The blasphemy debate debacle

As readers will know, a debate was meant to take place tonight, at UCT’s Jameson Hall. I have now withdrawn from this event, as has my co-speaker, Tauriq Moosa. I fear that those we were scheduled to debate with may try to exploit this to their political advantage, and therefore feel that it’s important to place on record the sequence of events leading to my withdrawal, as well as the reasoning behind it. First, though, apologies to any of you who looked forward to attending, and especially to those who did not receive timeous notification of the cancellation via my Twitter or Facebook messages.

On March 20, Tauriq was approached to participate in a debate, following his suggestion in a Varsity (UCT’s student newspaper) article that such an event occur. He accepted on the same day, and I agreed to participate in the same week. A flurry of emails followed (archived here), resulting in a date of 29 April being set.

That date was shifted to the 27th, then back to the 29th, where it appeared to rest and catch its breath. All the way through, the chair of the UCT Atheist and Agnostic Society (AAS), as well as Tauriq, were making suggestions regarding topics and the format, but “Pastor Michael” informed us that the topic would be “Is Blasphemy Freedom of Speech?”. Which makes little sense, as I’ve previously observed, but we were willing to go ahead and interpret that as something coherent like “Should we be free to blaspheme?” or somesuch.

Next, the “this is not vengeance” article appeared in Varsity, in which it is implied that the AAS were behind the Sax Appeal cartoons that recently caused such outrage. At this stage, neither of the speakers on our side had been contacted with unambiguous confirmation of who our opponents would be, and it seemed clear that the idea of “debate” wasn’t foremost Pastor Michael’s mind – especially so when we received (on April 24 – 4 days before the debate was scheduled) an email saying:

also, i want to Add something so special in the Topic; after Analysis i found that we might have Two Topics: 1. TOPIC: ” IS BLASPHEMY FREEDOM OF SPEECH?” 2. SUB-TOPIC: “What If I am Right & You are Wrong?????”

In case it’s not obvious, I believed that an effective treatment of point 1 by both sides would pretty much settle point 2 – and that to “add” point 2 indicated either a dangerous level of pig-headedness or stupidity, or alternately a desire to smuggle some metaphysics into a debate ostensibly about the rather practical topic of free-speech – perhaps Pascal’s Wager, perhaps something else altogether. The venue was now also in question, and the format of the debate was still completely up in the air.

On the 25th, the AAS sent a email requesting urgent confirmation of these details, and we received a reply on the 27th which included:

1. Your Two opponents will be: Bishop Dr. Clinton L. Battieste and Dr. Peter Hamman. i have removed Errol Naidoo for some reasons i have. mostly also to allow the debate to be more friendly.

Google tells us nothing about the former, and the latter turns out to be the notorious “paintball-evangelist” Peter Hammond, who took his family on an anti-Halloween (Halloween is evil, you see) drive-by-paintball-shooting, in which his 10 year-old son accidentally shot a teenager in the face.

Venue and format were still not clear at this point, and I would certainly have liked to know that I was scheduled to debate Peter Hammond long before this, as he has no history of being interested in fair debate, and I may well never had agreed to participate in a public debate where there would be no possibility of reasonable (as in demonstrating reason) opposition.

In this correspondence, we were also told that a member of the SRC was on top of various details, including venue, yet none of us had ever heard from her (and it turns out that she was never responsible for much of it, as you can read in the archived mails).

Yesterday, we were asked to find a chair for the debate, scheduled for tonight (this, after we made a suggestion for a chair in March). We told Pastor Michael that we were pulling out at that point. The whole organisation of this event has been amateurish, and disrespectful of both my and Tauriq’s time and energy. Along with that, it’s always been in doubt that a fair debate was ever possible – especially now that we know Hammond was meant to be involved. Seeing as many of you may not read all the archived emails, let me end by quoting (in full) Pastor Michael’s response to our withdrawing from the debate:

