formidable answer to the atheist heavyweights Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, et al. – a status enhanced to the point of near-mythology by Dawkins’ repeated refusal to debate him.
Previously, Dawkins explained this refusal on the grounds that he does not, as a matter of policy, debate “creationists” or “people whose only claim to fame is that they are professional debaters”. Then, following yet another taunting by Craig earlier this year, he published an article in last Thursday’s Guardian (‘Why I refuse to debate with William Lane Craig’) elaborating that Craig was a “deplorable apologist for genocide”, referring to Craig’s defence of God’s ordering the Israelites to exterminate the men, women and children of the various tribes encountered on the road to the biblical Land of Israel (Deuteronomy 20). These points may be valid, and it is of course Dawkins’ right to debate whoever he wants, yet one can’t help noting that other atheists of stature, including Hitchens and Harris, did not consider the sharing of a podium with Craig to be beneath them in the same way.
And so it was perhaps inevitable that certain journalists would interpret Dawkins’ evasions as common cowardice. Within days, the Guardian ran a response from one Daniel Came (‘Richard Dawkins’ refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist’), who said it was “no surprise that Dawkins and [A.C.] Grayling aren’t exactly queuing up to enter a public forum with an intellectually rigorous theist like Craig to have their views dissected and the inadequacy of their arguments exposed”. Peter Hitchens, the Christian brother of Christopher, sneered in his Daily Mail column (‘An Evening without Richard Dawkins’) that while a “serious Atheist philosopher would be able to give [Craig] a run for his money, [Dawkins] would have been embarrassingly out of his depth” had he turned up on the night. And Tim Stanley, an Oxford historian (who I cannot stop myself from adding is writing a biography of Pat Buchanan), penned an article in the Telegraph bluntly titled, ‘Richard Dawkins is either a fool or a coward for refusing to debate William Lane Craig’, in which he posited that “this time, [Dawkins] understood that he was up against a pro [...] Like Jonah, he was confronted by the truth and he ran away”.
This is tiresome, of course, for Craig is anything but intimidating. He is, instead, a crackpot and a homophobe, on a level comparable with the most fanatical televangelist or Tea Party zealot. In his debate with (Christopher) Hitchens, he proclaimed the literal truth of every letter of scripture, professing belief not just in the more quotidian miracles of the virgin birth and the resurrection but also in the occult arcana of demons, exorcisms and black magic. And in a podcast hosted on his website, he embarked on a loathsome crusade against homosexuality; describing it as “immoral”; “blasphemous”; “incredibly dangerous” and “extremely self-destructive”. To these slurs he added comparisons of homosexuality with both drug addiction and biological deformity:
If [homosexuality] is genetically based, then it's akin to a birth defect, it's like being born with a cleft palate.
To encourage a person to embark on a homosexual lifestyle is like encouraging somebody to start chain-smoking, or mainlining heroin - it's that dangerous.
If there were ever a good reason not to debate Craig, it would be to prevent the lending of legitimacy to disgusting bigotry of this kind. But let us have no fear of confrontation. If so many Christians are prepared to join ranks with this odious man – and so many ostensibly reputable columnists are prepared to defend him in print – then evidently he does need to be debated in public, and denounced and defeated as comprehensively as possible. If Dawkins is unwilling to do this, let it be made known to Craig that there are many others – present company included – ready to take his place.