Under pressure from blogosphere, Haught explains and relents

UPDATE: I have heard from John Haught, who says that he’s satified with my posting his response, and he’ll now okay the release of the video.


Yesterday was quite a day.  I never expected the inundation of emails and support I received for my post about John Haught’s refusal to release the video of our debate on science and religion. That post has now garnered nearly four hundred comments.  The students at the University of Kentucky started an online “free-the-video” petition that’s accrued almost 400 signatures, there were nearly forty thousand views of my site, and l’affaire DebateGate made the front page of Slashdot and appeared on reddit christianitySomeone even amended John Haught’s Wikipedia page to describe the kerfuffle.

Readers apparently fired off emails to all and sundry: the President of the University of Kentucky, the National Endowment for the Humanities (who funds the Gaines Center, which hosted the debate), and various other officials at the University of Kentucky—and, of course, to John Haught and Robert Rabel, who was forced to deep-six his email address.  Rabel also threatened me with legal action because of the “abusive” emails he received. But I was deeply gratified that two awesome lawyers, readers of this website, offered to defend me pro bono should that transpire.  (I’m sure there will be no need for that: Rabel was just blustering and has no legal basis for action).

I also learned what the “Streisand effect” was, and for the first time fully appreciated the power of the internet to effect change, especially change that I desired.

I do regret, though, any abuse or name-calling that came down on Haught and Rabel.  I did not ask readers to write anyone—indeed, I had no idea that this would blow up as it did, nor that people would take it upon themselves to rectify the matter.  For that I am grateful, and have learned something.  But I would ask that until this blows over—and that seems imminent—you remain courteous in all your communications with officials you’re trying to persuade.  And that also goes for any comment attached to this post.

Perhaps most gratifying was the support I received from the skeptical blogosphere.  P.Z. Myers posted on this, as did Ophelia at Butterflies and Wheels (twice), Miranda HaleJason at EvolutionBlog, as well as Eric MacDonald and erv. It’s heartening that, despite our differences, we can all come together when there’s an important issue—free speech and the dissemination of our message—that concerns us all.

The good news is that John Haught has apparently relented, or so I think.  He wrote me an email yesterday saying he would okay the release of the video if I posted his three-page “explanation” on this site. He also asked me to apologize publicly for distorting the facts (he claimed that I said he’d given his permission to post the debate, a claim that’s completely false), for bringing down opprobrium on The University of Kentucky and Dr. Robert Rabel, and for the damage that my approach has done to the notion of free and open debate.

Needless to say, I won’t apologize for those things.  I stated the facts accurately, and if those facts angered people and made them want to do something about this censorship, then that’s all well and good.  Although I don’t consider myself responsible for any vitriol associated with those attacks, I do regret whatever intemperate behavior resulted from my post, and ask readers, for the sake of civility, to stick to the issue at hand: the censorship of a video, the reasons for such censorship, and the issue of science versus faith.

Nor will I give Haught a long post to “explain” himself.  That is not my habit, since this website belongs to me.  But I do think it’s fair to allow him to explain his actions, which, he claims, were not motivated by cowardice or by having “lost” the debate.  Haught has in fact put his explanation in a long comment on the previous thread, which you can find here (it’s comment #122 for those with cellphones).  He’s seems to be angered by my comments on Catholicism.

I have responded very briefly to John’s comment immediately after it was posted (the reply to comment #122). My own words are fewer because I think readers themselves need to judge the veracity of Haught’s claims by watching the video.  I hope that John will honor his promise to release the video immediately.  My hope has always been for readers to watch it and draw their own conclusions. When that becomes possible, I will either put the video on this site or link to it.

If you would like to comment on what John or I said, it might be best to add the comments to this post rather than the previous one:  the earlier post has so many comments that it’s prudent to start a new discussion. Again, try to be civil.

Thanks to the readers for all their help and solicitude, and watch this space! I expect to hear from John and Robert Rabel shortly that the video has been released and posted.


  1. jose
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    So when do we get to watch the debate?

  2. Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink


    • Lowen Gartner
      Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink


      • Lowen Gartner
        Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink


  3. Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Re: Update

    Looking forward to seeing it!

  4. mordacious1
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    “Sophisticated argument requires as an essential condition that you have the good manners to understand before you criticize”.

    This kind of statement irks the heck out of me (You wouldn’t criticize me if you truly understood the argument I’m making. Educate yourself and then return). Very dismissive. I think Prof. Coyne has been educating himself on Haught’s “sophisticated arguments” and Haught was taken by surprise when Dr. Coyne shot holes in his arguments.

