Entry from October 25, 2011

There’s been rather a kerfuffle in the British press in recent days over world-famous atheist Richard Dawkins’s public announcement in The Guardian that he refuses to debate the latest Christian philosopher offering to take him on, William Lane Craig, because the latter “is an apologist for genocide.” Come again? That sounds rather a serious charge, doesn’t it? But it turns out that the genocidal monster for whom Professor Craig is said to be an “apologist” is none other than our old acquaintance “the God of the Old Testament” whose “divine bloodlust” was visited upon the Canaanites in Deuteronomy 20:16-17: “But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them.”

Though an unprofessional moralist myself, I must say that Professor Craig’s explanation of these lines, and the murder they appear to command, particularly of children, leaves something to be desired. “If we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children,” Professor Dawkins quotes him as writing, “the death of these children was actually their salvation.” Yes, well, the LORD might at least have offered them some reassurance on this point before having them snuffed. It would have been reassuring to us, too, since there are no other indications in the Old Testament that the God of the Israelites thought of Himself, or was thought of by His people, as the God of the Canaanites as well. On the contrary, in the Old Testament He is very much a tribal God, just like the Canaanites’ gods who are his rivals. The main difference between them is that they are many and He is One.

So far, the advantage appears to me to lie with Professor Dawkins. But hang on a sec there, Prof. I thought your argument was that neither the God of Israel nor the gods of the Canaanites nor any other gods who might come forward to compete for our worshipful attention actually exists or ever did exist. If not existing is count one of the indictment against Him, you can’t very well make count two the fact that He ordered the murder of a bunch of kids. If He did, then He must have existed. If He didn’t exist, then you must at least acquit Him on the charge of genocide. You can’t have it both ways. Likewise, if Professor Craig’s apologia is offered on behalf of a non-existent deity for something that that deity, being non-existent, didn’t do, then he is not an apologist for genocide but a fantasist. Isn’t that your point? And, if so, isn’t it a bit, um, ad hominem, to try to make him out to be a war criminal too?

All this is leaving out the rather vital point that the war in question took place several millennia before either of the Professors was born. We now read in the Bible that a desert tribe thousands of years ago alleged it had been commanded by a tribal God to do to another tribe what all desert tribes thousands of years ago routinely did to each other, given the opportunity. The only surprising thing about that is that this tribe, for some reason, thought it needed such a justification — and also needed to write it down in a sacred book. That was unprecedented. A few thousand years later, such a simple act begins to look like the point of origin of the moral sense required for mankind to have invented, only 67 years ago, the word and concept of “genocide” — and on behalf of the self-same tribe that started the ball rolling all those millennia before. It’s fine that, today, Professor Dawkins so prides himself on possessing this moral sense that he might be supposed to have invented it, but I think it becomes an evolutionist to show a little more respect for his antecedents.

In his Guardian article, Professor Dawkins suggests what is more likely to have been the real reason for his refusal to debate someone of whom he also affects never to have heard (nor, he says, have any of his philosopher friends at Oxford). For he quotes what he calls the “famous retort” (I’ve never heard of it) of a president of the Royal Society who said: “That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine.” Later, he accuses Professor Craig of “cashing in on another’s name” — that is, fame — “by conniving to share a stage with him.” In other words, he resents making theist nobodies into somebodies by condescending to debate them. But, judging by the reaction in the British press, Professor Craig would seem already to have become much more famous from Professor Dawkins’s petulant refusal to meet him — as the man Richard Dawkins backed down from debating — than he ever could have hoped to do if the latter had agreed to debate.

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