Clever Edit of Mexico Debate a Challenge to Richard Dawkins

Apparently, has edited the YouTube video made of the debate in Mexico from November 2010, in which I, Bill Craig, and David Wolpe debated Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, and Matt Ridley. The aim of this 6 minute feature is to show the mistakes that Richard Dawkins made in understanding and assessing our case in that debate.

If you wish to see this clip, click here.

Shermer, Ridley, and Dawkins vs. Craig, Wolpe, and Geivett: Retrospective on the Debate

I’ve finally returned home after two weeks of travel and speaking, which included a debate in Puebla Mexico. I posted details about the event here prior to leaving for Mexico. There you’ll find links to English and Spanish versions of YouTube recordings of the debate.

I’ve had the chance to read some reactions posted in the blogosphere about this debate. I now want to list some specific points and observations of my own, partly to add clarity and partly to set the record straight about some things I’ve seen written.

I hope you’ll watch the debate and leave your objective evaluation in the comments box of this post.

  1. Usually, a debate question features one side taking the affirmative and the other side taking the negative. Here, the question for debate was “Does the universe have a purpose?” It was obvious from the correspondence I received from the debate organizers that I was to team with two individuals who agreed in taking the affirmative, and that the other three would take the negative—that is, they would deny that the universe has a purpose.
  2. The three of us on the affirmative side—William Lane Craig, David Wolpe, and Doug Geivett—all believe that whether the universe has a purpose depends on whether or not God exists. So we could argue that the universe does have a purpose if God exists, even if time did not allow for detailed arguments that God in fact exists. It would be up to the others—Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer, and Richard Dawkins—to argue that the universe does not have a purpose. Presumably, they would have to include arguments that God does not exist, since that would be crucial to their claim that the universe does not have a purpose. Or, they might argue that even if God exists, the universe does not have a purpose.
  3. The moderator introduced us as “theists” and “atheists,” and framed the debate as a debate between theists, who affirm the existence of God, and atheists, who deny the existence of God. Thus, two questions were conflated from the beginning: (1) “Does the universe have a purpose?” and (2) “Does God exist?” The question for any participant, then, was whether to focus on question (1) or question (2).
  4. Each of the six of us was allotted exactly six minutes for initial arguments. We were timed and stopped at six minutes. Strict enforcement of time limits is characteristic of debates, but not always understood by observers. I’ve noticed that some who’ve commented on the debate at various blogs have remarked that the moderator should not have interrupted debaters when they were about to make an important point. (The debate was part of a larger conference program.)
  5. Rebuttals were limited to three minutes each. Following rebuttals, Michio Kaku was permitted time for a few comments on the debate through that point. His remarks were followed by 90-second closing statements.
  6. The decision about which side would go first was determined by a coin toss. The atheist side won the coin toss and Matt Ridley went first. Each team was permitted to sequence its presenters in the order they preferred. Our side followed the order Craig-Wolpe-Geivett for all three components of the debate. We made our decision based on the tasks we each had agreed to perform during the debate. In my judgment, this sequence proved to be effective.
  7. How did the opposing teams work together as teams? It should be obvious that our team of theists worked very closely together. Our individual presentations complemented each other neatly and intentionally. We provided a united front in our presentation of evidence and response to objections. We worked together across the board. To illustrate, in his rebuttal, Bill Craig used a brief that I had prepared in response to the problem of evil, should it come up. Collectively, we argued for two main contentions: (1) If God exists, then the universe has a purpose, and (2) If God does not exist, then the universe does not have a purpose.
  8. Close observers will understand that our two main contentions directly addressed the published topic of the debate: “Does the universe have a purpose?” Further, they speak to the question of God’s existence in a direct manner. Third, as conditional statements, they do not require for their support any argument that God does, in fact, exist. Fourth, we repeated these two contentions for two primary reasons. First, to remind the audience of our claims, as debaters on both sides took turns speaking. This is a matter of effective communication. Second, to remind the atheist team that this was our position and that it was this that they must address in their response to us. This is a matter of holding the other side accountable to the actual arguments we mustered during the debate. I’ve seen some in the blogosphere complain that I repeated our two fundamental claims in my opening statement. But this was after David Wolpe’s opening statement, which did not repeat the claims, and three opening statements by the atheists. Nearly half an hour had passed since the two claims had been explicitly stated.
  9. In his opening statement, Bill Craig explained why the universe would have purpose if God exists, thus supporting our first contention. He then acknowledged that whether the universe actually does have purpose, supposing our two contentions are true, depends on the existence of God. So he used the balance of his six minutes to list several arguments for the existence of God, which all have been developed in detail in his books. In effect, he placed them on the table for the atheist side to refute.
