Hitchens Debates Rabbi Wolpe on GodBy Sewell Chan
“Is religion good for the world?”
More than 1,500 people went to Temple Emanu-El, one of the largest synagogues in the world, on Wednesday evening for a wide-ranging debate on that age-old question. On one side: Christopher Hitchens, the writer, wit and author of the polemic “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” published last year by Twelve/Warner Books. On the other side: Rabbi David J. Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, whom Newsweek has called the No. 1 rabbi in America and the author of “Why Faith Matters,” published last month by HarperOne.
Mr. Hitchens took part in a similar debate — titled “Is God Great?” — with the Rev. Al Sharpton in May 2007 at the New York Public Library. The debate with Rabbi Wolpe, while courteous, was at times more heated and more pointed than the earlier encounter, with the writer and the rabbi at times interrupting, and expressing irritation at, each other.
Gary Rosenblatt, publisher and editor of The Jewish Week, a central source of news and commentary for New York’s Jewish community, organized the event at Temple Emanu-El and served as the moderator. He marveled at the size of the audience, saying it was the largest for any public forum the newspaper had ever sponsored. Below are some highlights from the discussion.
Mr. Hitchens opened his remarks with the often-made observation (which has been disputed) that the World Series gets its name from the fact that The New York World used to sponsor it. “I’m just warning against hubris before we start, and against man-made reification and myth of the sort that can turn into something rather dangerous, morally and intellectually,” he said.
Then he launched into a two-part broadside against religion. First, he began by calling religion “a universal toxin from which nothing is exempt,” adding:
It attacks us in our deepest integrity, in the core of our self-respect. Religion says that we would not know right from wrong, we would not know an evil, wicked act from a decent human act without divine permission, without divine authority or without, even worse, either the fear of a divine punishment or the hope of a divine reward. It strips us of the right to make our own determination, as all humans always have, about what is and what is not a right human action.
Mr. Hitchens — who is known for his rhetorical flourishes — pointed out that the Ten Commandments are mostly a matter of common sense. Citing what he called the “mythical story of wandering in exile,” he asked sarcastically, “How far would the Jewish people have gone…if they had been under the impression that murder, perjury and theft were O.K.” without being told otherwise by God?
“All one needs to know about is human solidarity and the need for it,” Mr. Hitchens said, dismissing the notion of divine revelation.
Mr. Hitchens made a related argument: that it is precisely the challenges of human wretchedness that push humans to improve and do better.
“The vale of tears in which we live, of insecurity, anxiety, doubt, combat and struggle — all these things, by the way, are good for us and help us to grow,” he said, adding, “We shouldn’t wish for a world with eternal peace, tranquility and banality.”
\The religious cry out for a divine solution to human problems, Mr. Hitchens said, characterizing their view as:
If only there was a celestial dictator who could just take this responsibility from us and legislate the whole thing for us and accept our blind obedience and self-abnegating trust, then, maybe, everything would be all right.
I hope it shouldn’t be necessary to say in a place of this kind, in a refuge of this kind, that there is no totalitarian solution to our problems. Very fortunately, I think, we are on our own and we have only our own responsibility and our own mentation and intellect and principle with which to face these things.
What about the idea that even if you don’t believe in God, religion can be a useful force of social cohesion and moral influence? Mr. Hitchens acknowledged:
There are those who say that it may not be true, that there may not actually be a god, that the holy books may not tell a true story, that they may be metaphorical, that all the evidence is that holy books are manmade, not God-made, nonetheless, still we have our morality from them and at least religion coerces them to behave better.
He rejected such arguments:
Again, we’re being asked to insult ourselves and to disrespect ourselves and to think of ourselves as servile as slavelike, as abject and lacking in self-respect. We don’t need permission to act morally. Human solidarity is the basis of morality. We would not have come this far, we couldn’t have lived this long, we couldn’t have evolved this much, if we didn’t look out for each other.
The golden rule articulated by Rabbi Hillel, he said, is “the same instruction” found in the Analects of Confucius: “These are insights that we possess innately, as of right.”
To call that “right” divine, he said, is extremely dangerous, whether it be the “divine right of kings” espoused by absolutist monarchists or the divine right claimed by today’s suicide bombers, whom Mr. Hitchens called “by far the most menacing of our foes” because “they don’t just threaten us physically, they threaten all the gains of civilization, all the gains of thought and reflection and art and aesthetics.”
