Saturday, October 22, 2011

Richard Dawkins and Smoked Fish

     This is a slight deviation from my routine, but I can’t pass up an opportunity to comment on the epic controversial non-exchange of ideas set to not-happen at Oxford, England on the 25th of this month. There, philosopher, theologian, and world-famous Christian apologist William lane Craig has been invited to a public debate with former Oxford professor and world-famous atheist apologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins has for years refused to debate Craig, and has offered numerous reasons for this refusal, the most recent of which seems to be that he finds Craig’s view of the genocide commanded by God in the Old Testament to be morally repugnant. He claims that Craig is an “apologist for genocide” and that he (Dawkins) would rather leave a theatrically poignant empty chair at the Oxford debate than to share a platform with Craig. The organizers of the Craig/Dawkins debate plan to leave an empty chair on the stage in order to give Dawkins a chance, ‘til the final minutes before the debate, to change his mind. Presumably if Dawkins continues to refuse, the chair will remain empty on the stage as a reminder of Dawkins’ absence, and Craig will present prepared criticisms of Dawkins’ book The God Delusion.

       It will be lost on no one who pays attention to the Dawkins/Craig media interest that Dawkins has over the years offered a number of reasons for declining to debate Craig, including that such a debate would not look good on his CV, that he is too busy to debate someone whose “only claim to fame” is that they are a professional debater, that he does not engage creationists, that he does not wish to aid Craig’s “relentless drive for self-promotion,” et. al.  His most recent reason, which is (here I probably diverge from most evangelicals who’ve pushed for this debate) better than his previous ones, is that Craig does not shy away from taking God’s commandments in the Old Testament to kill all the Canaanites literally, and thinks it can be morally justified. Strangely, Craig even muses that the people who suffered the most from this command might be the Israeli soldiers who carried out the killings. Now Dawkins says this: “Any decent bishop, priest, vicar or rabbi would agree [that a good and loving god would not issue such a command].” What Dawkins objects to is, apparently, that Craig tries to defend God’s command. He wonders, “What context could possibly justify [these commands]?” and then states that he will not share a platform or shake hands with someone who, like Craig, could “write stuff like that.”

            I’m sympathetic to Dawkins’ view. I would not wish to share the stage (that is, to be congenially associated with) someone who endorses clearly immoral and morally obnoxious views as though they were good. But now ask it another way. Would I, as someone of moral and intellectual integrity, wish to denounce such views publicly, in a forum which will attract a world audience? Would I wish to take the moral high ground and show clearly and rationally that no context could justify the issuance of such commands? Would I have any self-respect remaining if, rather than loudly and publicly deprecating a view which is degrading to humanity, I boycotted the discussion? If I refused to specify the nature of the wrongness of the view? If I refused to defend my censure of it, preferring to just…assert my censure of it? If I said, in effect, “he holds some silly, dangerous, and wrong views, and I can by no means be expected to show this publicly”?

            I think Dawkins is partially correct: if Craig’s view, rightly understood, is morally repugnant, one should be morally outraged. But what response ought moral outrage to get from us? Surely a decisive public reckoning? Surely we call the offenders publicly to account for their views? Surely we defeat them? Or we could just refuse to give them the oxygen of publicity, and hope their views asphyxiate upon the rocks of our moral superiority? Considering that in many places Christianity is growing, I doubt that Craig’s view will naturally suffer such a demise, so it seems that the task falls to the enlightened secularists of our time to initiate a devastating attack. Which makes it all the more urgent for Dawkins to, in a clear and rational exchange, show that this view is wrong.  

            But strangely, it is not clear that Dawkins is the man to do this. In a recent interview with U.K. radio personality Justin Brierley, Dawkins admits, in essence, that on his moral view, actions like rape are not really wrong since on his view there are no objective moral values. Human beings are the product of an evolutionary process which favored species who hold the view that rape is wrong But Dawkins is now criticizing Craig for holding a view which Dawkins’ own view says is not morally wrong? It seems clear to me that Dawkins’ view is incoherent, since he denies objective moral value, denies that human opinion of objective moral value is necessarily properly calibrated, yet he condemns the commands of God as immoral, and presumably condemns Craig for defending them. Ironically, the worldview in which moral objectivism (which is required to pronounce moral guilt) is most comfortable is theism itself, the very view that Dawkins denies. So even in his refusal to debate Craig, he is inconsistent with his atheism.

            But there is a further problem, it seems to me: he assumes that Craig is wrong to defend God’s commands in the Old Testament. But this assumption properly results from an analysis of divine command ethics, which would no doubt occur in a proper debate, whether written or oral. But this is the sort of interchange which Dawkins just refuses to have. Moreover, his objection relies on the assumption that the moral argument and the ontological argument for the existence of God are false, since he assumes an objective moral standard external to God and by which God could be judged, but if the moral and ontological arguments are correct, it seems that there is no such standard. 


  1. Re: 'Ironically, the worldview in which moral objectivism (which is required to pronounce moral guilt) is most comfortable is theism itself...'

    I would very much like to see the argument for this claim. How, exactly, does a supernatural agency (whatever that amounts to) account for moral facts?

  2. Aaron,

    thank you for your interest. I want to clarify a bit, though. I didn't say that "supernatural agency" accounts for moral facts. I said that the existence of moral facts is most comfortable within a theistic worldview (as opposed to an atheistic one). This is because God is by definition morally perfect, necessarily. God's moral nature cannot fail to be what it is. It is moreover the standard by which moral actions and ideals are measured, and since it is necessary, it is not an arbitrary standard. Furthermore it seems to me that moral fact engender obligations. We feel obligated to behave a certain way as a consequence of perceiving some moral fact. But it is difficult to see how we could be obligated to a non-person; it seems that obligation is owed to persons. This, among other reasons, makes it very plausible to me that a theistic worldview can account for moral facts.
    On the other hand, though, apart from an explanation of how our feelings concerning moral facts might have arisen, I do not see any plausible atheistic accounts of moral facts.