  10. In his opening statement, David Wolpe developed the argument from fine-tuning for the existence of God, and hence of purpose for the universe. He then drew a close existential connection between this argument and the human quest for meaning and purpose.
  11. I my opening statement, then, I—Doug Geivett—recalled our two main contentions, then addressed the possibility that some on the other side would argue that the universe has purpose even if God does not exist. Following that, I developed an argument, not often heard in debates, that our very interest in the question of the debate is evidence that God does exist.
  12. So the trajectory of our three arguments on the theist side was itself purposeful and progressive. Together they represented an eighteen-minute opening argument for theism and purpose. If you put these together in the order in which they were presented, you’ll see that they made for a natural progression, with a build-up along the way toward a climax.
  13. It would be absurd, then, to expect any one of us to “carry the day” within the narrow scope of our individual presentations. For example, it’s ridiculous to scold Bill Craig for failing to develop theistic arguments more fully. Considered as a unified whole, our three opening statements complement and serve each other.
  14. Now what about the atheist side? This is my opinion and people are free to disagree, but I believe the atheists operated much more independently of each other, and even contradicted each other. In his opening statement, Matt Ridley argued against the idea that the universe has a purpose. Michael Shermer, on the other hand, argued for purpose, precisely as I predicted he would when Bill Craig and David Wolpe and I discussed strategy prior to the debate. This is why my opening statement includes a response to this type of claim with a special argument for the existence of God (see description above), and why my opening statement was third in the series. The atheists struggled to clarify the distinction between purpose in the universe and purpose on the level of human existence. Thus, they seemed sometimes to be arguing against purpose and sometimes to be arguing for purpose.
  15. While the atheists alluded to the argument from evil against theism, no one developed the argument in any detail. This was quite surprising and seemed to me a missed opportunity for their side. Of course, we were prepared for something more strenuous, and Bill Craig did address the argument, even more fully than it had been presented. Notice, too, that Craig’s response compounded the evidence we presented for the existence of God, since it embedded an argument from evil for theism. The atheists never had another word to say about this. Nor did the atheists answer my argument for theism. And in response the Wolpe’s fine-tuning argument, they simply mentioned the possibility of multiple universes and the like.
  16. Richard Dawkins is hero to many atheists today. So his participation and relation to the other two atheists deserves special notice. You’ll find that Dawkins made numerous assertions and almost no arguments. If you disagree, you should be able to reconstruct his arguments by identifying individual premises and specific conclusions. So far, those who have praised Dawkins’s performance in the debate, all of whom have been atheists themselves, have not attempted this reconstruction. I urge them to try. I will gladly address carefully reconstructed arguments in the comments section of this post. Dawkins called religious belief “pathetic” and accused Bill Craig of making an emotional argument. As I stated in my brief closing statement, it was Dawkins, more than anyone else, who made an “emotional argument.” First, he gave no arguments against the existence of God. Second, he offered no rebuttals of the arguments we presented, and third, he dismissed religious belief as pathetic without argument. If I’m wrong about any of this, I would be happy to see evidence of my error and respond to whatever arguments he did present.
  17. There has been considerable commentary about the “Craig vs. Dawkins debate” as a result of this event. Prior to this debate, Richard Dawkins had refused all invitations to debate Bill Craig. It’s for this reason that Bill was surprised to learn that Dawkins had agreed to participate in this debate. This, clearly, was the safest venue for Dawkins to appear in debate with Craig, since it was a three-on-three debate with unusually brief allocations of time for each speaker. But Dawkins was not debating Bill Craig only. He was in debate with three theists, in partnership with two fellow atheists. There was nothing the least bit threatening or intimidating about Dawkins on this occasion. I would happily debate him in a one-on-one situation. So if he prefers not to debate Bill Craig, for whatever reason, he’s welcome to debate with me.
  18. Some have criticized the moderator of the debate for the style of his facilitation. But people fail to consider the total context of the debate. This was but one of many events scheduled in a three-day conference. Also, the debate was aired at the end of the day following the much-watched boxing match between Manny Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito. Hence, the pugilism metaphor so emphasized during the debate. I happen to know that some who watched the boxing match on Mexican television stayed tuned to channel 7 and watched the debate. I’ve heard it estimated that around 2 million viewers have seen the debate as a result. Andreas Roemer seems to have good instincts about how to raise public awareness of an event worthy of more attention.

