The Heavens emblazoned on the ceiling of the Sheldonian hovered above us as we settled in to hear Professor William Lane Craig debate with Dawkins’ chair. The atmosphere was jovial, the potential mud slinging over certain bus campaigns did not show its face, and OICCU President Robbie Strachan’s introduction was gracious (if somewhat tongue-in-cheek) in his apology that “unfortunately Dawkins wasn’t able to make it”. In the absence of that illustrious polemicist, Craig faced a panel of three: dry atheist Daniel Came – the man responsible for telling Dawkins that his refusal to debate Craig was “a glaring omission on [his] CV”, no nonsense atheist pharmacologist John Parrington, and the hilarious and bizarre Stephen Priest, whose religious position defies easy definition. Craig also took the liberty of conducting a debate with Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, an enterprise which vaguely resembled playing chess with oneself – but it was, at least, an engaging game.
In conducting both sides of the argument, Craig could have won many cheap points for his own standpoint by pivoting on Dawkins’ more provocative tirades – snippets of that man’s repertoire include “God is… [a] pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” (The God Delusion) and the infamous “sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests [is] not so harmful to the children as the grievous mental harm in bringing up the child Catholic in the first place” (in The Dubliner). Unfortunately for those of us who are on the theist side, the fact that Dawkins is an exceedingly abrasive individual does not by any means preclude him from being right (about the atheism, not the child abuse).
I was therefore pleasantly surprised at the way Craig gave the absent Dawkins a reasoned voice, reading aloud a selection of the more measured and analytical passages from The God Delusion, and debating them as though they were wrong, but not absurd. The panellists proved generally equal to the challenge, even if Dr Came disappointingly displayed none of the wit he had showed in his letter to Dawkins; Parrington was straightforward and succinct if unimaginative, and Stephen Priest put a spanner in the works by frankly sounding like Dr Who (“If you are sufficiently perceptive you can tell that the time is always now”). Craig humorously admitted that when he discovered that if Dawkins was not present he would face three Oxford panellists, he was “hoping Dawkins did show up!”
However, ultimately one question exposed Craig’s alarmingly questionable moral principles: “Dawkins has refused to debate you because (he says) you think genocide could be acceptable in some contexts. Have you ever said anything which warrants this view, and what do you actually think?” He started with the straightforward denial that we expected – “I have not in any way ever said that God commanded, or could command, human genocide”. However, the following ten minute explanation of Numbers 33:50-54 (look it up) did not involve a justification of genocide, merely a justification of the mass displacement of an ethnic group; the kicker at the end was his summary that if this forced displacement did involve killing some Canaanites, well the adults deserved it because they were sinful, and it’s alright because the children went straight to heaven. Seriously?
The widespread applause this statement extracted from the audience was possibly more alarming than the statement itself. Somewhere up in the wings a lone voice was shouting “Boo”; the news editor and I stared gormlessly; the rest of the spectators seemed to find this little speech all fine and dandy. I am a religious person, and as a person of faith (not in spite of it) I was morally repulsed by this analysis, and deeply concerned about the intellectual and moral fibre of the believers who found it commendable.
The only benefit of the doubt that I can possibly extend to Craig (and I am scraping the barrel) is that under pressure he grasped at the nearest explanation for Biblical injustices which came to mind, and would – hopefully will – qualify his extraordinary comments at some later date. I shan’t hold my breath.