Humanist Association president Polly Toynbee runs away from debate on God

Is this what atheism amounts to?
Is this what atheism amounts to?

Here’s the story at BeThinking.


The President of the British Humanist Association has pulled out of debating renowned Christian philosopher William Lane Craig. Polly Toynbee, Guardian columnist and prominent critic of religion, readily agreed in April to debate Craig on the Existence of God but withdrew her involvement last week saying I hadn’t realised the nature of Mr Lane Craig’s debating style, and having now looked at his previous performances, this is not my kind of forum”.

The event, hosted by Premier Christian Radio and due to take place at London’s Westminster Central Hall in October, has already been advertised and hundreds of pounds of ticket sales banked. Toynbee apologised for the “inconvenience”. Organisers will be contacting ticket holders, but are hoping to find an alternative leading atheist voice for the debate [see note below], who is willing to dispute the strong rational grounds for Christian theism that Professor Craig is renowned for defending.

William Lane Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, California. He has debated leading atheists the world over including Anthony Flew, Lewis Wolpert, Christopher Hitchens, and most recently Sam Harris, who described him as “the one Christian apologist who has put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists.” Following the debate with Hitchens, an atheist website concluded that Craig had “spanked Hitchens like a foolish child.”

Craig says of his debates, “These are academic forums, where one concentrates on the arguments and counter arguments, the truth of the premises in those arguments and objections to them, and not on personality or ad hominem attacks.”

Richard Dawkins recently described Craig as a “deeply unimpressive … ponderous buffoon”, who uses logic for “bamboozling his faith-head audience.” Yet he still has not responded to the actual content of the arguments presented by Craig. Dawkins’ refusal to debate one-to-one with Craig was recently described as “apt to be interpreted as cowardice” by Dr Daniel Came, a lecturer in Philosophy at Oxford University. Dr Came, who is himself an atheist, called it “a glaring omission” on Dawkins’ CV.

Meanwhile, A.C. Grayling, who this year published a humanist ‘bible’ called The Good Book has refused to debate with Craig on the foundations of atheist morality. With secular Britain beset by moral difficulties, not least among politicians, police and the press, this seems to be a neglect of his moral and intellectual duty. Grayling stated that he would rather debate “the existence of fairies and water-nymphs”.

Bolstering his own refusal to debate, Richard Dawkins posted this statement by A.C. Grayling on his website: “Craig claims to have debated me before – that is not correct, unless a brief and rather pointless exchange of emails counts as such.” Why should Craig claim to have debated Grayling, if it was not true?

This embarrassing lapse of memory on Grayling’s part has been exposed by Premier Radio who on 3rd July broadcast a recording of the entire Grayling vs. Craig debate on the Problem of Evil from 2005 and placed it on their website. Within the next 10 days, 10,000 people had downloaded it. It is now available on YouTube.

The Chairman that evening, Roger Preece, remembers it well. “The Debate was excellent. Craig and Grayling spoke to a packed house of 4-500 students at the Oxford Union. I enjoyed chairing the debate and it was a memorable and robust exchange, as the audio tapes confirm.”

Grayling has since commented “I was wrong about debating Lane Craig – but Lane Craig is wrong about everything else in the universe, so I guess I don’t do too badly in the deal.”

Dr Peter May, Director of the Craig Tour, said, “If Craig is ‘wrong about everything else in the universe’ and his arguments for the existence of God are so easy to refute, it is hard to see why the leading atheist voices in the country are running shy of having a debate with him. Rather than hurling ‘ad hominem’ attacks on Craig from their bunkers, it would be good to see these figures come forward to rationally defend the atheism they publicly espouse. At the moment it’s looking like a rout.”

While Toynbee is President of the British Humanist Association, Dawkins and Grayling are both Vice-Presidents. The BHA describes one of its core values as “engaging in debate rationally, intelligently and with attention to evidence”. [View the BHA core values here.]

And now we sing the atheist theme song:

If I were an atheist, I would be ashamed. This woman turned down a formal academic debate with a leading Christian scholar. The debate format is neutral, featuring fixed length speeches and no interruptions. Craig’s style is to use scientific evidence and formal logical arguments. I thought atheists were supposed to be good at logic and science? I guess not, though. “I don’t like God telling me what to do” is apparently as far ahead as they’ve thought. Is that all atheism is? Is it just a childhood tantrum that has run on too long? Is there no argument or evidence to sustain it at all? Are the “best” atheist debaters simply the ones who can rant the most shrilly? Is there anything more to atheism than whining and insults?

If you are interested in seeing William Lane Craig debate, check out the two videos below:

Yes, that is Christopher Hitchens in the first debate.

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7 thoughts on “Humanist Association president Polly Toynbee runs away from debate on God”

  1. I hope the UK media has the integrity to highlight this, and ask the tough questions of the atheist leaders. For example, why do you continue to speak out of both sides of your mouth in saying you are committed to dialogue and civil debate, but all of you run from the very opportunity to do just that?


  2. Aaaaah!!!! As a Brit greatly looking forward to Dr. Craig’s tour, why won’t any of our well-known atheists have the guts to debate him?


  3. I don’t think that this refusal of leading British atheists necessarily shows either cowardice or weak arguments. Craig operates in a highly specialised sub-specialisation of fine-tuning theory, which requires specialist knowledge in physics-from what I know of him at least.
    . None of the atheists mentioned are physicists, which would make it difficult for them to debate on a level playing field (I speculate here without knowing their precise reasons for not attending).


    1. You may be right, Peter. But the relevant question for Toynbee (and others) then becomes: If one of the most highly touted arguments FOR God’s existence is within a discipline she doesn’t know well enough to engage (namely, physics), then how can she remain an advocate of atheism until she’s done her homework? Or then she’d at least have to admit that she takes her atheism on faith or dogma.

      That’s about like being an advocate against common ancestry while not understanding genes (one of the common evidences FOR common ancestry) well enough to argue your position.

      All she’d have to do is scan other atheists’ responses to the argument…use the one she likes best, and then leave it alone to focus on one of Craig’s other lines of evidence. Unless she thinks his point hasn’t been well addressed, in which case…see my first paragraph.


      1. I have a feeling that what she wants to talk about is politics and how atheists “can be good”. This goes to my point about how atheists have to be taught in churches that Christianity is about being good, and not about truth. Then they decide they can be good without God and the “guilt trip” they get in church. They can be good without the chastity and the Hell. The church needs to do a better job of making it about truth and not about doing good things. Anyone can choose some “good things” to do that make them feel good, and therefore say they are “good”, and without the theological baggage.


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