Again, I hope to hear from you with your reflections about the debate. Before leaving comments, you may want to review the comments policy for this blog here.

Other places where the debate is being discussed:

Using “Google Sites” for a Course Project

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Today TOMD73’s blog has a post that explores the possibility of using blog assignments as part of a course.

I did something very like this with a class of about 75 university students, mostly juniors and sophomores.

Instead of calling it a blog, I called it a website. I had all of them use the Google website app so that (1) everyone was required to follow the same steps and (2) they could very easily create access to each other without “going public.”

With so many students, I formed the group into teams. Students would comment on the websites of those in their team. I gave very specific instructions about the kinds of comments they were to make, and explained that the quality of their comments would be a variable in their final grade evaluation.

Building a website of 5-7 linked pages was the major course project. Students could select their own topics, with two provisos: (1) the topic had to be related to the course topic; (2) I had to approve their selection.

Class met weekly. Each week students were given a series of steps to be completed by the next class period. These steps moved them gradually to completion of their website projects by the end of the semester.

The course was a philosophy of religion course for non-philosophy majors, with special focus on the New Atheism.

Many of the students produced excellent websites that they could be proud to make available to the public.

On the whole, I was pleased with the results. Most difficulties related to the size of the class. This type of assignment would have been much easier for me to manage with fewer students.

Here are some of the more significant challenges I encountered:

  1. Mastering the technology so that I knew what I was asking of the students and so that I could explain it to even the most technologically timid.
  2. Getting teams to work with so many students. There was considerable troubleshooting early on while students were learning the steps to get up and running. But more important, some students simply didn’t participate. I hadn’t counted on this since they were required to. This complicated things for the conscientious students, since part of their assignment was to respond to the comments they received.
  3. Helping the students work within a template of 5-7 pages that would do justice to their topics. Creating website pages differs from writing a paper. Developing and linking ideas is handled differently. Ideally, a decision to create a website rather than to write a paper should be grounded in the conviction that a website better serves the purposes of the project—especially because of the way material can be packaged (e.g., audio and visual tools can be included, and convenient links to other valuable items can be made).
  4. This project required more assistance from me than many other assignments. The student-teacher ratio made this a challenge. But one advantage is that I did get better acquainted with many of the students.
  5. Grading these assignments proved to be time intensive. This isn’t a bad thing. But you need to expect this when planning a course that includes this type of project.

Would I do it again? Absolutely! It would be much easier the next time around. But it has to be the right kind of course for this to count as a suitable assignment. I especially like it that students that have excelled have something to offer the rest of the world the moment the course is over!

William Lane Craig vs. Christopher Hitchens: First Report

Tonight, Biola University hosted a debate between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens on the question “Does God Exist?” The debate was moderated by Hugh Hewitt and seen live by several thousand in attendance at Biola and many more at remote locations in 30 states and several countries.

I’ve just returned home from the event and will record a number of my observations as a first report from the front lines.

