UPDATE: I have received an email from Dr. Rabel, asserting that I have instigated people to write him emails, and claiming that some of those emails have been abusive, calling him a coward and so on. I did not of course ask readers to write any emails, nor did I provide any email addresses. But if you write to Rabel or Haught on your own initiative, please be polite! There is no point in name-calling in such emails; the issue is one of free inquiry, and if you expect to achieve a result (and you won’t anyway, I suspect), you have to be polite. Anyway, Rabel has threatened legal action against me, so don’t make it worse!
This is the story of the cowardly and intellectually dishonest actions of a theologian—one who is suppressing release of a video that shows the lameness of his religious beliefs. It’s also the story of an academic center supposedly dedicated to fostering open debate, but actually complicit in suppressing that debate.
On October 12 at the University of Kentucky, I debated Catholic theologian John Haught from Georgetown University on the topic of “Are science and religion compatible?” It was a lively debate, and I believe I got the better of the man (see my post-debate report here). Haught didn’t seem to have prepared for the debate, merely rolling out his tired old trope of a “layered” universe, with the layer of God and Jesus underlying the reality of the cosmos, life, and evolution. I prepared pretty thoroughly, reading half a dozen of Haught’s books (you need read only one: they’re all the same), and watching all his previous debates on YouTube. (Note that he’s sanctioned release of those videos.)
Haught seemed to have admitted his loss, at least judging by the audience reaction, but blamed it on the presence of “Jerry’s groupies,” an explanation I found offensive. I’m not aware of any groupies anywhere, much less in Kentucky!
The debate, including half an hour of audience questions, was videotaped. Both John and I had given our permission in advance for the taping. I looked forward to the release of the tape because, of course, I wanted a wider audience for my views than just the people in the audience in Lexington. I put a lot of work into my 25-minute talk, and was eager for others to see why I found science and religion to be at odds.
Well, you’re not going to see that tape—ever. After agreeing to be taped, Haught decided that he didn’t want the video released. Here’s what happened:
- Dr. Robert Rabel, head of the Gaines Center for the Humanities, which sponsored the debate, informed me on Sunday that Haught had requested that he did not want the video posted. Note that Haught had already agreed to be taped, so his appeal that it not be made public was a post facto decision.
- Rabel decides to honor Haught’s request on the grounds that he didn’t get permission from Haught in advance to post the video. I find this bizarre because the whole idea of taping the event is to make the debate more public, and because previous debates in this series have been posted. The idea of posting is implicit when one agrees to be taped, and, believe me, I would not have gone back on that agreement even if I had lost badly. That is not only bad form, but intellectually dishonest.
- Eager to at least get my part out, I asked Rabel to just edit the tape omitting John’s talk and his answers in the question session. Rabel refuses, saying that it would be too much trouble.
- I ask Rabel for Haught’s email address so I can try to persuade the theologian to change his mind, or at least find out why he won’t sanction posting of the video (Rabel, Haught, and I had all exchanged three-way emails before the debate, but I lost Haught’s address). Rabel refuses to give me the email address because he wants to “stay out of it,” telling me that I can search for it online. I find the address and email Haught, asking politely if he won’t change his mind about releasing the video, and, if not, requesting his reason.
- Unwilling to give up, I ask Rabel for a copy of the tape—offering to pay any expenses for it—so that I can edit out Haught’s part and just post mine. Rabel refuses, saying that he “didn’t think that would work.”
- Haught responds to my email asking him to change his mind. His short response says that the event “failed to meet what I consider to be reasonable standards of fruitful academic exchange,” and that he would have no further comment.
I am deeply angry about this stand, and can see only one reason for what Haught has done: cowardice. He lost the debate; his ideas were exposed for the mindless theological fluff that they were; and I used his words against him, showing that even “sophisticated” theology, when examined under the microscope of reason, is just a bunch of made-up stuff, tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The stuff about “reasonable standards of fruitful academic exchange” is laughably dishonest. Presumably Haught thinks that his discourse was fruitful and reasonable, so the fault here could only be mine. But if that’s the case, then the tape would show that his stance was far superior to mine, and would in his view be worth posting.
Haught is acting like a child, not a respectable academic. He can’t be the the pitcher (bowler for you Brits), so he’s taking his ball and going home. His actions are contemptible, and I have no qualms about exposing them. And, by bowing to Haught’s post facto refusal to approve posting of a video whose making he approved, the Gaines Center is censoring a lively and fruitful debate rather than offend one of its participants. This is not academia’s finest moment, and it’s a new low for theology.
I was looking forward to posting or linking to that video, and I’m deeply sorry that I can’t. I’ve tried all avenues of approach, and have failed.
The only good thing to come from this affair is that it exposes not only the follies of “sophisticated” theology, but the cowardice of a famous theologian. (Haught is the most prominent American theologian who writes about evolution and its comity with religion.) If Haught can’t win a debate, then he’ll use all his God-given powers to prevent anyone from seeing his weaknesses. I’ve written to other well-known atheists who have debated theologians, and not one of them is aware of anything like this ever happening.
Censorship like this is not good for academic discourse; it serves only to protect the weak bastion of theology from the cannons of reason. Shame on you, John Haught, and shame on the Gaines Center for being complicit in the censorship.