William Lane Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Birmingham and a doctorate in theology from the University of Munich. He is the author of numerous articles in professional journals, the author or editor of over 30 books, and a world-renowned debater. Professor Craig is considered by many to be the preeminent practitioner of Christian apologetics in the English-speaking world today.
TheBestSchools: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, which will focus on a narrow slice of your wide-ranging career, namely, your engagement with atheists. You are a widely read and highly influential philosopher of religion, the author or editor of more than 30 books, and one of the best-known Christian apologists in the world. You are also well known as a formidable opponent of atheists on the debating platform. Could you please tell us about how you first were drawn out of the study and the classroom, and into the arena of public debates with leading atheists?
William Lane Craig: I participated in eight years of high-school and collegiate debate competition. For me, at that time, it wasn’t a ministry, it was just a sort of sport. It was an intellectual sport. I was no good at athletics, but I could represent my schools by being on the debating team. We debated matters of public policy — for example, that the military-assistance program of the United States should be significantly curtailed, and so forth. I never dreamt that someday I would be debating as a ministry.
But after I had finished my doctoral studies and began teaching graduate school, I started getting invitations from campus ministries in Canada to participate in debates with prominent atheist philosophers on subjects like: “Does God exist?” or “Humanism vs. Christianity.” And what I discovered was that whereas a few score might come out and hear me give a lecture, hundreds — even thousands — of students would come out to hear a debate.
And so it became very clear to me that debating was really the forum for doing evangelism on the university campus today. And to my delight, I found that my debating days were not over — that, in fact, I got back into debating, but this time as a ministry activity.
TBS: Over the years, you have engaged in debates with an array of atheist scientists and naturalist philosophers, including such distinguished figures as Peter Atkins, A.C. Grayling, Sam Harris, Kai Nielsen, Quentin Smith, and Michael Tooley. Looking back over your career as a whole, do you think it’s been worth the time and effort? What lessons have you learned from your experience debating these men about the atheist mind set? What have you learned about which apologetic arguments work best, and which not so well, when debating with persons of this caliber?
WLC: Well, it has been fantastically worth the time and effort involved! It has been so much fun, and God has used it so powerfully in the lives of both Christians and non-Christians alike. Many of these debates now are on the Internet, on YouTube, where they have received literally millions of views from people around the world. And we get email correspondence all the time at our web site, ReasonableFaith.org, from people expressing gratitude for the impact that these debates have had in their lives.
Too many nonbelievers and believers alike have been under the false impression that there are no good reasons for believing that Christianity is true, and they certainly did not think that a Christian could stand and go toe-to-toe with top academic scholars in various fields in a university-debate context. And so these debates have been just tremendously powerful in impacting the lives of people who see them. So it’s been more than worth the time and the effort, besides being a great deal of fun for me!
In terms of lessons that I’ve learned, I guess I would say that what I’ve learned is that these debates can be very powerful in influencing students who are opened-minded and searching for God, who are in the audience. The debate is not intended to reach or persuade the opponent. Anybody who gets up in front of hundreds or thousands of people and denounces God or Jesus Christ isn’t going to change his mind in the space of an hour and a half. But the debate isn’t really targeting that person. It’s targeting that open-minded seeker in the audience who is looking for meaning and purpose in life. And I’ve learned that these debates can be very effective in reaching that type of person.
In terms of which arguments work the best, I guess I would say that all of them work very well in terms of the debate context. My opponents do not do very well in responding to any of the arguments, frankly. In terms of working well with the audience, I find that students really resonate, I think, most with the moral argument, because this has such deep existential importance for them. Every day that you wake up, you answer the question: Am I going to treat other persons as intrinsically valuable, as having objective moral worth, or am I going to treat people as though moral values and duties are simply the product of my subjective opinion, or evolutionary programming that I’m not bound to go along with? So the moral argument, I think, is the most effective with students. My own personal favorite is the cosmological argument, but I think that is more easily ignored by determined skeptics because it doesn’t strike existentially as deep.
TBS: We recently published an interview with Richard Carrier, a young atheist historian and philosopher who is a prolific debater himself, as well as an author and blogger. You debated Carrier in 2009 on the subject of the resurrection. [See video, below.] In our interview, he charges you with using some underhanded debating tactics. Specifically, he claims you ignored many of his main points, put out a scattershot of rebuttal points that he would not have time to address, and “poisoned the well” by unfairly ridiculing some of his writings, thus accusing you of an ad hominem argument. How do you respond to these charges?
WLC: Well, I think that what Richard Carrier said in the interview is partly true. He says: “Craig spent most of his time rattling off a long series of rebuttals to things I had written elsewhere but had not mentioned in the debate. As a result, most of what he said would have been mysterious to the audience who, unlike Craig, won’t have read my writings and thus didn’t know what he was talking about half the time.”
I think that is largely true. And the reason is because I made a very deliberate decision to aim at a quite different audience than the one that was gathered in the auditorium that evening. Namely, the audience that I was aiming to reach was the thousands and thousands of people who would later view and study this debate online. And therefore, my tactic was not, as Richard Carrier thinks, trying to spread him thin by bringing up so many arguments; rather, my purpose was clearly educational. It was to educate that wider audience about how intellectually indefensible so many of Richard Carrier’s positions are. And that’s why I did not simply respond to his major contentions in the debate. I did respond to those, but I went beyond that. I presented what I took to be a devastating critique of his arguments for skepticism about Jesus’s resurrection that are offered in his published work. I wanted to show this wider audience that Carrier’s views are extremist and represent, just as I said, crank exegesis, and therefore are not to be trusted.