Hi, Gareth It will be more rudiculous to you and to your whole society to pull out in the day of the Debate. you know well and so well that the debaters will have 10 minutes each. and the rest is the matter of second order. i believe 2 hours before the speakers will know it. to organize an event like this, with many Holydays is not as easy as you want it to be. now i can see you don’t even want to understand anything as if i have to be manipulated by you. the debate is taking place today at 7pm at the MAin Library cafe. with the Topic: ” Is Blasphemy Freedom of Speech? ” and Sub-Topic: ” What if i am right and you are wrong???” don’t run away before the time, ok? all you know is to Blaspheme God??? and insults people???? can you defend your Brilliant ideas??? Why Hate Debate??? it will rumble. if you do not give us the Chair at the moment. i will choose my choice until today 3pm and will let you know. see you soon in the Debate. Know that it costly to come until this day, called D-day. Michael Pastor

So, if you come across any Christians who claim that the UCT AAS, or myself, were responsible for the failure of the event, or worse – that we were afraid of debating them, at least now you have the facts. Tauriq and I remain open to having such a debate, but we don’t see much reason to be dicked around.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

14 replies on “The blasphemy debate debacle”

…Wow. I scanned through the emails in the archive and the contents call for a serious WTF?!?! Is Pastor Michael for real? The poor spellings/random capitalizations/semi-coherent sentences aside, his entire approach was disorganized and unprofessional. I’m glad the A-team pulled out because Pastor Michael clearly had his own agenda running in the background, and a fair debate would be the last thing on his mind.

It’s typical of the religious to be illiterate, belligerent buffoons. What’s scarier is when these asshats get trained in how to articulate themselves properly. A well-trained Christian politico-theologian is a nasty creature to have to deal with, but it looks like all you’re dealing with are clowns.

The topic of discussion is, of course, ridiculous. While discussing the legitimacy of blasphemy as a matter of free speech is one of my prime areas of interest at the moment, to ask whether or not it would even fall into the category of free speech is, to put it simply, retarded. The topic should be more along the lines of “Should free speech be extended to criticism and mockery of religion?” or something to that effect – and, of course, we can always stick with the label of “Blasphemy” if people insist.

“Blasphemy is an epithet bestowed by superstition upon common sense.” – Robert Ingersoll

Oy can we keep the insults to a minimum. Being religious and illiterate are mutually exclusive and neither is typical of the other.

Back to the point at hand though. good for you for pulling out. He was obviously trying, in a really pathetic way, to pull guerrilla tactics on you.

I wouldn’t say they are mutually exclusive – just as being an atheist and being either literate or not also aren’t – but they’ve got nothing to do with each other (which was what your point was, I imagine?). But thanks, LR – that’s certainly how it appears, and this sort of thing does civilization no favours.

Let’s not confuse political correctness with facts, nor say that it does us no favors to point out the truth – it simply *not true* that being an atheist has “nothing to do” with being literate, nor is it true that being religious and being illiterate are mutually exclusive. The more educated – and the more literate – someone is, the more likely they are to become an atheist. This is simply a statistical fact.

There is indeed a correlation between illiteracy, lack of education, and lack of intelligence with religiosity. From the fact that someone is religious, we can predict with greater than chance likelihood that they are illiterate or unintelligent, and vice versa. Facts are facts: religious people are, on average, less intelligent and less educated than atheists. So I must reassert: it is indeed typical of religious people to say stupid, incoherent things. Indeed, religion is undoubtedly one of the primary contributors to people saying stupid, incoherent things and has been a powerful force in the world for impeding education and literacy.

In reality, what does civilization no favors is to continue to pretend that there’s no link between religiosity and a host of negative factors both for the individual and for the values religious societies as a whole maintain and promote.

Glacian: I agree with you entirely. My point was simply that there’s no necessary connection. In this case, I do believe that the correlation indicates probable causation, and that there is enough data to support that claim. And trust me on this: being PC is the last of my concerns.

