MacDonald on Haught

As I noted in yesterday’s post, John Haught has relented and has allowed the video of his appearance with Jerry Coyne to be posted online. I am pleased that he ultimately decided to do the right thing.

Having now had a chance to watch the two presentations, let me say that I stand by my speculation, from yesterday’s post, regarding what happened:

I picture Jerry making his points calmly but forcefully, and I picture Haught not really saying much of anything.

I had intended to go through Haught’s talk carefully and explain, point by point, why I think his argument does not hold up at all. But Eric MacDonald has beaten me to it. His post is such a comprehensive and magisterial refutation of Haught’s argument that I simply have nothing to add. So let me turn the floor over to Eric, and quote two portions in particular that strike me as spot on:

However, as we can see here, Haught wants us to begin with the man Jesus. He speaks about the self-emptying of God in Jesus as completely unproblematic from the standpoint of what we can know about the universe as science presents this knowledge to us. But there is an illegitimate step involved here. We are, he says, to read the gospels and allow ourselves to be transformed by them, but surely, if we want to have some idea of how science and religion are related one to the other, we must first have some understanding of how the gospels came to be, and whether, in fact, there is some assurance that these writings provide an accurate account of what happened in first century Palestine. But it seems obvious, given the critical study of these texts, that they cannot be taken without qualification as reliable witnesses to early first century events. Haught cannot simply help himself to the facts before establishing that they are facts, and allowing a story to transform us, before we know whether or not that story is a reliable account of events described therein, is simply to put the cart before the horse. Haught believes that, in order to have any cognisance of God, we must be personally transformed. From what he says, it is clear that he takes this as an epistemological requirement. But to be transformed by a story which cannot in any reasonably critical sense be thought to reliably tell us of the events which are recorded in it, is not to provide an adequate foundation for knowing anything, let alone to give us access to knowledge that is beyond the inherent capacity of the human mind to grasp, as, without personal transformation, Haught takes knowledge of God, and cosmic meaning and purpose, to be.

This is exactly right. One of the main weaknesses of Haught’s presentation was that he provided very little in the way of evidence that any of his speculations about higher-order realities or the nature of God are true. He jumped straight from extolling the value of religious experience as a way of apprehending higher-order realities to taking for granted that the Bible and traditional Church teaching are reliable source of information.

If reconciling science and religion means simply telling a not-logically-impossible story which, if true, would allow you to accept both traditional notions of religion as well as modern findings of science, then I think reconciliation is possible. The problem comes when you actually try to believe the story you have just invented. Haught is a talented storyteller, but even leaving aside the inherent implausibilities of his story (for example, that evolution has an inherent directionality that represents God’s pull on the universe from the future), he simply provides no good evidence that any of it is true. He talks about allowing ourselves to be transformed by the gospels, but why those texts specifically out of all the other texts that exist?

I also liked this:

It’s at this point that Haught gets caught up in a lot of hocus-pocus, despite his dismissal of the idea of God as the ultimate magician. Revelation, he says, has nothing really to do with dogmas or doctrines, but with the self-communication of the infinite to the finite world. And faith itself, he has already said, is really a matter of being grasped by ultimate reality. He doesn’t explain how this sense of the self-communication of the infinite gets transformed into doctrines and dogmas of the kind that are expressed with so much certainty and detail in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or how being grasped by the infinite needs to be cashed in in these very specific terms, so that we can say, without qualification, that women cannot be priests, for example, or that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” (CCC, 2357) How does the infinite self-communication get spelled out in such specific ways? If, as Haught says, the best expression of our encounter with the infinite is silence, by what act of legerdemain does the church dare to break that silence to give us such specific and uncompromising directives as to the order of the church’s ministry as well as the shape of our sexual lives?

This, again, is exactly right.

I would rather not revisit the unpleasantness that surrounded the release of the video. But after reading Haught’s lengthy explanation for his initial reluctance to release the video, and comparing it to what Coyne actually said in his presentation, there is something more that needs to be said. Haught accuses Coyne of all sorts of unsavory things, such as launching ad hominem attacks or quoting him out of context. None of these charges are true. If you read Haught’s tirade before watching Coyne’s presentation, you’re likely to be disappointed with just how tame Coyne actually is.


  1. #1 Alex SL
    November 3, 2011

    A surprising number of people do not understand what an ad hominem is. Pro tip: “what you wrote in your book is demonstrably false” or “what you just said is completely ridiculous” are not ad hominems.

    Now if somebody says, “you are an idiot”, then we are talking. (Although I would argue that if we have a working definition of the term idiot, it would depend on whether the person addressed fits that definition.)

