The refusal of Richard Dawkins to debate William Lane Craig has attracted criticism from other atheists, one of whom has said it is "Apt to be interpreted as cowardice".

Dawkins Refuses God-Debate

"Apt to be interpreted as cowardice", says Oxford academic

Richard Dawkins, outspoken atheist and critic of religion, may be losing his nerve. He has just refused four British invitations to publicly debate with eminent philosopher William Lane Craig when he visits the UK this October. The requests came from The British Humanist Association, The Cambridge Debating Union, the Oxford Christian Union and Premier Radio.

William Lane Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, California and is arguably the world’s foremost defender of historic Christianity. He has debated with many leading atheists and academics across the world, including Peter Atkins, Daniel Dennett, Anthony Flew, A.C. Grayling, Christopher Hitchens, Lewis Wolpert and most recently, Sam Harris.

Dawkin’s refusal to debate Craig has led Oxford University philosopher Dr Daniel Came to write to Dawkins urging him to reconsider, saying his refusal to do so is “apt to be interpreted as cowardice on your part.”

Craig, however, throws down the gauntlet, saying “I am keeping the opportunity open for him to change his mind and debate with me in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford at 7.30pm on 25th October.”

Dawkins has claimed, “As for religion … nobody wields a sharper bayonet than Sam Harris.” Harris debated Craig on 7th April. In his opening statement in that debate, Harris declared that Dr Craig is “the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists.” After that debate, the atheist website Debunking Christianity reported: “Bill (Craig) has once again showed himself as the best debater of this generation.”

Following the debate with Christopher Hitchens in 2009, the website, Common Sense Atheism commented: “Craig was flawless and unstoppable. Hitchens was rambling and incoherent. Frankly, Craig spanked Hitchens like a foolish child.”

Dawkins' Reasons

So what reasons does Dawkins offer for refusing to debate Craig? He gives six:

Firstly, he says that Craig is a professional debater and that is his “only claim to fame”. In fact, Craig is a highly distinguished academic with doctorates in both Philosophy and Theology. He has published more than thirty books and nearly 200 papers in peer-reviewed, academic journals.

Secondly, he says Craig is a Creationist. This term is usually applied to Young Earth Creationists, who take a literalistic view of the 6 days of creation as recorded in Genesis. Craig is definitely not a creationist in that sense. Rather, in accordance with standard Big Bang cosmology, Craig asserts that the universe had a beginning 13.7 billion years ago. He argues that the universe is therefore finite in the past and requires a first cause. It is therefore wholly inaccurate to describe Craig as a creationist in the standard sense of that term.

Thirdly, Dawkins says that Craig is not a senior churchman and that he will not debate a religious person less senior than a Cardinal or a Bishop. However, most senior churchmen are not distinguished academics. Few have done research in secular universities or have gained doctorates, either in science, philosophy or theology. Professor Craig therefore is a much more rigorous opponent. Dawkins has in fact previously debated with other Christian academics, namely John Lennox and Alister McGrath.

Fourthly, he claims it would look good on Craig’s CV but would not look good on his own. As Oxford University philosopher Dr. Daniel Came has stated, his failure to debate with “the foremost apologist of Christian theism” has become a glaring omission on Dawkins’ own CV (see text of letter below).

Fifthly, he claims to have already debated with Craig in Mexico in 2010. However, in various respects this event did not conform to the standard model of academic debating. First, both Dawkins and Craig were members of a six man panel, and the unconventional format allowed little scope for a full exchange of views. In addition, there was no allotted time for cross examination or opportunity to question opponents or be questioned by them. Ironically, Dawkins himself said to Craig at the time that he did not consider this to be a debate between them. He can’t have it both ways.

Finally, he states “I have no interest in this.” This is surprising. He has made a fortune from his book, The God Delusion, and continues to promote his aggressive atheism but is not interested in exchanging views with a serious academic who wants to challenge his arguments in public.

