In his latest Q & A article, William Lane Craig responds to some questions about debating atheists. Cris says:
[Many atheists] say that the only reason you really have an upper-hand in a majority of the debates is not because your facts are right, but because you are such a great speaker and debater.
Dr. Craig replies:
Boo hoo! Poor atheists! Big, bad Bill Craig has debate training, and that’s why they can’t even mount a decent response to the same five arguments I’ve been putting out there for 20 years!
Seriously, Cris, while debate training (especially knowing how to manage the clock) is undoubtedly a great help in winning a debate, that’s just not a sufficient explanation for the impotence of atheists to offer refutations of these arguments – or to present a case of their own for atheism. Keep in mind that my oral debates are actually a relatively minor part of my work. Most of my work is published by scholarly presses and in peer-reviewed professional journals, where I have been very forthcoming in responding to critics such as Mackie, Grünbaum, Smith, Oppy, Sobel, Morriston, et al.
Dr. Craig is correct. Craig’s dominance in debating technique is not the only reason he wins nearly all his debates.
Dr. Craig also wins his debates because Dr. Craig gives better arguments.
Let me explain what I mean. It might be the case that, for example, none of Craig’s arguments are as ‘good’ as an argument from evil or an argument from reasonable nonbelief, two popular atheistic arguments. However, Dr. Craig’s arguments are almost always stronger than the atheist’s arguments as presented in these debates.
What I mean to say is that because nearly all of Craig’s opponents are apparently oblivious to the philosophical literature on all these arguments, Dr. Craig knows what the best responses to all the atheistic arguments are, and he gives them. In contrast, his opponents do not know the best atheistic responses to Craig’s arguments, nor do they know the strongest formulations for their own arguments.
Let me give you one example. Let’s say the atheist argues that the existence of evil shows there is no God. Dr. Craig replies that “I understand this is an emotional problem, but it need not be an intellectual one, because the existence of evil and of God are not plainly incompatible, and no atheist has been able to supply the additional premises that would be needed to show that they are, indeed, incompatible.”
To anyone familiar with the philosophical literature, it is obvious that Dr. Craig is calling up the work of Alvin Plantinga on the logical problem of evil. If the atheist supplies additional premises, Dr. Craig can show that evil and God are not incompatible merely by proposing a premise of his own:
(P) God has a morally sufficient reason to allow evil.
We need not assume that we would know what God’s morally sufficient reasons are for allowing evil, and if P is even logically possible, then God and evil are not logically incompatible.
This is Problem of Evil 101 stuff, but atheists are oblivious to it.
Now, if the atheist ignores the logical problem of evil and instead gives an evidential argument from evil, then Dr. Craig gives his “we wouldn’t expect to be aware of God’s reasons for permitting evil, so evil doesn’t provide evidence against God” response. This response is known as skeptical theism, and there is a vast literature on it.
The problem is that Dr. Craig is familiar with this literature, and his opponents are not. So the atheist isn’t familiar with the best replies to skeptical theism, but Dr. Craig is.
Likewise, when Dr. Craig presents, for example, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, nobody is more familiar with the literature on this argument than Dr. Craig. So he knows the best way to present it, and he knows the best answers to all the atheist’s skeptical objections. In contrast, the only atheist debater I know of who bothered to actually read the literature on this argument was Wes Morriston, who of course has been debating the argument for years in the philosophical literature. Because all other atheists are woefully ignorant of the argument, they give objections that either misunderstand the argument or are easily countered by Craig.
Another example is the moral argument. Only about 10% of Craig’s opponents have even understood his moral argument God’s existence, so 90% of them have given responses to the argument that are totally irrelevant, and easily dismissed by Dr. Craig.
So however strong these arguments are in the philosophical literature, there is no doubt that Craig’s arguments are always stronger than the atheist’s arguments as they are presented in these debates. Why? Because Craig knows the literature and has the best responses to everything at hand. The atheist is almost always oblivious to the literature on these arguments. The atheist swings blindly in the dark, and only occasionally lands a successful jab on Craig by sheer luck.
Dr. Craig also says:
I read scholarly criticisms of my work, but I tend to ignore popular stuff on the internet, since I figure the internet critics are not likely to say anything of substance that the scholars have missed.
This is a wise choice. My experience agrees with his. When I present theistic arguments on my blog, nearly all the atheistic objections so confidently given in the comments either (1) misunderstand the argument because the commenter hasn’t actually read the relevant articles, (2) are weak objections because the commenter has a poor grasp of the philosophical and scientific issues involved, or (3) are messy repetitions of significant objections that are given with greater strength and precision in existing philosophical articles.
So Craig is quite wise to ignore internet criticism of his work. If you’ve really got such a brilliant new objection to these arguments, why not publish a peer-reviewed article on it? Peer review is an excellent filter that allows people like Dr. Craig to focus his attention on the objections to his work that matter.
This also explains why, when discussing the arguments for and against theism, I doubt there is a single new idea on my entire blog. My main effort is to help myself and others to become aware of the existing philosophical literature on these arguments, so that we can argue more clearly about them. Only when we’ve caught up with the current state of the debate are we in a position to contribute something new to it. And almost nobody who writes on the internet is familiar with the current state of the debate.
I’m reminded of the journalist who asked Einstein: “So, Einstein, what’s new in science?”
Einstein reportedly replied: “Oh, have you caught up with all the old science?”
Dr. Craig Uses My Writing?
Another questioner asks:
Luke Muehlauser from Common Sense Atheism has stated that people should study your debating technique like actors should study Marlon Brando, and I fully agree.
Would you ever consider releasing an instructional manual on the intricacies and more technical aspects of professional debating?
…along with some other questions about debating.
Dr. Craig replies:
I wouldn’t publish a book on debating, but I do occasionally teach a course on debate… I even used some of Luke’s stuff in the class!
Well, I’m flattered, though I’m not sure what Craig is referring to. I haven’t written anything on how to debate, except for obvious stuff like:
- Respond to your opponent’s arguments.
- At the end of each speech, summarize why the debate so far leans in your favor.
- Read the relevant literature before debating.
- Make careful use of the clock.
- Always call it out when your opponent doesn’t respond to an argument you gave.
Dr. Craig goes on to say that Doug Jesseph was his most challenging debate opponent yet. Not surprisingly, Craig later learned that Jesseph was on a college debating team.
Craig also gives some examples of things he has changed his mind about in the past few decades:
- Craig used to think God was only factually necessary (ala Swinburne), now he apparently thinks God is metaphysically necessary.
- Craig used to think the ontological argument failed, but he was persuaded by Plantinga’s formulation of it.
- Craig was unconvinced by Leibniz’s cosmological argument, but he was persuaded by Stephen Davis’ formulation of it.
- Craig was convinced by David Basinger to adopt the middle knowledge position on God’s omniscience.
- Craig used to argue from the existence of abstract objects to God, but now he is attracted to nominalism about abstract objects. [Me too, by the way.]