Varsity – reporting on the blasphemy debate

Today’s edition of Varsity, the student newspaper at UCT, carries an article (see end of post for a scan of the article) reporting on the debate that was meant to occur last week. Contrary to my fears, it’s a balanced and sensible account of what happened in the lead-up to the non-event. There are, however, a few details from the article worth commenting on.

First, Michael Nlandu (Pastor) is either misquoted or caught out in a blatant lie, in that Varsity reports that he had suggested a sub-topic of “If I am wrong, what will this mean for me?”, which differs significantly from what he presented to us as the sub-topic, namely “What if I’m right and you are wrong?”.

Peter Hammond is almost certainly not misquoted in saying that the students who sold Sax Appeal are “drunken layabouts and transvestite-dressed representatives of UCT”, and that the blasphemy saga was “a disgrace on UCT that makes people look down on the students who come here”. Almost certainly not misquoted because he says things like that, and seems to believe them.

Apart from that sort of abuse, he’s also quoted as offering something resembling an argument. According to the report,

he dismissed the notion that blasphemy was an academic right to freedom of speech, claiming that laws against blasphemy would in fact enhance freedom much like traffic laws can be seen to enhance freedom of movemement

That’s a dreadfully poor analogy from the Reverend Doctor. The harms we can cause to each other by driving recklessly and without the constraints of law are incontrovertible, and are also harms that are direct, immediate, and often unavoidable. They (the harms) also attach themselves to physical entities, regardless of those entities’ beliefs or lack thereof. They are, therefore, neutral with regard to ideology. We have no reason to believe that the “harms” caused by blasphemy are at all similar, or even exist at all in any morally relevant sense. For example, if they are the same sorts of “harm” as the frustration I feel when having to engage with religious cretins, they deserve no legal remedy just as I deserve no legal protection against the harms I endure.

Apparently, two of the 50 or so audience members batted for the atheists in the informal debate that took place – thanks to you two, and again, sorry that I could not be there to contribute. Seeing as the Varsity article includes a link to the full correspondence between Michael Nlandu and the AAS, hopefully students like Jackie Zvoutete, quoted as saying the atheists “chickened out” of the debate, will take the opportunity to discover what really happened.

In closing the event, Michael (Pastor) provided further evidence of his novel relationship to reality:Tauriq and I pulling out of the event was, apparently, our way of saying that we had “lost”.


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.