  1. This event was no mere spectacle, but a legitimate debate that addressed substantive arguments.
  2. Everybody behaved themselves, including members of the audience.
  3. Bill Craig made two claims in his opening argument: (A) There are no good arguments for atheism, and (B) there are several good arguments for the existence of God (theism). The balance of his opening argument was devoted to four carefully delineated arguments and a fifth thesis about the role of experience in grounding belief in God. This organization of the case for God’s existence has been used by Bill Craig time and again. The first argument is a cosmological argument, based on the origin of the universe. The second was a version of the teleological argument that emphasizes the improbability of the existence of a universe inhabited by human beings, given the evidence of both physics and biology. Third, he argued that the best explanation for the existence of objective moral facts is the existence of God. Fourth, he stated three sets of historical facts that are uniformly accepted by New Testament scholars, which together provide ample evidence that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, implying the occurrence of an important miracle and hence the existence of God. Each argument was constructed as a valid deductive argument, so that rational denial of the conclusion would require a direct challenge to one or more of the premises in each argument. His fifth point was that belief in God can as well be grounded in direct experience of God, though this is not to be confused with an argument for the existence of God. He ended with a challenge to Christopher Hitchens to show how these arguments err, and also argue that God does not exist.
  4. Bill Craig made the interesting point that believers in God should not be so distracted by arguments for the existence of God that they miss the experience of God.
  5. In his opening argument, Christopher Hitchens argued first that Bill Craig is not a consistent evidentialist, and that, to the extent that Craig is an evidentialist, he is, like any evidentialist Christian, a “retrospective evidentialist” who appeals to evidence now that no theist could have centuries ago. Further to this point, Hitchens suggested that contemporary (Christian) theists have, in the face of scientific evidence for evolution, “retreated” from their earlier strategies by claiming that evolution is evidence for theism, or is at least compatible with theism. Next he argued that even if God did exist (by which I think he meant the God mentioned in the conclusion of Craig’s arguments), no reason has been given to believe that this God cares, while there are reasons to think this God is indifferent. (I think, consistent with his practice in his book god Is Not Great, Hitchens would use the word “god” without caps.) His third point was that Craig is obligated to “prove to a certainty” that God exists, while atheists like himself rightly value the role of doubt in the absence of evidence and intellectual humility. This led directly to disclaimers about Craig’s definition of the term “atheism”—Hitchens regards himself as an “a-theist” in the sense that he believes no good reasons exist for believing God exists and so he does not believe that God does exist. Thus, he does not claim to know that God does not exist; therefore, he has no obligation to argue that God does not exist. He concluded with a direct response to the teleological, or fine-tuning argument, for theism. First he said that most physicists acknowledge that “we hardly know what we don’t know” about the origin of the universe and its early history. This looks more like an objection to Craig’s cosmological argument, so Hitchens may have mispoken. He then said there were three “layman’s reasons” for rejecting the fine-tuning argument. I was only able to distinguish two, since they were not enumerated clearly. First, he asked whether prior to the beginning of the universe there was pre-existing matter, as a step toward the question, “Who designed the Designer?” Second, he asked whether theists have considered the “nothingness that is coming,” his point being that the universe will eventually fade into oblivion and that therefore the so-called “Designer” seems to have designed poorly.
  6. The two opening speeches differed dramatically. Bill Craig laid out a case in straightforward manner, with numbered premises and his conclusion. (A complete outline of his cumulative case was included on one sheet of the program that was printed for the occasion.) Christopher Hitchens adopted more of a narrative style that was more loosely argued and less linear in its progression. Both were articulate and engaging.
  7. In the rebuttal, cross-examination, and response portions of the debate that followed, Bill Craig pressed Christopher Hitchens on his conception of atheism, his reasons for being an atheist, and his responses to the arguments presented in Craig’s opening speech. In this respect, Craig was in greater control of themes in the debate. This was helped immensely by the clear progression, crisp identification, and repetition of his original arguments. Hitchens resisted Craig’s efforts to extract a more precise definition of Hitchens’s atheism than his simple denial that there is adequate evidence for theism. Hitchens claimed that if you believe the universe is designed, then you also have to believe the designer is short on the excellence attributed by theists to God. There is a tension between there being a god who is completely indifferent to human suffering, or a god who provides a bizarre remedy in the form of having “someone tortured to death during the Bronze Age” and Roman rule, a god who demands conformity to his requirements in order to be saved from damnation, and, in any case, who leaves countless individuals without opportunity to hear about and accept this remedy.
