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 I have now withdrawn from this event, as has my co-speaker, Tauriq Moosa.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.