    • Dan L.
      Posted November 2, 2011 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      Good point. “You simply didn’t understand, you poor child,” is not a legitimate argument — if the person making it sticks to his or her guns there is simply no acceptable answer. (I did understand! No you didn’t! Yes I did! Didn’t!)

      Haught has to be specific about HOW Coyne misunderstood his arguments and correcting these misunderstandings if he wants this to stick. That’s the only way it would be obvious that it’s a legitimate objection and not a last-ditch effort to save face or whatever.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted November 2, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        I haven’t seen the debate (obviously), so the experience I’m about to describe is NOT about Dr. Haught.

        I’ve been in a few discussions where “You’re misunderstanding my argument” really seems to mean “You seem to understand my argument, but you’re reacting as if what I’m saying is intellectually or morally indefensible, so you must not be understanding it right.”

        Most recently, I saw this in a discussion where a Christian was trying to defend Luther’s statements about reason. The Christian’s argument was that Luther supported reason, as long as it was subordinate to faith. This is exactly what the critic of Luther was criticizing but the defender didn’t seem to understand why anyone would find that stance objectionable.

        • Dan L.
          Posted November 2, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

          Well that’s a good point, sometimes people’s values might be so different that they can understand what each other are saying and still not understand why each takes the position xe does.

  5. Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    i’m glad that the video will be released. the drama surrounding is not of that much importance to me, but it’s interesting that the video’s emergence is dependent on him and him alone. i find it hard to believe that mr. coyne has delivered such a “tasteless argument” to theology that it warrants being suppressed. if mr. coyne truly does come off as mr. haught claims, won’t that only help mr. haught’s case/points, rather than hurt them? maybe this point’s been made already and i don’t meant to prolong the thread by restating something already said. i just didn’t wade through every comment. as i said, i’m glad the video will be released.

  6. Greg Esres
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    People with vague ideas put them forth expecting you to flush out the fuzziness with concepts that have meaning to you. The result is that a thousand people read the same paragraphs and think a thousand different things and nod to themselves how wise the author is.

    Students often use this technique; rather than risk being wrong by making precise claims, they resort to vague words that are consistent with a wide variety of concrete statements, hoping that the teacher will assume they were describing the correct one.

    • Newish Gnu
      Posted November 2, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      That reminds me, I haven’t read my horoscope today.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted November 2, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
      • Greg Esres
        Posted November 2, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink


  7. Aratina Cage
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    How can Haught have used the word scientism and not thought he was being condescending and accusatory?

    • TJR
      Posted November 2, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      Yes, its one of those “I’ve run out of rational arguments” words isn’t it? Its a shame that Daniel on Camels with Hammers (hey, anyone remember that dispute?) used it as well, as otherwise he’s written some good stuff.

      • Aratina Cage
        Posted November 2, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I don’t know why it is catching on as an OK word to use. It isn’t OK because it does attempt to shoehorn science into an ism and scientists or science-lovers into materialist-religious fanatics.

  8. Diane G.
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    From Haught’s “Open Letter:”

    Rather than answering my point that scientism is logically incoherent–which is really the main issue–and instead of addressing my argument that the encounter with religious truth requires personal transformation…

    Why is the main issue not that “religionism is logically incoherent?” And what does “the encounter with religious truth requires personal transformation” (translation, anyone?) have to do with “are relgion and science compatible?,” (my understanding of what was the main issue, just judging by the title of the whole affair…)

    • jose
      Posted November 2, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      I think the point about personal transformation is that you just have to “open” yourself to God (implications unpleasant), lower your intellectual defenses and let it happen and once you do that it’s kind of like a first hand experience, like when you know your tummy aches, you don’t need a scientific test to know that. You just know it because it’s in you. So science would serve to get to learn things about the external world and God would be a first-hand experience, like a tummy ache. Hence two “ways of knowing”.

      Apparently it’s this kind of first-hand revelation that led the Pope to say divorce and gay marriage are very very bad.

      And that’s the problem with that idea. It doesn’t provide an operative method to tell real experiences from self delusion or which person has the real answer when there are two contradictory experiences. If you can’t tell whether you’re having a Divine revelation or you’re just hallucinating, then the whole approach isn’t very useful.

      Science on the other hand is based on an operative method of this kind: the experiment.

      • Tulse
        Posted November 2, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

        Apparently it’s this kind of first-hand revelation that led the Pope to say divorce and gay marriage are very very bad.