“Those who claim a hot line to the Almighty, to God, have a lot of disproving to do to show that they are not a part, they don’t take a share, in the worst and most impermeable tyranny that one could well face,” he concluded.
“No, no, that won’t do at all,” Rabbi Wolpe began:
If you read the beginning of the Bible, which I strongly advise, you will find that Cain is condemned for killing Abel. Now why is he condemned, if the Bible doesn’t assume that you don’t learn that murder is bad until you get to Sinal? After all, Cain is long before Sinai. Of course, the Bible knows that human beings recognize that murder is bad. But the Bible also knows that they do it anyway, and that without a divine sanction against murder, people will think that it is a humanly invented sanction. And if they will violate it even when it’s God’s dictate how much more will it prove to be … a fragile rule when it’s the rule of human beings?
And so at Sinai, what you get is not a series of moral rules that you couldn’t have imagined for yourself — ‘Oh, I thought it was fine to kill before I got there’ — but the knowledge that it is built into the moral structure of the universe. It’s not a personal preference. It’s not a societal rule. It’s a mandate from God to all human beings. And if you think that mandate doesn’t matter, all I can say is you haven’t paid much attention to the 20th century.
Rabbi Wolpe referred to the famous idea from Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” that if there is no God, everything is permitted. Niestzsche reached the same conclusion, “but he celebrated that eventuality,” Rabbi Wolpe said.
“Both of these prophets knew that we were coming to a time when a consciousness of God would not filter through Western society and they recognized that things would be different,” he said, adding that Communism and Nazism both shared godlessness.
Rabbi Wolpe said that religion works to reinforce morality, in the same way that parents teach their children to be moral:
It’s not that religious people always behave well. It’s that the voice of Sinai makes a difference to individuals and to societies, and to suggest that it was a voice that taught us, as opposed to reinforce, is to make a mistake.
He said that Mr. Hitchens was misreading human nature:
What happens when a child goes onto the playground? Do the other children go, ‘Oh, look a new child. Let us embrace him and share our toys?’ Of course not. They say, ‘Get the new kid,’ because there is an innate distrust of the other and that has to be transcended by some principle that is greater than the group, such as: There is one God and that one God is sovereign over all, and everybody is a sister and a brother.
He added, “Civilizing a human being takes a lot of work. … It’s goodness and love that have to be carefully taught. And that’s the purpose of the Torah: it’s not to tell you things that you don’t know. It’s to reinforce and give authority and depth and complexity and richness to what you do know but you don’t always do.”
Rabbi Wolpe criticized Mr. Hitchens for comparing the worship of God to state worship of Kim Il-sung in North Korea, saying that North Korea is “an atheistic tyranny” while South Korea “is a flourishing democracy and has a very strong Christian culture.”
Returning to the parental analogy, Rabbi Wolpe compared the love of God to a child’s dependence on a parent. Before the child has the ability to say “I” and think of himself or herself as independent, the child depends on the mother. “Does that cause fear, or is it intimacy and love?” he asked.
“This is in fact the idea: That human beings are all one, that there is a moral order to the universe, and that we are loved,” he said. “And that’s not tyranny. That’s the sovereignty of God.”
Not all the proofs in the world — “ontological, epistemological, cosmological” — can persuade one to believe, Rabbi Wolpe added:
It is not an intellectual process by which we come to an understanding of God. Rather it is something deeper. It is an orientation of the soul toward the universe. It is how to you see the world. It is how you apprehend its beauty and its richness and its wonder and its love. … God is close to those who call upon God, in truth.
Round 2: Rebuttals
Mr. Hitchens quoted Thomas Jefferson’s famous observation on slavery: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Mr. Hitchens said, with a hint of contempt:
It’s a nonsensical statement, almost an idiotic one. If there was a just God, what would there be to tremble about? If we were in the hands of a benign deity, a father who always looked out for us and wishes for the best for us, where would be the rest of Jewish history, the rest of human history? There would be nothing to worry about. It would be like scraping your knee in the famous playground.
Belief in God is childish, Mr. Hitchens said. “Did man make God in his own image or did God make man in his own image? Ask yourselves.”
