Saturday, February 19, 2011 Login

Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi Wolpe

Last night I attended a debate/conversation between Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and Rabbi David Wolpe, introduced as America’s number one Rabbi (I kid not). I was there along with the Conversational Atheist and Ben from Create Cognitive Dissonance. Ben wrote up his impressions here.  

Christopher Hitchens

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This is my summary of the debate portion taken from my notes:

David Wolpe

Wolpe presented first. He noted that there was, in fact, a time before monotheism, and this was a savage and bloddthirsty time. Thus, one cannot say that monotheism (ie, the western monotheistic religions) was responsible for introducing more violence. Rather, the monotheistic faiths changed the expectation of how we are to behave in a postive direction. Rome, a violent, conquering, and war-like empire, fell because of Christianity. Suddenly, because of Christian values and ethics, people became nicer and the barbarian tribes succeeded in taking advantage of this.

Wolpe stated quite clearly that the inquisition was bad. Very bad. However, it was nothing like what came after the French Revolution and what was perpetuated by godless societies. This is what happens when you extract religion from society. It falls apart into moral decay.

But, at the same time, Wolpe claims that religion does not cause wars, humans cause wars because it is a part of human nature. Religion comes in and tries to work against human nature and its propensity towards war and violence by revealing a universal standard of morality. Human nature alone is not enough to explain altrusitic behavior.

As an aside, Wolpe noted that asrophysics demonstrates that it is a “miracle” that we are even here. The material world – the “world of stuff” – could not have given rise to consciousness, poetry, literature, etc. Finally, it is impossible  to talk about or describe God, who is inifinte. It is only possible to talk to God and form a relationship with Him. God “makes sense but cannot be explained by sense alone.” 

Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens began by asking that, if what the Rabbi says about the moral powers of faith is valid for one faith, is it also valid for all faiths? If it was empirically valid that faith provides these things, then it would follow that faith leads to moral superiority. But it clearly does not. Faith does not give any particular individual any moral advantage over anybody else. Quoting Thomas Jefferson, if there was a just God, why would I tremble?

Rather, religion is essentially the evasion of moral authority by giving up all moral questions to God – the celestial, unchanging, and eternal dictator in the sky. That move, he said, is in fact an immoral one. 

Hitchens then proposed the following challenge to Wolpe and the audience: Name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer.

Then, as a reversal of the challenge, Hitchens rhetorically asked: Can you think of a wicked action taken explicitly because of some religious faith? The answer to this question is a definitive ‘yes’.


The rebuttals are a bit more difficult to describe because they tend to jump all over the place. Wolpe made the remark that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves but that Moses had “let slaves go” (nevermind the provisions in the Old Testament for how to treat your own slaves!). In response to Hitchen’s remark that we are half a chromosome away from the monkeys, Wolpe said that, yes, we are animals but we are not just animals. From whence, he asked, comes the obligation to do good? Religions cause divisions but it is never just religion. God charged us to make the world a better place (where?).

Hitchen’s basically responded to the question that often gets asked of atheists: how can you believe in a worldview that is so unpleasant? Well, it is a simple matter of fact and not a matter of affirmation or belief. We have a moral duty to ourselves and to others because that is what is advantageous for us as a society, not because of a supernatural decree. The believer typically claims that without God all things are permissible. Whether or not you agree with that statement, isn’t the reverse at least equally if not more true? With God all things are permissible? Anything can be justified through faith or with the claim that God has commanded it.

Near the end, Wolpe conceded that there was some inate moral sense in all of us, believer or not, but attributed this to God the Creator. Hitchens noted that this was perfectly explainable in terms of evolution, as many other animal species exhibit (in-group) morality.


There was a lot more interesting and entertaining back and forth that I did not capture in my notes and that I cannot really express here. Hitchens was on top of his game. Wople appeared to me to be somewhat wishy-washy and he frequently retreated to making abstract statements. He readily admitted that religious traditions evolve historically over time and would not categorically state that religions other than Judaism are false – rather, different people take different “paths” or develop their relationships with God in different ways. This to me makes God seem like an obscurantist who will drop hints of His existence but refuses to clear up all of this confusion of doctrines and dogmas. Hitchens, of course, agreed that religions evolved over time because they are man made and offered Wolpe a chance to retract his statement (he responded by reaffirming it with greater force).

The event was held at my local Jewish Community Center, so I assumed that the audience would be more sympathetic to Rabbi Wolpe. That did not appear to be the case at all. Hitchens asked the audience to raise a hand if you believed that religion makes people more likely to be moral, and I counted about 5 hands in a theater that sat at least a hundred people, if not more. Many of the questions asked during the Q & A were critical of the Rabbi and at least one questioner (a grandmotherly lady) was somewhat hostile towards him.  The people with whom I chatted afterwards were also sympathetic towards Hitchens and I noticed that a lot of people were carrying Hitchen’s book rather than Wolpe’s (both during the event and in line for signing).

Bottom line: About this question of whether religion makes people behave better or worse: As far as I am concerned, it is enough that religions have done at least some bad things given that none of them are demonstrably true

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