  2. #2 eNeMeE
    November 3, 2011

    Now if somebody says, “you are an idiot”, then we are talking.

    …only if they then say “and that makes your argument wrong.”. Otherwise it’s just an insult which might be rude but may also be true. Off to read MacDonald.

  3. #3 Pavel
    November 3, 2011

    …only if they then say “and that makes your argument wrong.”. Otherwise it’s just an insult which might be rude but may also be true.

    That’s just a different fallacy called “poisoning the well”. The only purpose of such an insult would be to imply the argument is wrong by extension. Or there may be some psychological problem on the part of the person giving the insult, who attempts to gain the upper hand by bullying. Or he may be a member of the pharyngulite sect who has convinced himself that such displays are a virtue. In any case, it’s not the kind of thing which takes place in a conversations among psychologically mature adults.

  4. #4 H.H.
    November 3, 2011

    Pavel, if insults have no place in the discourse of psychologically mature adults, then why did you just insult the commentators of Pharyngula without qualification? Oh, you probably meant when anyone other than yourself resorts to insults, which is inevitably what such pompous chidings amount to. Tone trolls are so tiresome. If you ever get over your aversion to lively language, I think you’ll actually find that a person’s tolerance for insults is inversely proportional to the strength of their arguments. For a perfect example, I refer you to Haught’s extended whinge about Coyne’s manners above.

  5. #5 AbnormalWrench
    November 4, 2011

    I know I was disappointed. No fur flew. It could even be said, Coyne stuck to pretty mundane new atheist talking points that have been rehashed pretty thoroughly.

  6. #6 Steven Carr
    November 4, 2011

    Jerry Coyne is one of those hate-filled New Atheists whose talk is full of rhetoric, strawmen, misunderstandings of Sophisticated Theology, insults, uncouthness and general neer-do-well-ness.

    Naturally people are going to be disappointed that they never get to see any of this obnoxiousness when they actually listen to a New Atheist, after the build up that Sophisticated Theologians have given them.

  7. #7 Wow
    November 4, 2011

    Projection is a common defense mechanism, Steven.

    How many people believe in “Sophisticated Theology”?

    Do you?

    Can you explain it, then?

    PS at least Jerry isn’t shooting abortion doctors dead in the street.

  8. #8 Wow
    November 4, 2011

    “The only purpose of such an insult would be to imply the argument is wrong by extension”


    Ridicule is the only rational response to an ill posed question.

    What you did was beg the question. Which is a fallacy. There may be some psychological problem with the one proclaiming incorrectly ad hom. Or it could be that they have nothing other than the tone of the message, not the evidence in the message.

    This, if done deliberately, is called tone trolling.

  9. #9 J. Quinton
    November 4, 2011

    That’s just a different fallacy called “poisoning the well”. The only purpose of such an insult would be to imply the argument is wrong by extension.

    Poisoning the well is a species of ad hominem. But ad homs in general mean attacking the person presenting the argument to refute the argument instead of attacking the premises of the argument to refute the argument.

    Let’s say someone makes the argument “All rectangles are squares. My floorplan is a rectangle, therefore it’s a square”

    1. Ad hominem would be “your floorplan is not a square because you’re an idiot”

    2. Poisoning the well would be “Before I listen to your argument, could you please explain to the rest of the people here why you kill babies for fun?”

    3. The common person’s misconception of an ad hominem is “your floorplan is not a square because I counted five sides. You’re a moron”

    Number 3 is the only one that is not a logical fallacy, and thus cannot be construed as an “ad hominem” since that by definition is a logical fallacy. 3 may be in bad taste, but it is not a fallacy.

    All counter-arguments should be designed to attack the premises of an argument and not anything else. The first two examples attack the person and/or the conclusion of the argument which is why they’re fallacious. The third one attacks the premises, which is why it’s not fallacious.

  10. #10 Strider
    November 4, 2011

    In fact, Coyne was apologetic for the well-deserved smackdown. His demeanor demonstrated that and he said so from the outset. I don’t know how well it comes across on the video but seeing it live (I was there) he was clearly a little bit uncomfortable.

  11. #11 Pavel
    November 4, 2011

    Wow — You introduced “ill posed question”. You also forgot the dash.

    J. Quinton — Do you know what a moron is? The connection you have made between floorplans and morons is a non sequitur (a fallacy).

  12. #12 hoary puccoon
    November 4, 2011

    The thing that bothers me about Haught’s comments quoted above is that he implies accepting the gospel is the only way to get some trancendental sense of peace and oneness with the universe.

