This is not going to be an “all debate, all the time” blog, but readers have sent me a few accounts of recent skirmishes, so I’ll toss ’em up here. This one is a description of a debate between the ferocious Mr Hitchens and that smooshy gooey feel-good rabbi, Shmuley Boteach. It’s like pitting a knife against jello, I’m afraid.
I attended the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi Boteach in New York City. I unfortunately missed the openings but made it for the actual debate.
The technical content of the debate was fairly predictable. Hitchens focused on the logical lack of any requirement for a supreme being while the Rabbi focused on moral necessity for religion. The Rabbi based most of his arguments on a failed understanding of evolution, probability, and history. The unfortunate part of the entire debate was Hitchens success did not depend on his wit and skill as an orator but on the complete failure of his opponent. Although, Hitchens wit was present and appreciated.
The first sign that the debate was really a comedy in disguise was when the good Rabbi stated that he truly does believe in evolution for minerals were created, then vegetables, beasts, and finally man. His argument against evolution mostly depended on claiming the probability of the world reaching its current evolutional state was far too unlikely. “Time is an evolutionist’s God” he exclaimed. The nail in the coffin for Rabbi Boteach was declaring that Stephen Gould did not believe in evolution, he believed in punctuated equilibrium. He quickly followed that by stating Dawkins is the last scientist on the planet who actually believes in evolution over a long period of time. Both the audience and Hitchens gave confused looks. Among the Rabbi’s other arguments against evolution, if one can call them that, were his claims that there is no evidence, the human brain is the finest example of a designer as well as the human eye. In terms of transitional fossils, a creationist favorite, he seemed to believe that fossilization is a common event and all transitional forms should exist but that we have dug up the entire world looking for oil and not found them. Why should we take Rabbi Boteach’s arguments on evolution with anything more than a grain of salt? He answered this question for us; he has done the research on evolution unlike Christopher Hitchens, he stated, who has not done the equivalent research on religion.
If one can judge the winner of the debate by the audience, Hitchens was clearly the victor. By the end, even the audience was heckling Rabbi Boteach. The moderator was even forced to say “what does that have to do with the question” on a few occasions.
The logical fallacies and scientific errors Rabbi Boteach made were impossible to keep up with but fairly in line with what a well read atheist would predict, he did not offer any new arguments on the subject. For that matter, neither did Hitchens. But what else can really be said? The argument for atheism is based on fairly unchanging logic and methodology, where the conclusion is based on the input. The religious can really do no more than find another piece of scripture at this point.
This was the first debate I have attended and I had mixed feelings. Much of the debate was comical for the Rabbi could hardly beat Hitchens wit. After Boteach had made a series of self-contradictory statements Hitchens exclaimed “you spoke a moment ago about character assassination, you had better watch out for yours is about to commit suicide”. The nearest Boteach could come to interacting with the audience was by his incessant call of us “My friends”. Clearly, Hitchens slaughtering his opponent provided a good deal of entertainment. But after the laughter had died down, I couldn’t help but feel a bit depressed. There is a large group of people who would see that debate and feel that Boteach made the superior argument. In all of the believers out there, this Rabbi is held in high esteem by his peers and their chosen debater? Growing up in a community where a degree of skepticism and intelligence is the norm, I found it difficult to accept that this Rabbi is looked upon with anything other than ridicule and even displeasure that he is looked up-to by some. I would greatly have enjoyed a debate with someone whom at least understands the arguments put before them and can provide clear thought out responses rather than babble for 10 minutes about a subject unrelated to the original question. Either those people do not exist to represent the religious or they are smart enough to avoid debates. I am praying for the latter.