If you’ve participated in a Jewish Seder (an observance of the Passover meal) you will recognize the concept of leaving an empty chair.

In some traditions the empty chair illustrates the coming of a future prophet. In Christian observations, it symbolizes the return of Christ. Some Jewish families leave an empty chair in honor of missing family members.

Next month (October 2011) philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig will observe an empty chair at a debate scheduled to take place at Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. The empty chair has nothing to do with any sort of religious symbolism, however. According to one atheist professor at Oxford University it has everything to do with cowardice.

Craig’s speaking tour in England includes numerous debates and lectures. The exact dates, locations, and personalities involved are listed here.  Four separate organizations invited Richard Dawkins to debate William Lane Craig (The British Humanist Association, The Cambridge Debating Union, the Oxford Christian Union and Premier Radio). Dawkins has declined all of the invitations drawing criticism from many of his fellow atheists including Oxford colleague professor Dr Daniel Came, philosophy lecturer from Worcester College, Oxford.

In an article in the The Telegraph, Dr. Came summarizes his encouragement to Dawkins, “The absence of a debate with the foremost apologist for Christian theism is a glaring omission on your CV and is of course apt to be interpreted as cowardice on your part.” Dr. Came recognizes the need for Dawkins to interact with the leading objections to his work. To fail to do so makes him vulnerable to the criticism of avoiding the best arguments.

Perhaps Dawkins is familiar with the author Sam Harris who described Craig as, “the one Christian apologist who has put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists.” Or maybe Dawkins knows of Christopher Hitchens who described his personal debate with Craig as a “Goliath vs. Goliath,” when a reporter insinuated that it would be a David (Craig) vs. Goliath (Hitchens). It’s even possible that Dawkins has come across the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett who responded to Craig’s presentation at a professional philosophy conference as “That is a virtuoso job. A stunning amount of careful articulation and structure of some dauntingly difficult issues,” to which the audience applauded. I’m sure none of the leading new atheists’ comments shed any light on Dawkins decision.

Since Dawkins continues to debate lesser opponents, including philosophers and “professional debaters,” his reasoning for the multiple declines isn’t convincing. At least not for his Oxford colleague and fellow atheist Daniel Dame.  To subdue the critics, he needs merely to show up at the debate next month held in his hometown.

Like a Seder meal, I’m expecting the chair to remain empty.
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