How to deal with the ‘Craig Con’: Part 1

In a debate with religious people on the existence of god, atheists should win easily because all the evidence and arguments are on their side. After millennia of religious effort, what have religious people got to show in support of the existence of god other than vague appeals to the ineffable nature of his being? As Stephen Colbert said in an interview when his guest asserted the ineffability of god, claiming something is ineffable is great because you can say that you are right without having to explain it.

But in real debates, atheists don’t do as well as they should. This is because religious people have the advantage that theology is a static (I would say dead) field and that all its knowledge is really old and well known. Theologians simply keep recycling and reformulating the arguments of Thomas Aquinas or Augustine of Hippo and the like, giving them new labels and terminology that are more consonant with modern science and knowledge. Science, on the other hand, is a dynamic field with new results always coming out in widely diverse fields of study.

Why does this favor the religious debater? The lack of new knowledge in their own field enables them to keep their rear flank secure, so to speak, because the scientist cannot bring out a new and unknown theological argument that contradicts the religious person’s argument. Hence their defenses are solid and well-rehearsed and they are free to always be on the attack.

If the religious person who debates scientists is not too scrupulous, it is quite easy for him or her assert a plausible sounding argument supposedly based on new science and say that it is the result of a scientific or mathematical ‘proof’. They can comb through the scientific literature and find some result that they think will confound the scientist they are debating, and say with a flourish that other scientists have ‘proved’ something that is central to their religious case.

In doing so, the religious debater can take advantage of the fact that while the world of scientific knowledge is vast, any individual scientist works in a narrow field of study and often has just a superficial knowledge of even old knowledge in other areas. Another fact in the religious person’s favor is that scientists tend to be cautious about talking about areas that they know little about and are willing to say so. When confronted with a supposedly new or unknown scientific result, an honest scientist will be forced to concede ignorance, allowing the religious person to claim victory. So the scientist debating the religious person will often be suddenly confronted with some assertion about a theorem that mathematician David Hilbert supposedly proved or some esoteric result from information theory or thermodynamics or cosmology or string theory or probability or evolutionary biology or some other field that he or she knows little about and may not know how to respond.

The scientist cannot pull the same stunt on the religious debater. It is no good telling them that another theologian has shown something new that undermines the case for god because there is nothing new in theology. Theologians know that and even they recognize that theological arguments don’t have the weight of scientific claims and so any inconvenient ones can be ignored.

As a result, to continue the war metaphor, the scientist is like a general who has to defend all directions against attacks from an enemy, while the religionist has the luxury of having to defend only one direction while being able to carefully pick the weakest point of his opponent to attack. Hence the religionist can attack with boldness. The late Duane Gish was renowned for this debating tactic and it earned the title of the ‘Gish Gallop‘. This is why engaging in verbal debates with such religious people can be tricky and it is far better to do so in written form where one has the time to check the other person’s assertions for accuracy.

Theologian William Lane Craig is the modern day sophisticated version of Gish. He too loves to read the popular science literature in order to pick up esoteric bits of knowledge that have impressive names in order to impress people who do not know the science and to cow his debate opponent who may have only a hazy idea of the scientific development he is exploiting. But where Gish’s arguments were crude as was to be expected from a young Earth creationist, Craig’s are more polished as befits the times he lives in and the milieu in which he operates. Where Gish was like a mugger, Craig is the smooth-talking confidence man. In recognition of this, let me give the label of the ‘Craig Con’ to what Craig does and I will discuss it and how to combat it in Part II tomorrow.


  1. jamessweet says

    Hey, about 60% of the way through, I was thinking, “This sounds like a special case of the Gish Gallop.” 🙂

    Will be interested to read what you come up with. For me, one useful weapon — in any kind of discussing where a GG-like tactic might be used — is a mobile phone and excellent googling instincts. With nothing more than a device I keep in my pocket, I can go from “I’ve never heard of that of which you speak” to “I know the general gist of what you are referring to, and although I can’t yet fully vouch for its quality, I can point to a rebuttal of your argument” in about 60 seconds.

  2. left0ver1under says

    The biggest difference between and atheist and a theist in an argument is an atheist is willing to admit error, willing to admit one’s ideas could be wrong, and not claiming absolute certainty. And in doing so, the theist will then claim that certainty “proves” the theist is right.