  8. The most noteworthy difference between these debaters consists in this: preparation. One may agree or disagree with Bill Craig’s claims, but there can be no question that he was thoroughly prepared for every aspect of the debate and never faltered in his response to objections by Hitchens. Christopher Hitchens, on the other hand, dropped several of Craig’s opening arguments, and seriously misunderstood or distorted the moral argument, the argument from the resurrection of Jesus, and Craig’s appeal to experience. I think Craig was most successful in demonstrating the error in Hitchens’s discombobulated rendition of Craig’s moral argument. Whether the audience followed the competing interpretations of N. T. Wright’s historical argument concerning the probability of the resurrection is another matter. But I can vouch for Craig’s construal of Wright’s argument, and, for that matter, for Hitchens’s confusion on the point. As for the appeal to experience of God (and the witness of the Holy Spirit), I might have put the point differently than Craig did and treat it as a kind of evidence that serves the subject of the experience without the need for argument. But Bill Craig and I may have a different view of the epistemology of such experience.
  9. Christopher Hitchens made a couple of odd points in his rebuttal, as if to answer arguments or objections that Bill Craig had not given. For example, he asserted that he believes in free will, and went on about it as if Craig had pressed him directly on this point. This was a strategic mistake, if only because it wasted valuable time that should have been devoted to what was already on the table. Worse, Craig could have challenged Hitchens’s claim to believe in free will, given his naturalism. I gather that Hitchens sensed this, saw its relevance to the question of moral conduct, and attempted to pre-empt Craig on the point. But Hitchens’s complete failure to understand the moral argument presented by Craig landed him in enough serious trouble as it was. Hitchens also digressed about the embarrassing canonization of Mother Theresa by the Roman Catholic Church. I suppose he couldn’t resist, since he had written a whole book on the subject. (See this link for the crass title of that book.)
  10. The only thing that surprised me about Bill Craig’s strategy in the debate was his determination to get Hitchens to specify more precisely his self-identification as an atheist. Much of Craig’s cross-examination time was taken up with this question. That is due in part to Hitchens’s bobbing and weaving on the point. I understand Craig’s rationale for tasking Hitchens with clarification of his position. I’ve encountered the same maneuver in my debates with Michael Shermer and Greg Cavin, for example. As I see it, regardless of the standards of formal debate, both parties to a debate of such existential significance should be clear about their own positions and be prepared to present good reasons for them. (While this is a burden of proof issue, the term “burden of proof” never came up, if I remember correctly.) Christopher Hitchens has a worldview. It is thoroughly naturalistic and scientistic, and indeed materialistic. It hardly matters what he means by “atheism” in application to himself, since this is clearly his positive stance. And he made no attempt to argue that his worldview is true. Bill Craig is right about this.
  11. Christopher Hitchens’s attempt to distinguish between the hubris of the argumentative theist (my term) and the intellectual humility of his kind of atheist was totally unconvincing. Hitchens’s tone in the debate, consistent with his hallmark practice, belied his disclaimers about claims to knowledge. Once, in his closing argument, Bill Craig drew attention to this point, and did so dramatically but graciously. He pointed out that Hitchens made his own truth claims on behalf of atheism, that he did so without supporting argument, and that “you’ve got to come to a debate prepared with arguments.” While Hitchens did make arguments, they were largely unfocused, sometimes disconnected, and often irrelevant.
  12. The second half of cross-examination must have been interesting to the predominantly evangelical audience. Christopher Hitchens asked Bill Craig directly whether he believes that there are devils, that Jesus was born of a virgin, that some nonChristian religions are false, and that some Christian denominations entertain false beliefs. Craig answered each, respectively: yes, yes, yes, and yes. But he added (a) that the existence or non-existence of demons has no bearing on his argument from the resurrection for theism, (b) that while he did not think the virgin birth could be proved, whether it happened is also irrelevant to his case for theism, (c) that Islam is among the false religions, and (d) that while there are differences among Christian brethren (Craig is not a Calvinist but more of a Wesleyan, for example), their differences are on less substantive points. While Craig may not have expected this line of questioning, he answered well. It was a sign of Hitchens’s lack of preparation, I believe, that his cross-examination of Craig was unproductive. (One further indication of this is that Craig’s answers were never brought up for special criticism.)
  13. The main development of the cross-examination period is that Hitchens allowed that morality could be “purely evolutionary and functional.” Given his comments on morality throughout the evening, I don’t see how they could be anything else than that on his view. Thus, he is, Craig would argue, caught in a contradiction if he also claims that morality is objective in the sense Craig defined. And Hitchens had made such a claim. Note: Hitchens could hardly have denied this and remained consistent with his condemnation of religion in his book.