        And led Jim Jones to demand mass suicide of his followers.

        And led Aum Shinrikyo to release sarin gas on the Tokyo subway.

        And led the Christian Phalangists to massacre hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila.


    • Keith
      Posted November 2, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      Short version: you have to WANT to believe, and then you will. Self-delusion is the personal transformation.

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 3, 2011 at 12:26 am | Permalink

        Thank you, jose and Keith. I was kinda afraid it was along those lines . . .

  9. Kevin
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Of course, you know what this means.

    We’ve all be sentenced to listening to the entirety of Haught’s speech.

    I’m not sure my ears can take it.

    A nice Merlot and some brie might go well with it, I’m sure. Tres sophistiqué

  10. Mr_Christopher
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Theologians are tasked with trying to make the idea of a Hebrew talking snake palatable if not believable. Keep in mind before the fall there was at least one reptile who could talk to humans. That in itself is weird beyond description.

    I’m astonished that grown men (and women) view the bible as anything other than what Hitchens has described as the incoherent babbling of stupified desert dwellers.

    I have no respect for theologians, they’re worse than preachers because they very well know they’re just making shit up.

    And I am tied of being told we should lie to religionists so they will accept evolution, that if we tell them the truth they will run to the comfort of creationism. Who gives a damn? I mean really, who gives a damn.

    If I have to lie to someone so they won’t run from science to creationism in horror, let them run. Seriously, more speed to you if you can’t handle the truth.

    Nick Matzke is a wingnut in that respect. I am not going to lie for science to that backwards thinking people won’t adopt even more backwards ideas.

    Guess what Nick, the King has no clothes, it’s not a pretty realization, and sometimes the GNUs might make fun of how silly he looks all naked and shit, but he aint wearing clothes and some of us are going to point that out.

    Snakes cannot speak Hebrew, the world was not created in a day, the universe is older than 10,000 years, the bible is demonstrably factually, morally, and logically stunted and unreliable. It is all myths, not matter how hard John Haught tried to pray it away.

    Making this public is not a crime, if people get their feelings hurt they might adopt a more durable outlook, or borrow some thicker skin.

    I am so sick and tired of theologians and their apologists.

    • Posted November 2, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      “GNUs” — I’d never thought of it as an acronym before… genial naturalistic unbelievers?


      • Sastra
        Posted November 2, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        GNU = Godless Now Uppity.

  11. video
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Looks like the video has been posted:


  12. AbnormalWrench
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Welp, just finished watching the video. I was fully expecting Professor Coyne to pull out a machete and start lopping off limbs, from the description he offered. I’m sad to say, I saw no blood letting. The quotes offered seemed pretty generic, if I may be so bold, they are super nuanced subjects, but general statements that I dare say I’ve heard many many apologists and theologians make. I’d love to hear Mr Haught explain exactly how they were unfairly treated. I would hope we don’t need to read several books to just get an explanation of how his argument missed the mark.

    As for the personal attacks, I didn’t see it. The mention of pedophilia was actually to disassociate it from Catholic belief (the first mention anyway). The commentary on official Catholic dogma seemed both accurate and followed logically on the argument being presented. I don’t see how it could be a non sequitur to offer examples of religious “truth” leading to negative social policy, in contrast with scientific “truth”.

    Overall, I didn’t really think the lecture was controversial at all. If you have read any “new” atheist writings, these are pretty common talking points. I’m curious how this could be offensive to Mr. Haught, considering he clearly read some of them while writing a book in response.

    I’m mystified what all the fainting was about, sorry to say.

    • AbnormalWrench
      Posted November 2, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

      Ack. Hit send before proof reading.

      “from the description he [Mr. Haught] offered”

      “they are NOT super nuanced subjects”

  13. Scott
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    Just watched the video; it certainly seemed to me that Dr. Coyne spent virtually all of his time describing legitimate conflicts in the attempt to accommodate religion with science, not attacking Dr. Haught. He gave examples of attempts to make this accommodation and why he sees them as faulty. It just happens that a healthy chunk of the examples were from Dr. Haught. I don’t see this as unfair, given Dr. Haught’s status, although a format with the opportunity for rebuttal would probably have helped.