    It’s like arguing with a spoilt five year old child. You can’t explain reason to them, and they’re so selfish and narcissistic that the rights or views of anyone else is beyond their ability to grasp.

    In any argument or debate I have with a religious type, the first hard and firm rule I set down is “You have to be able to prove your god exists”. But since they can’t and won’t present a verifiable or falsifiable test, their inevitable and feeble retorts fall into one of three categories:

    “You have to have faith.” No, I don’t. They have to have proof.

    “You don’t test god.” No, I’m demanding a test for the existence of one, not the assumption that one exists without proof.

    “You’re insulting my religion/god/beliefs.” Yawn.

    For some reason, they don’t like arguing with me.

  3. says

    Wasn’t familiar with Craig, so I found this video of a debate with Wolpert. To me, Wolpert “loses” the debate simply because of bad debating style. He may very well have been chosen for that exact reason (to make Craig look good). One of his mistakes was something you mention, Mano, which is a sense of obligation to stop fighting with a simple admission of ignorance. I think he really lost it in the final discussion. Wolpert often chose not to comment (a really bad debate technique!). More importantly than that, I view Wolpert as the loser because he mostly tries to dig in his heels rather than trying to educate. He gave a horrible performance in a discussion about what a circular argument is. At one point, he confuses the audience about what he thinks an agnostic really is. He goes as far as to put down agnostics as being too frightened to make a decision. He even tries to put down Craig by saying, ” You’re too frightened to admit you don’t know.” A very lame retort that doesn’t help. At another point, Craig discusses sociobiology and asks, “Why was Hitler objectively wrong?” Wolper simply replied, “Because it killed many people and made people extremely unhappy.” I think that made him look silly because he doesn’t offer more to people who may just not understand his reasoning. In the end, I think he came off as arrogant and incapable of communicating well, neither of which garners respect in a debate.

  4. says

    180 years ago, Dr. Charles Knowlton debated the foremost christian debater of his time, Origen Bacheler on the existence of immaterial beings. Knowlton began his remarks by admitting that although the burden of proof ought to be on the people claiming unseen supernatural entities, this wasn’t the case. “It would seem,” he said, “that I might sit down and rest until my opponent has apparently made out his case.—But you believe, and from your cradles you have believed, that his case is already made out; so there is yet work enough for me to do.”

    Knowlton also said, “From their cradles they may have been trained in error—so thoroughly trained thus, that they have not even that degree of doubt which leads to enquiry. Indeed, they may have been taught to believe that it would be wrong in them to doubt, and is praiseworthy in them to refrain from enquiry…It may be that there is a class of men, generation after generation, who have an interest in inculcating opinions which are in fact erroneous, and to make it part of their business to spay and castrate, as it were, the infant minds throughout the land, before they arrive at the age of reason, that they may be tame and humble followers throughout their lives!”

    How far we’ve come in nearly two centuries!

  5. says

    I’ve blogged a lot – some might say too much – about Craig’s arguments and tactics, and with regard to debates I think there are a few problems.

    Most atheists who debate him don’t seem to take the time to really get to the root of all his arguments. He’s been repeating almost the exact same arguments in almost every debate for some twenty years, and anyone who debates him ought to spend ample time reading up on his writings and various criticisms of his arguments. There’s simply no excuse for not knowing this guy’s arguments inside out and sideways, and being able to explain their problems in simple terms (Craig often operates by trying to confound the audience with complex-sounding sophistry).

    The other issue is that the idea of the “positive” and “negative” positions aren’t generally observed. The atheist makes some kind of thesis of his own, and then they spend most of the debate just talking past each other. I think that’s exactly what happened with Victor Stenger, Hitch, and Sam Harris.

    Finally, the debate format is advantageous to Craig, and he knows it. That’s simply because it’s much easier to make a mess than to clean one up, so for a non-theist to adequately respond to five arguments (his standard) or as in his debate with Alex Rosenberg a full eight, plus outline a thesis of their own with regard to materialism or atheism, is darn near impossible. Craig then claims that his interlocutor failed to respond to this or that – checkmate, atheists! People who debate Craig ought to insist on a more conversational format, as Sam Harris has often used. Craig took this route with Shelly Kagan, and conspicuously didn’t do it again – he lost badly to Kagan.

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