Review by Dr. John Oakes of a debate 11/13/08 between Rabbi David Wolpe and Richard Hitchins
Debate Between Rabbi David Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens
On Thursday Nov 13, 2008 a debate was held between Rabbi Wolpe and Christopher Hitchins on the question Does Faith Matter at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla, California. Rabbi Wolpe of Los Angeles is one of the preeminent Rabbinical scholars of our day. Hitchens is a lecturer and author, most noted for his book God is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything. The debate was part of a Jewish Book Fair. It happened in front of an audience of about one thousand, the vocal majority of whom were clearly supporters of Hitchens.
Wolpe began the debate, stating that religion has been the cause of almost everything good which humanity has done. He argued that the source of moral truth and the imperative to be “good” and to selfless sacrifice is religion. He argued that the universe shows evidence of careful design. He made the point that a loving personal God, not chemicals and random accidents produced human beings who are conscious of themselves and who can ask questions of meaning and make moral decisions.
Hitchens countered that there is no good thing done in the name of religion which could not be done and in fact is not done by non-believers. He argued that a “Totalitarian Dictator” God makes humans into slaves, and that under religion, people get permission to do all kinds of evil and destructive things. He argued that almost all of the evil in the world is a direct result of religion and that if people give up their infantile servile belief in the Totalitarian Dictator, then we can move on and become better and better. He argued that it was random mutation and evolution by descent, not God, which made us.
A period of back and forth ensued. Hitchens called Wolpe’s arguments stupid and ridiculous. He made sarcastic and rude comments about Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Mormonism, and the Queen of England. His arguments were generally outrageous and inflammatory statements which made no logical sense, but he had a lot of very entertaining one-liners which played to his audience. Wolpe pointed out that the only avowedly secular/atheist governments we have had are that under the French Revolution, in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Communist China, North Korea and the like. Hitchen’s response was to claim that Nazism was Roman Catholic and North Korea is “the most religious country on the planet.” It was difficult for Wolpe to respond to such irrational, untrue and inflammatory claims. He pointed out that any religion in North Korea is worship of a man, not God. He pointed out that Hitler repudiated any kind of Christianity and only used religion as a platform, but that he was secular or pagan.
Hitchens again made the point that religion has not caused an improvement in behavior, but is an inducement to bad behavior. Wolpe conceded that, unfortunately, some bad people have abused religion, but pointed to the fact that dozens of studies have shown that religious people have far higher rates of participation in benevolent organizations of every kind and that, in fact, religion is the motiviation for most benevolent work throughout the world. Hitchens simply ignored this fact and said he did not believe it. He proceeded to use profane language and sat with a sarcastic look on his face as if he did not respect his opponent but was laughing at him. His behavior was actually quite disgraceful as he chose to use profanity and to use patently offensive language to describe God and religious people in general.
Hitchens said that all religions are anti-women and opposed to human rights. He said that according to Jewish scripture, it is said by a man, “Thank God I was not born a pagan or a woman.” Wolpe replied to this by stating that this is not in the Bible (true) which Hitchens denied. Wolpe said that Judaism has evolved as Jewish people have come to a better understanding of God’s will. Hitchens replied by saying “There you go. Religion has evolved as man has improved.” This proves my contention that religion is man-made. This was probably his strongest argument in the debate, as Wolpe did not have a good comeback for this.
At the end of the debate, Wolpe was very gracious, saying that although he did not agree with his opponent, he felt that he was a very gracious person at heart (even if he did not appear so in public forums) and that he is a very learned man and that Wolpe had learned much from being with Hitchens and respected him. Hitchens followed with a chuckle and another sarcastic comment, offering no reciprocal respectful comment.
The feeling in the room was that Hitchins “won” the debate. This was for two reasons in my opinion. First of all, Wolpe took the position that all religions are “good” and all religions lead to God. This is a difficult position to defend, given that religions are fundamentally in opposition to one another. When Hitchens pointed out that Joseph Smith was a charlatan and a rip-off artist and that he taught institutional racism and he had sex with dozens of women (all true) Wolpe had no way to respond to this. I believe Wolpe would have done much better to defend biblical Judaism and not set himself as defender of all religion. He was forced to defend Islam and the Koran and the occasionally outrageous behavior of Mohammed. This he simply could not do.
The other reason it felt like Hitchens “won” was because he is a master of manipulative, sarcastic, entertaining one-liners. He has a broader intellectual background and was able to pepper Wolpe with examples he could not counter. Wolpe is very learned himself, but perhaps not quite so broadly. If I were to rate who presented the clearest most logical case, it would be Wolpe hands down. However, Wolpe would not lower himself to using manipulative sarcastic and disrespectful humor, and he was not able to get Hitchens to answer direct questions. Hitchens refused to answer uncomfortable questions and the audience seemed, in general not to mind.
I felt uncomfortable at this debate. It is difficult to sit and listen to such angry diatribe and manipulative argument which is disguised as intellectually honest argument. If Hitchens represents the best that humanism has to offer, that is to the shame of humanism and atheism. Fortunately he does not. In June 2007 we at ARS put on a Michael Shermer/Douglas Jacoby debate. Shermer was much more respectful and seemed like a very nice guy. My advice to the atheist/humanist community is to “disown” such poor representatives as Christopher Hitchens. My advice to believers is that it is good to learn from and to listen to those with whom you do not agree with. However, it is not necessary that you be abused and reviled by those you learn from and for this reason you may want to avoid giving your attention to Mr. Hitchens.