    What makes me sad is that Dr. Haught appears to be a genuinely nice person who wants to believe nice things about the world. I have great empathy for how it must feel to have the obvious (in my opinion) contradictions that must be so central to his personal identity shredded so thoroughly. The problem is that when you start with your conclusions and work backwards to try to jam the facts into them, you’re setting yourself up with ever-increasing levels of cognitive dissonance. Even worse when you are a public figure specifically for those views. I can’t comprehend the mental gymnastics required to view the bible as anything resembling the template of morality. I expected it to be at least inspiring but, wow, was I wrong (it’s not *all* bad, but is extremely backward by today’s standards).

    Also, re the inclusion of crimes by the Catholic church, they were the ones who set themselves up as absolute authority on truth and morality. Therefore, their actions are perfectly valid evidence of the inability of religion to provide answers on truth and morality. A racist/sexist Darwin poses no problems for the theory of evolution or science in general; any conclusions drawn from personal/societal bias instead of evidence will eventually be burned away in the light of reason.

  14. Posted November 3, 2011 at 3:58 am | Permalink

    As far as I can personally see, the argument that God exists is purely to exact control over people. Toe the line or you’ll get yours. So much pain and suffering around religion takes away any divine inspiration for me. Wishing to dupe and bamboozle people does nothing for ethics or morality. Religion is completely at odds with the truth it purports to bring.

  15. michael
    Posted November 3, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I’m glad this video was released so we can all see what all the noise is about.

    I must say I was quite surprised. Contrary to my expectations, I found Mr. Coyne’s arguments to be weak and poorly presented. Very surprising.

    A brief example:

    Consider the discussion around:
    “how many people believe in the literal presence of angels? 78% according to a recent poll. If you’re smart you know there is no such thing as angels [giggles]”
    Consider the larger context of the discussion around this quote, not just the quote itself. Consider the statistics presented in the moments before and after. What is the purpose of this line of discussion Mr. Coyne? This does not address the topic of the discussion (“Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?”) except perhaps at the most superficial level. You had nothing more insightful to say? You did manage to imply that most people are stupid, but I’m not sure how that helped your case. There are those of us that are aligned with your views and are as dogmatic about it as the most devout religous person. Those people probably loved this kind of talk. “Yah, you tell him! Most people are dummies! We’re the elite – the smart ones!” That’s fine if you want to “preach to the converted”. This is very weak content and the rest of the presentation featured much of the same. Frankly it was boring and added nothing intellectually provocative. I can hear that kind of talk in an undergrad lounge over a couple of beers.

    I’m sorry, but from a purely academic point of view, Mr Haught argued his point in a more mature and convincing manner. His delivery was better too. I doubt you convinced anybody new.

    I cannot fathom why Haught would not want this released. It is an academic discussion and must be released unless there is content that is slanderous, hateful, or which promotes discrimination. This is not nearly the case here. Mr. Haught, what were you thinking? Don’t be sensative. There is no place for that here. If you feel you were misrepresented, take advantage of the publicity and reply formally and fully. I would also love to see Mr. Coyne have a second kick at the can. Kick it up a notch gentlemen?

    • Sastra
      Posted November 3, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

      michael #65 wrote:

      “how many people believe in the literal presence of angels? 78% according to a recent poll. If you’re smart you know there is no such thing as angels [giggles]” … This does not address the topic of the discussion (“Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?”) except perhaps at the most superficial level.

      I agree that Dr. Coyne would have been more prudent — and would have made his point more clearly — if he had instead said “If you’re using a scientific approach you know there is no such thing as angels.” But I think this is implied anyway, in context.

      And at the most basic (not superficial) level I think it’s certainly relevant that religious beliefs like angels certainly do conflict with our scientific understanding of what does, and does not, exist. It may be obvious, but bringing it up isn’t childish.

      • michael
        Posted November 3, 2011 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

        I agree with you Sastra. It is obvious and not childish. It is not compelling or interesting either.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 5, 2011 at 5:14 am | Permalink

      Thanks for joining us, the missing wingnut. Among Haught, that knows he got his ass kicked, and Matzke, who fears Haught got his ass kicked, you place as the one who doesn’t know Haught got his ass kicked.

      If it is so obvious, why do Coyne has to mention it to Haught. And in a discussion about religion, not theology? Maybe _you_ should consider the context, all of it.

      • michael
        Posted November 5, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

        yawn…blah blah blah….simpleton troll

        • Ichthyic
          Posted November 5, 2011 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

          blah blah blah…

          nothing of substance in your original post, or since.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted November 5, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

      . What is the purpose of this line of discussion Mr. Coyne?

      It was simple:

      to show that irrationality is commonplace.

      this, in fact, is why there is such a low acceptance of science itself in the United States.