None of these reasons is remotely credible. In refusing to engage in debate with Craig, Dawkins is breaking some of his own 10 Commandments. These include:

Never cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you. Always seek to learn something new. Teach your children how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence and how to disagree with you. Treat your fellow human beings with respect.; The God Delusion, pp.264-5

Perhaps Professor Dawkins will change his mind and accept Craig’s invitation to debate. Whether or not he does, Craig will be using his UK tour to expose The God Delusion to critical analysis and to present strong rational grounds for belief in God. His UK tour will include a London conference on the defence of Christianity and a debate in Manchester with atheist Peter Atkins, Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, on the existence of God.

On Tuesday 26th October at 7.30pm, Professor Craig is booked to give a public lecture on Dawkins’ critique of the arguments for God’s existence at Oxford University’s Sheldonian Theatre. If Professor Dawkins changes his mind, Dr Craig extends a warm invitation to him to debate the existence of God on that evening.


Letter from Richard Dawkins to Dr. May on 15 January 2007

Dear Mr May

Far be it from me to quote a distinguished scientific colleague who, when challenged to a debate by a religious spokesman of whom he has never heard, is in the habit of replying: "That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine." I don't know who your William Craig is, but maybe you'd have better luck with an Archbishop or a Cardinal? I'm afraid my answer is no.

Yours sincerely
Richard Dawkins

Letter from Dr Came to Richard Dawkins on 26 February 2011

Dear Professor Dawkins,

I write as an atheist and in reference to your refusal to participate in a one-to-one debate with the philosopher William Lane Craig.

You dismiss Professor Craig as a ‘professional debater’ and state that you are not willing to debate anyone less senior than a bishop. Professor Craig has a PhD in philosophy and a PhD in theology. He is Research Professor in Philosophy at Talbot University. He has published more than thirty books and over a hundred papers in reputable peer-reviewed journals. Given your passionate and unconditional commitment to truth, I can only think that you were not aware of Professor Craig’s credentials when you made the above reference.

I understand that you have also commented that ‘a debate with Professor Craig might look good on his CV but it would not look good on mine’. On the contrary, the absence of a debate with the foremost apologist for Christian theism is a glaring omission on your CV and is of course apt to be interpreted as cowardice on your part. I notice that, by contrast, you are happy to discuss theological matters with television and radio presenters and other intellectual heavyweights like Pastor Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals and Pastor Keenan Roberts of the Colorado Hell House.

While I have your attention, may I also urge you to take another look at the ontological argument for the existence of God? On the basis of your brief discussion of the argument in The God Delusion, it appears you do not understand the logic of this argument. The ontological argument moves from the logical possibility of God’s existence to its actuality. Douglas Gasking’s parody of the argument, which you cite, moves from a logical impossibility to actuality and so is not parallel to the argument. In addition, you do not discuss the more sophisticated modal version of the argument advanced by the American philosopher of religion, Alvin Plantinga. Admittedly, you do say that some philosophers ‘resort to modal logic’ in an attempt to prove the existence of God. But this is a bit like saying ‘some botanists resort to looking at plants’ and so can hardly be said to constitute an objection to the argument.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Daniel Came,
Lecturer in Philosophy, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford

“I have no interest in this.” Richard Dawkins, 11th April 2011
This is the full text of his reply to the CEO of Premier Radio in declining an invitation to debate Craig before an audience of 2000 people in Westminster Central Hall.

William Lane Craig is Christianity's #1 living apologist. Wake up, fellow Atheists … and see clearly what … is happening here. If we expect Christians to be honest about anything, we as a group need to be honest as well, and honestly face the fact that Craig is kicking our collective (butt) and we're apparently too dumb (as a group) to even know it!

Mark Smith, Contra Craig Website

Related website links

For various YouTube clips related to Craig's previous debates, go to William Lane Craig Debate Samples.

For more information on Bill Craig's background and publications, as well as a fuller list of his debates with links to the full audio and / or video, go to Who is William Lane Craig?

© 2011
This article is based on the first Press Release issued by the Reasonable Faith Tour 2011.