  14. Speaking of Hitchens’s condemnation of religion, I think he found the balance that was needed if he was to remain faithful to the spirit and tone of his book without completely alienating his audience. His diatribes in god Is Not Great are mean and visceral in the extreme. During tonight’s debate, he was more cautious in his declamations. He did say “I’ll be damned” if I don’t say what I really think of religion and Christianity. But this was mild in comparison with what Hitchen is capable of. The problem is—and he knew this—his off-the-cuff remarks were not germane to the debate. Someone reading his book for the first time after seeing this debate may be surprised by the venom they find, but they probably will not be shocked. I say this because I do think it was a delicate balancing act for him to be more measured while still acting in character.
  15. Christopher Hitchens attempted to drag Old Testament accounts of “genocide” and other divine sanctions of dubious moral character into the debate. This was predictable. Bill Craig rightly noted that these complaints concern the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture, and are not salient to his case for theism. Some in the audience may have wondered how Craig could avoid these issues and also invoke the New Testament in describing the grandeur of God’s plan of salvation. As it happens, Hitchens didn’t raise the point. But it also happens that there is no inconsistency in Craig’s view of the bearing of Scripture on aspects of the debate.
  16. Another comparison of interest to me has to do with the existential appeal of their respective points of view. Bill Craig seemed actually to be enjoying the dialogue (as one of my daughters noted). Certainly he was unapologetic about his Christian faith. He spoke convincingly of the transformation of his life after believing in Christ. And he explained the basis Christians have for hope in this life and the next. He even urged Christopher Hitchens to become a Christian, since Hitchens wants to say that there are objective moral values but can’t account for them in his worldview. Craig said this without seeming the least bit supercilious. I thought Craig struck an excellent balance in describing the future hope of Christians and its bearing on the endurance of suffering now, and a Christian activism on behalf of those who are oppressed or even deprived of life. For his part, Hitchens explained that he finds meaning in life by seeking liberty for himself and for others, and that, since so much violence against humanity is done in the name of religion, he is constrained to combat religion publicly.
  17. I’ve already mentioned how Christopher Hitchens responded to Bill Craig’s moral argument for theism. It struck me that this argument was the most widely discussed of them all. The irony is that for all that he had to say in response, Hitchens actually “dropped” the argument. (To say that he “dropped” the argument is to say, in debate-speak, that he didn’t actually address the argument.) In his response to Craig’s argument, Hitchens recast the argument as an argument that atheists can neither know what is morally right nor do the morally right thing unless they believe in God. That is not the argument at all. It baffles me that so many atheist, agnostic, and skeptical debaters distort this argument so consistently. The question is how to ground the objectivity of moral truths without reference to God, not whether moral truths can be known without believing in God or whether it’s possible to behave morally without believing in God. The point is neither epistemic nor behavioral, but ontological. My preferred formulation of the moral argument is a little different than Craig’s, but my experience has been the same as his. Debate opponents miss the point.
  18. Returning, finally, to something I mentioned previously, this debate exposed a difference in preparation on the part of these two debaters. This is far more significant than it might seem at first. William Lane Craig has debated this topic dozens of times, without wavering from the same basic pattern of argument. He presents the same arguments in the same form, and presses his opponents in the same way for arguments in defense of their own worldviews. He’s consistent. He’s predictable. One might think that this is a liability, that it’s too risky to face a new opponent who has so much opportunity to review Craig’s specific strategy. But tonight’s debate proves otherwise. Hitchens can have no excuse for dropping arguments when he knows—or should know—exactly what to expect. Suppose one replies that William Craig is a more experienced debater and a trained philosopher, while Christopher Hitchens is a journalist working outside the Academy. That simply won’t do as a defense of Hitchens. First, Hitchens is no stranger to debate. Second, he is clearly a skillful polemicist. Third—and most important—Hitchens published a book, god Is Not Great, in which he makes bold claims against religion in general and Christianity in particular. With his book, he threw down the challenge. To his credit, he rose to meet a skillful challenger. But did he rise to the occasion? Did he acquit himself well? At one point he acknowledged that some of his objections to the designer argument were “layman’s” objections. His book, I believe, is also the work of a layman. It appears to have been written for popular consumption and without concern for accountability to Christians whose lives are dedicated to the defense of the Gospel.