Mr. Hitchens said that though he was “relatively impartial as between different monotheisms,” Judaism had a few things going for it: It doesn’t proselytize or “make the idiotic mistake of saying, ‘The Messiah has already come, so what’s there to worry about?’ ”
However, he said, the real great contribution of Judaism has been “diaspora secularism,” resulting in the creativity of people from Lenny Bruce to Albert Einstein.
Mr. Hitchens said Rabbi Wolpe’s claims were as absurd as the Roman Catholic doctrine (until 1965) that Jews shared collective guilt for Jesus’s death. He asked of the relationship between believers and nonbelievers:
By what right, rabbi, do you say that you know God better than they do, that your God is better than theirs, that you have an access that I can’t claim to have, to knowing not just that there is a God, but that you know his mind. You put it modestly, but it is a fantastically arrogant claim that you make — an incredibly immodest claim.
Mr. Hitchens turned the Dostoyevsky quote on its head: “Isn’t it rather the case that with God, anything is permissible?” Religion, he said, has been used to justify female genital mutilation, slavery and suicide bombings.
Rabbi Wolpe countered, saying it was he who was calling for humility, not arrogance.
“I don’t think we’re the best things going, and I think that the idea that we are is a frightening idea, not a reassuring idea,” he said.
Movements to abolish slavery, he contended, emerged from people of faith. That prompted a sharp exchange: Mr. Hitchens noted that many slave owners, too, cited the Bible — as a justification for slave-holding.
Rabbi Wolpe, a cancer survivor, said that God does not work directly, curing one’s cancer merely become one has prayed. “What I prayed for was closeness,” not a miraculous cure, he recalled of his illness. “What I prayed for was the certainty that I was not alone, what I prayed for was blessing and love, not magic.”
Mr. Rosenblatt, of The Jewish Week, asked each man to state what was the most compelling argument the other side had made.
Rabbi Wolpe recalled that his mother had had an aneurysm, which affected her ability to speak, read or express clear thoughts. “I thought if in fact we are spirit, how can it be that a change to our physiology changes our personality so powerfully and dramatically?”
Mr. Hitchens began his response by saying, “I have a great difficulty with most people I meet in even believing that they’re intelligent primates.”
Human beings have been in a state of primitive misery for most of their existence. For God to allow that, “you would have then to believe that this supervising deity was either very cruel and very capricious, and/or — this is not exclusive — very incompetent.”
Mr. Hitchens said “the most intriguing argument” for religion is “the fine tuning argument” — the argument that if just a few details were different, life would not exist.
“It’s a very intriguing thought,” he said, adding, “The fact that there’s something, not nothing, doesn’t prove a designer, certainly doesn’t prove a deity who cares about you or intervenes in your life or who supervises you waking and sleeping, but nonetheless, it’s a thought that has to be confronted.”
Rabbi Wolpe said belief cannot be reduced to neurological responses. “The reason that consciousness seems to be so important is that we dwell in this world that we actually can’t explain physiologically, and we do have intuitions that aren’t purely a function of firing synapses, and not everything can be explained by neurons,” he said.
“You have to do violence to human experience to assume there is not an intangible realm,” he added.
An audience member noted that Rabbi Wolpe, as a teenager, declared himself an atheist after watching a film on the Holocaust, and that Mr. Hitchens had moved from being a fairly doctrinaire liberal to supporting the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003. How and why had each man shifted over time?
“For me at least it was a function of learning to distrust my certainty,” Rabbi Wolpe said, noting that at age 17, he believed that religious people were weak, credulous and uninformed:
As I got older and I learned about the lives of people whom I admired and started to admire other people and their lives, and realized that the strongest among us are sometimes weak and the smartest are sometimes foolish. It allowed me the opportunity to re-explore what I had abandoned on the basis of, in part, of a shock to the system, when seeing that movie, and in part on the basis of an expectation that reason was a sufficient tool to lead and live a human life.
Mr. Hitchens said of his own childhood experience, “I just saw through the stupid claim that the apparent order and beauty of the universe, as my biology and Scripture teacher tried to tell me, testifies to an argument from design. I could see through that when I was 11.”
Mr. Hitchens cited Hugh Montefiore, an Anglican bishop and Jewish convert to Christianity, as using the phrase “knife edge” to describe the conditions of life on the planet.
