Sunday, July 7, 2013

Reasonable faith

I recall at least once asking a class whether having lost an argument meant that you were wrong. The answer, of course, is "no." But losing an argument does probably mean that you should re-examine why you believe as you do. I have never changed my position in the midst of heated dispute but I have later after re-thinking the issue. When an argument occurs with an audience, though, the purpose is seldom to persuade the opponent – it is all about those looking on. William Lane Craig's public debates with prominent atheists are about persuading listeners of the credibility of Christianity. In The Chronicle of Higher Education Nathan Schneider describes Craig the Christian apologist:
When, during a conversation in a swank hotel lobby in Manhattan, I mentioned to Richard Dawkins that I was working on a story about William Lane Craig, the muscles in his face clenched.

"Why are you publicizing him?" Dawkins demanded, twice. The best-selling "New Atheist" professor went on to assure me that I shouldn't bother, that he'd met Craig in Mexico—they opposed each other in a prime-time, three-on-three debate staged in a boxing ring—and found him "very unimpressive."

"I mean, whose side are you on?" Dawkins said. "Are you religious?"

Several months later, in April 2011, Craig debated another New Atheist author, Sam Harris, in a large, sold-out auditorium at the University of Notre Dame. In a sequence of carefully timed speeches and rejoinders, the two men clashed over whether we need God for there to be moral laws. Harris delivered most of the better one-liners that night, while Craig, in suit and tie, fired off his volleys of argumentation with the father-knows-best composure of Mitt Romney, plus a dash of Schwarzenegger. Something Harris said during the debate might help explain how Dawkins reacted: He called Craig "the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists."

In the lobby afterward, the remarks of students seemed to confirm this. "The apologist won because his structure was perfect," one said. "Craig had already won by the first rebuttal!" A Harris partisan lamented, "Sam kinda blew it." ....

Craig generally insists on the same format: opening statements, then two rounds of rebuttals, then closing statements, then audience. He prepares extensively beforehand, sometimes for months at a time, with research assistants poring over the writings of the opponent in search of objections that Craig should anticipate. He amasses a well-organized file of notes that he can draw on during the debate for a choice quotation or a statistic.

In the opening statement he pummels the opponent with five or so concise arguments—for instance, the origins of the universe, the basis of morality, the testimony of religious experience, and perhaps an addendum of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Over the course of the rebuttals he makes sure to respond to every point that the opponent has brought up, which usually sends the opponent off on a series of tangents. Then, at the end, he reminds the audience how many of his arguments stated at the outset the opponent couldn't manage to address, much less refute. He declares himself and his message the winner. Onlookers can't help agreeing. ....
Although most of the article is devoted Craig's importance as Christian apologist, it also refers to the growing importance of Christians who are academic philosophers:
.... In the early part of the 20th century, figures like Bertrand Russell and A.J. Ayer made it their business to ensure that the analytic style of philosophy emerging in the Anglophone world would be a stronghold of unbelief. Questions that had animated the whole history of philosophy in Europe and the Americas about whether God exists, or whether there is an afterlife worth anticipating, were suddenly deemed more or less finished—the answer was no.

Significant cracks in this consensus didn't begin appearing until the 1960s and 1970s, especially thanks to the work of Alvin Plantinga, a young philosopher who leveraged the cutting-edge modal logic and epistemology of the time to argue that Christian belief wasn't so manifestly unreasonable as his predecessors had claimed. Along with his lifelong friend Nicholas Wolterstorff, who has spent much of his career writing and teaching at Yale, Plantinga engineered a stunning revival of philosophy in a Christian key, largely through the vehicle of the Society of Christian Philosophers. Following his lead, many more philosophers became braver about articulating Christian faith in arguments, and together they've amassed an arsenal more formidable than many outsiders, whether professional philosophers or laypeople, realize. ....

Philosophy was never supposed to be a narrow discipline, fortified from the argumentative swells of the agora by specialization and merely professional ambitions. That was for the Sophists whom Socrates regaled against. Philosophy was supposed to serve the polis, to educate and embolden its young, to raise up leaders. Whether one likes their preconceived conclusions or not, today it is evangelical Christians, with William Lane Craig in the lead, who are doing so better than just about anyone else. [more]
William Lane Craig's website is

The New Theist - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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