Correction to This Article
This article about debates over religion between Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi David Wolpe incorrectly described Temple Emanu-el in New York as the sponsor of a November 2008 debate. The event, which was held at the temple, was hosted by the newspaper Jewish Week.

The atheist and the rabbi: Arguing about God with Christopher Hitchens

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By David Wolpe
Sunday, July 4, 2010

Ambling across the lobby with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, my antagonist nodded to me and said, "Hello, darling."

It was almost time for another public debate with Christopher Hitchens.

For the past few years, Christopher Hitchens (never Chris -- I made that mistake exactly once) and I have been on an "atheist vs. rabbi" roadshow, debating the worth of religion and the reality of God in cities across America. Clutching our books -- his best-selling "God Is Not Great" and my lesser-known "Why Faith Matters" -- we have been invited by universities and synagogues to be partisans in the most recent culture clash: the fight over faith.

My opponent is one of the nouveau scourges, a debunker of religion and the idea of God, along with fellow combatants such as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. Hitchens is particularly distinguished by the aggressive elegance of his wit. This evening I would protest his many interruptions, complaining that, after all, not once had I interrupted him. "Ah," he said, "you weren't quick enough."

I'm just trying to keep up.

I have no right to complain about the bruises, I suppose, since I always wanted to debate the best. As the Talmud teaches, "If you are going to hang yourself, do it from a tall tree." Hitchens is a California redwood.

He is also part of a powerful cultural moment. After Sept. 11, 2001, religion seemed to many to be less a consolation for suffering than a cause. Science, not spirituality, offered the promise of a moderate, prosperous and anchored life; reason would deliver salvation. Never mind that science is morally neutral and reason is used as often to upend as to build; the dangers of technology easily fade when we see clerics debasing faith through all sorts of moral outrages. And nobody puts a more entertainingly toxic spin on those outrages than Hitchens.

We began our acquaintance in New York in November 2008, when Temple Emanu-el, reputedly the largest synagogue in the world, invited us to debate each other. At a reception before the event, we were approached by someone who noted one of the blurbs on the back of my book: "Wolpe answers these challenges with such kindness and thoughtfulness that even Christopher Hitchens might find his heart warmed." The man asked Hitchens: So, did it warm your heart?

"Oh, no," Hitchens replied, holding the book up for skeptical inspection. "My heart is far too reptilian for that."

Well, hello to you, too.

As we climbed the podium, I mentioned that his book title, "God Is Not Great," (which, on the book's cover, has a pugnaciously lowercase "god") was exactly correct. Maimonides said in the 12th century that any affirmative statement about God must be incorrect because it's inherently limiting. You can say "God is not bad," and that leaves an infinite number of things for God to be. But, strictly speaking, to say "God is great" might be taken to mean not very great, or not transcendent. So you see, I told him, we agree.

"Good," he answered. "Why don't we begin with that?"


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