As remarkable as the existence of life is, science also shows that the eventual destruction of the planet and solar system is a certainty, he said:
The heat death and meltdown of the sun that will cause our oceans to boil before our planets burns to a crisp is already inscribed in all of the laws of physics we know. There will be so much nothingness there will be no way of remembering there was ever somethingness. What design is this? Yes, ‘knife edge’ is the right word. And that’s your deity, that’s your omnipotent, that’s your omniscient, that’s your loving, that’s your caring, … I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, I really ask you, are you going to repose your faith in something as crackpot as that?
Rabbi Wolpe said that merely because religion confers communal benefits and a sense of belonging (an idea developed by the sociologist Émile Durkheim) does not make it contemptible or false. Mr. Hitchens disagreed, contending that the religious “are credulous and easily led.” He added, “That’s why they’re called sheep. That’s why they call themselves sheep, by the way.”
Rabbi Wolpe expressed irritation at Mr. Hitchens’s misreading of the sheep metaphor.
When you say sheep and then you make the metaphor literal, of course it sounds silly, as many metaphors do, but if you think about sheep as representing those who willingly follow the shepherd because the shepherd is going to protect them, and make sure that they’re all right, and fend off those things about them that are dangerous, and teach them how to stay together as a flock. … The idea of the metaphor is to tell people that which religion teaches as a value. It’s not a literature class. It’s not so you can dissect it and understand what sheep really do and why.
He told Mr. Hitchens, “I have to take your assumptions about God’s incompetence with just a grain of salt because as someone who believes in God, I think God may know better.”
Mr. Hitchens erupted in indignation. “Your claim to know the mind of God is … of course a claim I can’t follow.”
Rabbi Wolpe protested, “I didn’t say that.”
Mr. Hitchens said, witheringly, “You seem to have a knowledge that’s denied to me, completely denied to me and everyone else I know, of what the divine and ineffable might expect or want from us. On there, I can’t follow you. There you can play a card that I cannot. You trump me.”
He continued, returning to the pastoral analogies, with great wit:
Shepherds don’t look after sheep because they love them — although I do think some shepherds like their sheep too much. They look after their sheep so they can, first, fleece them and second, turn them into meat. That’s much more like the priesthood as I know it.
Do you believe in free will?
“I believe we have no choice,” Mr. Hitchens replied, to laughter. “But I’ll tell you something I’m sure of: You cannot be given free will.”
Rabbi Wolpe, in contrast, argued that religion in fact enables human agency. “Scientifically, not philosophically, how do you have the ability to choose if you’re a collection of genetics and environment, neither of which you chose, that determine your behavior?” he asked.
Mr. Hitchens cited the role of scientific evidence. He asked:
What if it turns out to be the case that evolution by natural selection and random mutation is a sufficient explanation for our presence here? All the evidence is that it is true. The evidence against it is nil, nothing. … Isn’t that rather a bleak feeling? Doesn’t that make us just another primate, mammalian species who may, even when we feel love, may be undergoing a chemical reaction? What you say is, ‘I don’t like the idea of it, so why don’t I say that God has given me the choice to not believe it.’ Well, come on. Give us a break. Do us a favor. It’s either true or it isn’t.
Rabbi Wolpe persisted, “I asked you where you get your free will,” and Mr. Hitchens replied, “From the acceptance of my solitude and sole responsibility. I can’t refer my problems upward to a dictator.”
Rabbi Wolpe countered, “You’re not answering my question. … Forget whether God exists or not or gives you free will or not. Let’s say there is no God. Do you have free will, and if so, and if it doesn’t come from your genes and you don’t choose your environment, where do you get it from?”
Mr. Hitchens: “We have no choice but to assume free will.” Even if, in fact, the choice has been made for you, “You still need to act as if as if you must make choices.”
What about moderate, nonviolent religions?
Rabbi Wolpe said:
It seems to me religion provides the only principle on which all human beings can in theory agree on the universality of goodness — by that I mean, if in fact there is a God who superintends the entire world and believes all human beings are valuable, as the Jewish tradition, for example, teaches when it says that the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come — then that’s a principle that could be inculcated and could perhaps prevail.
How else but through religion could a fundamentalist be persuaded?
