July 7, 2013


The New Theist : How William Lane Craig became Christian philosophy's boldest apostle (Nathan Schneider, 7/01/13, The Chronicle Review)

Well-publicized atheists like Dawkins and Harris are closer to being household names than William Lane Craig is, but within the subculture of evangelical Christians interested in defending their faith rationally, he has had a devoted following for decades. Many professional philosophers know about him only vaguely, but in the field of philosophy of religion, his books and articles are among the most cited. And though he works mainly from his home, in suburban Marietta, Ga., he holds a faculty appointment at Biola University, an evangelical stronghold on the southeastern edge of Los Angeles County and home to one of the largest philosophy graduate programs in the world.

Surveys suggest that the philosophy professoriate is among the most atheistic subpopulations in the United States; even those philosophers who specialize in religion believe in God at a somewhat lower rate than the general public does. Philosophers have also lately been in a habit of humility, as their profession's scope seems to shrink before the advance of science and the modern university's preference for research that wins corporate contracts. But it is partly because of William Lane Craig that one can hear certain stripes of evangelicals whispering to one another lately that "God is working something" in the discipline. And through the discipline, they see a way of working something in society as a whole.

The enormous kinds of questions that speculative-minded college students obsess over--life, death, the universe--are taken unusually seriously by philosophers who also happen to be evangelical Christians. To them, after all, what one believes matters infinitely for one's eternal soul. They therefore tend to care less about disciplinary minutiae and terms of art than about big-picture "worldviews," every aspect of which should be compatible with a particular way of thinking about the fraught love affair between God and humanity--or else.

The debates for which Craig is most famous live on long after the crowds are gone from the campus auditoriums or megachurch sanctuaries where they take place. On YouTube, they garner tens or hundreds of thousands of views as they're dissected and fact-checked by bloggers and hobbyists and apologists-in-training. Such debates have an appealing absence of gray area: There are only two sides, and one or the other has to win. By the time it's over, you have the impression that your intelligence has been respected--you get to hear both sides make their cases, after all. The winner? You decide.

"I believe that debate is the forum for sharing the gospel on college campuses," Craig told an audience of several thousand at a seminar about "Unpacking Atheism" in a suburban Denver church last October, simulcast at other churches around the country. Compared with the rancorous presidential debates happening at the time, he added, "these are respectable academic events conducted with civility and Christian charity."

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.

Craig comes by his mastery of the formal debate honestly; he worked at it on debating squads all through high school and all through college, with uncommon determination.

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Posted by at July 7, 2013 6:47 AM

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