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#189 Dawkins Debate

November 29, 2010

Dear Dr Craig,

Well done you for going through that horrendous charade in Mexico and staying professional! You must have been cringing at all the needless technology and effects - not to mention the whole "boxing" theme! You kept your focus and integrity, however, and for that I applaud you.

And you finally had the chance to interact (a little bit) with Dawkins! What a superficial and unphilosophical person! His entire opening speech was literally one giant genetic fallacy (apart from when he was being directly insulting to your side). In fact the entire atheist side seemed completely unwilling to even question what their ultimate foundation was for "progress" and "purpose" - but perfectly happy to abuse their short speaking slots for jibes and sound bites.

So, two questions, both of which are related:

1) Why is Steven Pinker wrong to calculate world peace based upon the percentage of the population? I have a friend who read your newsletter and he thinks Pinker's doing exactly the right thing. He says: "when Pinker is working with percentages that is exactly what he should be doing. If less people, per person, are being killed then it is more peaceful."

2) More generally, why do you think so many atheists/naturalists/humanists are committed to the view that the world and humanity is getting better? Is this a recent trend compared to, maybe, the "great" atheists of a century ago who recognized the nihilism and despair atheism implied?

How do you explain this elevated faith in human nature and utopianism which is often associated with the face of contemporary atheism? In fact, do you think there's even a correlation between atheistic optimism and arrogance, the likes of which we saw in that debate?

How are we to deal with this without engaging in a "boxing" match of our own?

Brilliant work again, Dr Craig.

muchas gracias! wink


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Dr. craig’s response


From our past interaction I know you to be an objective observer, Peter, and so I’m gratified by your encouraging words. It was certainly a wild event!

Believe it or not, the format initially given us was even worse: four minute opening statements, two minute rebuttals, and one minute closing statements! You can imagine how difficult it is to prepare something of substance for just four minutes. As it turned out, the two minutes which Prof. Roemer, the organizer, added to the openers just prior to the debate really helped me tremendously. I was able to add the brief which Doug Geivett had prepared on the problem of evil, which Riddley raised in his opening speech, and to at least list my five arguments for theism, neither of which I would have been able to do in a four minute opener. That enabled me to frame clearly the grounds of the debate. Although I was sceptical that anything could be done in such short speeches, I was pretty happy with the end result. The debate was pithy, brisk, and focused as a result.

I asked Prof. Roemer where he got that boxing ring, and he said, “I bought it!” Apparently it was used at last year’s conference and is a fixture for the debates. Roemer made it clear that he wanted a polite and academic exchange, not a slugfest, despite the accoutrements. The funny thing is that the ring proved somewhat appropriate because our debate was aired on Mexican national television that evening following the celebrated Pacquiao/Margarito bout!

I’m glad that you saw through the atheistic posturing and rhetoric. I think the most appalling thing Dawkins said was that these “why” questions are “silly questions.” Such philosophical questions are not only interesting and important in themselves, but may be vital. For just suppose that the atheist is wrong. Suppose God does exist. Then one will have missed the purpose of life which God intended, the ultimate tragedy, all because—as Sean Stephenson pointed out—one is so arrogant as to dismiss the possibility that the universe has a purpose as a “silly question” not even worth exploring.

Your two questions are related to the utopianism which, as described in our newsletter, characterized much of the conference. Pinker’s claim that the world is becoming less and less violent goes to prove the old adage that you can use statistics to prove anything. I’m just pleading for a little balance here. If you were to plot a curve of the number of people killed or injured in war and civil conflicts per century, we would be horrified by the steeply accumulating numbers. It is only because the world’s population is exploding even faster that the percentage declines relative to the world’s population. That this is not the best way to assess mankind’s progress is evident by asking yourself the following question: Would you consider it progress if the 21st century were also characterized by a world war between 2014-18 that claimed even more lives than World War I, and that between 2039-2045 there were to occur another, even broader world war that took away more lives than World War II and ended in a nuclear exchange that destroyed, say, New York City and Los Angeles, even though these population losses were more than outbalanced by the continual explosion of the populations of Mexico City, Calcutta, and Delhi, and that these conflagrations were followed by more wars even more costly than Korea, Vietnam, and the Iraq/Iran war, plus continued millions of losses though Third World conflicts, even though, due to the burgeoning populations of countries like India, China, and Bangladesh, the percentage of the world’s population killed was actually lower than in the 20th century? Would we really consider that to be progress?

As to your second question, I have never before encountered this optimistic utopianism. I thought that naive optimism about the inevitability of human progress ended with the nineteenth century. So I’m rather stunned by this. Do you sense a trend in this direction? Certainly in popular culture the vision of the future is much bleaker: Hollywood films always portray the future as a grim world taken over by the machines or devastated by nuclear war and under the control of some evil power. Are non-theist academics whistling in the dark?

Or is there a flawed anthropology at work here? Christians take seriously the depravity and fallenness of man. Do atheists have a naive view of man’s perfectibility? Having been tutored by books like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, I have a rather more sinister view of human nature.

In any case, I think it better to avoid arguing about such side issues with an unbeliever and to focus instead on his personal need of moral rehabilitation and forgiveness. It’s easy and enjoyable to argue about such a neutral topic as human progress in general, but much more difficult to deny one’s own moral failings and guilt.

- William Lane Craig