Monday, November 03, 2008

Christopher Hitchens Debates Religion with Rabbi Wolpe

In one of the world's largest synagogues, Temple Emanu-El in New York City, Christopher Hitchens today debated Rabbi Wolpe on whether "religion is good for the world".

I have followed Hitchens' writings for many years (starting with his edited collection "Blaming the Victims" about the Palestinian issue), well before he became nationally known for his outspoken and deliberately provocative views on everything from Mother Teresa, "Islamo-Fascism", Iraq war and God. He is relentessly polemical and has a penchant for contrariness to the point where one can't always be sure whether he is taking a particular position because he really believes in it or just indulging his pugilistic instincts. He can be outrageously demeaning and dismissive of his opponents and as is typical of debaters rarely acknowledges any validity in counter arguments.

But there is no question that he posseses an extremely sharp intellect, a rare articulate eloquence and an impressive command of language. He is a voracious and remarkably intelligent reader of catholic (no pun intended) taste and is an enviably prolific writer. For some of his best, most thoughtful long pieces I would suggest reading his contributions in the "Atlantic Monthly" archived here. Much to my disappointment over the years he has displayed an unsympathetic view of Pakistan and seems to have a visceral dislike for the country (probably in no small part due to its religion-based founding ideology). Even so, his March 2003 piece in these archives called "The Perils of Partition" is well worth reading. Just glancing at these pieces gives you a sense of his incredible critical range.

Now let's come back to his debate with Rabbi Wolpe today. Here is a summary of the debate in the New York Times. My sense from the reported exchange is that Hitchens comes out on top and that Rabbi Wolpe could not quite match the intellectual firepower and verbal nimbleness of Hitchens. Let me know via your comments if you think otherwise.

Christopher Hitchens:

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.

Rabbi Wolpe:

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 Sinai? 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.


Zakintosh said...

CH can be often annoying in his dismissiveness but cannot be dismissed. I must admit that I enjoyed his 'God Is Not Great' (as an Audiobook) recently, despite disagreement with some parts, because of his usual 'arrogance' peppered with typical Brit sarcasm.

He loves to debate for the sake of debating. On 'The Four Horsemen' DVD - to the surprise of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, 3 of the other major Atheist writers today who are discussing their favourite subject informally over drinks- he voices his desire for Religion to always be around seemingly only so that there'll always be a debate possible.

Thanks for posting this excellent intro to Hitchens, with all the right links.

Fawad Zakariya said...

Zak, thanks as always both for reading and your thoughful comments. I have not seen the "The Four Horsemen" DVD. Sounds like something you actually liked so I will try to find it here.

Zakintosh said...

Just saw the Wolpe debates with Harris and Hitchens.

The first one was wonderfully cool, neither side gave up much, but argued forcefully and with a great sense of decency. It was the kind of debate from which everyone learned something of the other viewpoint.

The second one was fun, too, in parts - but occasionally marred by Hitchens' interruptions, grabbing more than the allocated time, and general demeanur.even though his arguments were strong.

Wolpe, on both occasions, was the embodiment of politeness, grace, humour, and charisma.

Both videos are now on the Internet and worth a watch. Especially the first.

As for The Four Horsemen, it's badly shot but worth watching. The occasional differences in the points of view of the 4 big atheist names were more interesting to hear than was their common cause.

Fawad Zakariya said...

Zak, thanks for pointing me in the direction of these videos. I will look for them on the web.