“If there is in fact nothing other than our accidental appearance here, and it favors my group that your group be destroyed, what possible countervailing principle would persuade me otherwise?” Rabbi Wolpe asked.
“I don’t think that the distinction between the moderate and the fundamentalist is as facile as that or as easy to evade,” Mr. Hitchens replied, adding, “If this is the word of God, you can’t take it à la carte. If this is the word of God, you can’t select from the menu in the cafeteria.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s not true and no religion works that way,” Rabbi Wolpe said, noting that many Biblical passages are not followed to the letter.
“Religions do precisely what you say religions can’t do: that is, they interpret, understand, grow morally, get to know God better,” Rabbi Wolpe said.
“How convenient,” Mr. Hitchens retorted.
“It’s not convenient,” Rabbi Wolpe replied. “It’s called the progress of knowledge of what we understand to be the will of God.”
Mr. Hitchens asked, “What about the mandate for genital mutilation?” Rabbi Wolpe replied, “Are you talking about the circumcision that the World Health Organization recommends?”
What should one say about God to a 4-year-old?
Mr. Hitchens said his daughter “has to sit through a little Passover ceremony every year whether she wants to or not,” and that at the seder, he tries to explain the links between Jerusalem and Athens — the relationship between the recumbent dinner and the asking of questions to the Platonic idea of the group symposium.
“She has to know that there’s a tradition that she and I and her mother come from,” he said, “but it would never occur to me to say that she had to attend a place of worship or believe that she was created or supervised. In the meantime, she goes to a Quaker school and campaigns for Barack Obama.”
What is the future of religion in Europe?
Rabbi Wolpe said that despite the destructive, violent spasms of the 20th century, many Europeans are religious, even if they don’t attend religious services regularly.
Mr. Hitchens said he believed that European society was being threatened by the influx of poor, fundamentalist Muslims. He said of the European countries, “They’ve imported into the middle of their society the sources and population of a future jihad — something that wants to take away everything they’ve got, change their laws and alter their customs.”
Would it better for a child born in Saudi Arabia today to be an atheist or a moderate Muslim?
“I’d prefer they be an enlightened Muslim, because then they might have the opportunity to influence those around them,” Rabbi Wolpe said.
Mr. Hitchens replied, “It’s a brave answer — suicidal, but brave.”
Are there moral actions that only a believer could perform? (An audience member cited the example of a Ro’i Klein, an Israeli soldier who threw himself on a grenade in 2006 to save his comrades.)
“It’s a good try but it’s, as you can see, hopeless,” Mr. Hitchens said. “What if he shouted ‘Allahu akbar’ when he was doing that? Would it mean the same to you?”
How can you tell that a nonbeliever wouldn’t risk or give their own life to save their comrades? It’s an insult to nonbelievers to say that we couldn’t do that without divine permission. You have to name a moral action performed or a moral statement made by a believer that could not — I repeat, could not — be performed by a nonbeliever.
Mr. Hitchens said that no one he had debated had been able to supply a satisfactory answer.
Rabbi Wolpe disagreed:
It’s true that religious people don’t sprout wings and they can’t do things nonreligious people can’t do physiologically, but anything from Handel’s “Messiah” to Donne’s sonnets to Hopkins’s poetry to blessing your daughter on a Friday night, which I do, to praying together at the bed of somebody sick, to creating a shiva minyan for people who are ill, to having a religious experience, all those things are things that religious people can do that nonreligious people can’t do.
Rabbi Wolpe quoted the Muslim philosopher Al Ghazali as saying, “I can describe a religious experience to you, but describing a religious experience is to having one as reading about alcohol is to getting drunk.”
He told Mr. Hitchens, “It’s powerful, it’s pervasive, and if it is not too presumptuous, I hope one day you do.”
Mr. Hitchens replied that Rabbi Wolpe had failed to cite a single “moral action or statement” that a believer is capable of that a nonbeliever is not. “Thomas Aquinas believed himself to be capable of levitating,” he said.
Mr. Hitchens concluded:
To which Rabbi Wolpe responded: “God bless you.”
It’s all the difference in the world between whether or not you believe in reason, evolution, human solidarity as the source of such morality that we have, or whether you think we are supervised, created, disposable, dispensable, part of a plan of which we have no knowledge and of which we’re not considered worthy to have knowledge.