Much more can be said about the debate. I’m confident that it will elicit much discussion worldwide. Viewers and listeners will draw their own conclusions. But after tonight, there is reason to think—as Bill Craig suggested—that we may soon witness a great renaissance of Christianity.

Recommended Reading:

For details on the 2010 debate between Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, and Matt Ridley on the atheist side, and William Lane Craig, Doug Geivett, and David Wolpe on the theist side, go here.

What Does It Take to Hear a Who, and What’s It to Do with Me and You?

horton-hears-a-who_1“A humorous exaggerated imitation of an author, literary work, style, etc.,” is how The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word “parody.” If you spend an afternoon reading a book like The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, then set off to the theater with your family to see the new film Horton Hears a Who, you may be surprised to find yourself drawing parallels between the movie and the book.

Horton is the naïve, indiscriminate, credulous elephant. He gets it in his head that a speck that has come to rest on a clover is home to a civilization of “humans” who are invisible because they are too small to be seen. Kangaroo, on the other hand, is sensible and stern. She recognizes early on the danger posed to the community by Horton’s fantastic notions. She confronts Horton about his silliness and warns him to cease and desist. But Horton, being an elephant, is too “faithful” to abandon his convictions. And in due course, what began as a harmless idiosyncrasy evolves into a mission that imbues Horton’s life with fresh meaning and purpose.

Kangaroo is beside herself with concern, especially for the children, who—horrors—have begun to use their imaginations. Her motto is, “If you can’t see it, taste it, or feel it, it doesn’t exist.” Horton’s claim—that “the speck” is inhabited by humans who call themselves “Whos”—fails this test.

Or should I say, it almost fails this test? Horton, after all, hears intelligent noises coming from the speck. Eventually he even engages in meaningful conversation with the diminutive mayor of Whoville. So Horton, at least, has empirical evidence for his belief. And that seems to be all that Kangaroo requires.

But that isn’t all that Kangaroo requires. She also stipulates that it’s impossible for there to be anything so small and human. So she is a radical empiricist with an a priori prejudice against the existence of things she can’t see. And her a priori commitment diminishes her ability to hear what Horton can hear. Of course, Horton is equipped with ears that are especially sensitive to very slight auditory data. Since he is unique in this respect, no one really believes him. This despite the fact that he has no special motive to mislead a community of individuals he obviously cares about.

Horton isn’t a complete doofus. He can’t get Kangaroo to listen for what she isn’t willing to hear. So he challenges her prejudice with a thought experiment. “What if our own world is just a speck from the point of view of some greater being?” he asks. Kangaroo is unable to entertain this possibility. She is as absurdly sure of herself as she believes Horton to be.

A major difference between Horton and Kangaroo is that Kangaroo is a demagogue, and most members of her community are lemmings. They may not follow her logic, but they do follow her lead. She adopts the posture of an infallible authority figure and whips up alarm among those who are no more able to think for themselves than Horton is supposed to be.

The mayor of Whoville suffers a similar fate. He’s called a “boob” by a leading member of the town council. This is a painful slap in the face. The mayor’s influence is fanciful. And his explanation for what is happening in Whoville is believed to be delusional. Like Horton, he risks ridicule for what he believes to be true. But that’s not all there is to it.

The mayor fears for his community, which does not recognize the danger that threatens Whoville. Initially, he does not seek to convince the citizens of Whoville. He knows they will not believe that an invisible elephant in the sky is their protector. Still, he takes responsible action on the basis of what he knows, even though he risks humiliation.

Horton Hears a Who is a smart and entertaining film. I doubt that it’s a deliberate parody of the emotionalism exhibited by the “new atheists.” But I can’t help thinking Richard Dawkins will not be happy with it. At least he can’t complain that he was tricked into doing the voice-over for Kangaroo.


Survival of the Fittest? Richard Dawkins Duped

On Thursday, March 20, I plan to see a screening of the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The documentary features Ben Stein, author, cultural commentator, finance guru, and occasional film actor. Last September, Ewen MacAskill reported that the film’s premise is “that scientists sympathetic to intelligent design are penalised by being denied academic posts.” His brief article, published in The Guardian, reports that Richard Dawkins is among those who were interviewed for the film. And now Dawkins is showing a spot of upsetness. His complaint appears to be that he was duped by the producers of the film. “At no time was I given the slightest clue that these people were a creationist front,” said Dawkins. (See Ewen MacAskill, “Dawkins rails at ‘creationist front’ for duping him,” The Guardian [September 28, 2007].)

Ben Stein’s reply is interesting: “I don’t remember a single person asking me what the movie was about.”

A couple years ago I was asked by Penn and Teller to be interviewed for a religious feature they were taping. I knew their reputation, and asked for a sample video of a similar program they had produced. I watched the sample carefully, more than once, and telephoned a few of my friends to get their advice about whether to go ahead with the interview. About half of them said to go for it, while the other half advised against it. I phoned Penn and Teller and thanked them for the invite, but told them that I was not interested in doing the interview. That was that.

I haven’t seen Ben Stein’s film yet. But I can’t work up much sympathy for Dawkins’s consternation, regardless of its quality. Surely he could have inquired a little more fully about the specific nature and aims of this film, before agreeing to be interviewed. There’s a Darwinian explanation for what happened to Richard Dawkins. It’s called “survival of the fittest.”

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