      It’s a direct attack on the very idea of accomodationism, and Haught’s “sophisticated theology” at the same time.

      It was simple, straightforward, and directly on point.

      that YOU couldn’t grasp it has nothing to do with it being weak.

      • michael
        Posted November 6, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        “there is such a low acceptance of science itself in the United States.”

        Really? Do you also believe that religion is more widely accepted than science is in the United States? That would an interesting. I think I could easily support the idea that they are both widely accepted in the United States and therefore draw an equally weak conclusion that science and religion are very compatible. So, according to you, his argument is: Lots of people believe in angels. That is not smart. Science is about being smart/rational, so science and religion are not compatible. This argument, as you characterize it, is indeed weak.

        Accomodationism on the other hand is loosely defined as the act of adapting to or compromising with an opposing view. Whether or not you think this is a positive practice is somewhat beside the point don’t you think? I also assert that this line of discussion does little to refute Haught’s “sophisticated theology” but feel free to correct me here. That indeed would have been more to the point.

        Our difference in opinion probably has less to do with what I was able to grasp and more to do with your confirmation bias. Are you looking for ideas that support your own rather than looking at the argument objectively? If not, feel free to reply and better demonstrate my lack of understanding.

        Note that in my comments I have not taken a position on the debate topic. I am only discussing the quality of the arguments made.

  16. Posted November 3, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    One question I’m wondering about:

    Haught claims that he was told that he was told that each person would be making a 25 minute presentation and that it would not be a debate. Is there’s any evidence for this? Can Jerry confirm/refute this claim based on what he was told?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted November 3, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

      What we were told is that we each had 25 minutes to talk on the topic. We were told, as I recall, that it wasn’t a “debate” in the sense that we weren’t going to have back-and-forths on the stage after our initial presentations. So it wasn’t a a formal “debate” in that sense. But there was no stricture on what I could say, and, as I recall, I told Robert Rabel that I was going to take a pretty tough stand.

      • Posted November 3, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

        Hmm, this makes it more plausible to me that there was some degree of miscommunication or illusion of transparency http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illusion_of_transparency in what not a debate meant. And Rabel may not have realized that by a tough position you meant you were going to go directly against Haught’s position. This makes their behavior and Haught’s reaction make more sense although still seems to be out of line. But I don’t think people realize how often the illusion of transparency can cause serious issues especially when people already have a tendency to presume that people they disagree with are somehow bad.

  17. Galactor
    Posted November 4, 2011 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    This is the first time I have heard Jerry Coyne speak and I was very impressed with the fluidity of his delivery and its content. The conclusion I draw from Haught’s reaction is that it’s not nice to point out the cognitive dissonance of another when it wasn’t expected.

    That does mean that Haught could see the absurdity of his position.

    One thing that struck me was how Dr. Coyne submitted that what he was going to say would be hard-hitting and pugnacious. I wonder why Dr. Coyne feels that what he said would be interpreted in such a way.

  18. coconnor1017
    Posted November 4, 2011 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Greg A.

    Define the experiment you wish us to conduct as a “science” towards analyzing Christianity.

    Right now it comes off as empty sophistry and your utter ignorance of how science works.

  19. Posted November 4, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Where the heck is the Q&A session, they cut it all out except for the first question!

  20. Robert Allen
    Posted November 4, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    In the teapot analogy, the explanation of “I want tea” is pure speculation if the only empirical evidence you have is that the water is boiling. Pure speculation is not reality, it isn’t truth, and it doesn’t deserve respect.

  21. Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    John Haught made a number of problematic or obviously false claims.

    For example, he says: The new atheists don’t want to think out the implications of a complete absence of deity … The implications should be nihilism.

    This is more than problematic, it is manifestly false. Nihilism no more follows automatically from atheism than does meaningfulness from theism. As I argue in my recent book, The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives, both nihilistic and non-nihilistic views can follow from either atheism or theism. Most importantly, the view that theism does not guarantee meaningfulness is the generally accepted view among contemporary philosophers, of whom only about 15% are theists. The majority of the remaining 85% of philosophers are not nihilists, as Haught’s argument implies they would be.

    Next Haught suggests that theism justifies hope, whereas atheism cannot:

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] now have reason to believe that the video will be released.  Haught changed his tune after the internet backlash.  We still await the video. [...]

  2. [...] has apparently now agreed to release the video. Anyway, be sure to read Jerry’s two posts (1, 2) on this for a more detailed explanation of the whole [...]

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