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Haught v. Coyne: The Debate of the Century (Not)

University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne has been engaged in a poisonous exchange with Catholic theistic evolutionary theologian John Haught of Georgetown University. The point of controversy was, at first, the compatibility of science and religion — on which Coyne and Haught debated last month at the University of Kentucky. Then it turned into a nasty dustup about whether the video of the debate would be released, as Coyne wished and Haught didn’t. When finally Haught gave his consent, having received a barrage of abusive emails from Coyne’s fans, he accompanied this with a bitter “Open Letter.” Published on Coyne’s blog, this explained that he resisted because of Coyne’s performance in the debate, highlighted by a crude attack on Catholicism, current and historic, and repeated mockery of Haught’s own work.

2011 Bale Boone Symposium – Science & Religion: Are They Compatible? from UK Gaines Center on Vimeo.

I just watched the video. I don’t know what Haught — who I noticed stands about a head taller than Coyne — is so bent out of shape about. Coyne is a little cartoon Jewish atheist who makes Woody Allen look deep. At one point he calls himself an “apostate Hebrew.” Oh please. Everything he says is vulgar — not in the sense of potty talk but just so simpleminded and crude.

  • Science, he says, “codifies common sense” in contrast to religion, which tells you “what you want to be true.”
  • “If you’re smart you know that there’s no such thing as angels, but there is such a thing as evolution.”
  • “The Bible could have told us about electrons and evolution and quantum mechanics but it didn’t.”
  • On Adam and Eve: “These people ate a fruit from a talking snake.”
  • On Haught’s theology which Coyne describes as holding that God did whatever he did with regard to life and the universe — and that’s unclear from Haught’s own characterization — so as to have a drama to watch and while away the time: “I don’t know why any omnipotent being would ever be bored. Ha ha!”

And more of this nature. But who would have expected anything better, given Coyne’s blogging on religion? He illustrates the point that only the quite rare and special self-described atheist — someone who’s got a genuine feel for the faith he rejects — deserves to be called an atheist, rather than our simply dismissing him as an ignoramus. In Judaism we have a great expression that captures this: am ha’aretz, a peasant and a clod, which is what Coyne is. A real materialist and apostate, someone who deserves the title, is an Apikoros, an Epicurean.
Haught says that Christians should talk only about the Christian God and not “some designer or some magician who performs design tricks or intervenes repeatedly in the process.” So God the creator, the God of Christianity or Judaism, is a “magician” performing “tricks.” Everything else he says up to that point, at 22 minutes into the “conversation,” is not bad and even quite eloquent, about how reality is a sort of nested hierarchy where beings like us below have a hard time grasping levels above us.
The episode, I think, shows us the pain that many theistic evolutionists must feel. Here they are, loyally denouncing ideas like intelligent design that confront Darwinian materialism on the latter’s own scientific turf. What a wonderful bargain that must have seemed to them at one time. Simply surrendering to Darwin and the most prestigious ideas in the culture was supposed to win them the benefit of not having to spend time weighing the scientific evidence on evolution for themselves, a project that also entailed the risk that they might arrive at an inconvenient conclusion on the question. Someone like Haught thereby freed himself up to spend that much more time on the subject that really interested him, his theological study and writing.
However the other party in the bargain didn’t keep what the TEs assumed was a promise: to accord them respect and honor in exchange for their not questioning evolutionary theory. In Haught’s “Open Letter” to Coyne you sense the grief of someone who, after selling something of himself, believes he got gypped.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.



atheismdebateDiscovery Instituteintelligent designJerry CoyneJohn HaughtNew Scientist