Monday, October 24, 2011

The Empty Chair

Tomorrow in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, the philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig will give a lecture critiquing Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion.  Apparently there will be an empty chair present.  This symbolises the fact that Prof Dawkins was invited to turn this lecture into a debate, and declined.  Foes of Dawkins have made much of this, including an amusing but somewhat triumphalistic bus campaign.

I have some thoughts, naturally.

Firstly, if I were Dawkins I would certainly have turned down this invitation.  If Dawkins debated Craig, he would lose, badly.  It may well be humiliating.  And it would mean nothing at all, in terms of the substantive issues.  Craig is a very good debater; he thinks on his feet, exudes confidence, and runs rings around most other people.  But that doesn't make him right.  The debate format would hardly be likely to be helpful, if by helpful we mean allowing people to investigate the question of whether God does or does not exist.  It would be a tribal exercise.  And on that note, it is worth mentioning that even if Dawkins stood his ground it would just mean that both tribes had something to celebrate - I doubt anyone would change their minds.  I remember reading a couple of different write-ups of a debate between Prof Dawkins and John Lennox, and surprisingly enough the atheist thought Dawkins won and the Christian thought Lennox humiliated him.  Pointless exercise.

Secondly, any debate about the existence of God is likely to be useless at a deeper level.  These sorts of debates are almost inevitably about theism, a concept in which the Bible has no interest.  They also tend to revolve around philosophical arguments, whereas the Scriptural evidence for God's existence is historical rather than philosophical and testimonial rather than argumentative.  I don't think there are any good philosophical arguments for God, but even if there were, what use would it be to demonstrate theism in this way - in a way which is so different to the method which God uses to demonstrate himself?

Thirdly - and this is my real point - the motivation behind this event is shown by the reaction of those on the Christian side.  This could be characterised as triumphalism, smugness, and crowing.  It depresses me.  People seem to have remembered that atheism is a travesty, and forgotten that it is a tragedy.  They seem to have remembered that God triumphs, and forgotten that he does it through the cross.  They seem to have remembered that God's people get glory, and forgotten that they get it by being faithful unto death.  Where is the humility?  Where is the pain over the atheists' ultimate fate?

Anyway, since I've now sounded off in a self-righteous manner, I'm off.


  1. Amen to that Daniel!

    The crowing (which I also am tempted towards!) is deeply un-cruciform. And I'm sure it stems directly from your second point. Perhaps in two ways - First, the debating chamber could only establish or deny the existence of a god who crows and who therefore creates crowing worshippers.

    Second, if we imagine that the vindication of Christ is established in the debating chamber we will be deeply hurt (on behalf of Jesus, we tell ourselves) when we are not seen as intellectually credible. We therefore invest these events with far more significance than they deserve, and then throw all our weight behind our champion (Craig I mean).

    We feel like "Ha! Finally someone has put one over on Dawkins" which only betrays that the rest of the time we feel like Dawkins is winning. But winning what? On what grounds? And how?

    Your call to humility will only be taken up when we believe that Christ is already, self-evidently Lord - and on grounds far surer than the cosmological argument! It seems like if you're going to invest in debating, you're almost bound to invest in crowing.

    (That's not to say that Craig is a "crower". He strikes me as a loving and humble man. I'm talking about the whole enterprise not personalities).

  2. Anonymous4:11 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts Daniel - a helpful nudge to the likes of me when tempted to "crow"...

    However, I would just say that, I've always been extremely thankful for and encouraged by my (limited) experience of Craig's writing, speaking and debating: he is unashamed of pointing people to the historical and testimonial evidence of Jesus and his resurrection, rather than relying ultimately on philosophical arguments for theism.

    Craig is very gifted and extremely sharp when it comes to philosophical arguments, but he knows that, at the end of the day, we each need to reckon with the historical evidence that Jesus is the risen Lord of all.

    I would love to see Dawkins engage with Craig on this, and believe that it would be a wonderful thing for the British public and media to hear.

    [For example - (watch from 3:20)]

  3. Anonymous4:12 pm

    Amen Daniel!

    Nice thoughts on humility and the Cross.

    Jesus is our Alpha and our Omega - not the 'intelligent designer'!


  4. I liked your point about philosophical arguments for God's existence not being that convincing. I really enjoy the sort of debates where Christian thinkers demolish atheist thinkers, but you're right, it is all a bit pointless ad sub-Christian. No one seriously loves Christ because they've been beaten in an argument; I know I didn't come to Him that way.

  5. Anonymous10:18 am

    Beautifully said.