|William Lane Craig, or 'Bill' to his mates.|
William Lane Craig is a Professor of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He is best known for his 'Christian apologetics', which has led him into combat with some of the world's most famous atheists and agnostics. However, he has become a much maligned figure in the public eye recently, and I have a few words to say in his defence.
Craig is often mischaracterized, usually by his ideological opponents, so it is necessary to take a few lines to detail what he has actually acheived in philosophy, and what sort of reputation he enjoys. Craig is an important figure in the philosophy of time (check back for more posts on this fascinating subject), where he has made notable contributions to defending ‘presentism’, a theory of time which holds that there is an objective present moment, and that past and future events do not exist. In fact, he has been important in the resurrection of this intuitive but philosophically problematic position, which appeared to have died a death around about about the 1960s. The problems associated with presentism do nothing to discredit Craig’s contribution to the theory, nor his detailed and wide-ranging critical studies of the two major theories of time, the A- and B-theories. (Presentism is a variant on the former).
As far as I am concerned, the above considerations do more than enough to anchor Craig’s position as a prominent figure in academic philosophy. However, when we move to religion, things get a little more hazy. Craig’s early approach to the philosophy of religion was a strictly academic one, and his book ‘The Kalam Cosmological Argument’ is still regarded as a leading work on that particular argument for God’s existence; so far, so good. On paper, Craig is also theologically credible, having studied under two of the most important theologians of the last 100 years - John Hick and Wolfhart Pannenberg. However, more recently, Craig has turned his attention to Christian apologetics, the defense of faith, and as such has come under fire. His ‘pastoral’ mission includes touring the Middle East with followers, writing self-help style books aimed at everyday Christians looking to defend their personal belief, and pursuing an obsessive debating schedule with just about every famous atheist and agnostic academic in existence. In aid of these aims, his promotional machine is a powerful force, pushing such debates in a manner that might be described as a little aggressive. Dawkins et al have taken pains to discredit Craig on these grounds, dismissing him as ‘a theologian’ (a term of abuse in Dawkins’ language), and ‘a professional debater.’
It’s sad that such criticisms conveniently seek to ignore Craig’s well-earned academic credentials, and the startling length of his list of publications (though quantity of work does not, alas, entail quality). Also frequently maligned is Craig’s debating style, which is sharp, sometimes rhetorical and verbally forceful; amusingly, he appears to have learned his lines well, since the content of his opening speech on anything God-related has remained identical for over 30 years (see the vast list of Craig’s videos on youtube). His opponents unfairly level the charge that Craig’s arguments take the form of logical trickery, designed to confuse and obscure to his popular but not intellectual advantage. But this is an easy criticism, and not a very clever one. The arguments Craig presents are just the standard theistic arguments for God’s existence; and the philosophical debates they raise are too lengthy and complex to properly assess here, or indeed in any public-debate environment. This is half the problem with any debate about God’s existence. We should therefore be careful not to confuse style with substance; Craig’s opponents confuse the idea that Craig is deliberately muddying the intellectual waters with obscurantism with the depth of the subject matter Craig introduces in support of his case. Granted, Craig is perhaps ill-advised to rehash one-sided arguments for God as ‘proofs’ for his case in public debates, but the problem is in this style of presentation, not the substance of the arguments themselves, about which there are often lively philosophical arguments to be had. The problem is that the chance of giving proper treatment to such debates in a public forum is slim; but the debates do exist nonetheless, and Craig has a right to raise them in his defence. In light of this, the claim of Andrew Copson, of the British Humanist Association, that Craig's arguments are 'easily refuted' outside public debate is particularly laughable. Copson needs to read some Plantinga.
I think, then, that I would generally defend WLC from his critics. He certainly has some crazy ideas, most often religious, which I could never accept, nor defend - his admission of faith over reason is worrying, as is his bold but unacceptable defense of certain biblical events. But these are propounded in the domain of Christian apologetics, which calls for crazy ideas to defend its often crazy claims! By contrast, in the domain of philosophy proper, Craig deserves respect, and this should also be shown in response to the philosophical arguments he calls upon in debate. Respect for an argument entails fairly engaging in the debate surrounding it, and not writing it off as nonsense before even properly considering it. Far from being a ‘professional debater’ or ‘crackpot theologian’, Craig is a distinguished academic philosopher, and this should not be forgotten in spite of his many unpalatable religious views, or his forthright debating style. Certainly, his philosophy is much more highly regarded by the philosophical community in general than the 'philosophy' of his most famous counterpart, Richard Dawkins; I'd probably echo the letter to Dawkins by philosopher of religion Daniel Came concerning the proposed debate between the two.