And I did that because Richard Carrier has been a very influential figure in the Internet Infidel community who look to him as a leader for skepticism and atheism, particularly with respect to the resurrection of Jesus. And I wanted to expose just how untenable his skeptical critique really is.
TBS: It is widely reported that between 70 and 80 percent of young people raised in evangelical churches leave their faith behind once they go off to college. To what extent do you see this “falling away” as a consequence of churches and seminaries having abandoned apologetics? How effective can apologetics be at reversing the spread of atheism? How do you explain a John Loftus, who on his Free Thought Blog characterizes himself as a “former Christian minister and apologist” who was a student of yours at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School? He is now an atheist. Why didn’t apologetics take, with him?
WLC: Well, if you read the testimonies of persons who have fallen away from the faith, and especially those who have then come back as a result of reading materials such as is on our website, they will often say that the reason they fell away was because they just couldn’t handle the doubts anymore — that they had intellectual questions and objections to Christian faith that no one could answer. And so, while it’s impossible to quantify, I think — from their own testimony — the absence of having been provided a good intellectual foundation for Christian belief in the lives of Christian teenagers has been a very important influence in leading to this falling away that you described. And I believe that apologetics can be very effective in helping to reverse this trend.
In fact, I have to say, we have been so thrilled by the number of emails coming into our web site from people who are coming back in the opposite direction — coming out of atheism, out of agnosticism, to a commitment to Christ, and in many cases a recommitment to Christ after a temporary lapse. We are seeing, I think, a reversal of momentum starting to happen. It is no longer a drain out of Christianity into atheism. We’re starting to see a strong reverse-current coming back the other way. So I am tremendously encouraged by what can happen and what is happening, I think, through this revival of apologetics that is going on in our day among the laity in churches.
Now apologetics alone isn’t going to do the job. We also need a deep spiritual and moral commitment to Christ, and the case of John Loftus illustrates this. John, in his own reverse-testimony, so to speak, explains what led him to fall away from Christ. It wasn’t intellectual objections; it was adultery and pornography addiction. And he felt that when he fell into these and needed the support and help of the Christian community, Christians didn’t rally around him. The people in his church didn’t support him in the way that he needed, and this led to bitterness and anger and his eventual walking away from Christianity. So in this case there are clear, self-confessed moral and spiritual problems that lie at the root of unbelief, and not simply intellectual difficulties.
TBS: You have just returned from a very successful tour of the U.K., where you participated in nearly a dozen lectures and debates. Even so, the most famous atheist you were to debate — evolutionary biologist and bestselling author, Richard Dawkins — was a no-show. In a public statement that got a lot of web play, Dawkins claimed he did not want to debate with you because you refuse to distance yourself from God, who in the Book of Deuteronomy orders the destruction of the Canaanites, which Dawkins termed “genocide.” In hindsight, what do you make of this episode?
WLC: Well, in hindsight I have to say that Dawkins’ attacks in The Guardian and elsewhere turned out to be the best publicity for the event at the Sheldonian Theatre [at Oxford University — ed.] that we could have possibly made up! [See video, below.] His reaction was so counterproductive, from his point of view. Other atheists in the blogosphere and also in The Guardian roundly condemned him for what were clearly manufactured pseudo-reasons for not participating in the debate with me. So the whole fiasco just proved to be a boon to the public profile of the lecture that I gave in the Sheldonian Theatre, which was responded to by three other Oxford faculty, who apparently didn’t share Richard Dawkins’ reservations about being on the platform with me. So it really was very helpful to our outreach!
TBS: How big a threat is the New Atheism, and a threat to whom and against what? What does debating and refuting atheism accomplish? Is the New Atheism a significant problem or is it symptomatic of a deeper problem, and if so, what? How do you counsel younger scholars who would follow in your footsteps to try to unseat atheism?
WLC: I think it’s very important that readers understand that the so-called New Atheism is not an intellectual, academic movement of scholarship. This is a pop-cultural movement. It is taking place on the popular level and is going in a direction that is quite opposite to the tide that is going on in academia, where Christianity — especially in my field of philosophy — is experiencing a tremendous renaissance.
Having said that, however, it does seem to me that the New Atheism does represent a very significant trend in pop culture, and one that I think is probably unlikely to be reversed anytime soon. Richard Dawkins has said that his goal is to raise the profile of atheism in such a way that it is no longer shameful to be publicly an atheist, and it seems to me that he has achieved that goal. Many people now are quite willing to come out and embrace atheism, whereas before to do so would have been a mark of shame or embarrassment. So it does seem to me that they have been successful in changing popular culture, and that’s unlikely to be reversed at any time in the near future.
However, I do see this broader or deeper trend of a renaissance of Christian scholarship as, in the long run, more important. It will have a trickle-down effect to the popular culture that we’re already beginning to see, I think, in the tremendous hunger for training in apologetics that we’re seeing in our churches among the laity.
And so my advice to younger scholars would be to do first-rate work in your scholarly discipline. Show the atheist scholars that you can beat them at their own game — that we are better scholars, we are better historians, better philosophers, better scientists than they are — and we do it from a Christian world and life point of view. And I think that ultimately this will have the more significant long-term effect upon our culture.