It gets funnier (in a tragi-comic way, of course): we’ve just received this from Michael (Pastor):

are you people serious? really?

why pull out? where is Tauriq who agreed with me?

why did you wait for the last minutes and search for reasons? now i can see the type of people are Atteists. so, i will consults all our people,

and i will reply to you.

no body has Treaten you, i said to you we have issues that have to be cleared. i am just asking you why do you run away? this is not treatening and you showing us how disappointing you can be, so no one can trust even your teachings of Atteism. don’t change the Topic: The Topic is that you have Blasphemed, and we want you to explain that according to your rights and ideas!!! This proves to us that we are right and you are Wrong!!!!!!

But, i tell you that if you pull out for your pretending reasons, i will have the answer for you and you will give account to that.

i am cancelling the Meeting! you have lost before the Time! Hopefully you will no longer Treaten Christians with your Harmful Ideas!
because we are winners over Atteists from This Day!!! it looks like Jacques already believe in God, because He mentioned that God is Love and Christians are loving. how does He knows that and confess that without believeing it.

i will give you the answer after the meeting i will have with our people.



So he’s cancelled. Shame.

Hmm. In the spirit of giving, I think I should send Pastor Michael a dictionary for Christmas…or, perhaps enlighten him on the wonderful spell checker embedded in MS Word.

“in which his 10 year-old son accidentally shot a teenager in the face” – brilliant.

For humor, add “[sic]” three times to each quotation.

Dear Pastor M,

Since I know you’re reading Jacques’ blog, allow me to tell you what I think of you.

You are a villain of the worst sort!
I accuse you of being dishonest in your dealings with the Atheist and Agnostic Society.

I believe that you were feigning interest in a FAIR debate with the atheist speakers, whilst trying to lure them into a hall packed with christians (people who share your world view) for a verbal public stoning.

If you were honest you would have used the following as your title for this “debate”:
“A witch hunt – starring two unsuspecting atheists”

Pastor (and I use that title VERY loosely), YOU are what is wrong with christianity.
You are yet another evil man using religion as a weapon against freedom and democracy – this is evident in your threatening emails and unbridled anger.

I do pity you for you will never realise just how much you have missed the point!
You claim that Jacques has twisted your words, yet every word you emailed is laid bare, unaltered, just the way you wrote it. If you deny this then you are also a liar.

Please read this next bit VERY carefully (read it a few times if need be):
The Atheist and Agnostic Society of UCT had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ARTICLES IN THIS YEAR’S SAX APPEAL. The author of those cartoons is in NO WAY affiliated with the society! Let’s use a simple analogy for your sake: Let’s say that a gang of Indian men were seen robbing a bank downtown; does that mean that ALL Indian men are to be held responsible for the robbing? Are you following Pastor M or shall I provide another analogy?? Let’s say a man raped a girl; does this make all men rapists?? NO! J
ust because one atheist made a cartoon and put it in a newspaper does NOT MEAN that ALL atheists were responsible. I think everyone is really bored with your inaccuracy on this issue. Now please shut up about this and stop using the society as a scapegoat for your anger!

I do hope you will stop emailing now – you are only serving to make a bigger fool of yourself and your religion. Furthermore, your complete bludgeoning of all things grammatical is appalling, but that can at least be fixed with a few English lessons; your archaic views and Dark Ages approach however is, I fear, beyond repair.


PS: I enjoyed your line about loving Jacques – it was HEROIC – I could just see the angels emblazoned in heavenly light, trumpets blasting out the Chariots of Fire theme tune to the open skies all around your head as you typed it. I think you are mistaking love with guilt at failing to be a good christian. If what you have shown is love then hate is a more attractive prospect.


No surprises here: the “debate” went ahead last Wednesday, and apparently various false reasons for my and Tauriq’s withdrawal were cited. Ethics isn’t really much of a concern for Campus for Christ, it appears.

I heard about that. What exactly did the so-called “debate” entail? Did they actually debate someone?

Tomorrow’s edition of Varsity newspaper will carry something about what happened – I’ll scan and post the article with a response on Tuesday or Wednesday.

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