One of the many entertaining historical episodes we owe to religion is the story of the doctrine of equivocation or mental reservation. St. Augustine, one of the most influential Christian theologians ever, took the view that lying is always always wrong, and this view was ended up being adopted by the Catholic Church as a whole. This creates a number of problems, most obviously that sometimes it seems lying is the only way to save someone from getting killed.
So for example, there was a time when Catholic priests were prohibited from entering England on pain of death. So what’s a Catholic priest trying to get into England to do, when the English authorities ask if he’s a priest? The Jesuits decided it was not, in fact, technically lying for a priest to say, “I am not a priest.” As Wikipedia explains:
A Jesuit priest would equivocate in order to protect himself from the secular authorities without (in his eyes) committing the sin of lying. For example, he could use the ambiguity of the word “a” (meaning “any” or “one”) to say “I swear I am not a priest”, because he could have a particular priest in mind who he was not. That is, in his mind, he was saying “I swear I am not one priest” (e.g. “I am not Father Brown”.) This was theorized by casuists as the doctrine of mental reservation.
I’ve also heard that priests sometimes justified this by silently amending “in your eyes” to the statement of non-priesthood. In either case, the priest is really just lying. While they were right that there is such a thing as an ambiguous statement that falls short of lying, this doesn’t qualify. The alternative meanings of “I am not a priest” the priests were carrying around in their heads were things that sentence never actually means.
I’ve come to the conclusion that something similar is going on with many of William Lane Craig’s more absurd statements. This came out really clearly listening to his debate with Stephen Law. In the debate, Law took the position that Craig’s cosmological argument was simply irrelevant, because it doesn’t even try to prove the existence of God as defined by both Law and Craig. Craig decided to take this and announce that Law had “conceded” the argument. Law called him out on this, and here’s how Craig defended himself:
Well, I would say in response to that that since we both agree that the cosmological argument, my first argument, doesn’t even attempt to establish the moral properties of the creator, that means the problem of evil is irrelevant with respect to it, it doesn’t offer any refutation of it, and that was what I meant when I said you tacitly concede that there is a creator of the universe, in a debate context, because you don’t refute it. I mean, in a debate context, to refuse to address and engage with an argument is to tacitly admit it.
This is all nonsense. Craig is trying to give the word “concede” a meaning it simply doesn’t have. Craig regularly dismisses arguments on the grounds of irrelevance (he even does so in the above quote!), but it would be dishonest for me to take statements like that and declare that Craig has conceded the God of the Old Testament is a moral monster, or that Craig has conceded the New Testament is historically unreliable.
I’ve covered another example of this here and here, Craig’s four “facts” which plainly aren’t. Yet another example comes from his response to Dale Allison’s book Resurrecting Jesus. One of the highlights of the book is where Allison brings together a huge number of reports of visions and apparitions to show that the reports of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances aren’t terribly unique. Here’s what Craig says about this:
Allison’s familiarity with the literature is daunting. Pages 279-82 of his essay contain only 16 lines of text and nearly 200 fine lines of references! But his very strength as a bibliographer becomes a weakness, since he tends to accept all reports uncritically, lumping together serious studies in journals of psychology with New Age popular books and publications in parapsychology. Most of the so-called veridical visions of deceased persons are gathered from parapsychological literature of the late nineteenth century. What is wanting is a careful sifting of the evidence and a differentiated discussion of the same. Allison’s discussion reminded me of literature I’ve read on UFO sightings, in which the serious is mixed with the ridiculous, leaving one in great uncertainty about what to make of such experiences.
Craig insinuates that Allison is just like the UFOlogists, but there’s an important difference: Allison isn’t saying everything in the reports actually happened, he’s just pointing out the parallels between reports. To say that Allison “accepts” all the stories he catalogs is a lie, if the word “accepts” is used to mean what it normally means. Based on the examples of Law’s “concession” and Craig’s “facts,” I assume that if challenged Craig would claim he meant something else, perhaps that by “accept” he just meant “include in the footnotes.” But again, that’s not what the word means.
I think I’ve said this before, but if you know the issues, these absurdities are so hard to take seriously that it’s tempting to treat them as mere rhetorical flourishes. But most people who hear Craig speak don’t know the issues very well, and are going to believe his lies. That’s why I think it’s important to call this stuff out, along with Craig’s absurdly selective use of actual facts… though that’s a topic for another day.
Note: After typing up the main body of this post, I found the following comment by Stephen Law in the comments section of his blog. I pass it on without comment:
Also, there’s a widespread misperception that philosophers are pretty evenly divided on theism. They’re not. Only 15% are even theists of some sort. Almost all think Craig’s arguments are shot full of holes. Craig likes to appeal to authority, and quote big names, thereby creating the impression that the consensus is with him or at least evenly divided (See, even leading atheists endorse my moral argument!). I’m afraid that’s all bullshit. But it reassures the punters that what he’s saying has real credibility. Which is the real point of these tours.
Notice that when pressed by Brierley, Craig actually admitted at the end of the debate in the QandA that his repeated insistence during the debate that I had conceded there was a God by not going after the cosmological argument was just “debate tactics”. He didn’t actually believe it.
I would never give an argument I believed not to be good just to win a debate. Craig and I go into these debates with very different attitudes. I am interested in truth. He’s interested in making believers of you, by any means necessary.