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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

By David Wolpe
Sunday, July 4, 2010; B04

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?"

I wasn't so naive as to begin a debate in front of 2,000 people by acceding to my opponent's book title, but having viewed his previous performances, I was prepared to hit a few tender spots. When he maintained that religion is stupid because it presumes that humans possessed no morality until God told them what to do, I answered that the Bible condemns Cain's murder of Abel long before any laws were handed down at Sinai. The Bible knows that we know murder is wrong. The function of the "Thou shall not kill" commandment, I said, is to reinforce that the prohibition is not simply a societal rule but a mandate from God to all people. "And if you think that mandate doesn't matter," I concluded, "all I can say is you haven't paid much attention to the 20th century."

I felt good about that exchange -- the way boxers, staggering up from the canvas, think back to that one jab they landed.

We then sparred over some old terrain: I insisted that if we are products of evolution and genetics alone then we have no certain ground for morality. For if morals do not originate beyond ourselves, why not disobey whenever we feel it will benefit us? He countered that morality was a strange plea coming from religion, a source of so much suffering. I said Nazism and communism (secular ideologies both) speak poorly for societies without religion. He countered with religion's oppression of women. And besides, he said, isn't circumcision really mutilation, if we're honest about it?

After two hours of debate and audience questions, Hitchens, who was stunned to discover in his 30s that he is Jewish, mentioned that each year he has a Passover seder at his house. "What?" -- I was floored. He quickly assured me that it is a celebration of freedom, nothing religious about it. (I can't help think how chic it would be to say, "Oh yes, last year I had seder at the Hitchenses' .")

One of my most uncomfortable moments in our various showdowns was in Los Angeles at the Wilshire Theatre. With my then-12-year-old daughter sitting in the front row, the moderator asked Hitchens if he had ever prayed. "Yes," he said, "once, for an erection." I decided not to pursue the question of the efficacy of prayer.

One night, in Boston, as we grabbed a few moments before a debate (yes, it was for a drink; after all, he is Christopher Hitchens and there are reputations to uphold), I sipped my Sam Adams and mentioned that the Muslim philosopher Al-Ghazali taught, "I can describe a religious experience to you, but describing it is to having it as reading about alcohol is to getting drunk." He confessed to one experience but not the other.

When Hitchens told the audience that night that religion is "a wish to be loved more than you probably deserve," I countered that such a theme is always adopted by those deriding religion: I am a nonbeliever because I am reasonable, they say, and you are a believer because you need a crutch. Beware, I told the group, of people who explain their own beliefs by reason and others' beliefs by psychology. Hitchens insisted he was being accurate, not comprehensive; there are many other reasons to distrust religion apart from its spurious comfort.

When a person does something good in religion's name, Hitchens dismisses religion as the cause, but when people do evil, it is religion's fault. I reply that people don't need religion to make them do bad things. Rather, they need religion to lift them above the bad things they would otherwise instinctively do.

What I cannot counter is Hitchens's experience of reporting in virtually every war-torn region in the world, and in places where religion has too often taken a benighted stand against medicine. And he has a delicious store of foolish religious teachings at his fingertips: "Thomas Aquinas believed himself capable of levitating," he says, and apparently took a tour of Notre Dame -- from above.

Despite our shtick, there are real principles at stake each time. That is Hitchens's gift: a dance between mockery and erudition. In his world, God is a fabrication and a cudgel. In mine, God is a solace and a guide. I was reminded of this distinction when I heard the sad news last week that Hitchens is about to undergo treatment for cancer. I have no doubt that he will face it with the same stoic courage with which he has met other challenges. There is no reason to suppose it will change his convictions; I have undergone neurosurgery and chemotherapy with my faith unshaken -- why assume he could not emerge with his unbelief unchanged as well?

In the meantime, on we battle; Hitchens challenges me with how much evil happens in a good God's world. I talk about religion's contributions, its spur to altruism, and point to the mystery of consciousness and the wide testimony of religious experience. I claim that he has no warrant for free will if everything is a product of genetics and environment. He compares God to the dictator of North Korea -- except with a dictator, "at least you are released from his grip at death."

Later we sign copies of our books for the audience. Five or 10 kindly souls stand in my line. His stretches out as long as the eye can see. He looks up at me and winks.

The smart money, he seems to be saying, is in heresy.

dwolpe@sinaitemple.org

David Wolpe, who writes for The Washington Post's On Faith blog, is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of "Why Faith Matters."

Read our review of Christopher Hitchens' memoir "Hitch-22."

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