In The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins explained the reason for his refusal to engage in debates where the participants were not sincere in their advocacy of the issues:
It's an excellent position, but Dawkins has not been consistent in his policy on debating since then. The most egregious example has been his refusal to Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig. Craig is an expert debater, but unlike the special creationists whom Dawkins rightly regards with disdain, he is a recognised philosopher and theologian, with two doctorates and a number of academic publications. New Zealand philosopher Matt Flannagan notes that:
I had come a long way to perform the disagreeable task of public speaking, because I believed in the truth of the motion that I had been asked to propose. When I discovered that members of the society were using the motion as a vehicle for playing arguing games, I resolved to decline future invitations from debating societies that encourage insincere advocacy on issues where scientific truth is at stake.
While WLC is a professional debater, leading to claims that his vaunted success over atheists in debates owed more to his debating skill rather than the quality of his arguments, Dawkins' reasons for refusing to debate WLC, as Flannagan notes don't withstand scrutiny.
Craig’s visit to the UK attracted media attention when Richard Dawkins, author of the best selling “God Delusion”, publically and resolutely refused to debate him. Dawkins publically stated earlier of his critics that “he did not care” who they were, he would “dialogue” with them and “win the argument”. He also had publically debated numerous critics significantly less qualified than Craig, notably Ted Haggard. These facts, alongside Dawkins implausible and inconsistent reasons lead to accusations of cowardice and hypocrisy from other academics such as Daniel Came a philosophy professor at St Hugh’s College Oxford.
The first is that Dawkins has expressed reservations about WLCs status as a philosopher. Flannagan notes dryly:
The second problem with Dawkins' position is the hypocrisy inherent in his claim that WLC is 'morally unfit' to debate. Flannagan again:
Dawkins concern about Craig’s alleged lack of scholarly credentials also seems odd seeing that he (Dawkins) had earlier accepted an invitation to debate actor Kirk Cameron. Apparently, having two PhD’s, authoring over 100 papers, and writing 30 books on a topic makes you unqualified to speak on it but being the star of the 80′s TV series “Growing Pains” does qualify you. It’s also ironic that Dawkins would accuse Craig of lacking scholarly credentials on the matter given that he (Dawkins) is a biologist and not a philosopher of religion.
A charitable interpretation of Dawkins' position is that he's grossly misrepresented WLC. I'm not a fan of Divine Command theory, but Dawkins has arguably attacked a parody of WLC. It's hard to take him seriously as a credible figure on philosophy and theology when he pulls such stunts as this.
To substantiate this he cites not from any of Craig’s scholarly writings. But two blog posts Craig had written on with the conquest of Canaan. At face value the early chapters of the book of Joshua portrays God as commanding the killing of every man women and child in Canaan. I say “appears”, here because latter sections of the book of Joshua and its sequel in judges proceed on the assumption this never occurred, and studies into ancient conquest accounts of this genre have noted the widespread use of literary hyperbole whereby victories are described in sweeping rhetoric of killing absolutely everyone when in reality they were nothing of the sort.
As it happens Craig does not take these accounts at face value. While he rejects a hyperbolic reading, he suggests the commands are best understood as a command to destroy the nations as a collective group, not to destroy every individual. The command, on Craig’s view, is a command to drive the inhabitants out of the land (land to which the Israelites had legal title), with only the die-hard occupants who refused to leave being killed. Moreover, Craig expresses scepticism that women and children were remaining at the time of the attack.
In one place however, Craig granted the face value reading for the sake of argument and argued that even if one accepts this, one can still coherently claim that a loving and just God could have issued the commands in question. While a loving and just God would, in normal circumstances, condemn killing of the innocent, in highly unusual rare circumstances a loving and just being could, for the sake of some greater good, permit or command such killing. Craig is clear that he is talking about rare, highly unusual circumstances where killing brings about some greater good. Moreover, Craig believes that with the exception of a couple of incidents recorded in the bible, God has not ever issued such commands, and we should be extremely sceptical of any claim that he has today.
In the Guardian, Dawkins takes the position Craig adopted for the sake of argument as Craig’s actual view, and issued a vitriolic attack on Craig. Dawkins asks? “Would you shake hands with a man who could write stuff like that? Would you share a platform with him? I wouldn’t, and I won’t. Even if I were not engaged to be in London on the day in question, I would be proud to leave that chair in Oxford eloquently empty.”
Dawkins however appears to have a strange view of morality, as evidenced by his praise for controversial Australian philosopher Peter Singer, whose utilitarian views extend to justifying infanticide under certain conditions:
If one applies the same metric to judge both Singer and WLC, it's hard to see how one can call WLC morally unfit, and not tar Singer with the same brush. At best, Dawkins' position is inconsistent. One could be forgiven for thinking that his refusal to debate WLC and willingness to praise Singer is hypocritical. As Flannagan notes:
In a documentary he hosted entitled “the Genius of Darwin” on UK’s channel four, Dawkins interviewed Princeton Philosopher Peter Singer. Dawkins opened the interview by stating that Singer was “one of the most moral people in the world”, and that he “certainly [had] the one of most logically thought out ethical position in world.”
The irony of this is that Singer is (in)famous for his advocacy of infanticide: the killing of newborn infants. In his book Practical Ethics, Singer has argued that atheism and Darwinism lead to the conclusion that human infants have no greater moral standing than that of other animals such as pigs or cows. He concludes that the only reason it’s wrong to kill an infant is that doing so upsets the parents or other people in society who desire that it lives. If an infant is disabled, so that its parents do not want it, killing it is permissible. Singer does not limit his conclusion to the severely disabled. He goes so far as to argue that even moderately disabled children can be killed provided that the parents replace the child by having another healthy one. Doing so brings about greater happiness in the world and hence a greater good.
Dawkins, I suspect, realises that not only will his philosophical naivete be exposed by Craig, but he'll be eaten alive and made to look a fool in the process. It's easier to glory over has-been TV actors, I guess.
It’s hard to see how this difference makes Craig “morally unfit” to shake his hand while Singer is one of the most “moral people in the world” worth fawning over on UK TV. It makes about as much sense as the claim that a distinguished philosopher of religion is not academically qualified to debate philosophy of religion, while a famous teen heart throb from an 80’s sitcom is.