    In my experience, people can achieve the same emotional high through listening to music; contemplating nature; silently meditating; giving and getting hugs; chanting meaningless mantras like “om.”

    And people don’t fight wars or even harass public school science teachers over Bach versus Mozart or over contemplating sunsets versus contemplating the ocean.

    Haught is coopting a normal, good human potential for the sake of theology– which has been proven over and over again to be a toxic, destructive force in human affairs.

  13. #13 Wow
    November 4, 2011

    “chanting meaningless mantras like “om.”"

    Or taking drugs.

    Drugs will help you have a transendental experience no problem.

  14. #14 Wow
    November 4, 2011

    “Wow — You introduced “ill posed question”. You also forgot the dash.”

    Yes I did.

    Your point?

    An ill posed question answered with a coda ending with an insult is not an ad hom, it’s the only rational response to that ill posed question.

    Since you opined no specific statement to which an insult would be a response to, you would have to insist that there are no such things as “ill posed” questions.

    This is obviously arrant nonsense.

  15. #15 Strider
    November 4, 2011

    The event was held in *Kentucky* even at such bastions of higher learning as UK religion is prominent. I assure you some in the audience that evening were shocked at Coyne’s words and maybe some started to feel doubt. Spreading the word that the emperor has no clothes is *never* a bad thing.

  16. #16 Pavel
    November 4, 2011

    Wow — thank you for explaining the viewpoint of the pharyngulite sect (you may or may not be a pharyngulite, but that is their viewpoint).

    Insults are pure distraction in conversations among mature adults speaking in good faith. You can use them, but you’ll just be considered a child. The internet is filled with children, many of whom are adults trapped in a child’s mindset.

    In an actual conversation, one asks for clarification when something is ill-posed (note the dash). Even the best philosophers can initially misstate a premise and revise it later. If you jump on a misstatement as an opportunity to insult instead of giving the leeway which you would wish to be given, then you’ll be ignored as any child should be.

    In polemics, in essay-writing, in books, and in literature, insults can be fun, witty, and useful. But not in face-to-face conversations and not in cyber-conversations.

    Yes, yes, we all know you’ll respond with some new justification for insults. Yawn. Grow up.

  17. #17 ildi
    November 4, 2011

    Wow@7: you may want to check the calibration on your snark-o-meter.

  18. #18 Wow
    November 4, 2011

    Often the case. ildi, but the question still stands. Pavel hasn’t actually managed it except by insulting many people.

    Odd that, innit.

    He also couldn’t manage any other actual contradictions of my statement. To whit:

    a) the quote to the effect that the only rational response is ridicule is wrong

    b) there are no such things as ill posed (with or without dashes) questions

    but rather decided to immaturely insult people who do not think like he does. And whilst doing so proclaim that insulting is immature.

    “In an actual conversation, one asks for clarification when something is ill-posed”

    Really? Why didn’t you try it?

    In actual conversation, there are many who cannot or will not clarify but will instead talk complete rubbish in the hope of drowning everyone else in a wave of garbage.

    It’s so common there’s even a name for that: Gish Gallop.

    Go look for comments by Jonas on Deltoid’s Jonas Thread. Go see how well he responds to a request to clarify.

    Of course, if your interlocutor is actually being unclear rather than disingenuous, you can ask for clarification.

    If they’re doing it deliberately, it’s of no point whatsoever.

    Therefore ridicule is the order of the day.

    We apologise if reality comes as a bit of a shock to you.

  19. #19 Gingerbaker
    November 4, 2011

    “Wow@7: you may want to check the calibration on your snark-o-meter.”

    Yup. In fact you might want to upgrade to the Snarkmeter Turbo which can capture the full dynamic range of S.C.’s (much appreciated by me) dry humor.

  20. #20 Andrew Feinberg
    November 5, 2011

    “The only purpose of such an insult would be to imply the argument is wrong by extension.”
    That’s hardly the only purpose. I find insulting people can often be its own reward. Catharsis and entertainment all rolled into one bitterly sarcastic package.

  21. #21 Dan L.
    November 8, 2011


    1. If someone mistakes something with 5 sides for a square is it really a non sequitir to call them a moron? Or is it a rather reasonable inference? I’d lean towards the latter.
    2. Do you care to respond to H.H.’s point that you are being a hypocrite with respect to your tone trolling?

  22. #22 Dan L.
    November 8, 2011


    I think ildi was talking about Steven Carr’s comment, not Pavel’s. I was confused by Steven’s first paragraph as well, and it still wasn’t entirely clear to me after his second. But reading it again I think I was just being too quick about it and it is, as Gingerbaker suggests, quite dry. We may both need snark detectors with higher fT ratings.