Update 11/2/11, 11:26pm: John Haught has relented, and the video has now been released. You can find it here. Haught has also provided a lengthy explanation of his initial refusal to allow the tape to be released. Jerry has replied.
A few weeks ago, Jerry Coyne and John Haught discussed science/religion compatibility in a forum held at the University of Kentucky. Jerry wrote a brief account of what transpired. It seems that Jerry prepared thoroughly for the debate by reading no less than six of Haught’s books and watching all of his presentations on You Tube. Haught, on the other hand, phoned it in and delivered a standard stump speech.
But maybe you read Jerry’s account and wondered if he was exaggerating, or perhaps slanting his coverage of the event to make himself look good. You probably figured the video of the event would inevitably show up on You Tube, and then you would just see for yourself who had the better of it.
Well, apparently not. You see, Haught after giving his permission to have the event video taped in the first place, has now refused to allow the tape to be released.
When Jerry asked Haught for an explanation for his refusal, here is what he got:
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.
We can dismiss out of hand the possibility that this is the real reason. You can be sure that if Haught thought he came off looking good he would happily give his permission to release the video, no matter how unfruitful he found the exchange to be.
The image I now have in my mind of what happened in Lexington is much, much worse than what Jerry described in his write-up. I’m picturing a Rick Perry-like debate performance. I’m picturing Haught’s supporters watching in slack-jawed horror as their hero crashed and burned in a manner reminiscent of the Hindenberg. I figure that’s the level of awfulness that would be required for Haught to make this decision.
After all, he has to know how foolish and ridiculous this decision makes him look. Release the video and the tiny corner of the blogosphere that cares about such things would watch it, chuckle a bit, and then that would be the end of it. No doubt he and his supporters could spin it as a consequence of his ideas being just too darn deep to be adequately expressed in such a forum. But by making a big deal about it like this he just ensures that anyone who cares about academic openness will think he’s just a buffoon. Most academics, even if they were disappointed with their performance, would nonetheless give their permission to post it, shrug their shoulders, and move on.
I’ve read several of Haught’s books over the years, though I wasted my time with all but the first, since he mostly just publishes the same book over and over again. As with so many theologians, he seems to revel in his inability to write a clear sentence. For example, here’s how he rebukes Richard Dawkins for holding (as Haught sees it) an overly simplistic definition of faith:
Faith, as theology uses the term, is neither an irrational leap nor ‘belief without evidence.’ It is an adventurous movement of trust that opens reason up to its appropriate living space, namely, the inexhaustibly deep dimension of Being, Meaning, Truth, and Goodness. Faith is not the enemy of reason but its cutting edge. Faith is what keeps reason from turning in on itself and suffocating in its own self-enclosure. Faith is what opens our minds to the infinite horizon in which alone reason can breathe freely and in which action can gain direction. Reason requires a world much larger than the one that mere rationalism or scientific naturalism is able to provide. Without the clearing made by faith, reason withers, and conduct has no calling. Faith is what gives reason a future, and morality a meaning.
When facing an audience of his coreligionists, or when writing obscure books read primarily by those supportive of his ideas, he can be confident that the audience will happily play along with pretending that murky writing is a sign of great profundity. Placed instead in a forum where his ideas are challenged and the audience is open-minded, and suddenly the incoherence of his arguments becomes painfully clear.
That, I suspect, is what happened in Lexington. I picture Jerry making his points calmly but forcefully, and I picture Haught not really saying much of anything. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the video will come out after all and I will end up with egg on my face. Well, there’s certainly one way to put me in my place.
Professor Haught, suck it up, be a mensch, and release the video!