Hitchens vs. Boteach

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.


  1. Avatar says

    Reading the article, I actually felt a bit sorry for the rabbi. What was the point? Did the rabbi really think that all his babble consisted of an “arguement?”

  2. mike says

    I feel bad for Shmuley too. He is usually a very charismatic guy, but it’s obvious that he’s grossly unqualified to debate about science. I did, however, enjoy his TV show on TLC while it was on. It never seemed to have theistic overtones (which is probably the only way it could have aired in the first place, since he’s Jewish), and it seemed to be a little more realistic than the other nannying shows where they swoop in and solve every single problem in one week. He should probably stick to what he’s good at…

  3. H. Humbert says

    I feel no sympathy for Rabbi Boteach. If this man is arrogant enough to believe himself qualified to argue against evolution, then he deserved to be taken down a peg or ten. When the day arrives that men like him are universally mocked, when his god of the gaps is rightly considered to be a figment of tortured intellects, then I might have a speck of pity for the man. But so long as people turn to this schmuck as an authority on anything other than how to make an ass of yourself, he deserves all the shame that comes with being an ignorant blowhard. I hope he went to bed that night with tears in his eyes and knowing he failed his god. No quarter for the militantly credulous.

  4. freelunch says

    I think that anyone debating those who are anti-science or selling a religion needs to always include “The opponent may correct any erroneous statement of fact and the time taken by the correction will be charged to the person who made the erroneous statement of fact” as a ground rule. PZ would have been talking about 90% of the time the other day if such a fair rule had been in place.

  5. Alex Besogonov says

    Why not try to play “devil’s advocate” and try to defend the opposite side’s views?

    That can be very fun!

  6. Rey Fox says

    “Time is an evolutionist’s God”

    It’s like I always say when they pull out that bit of rhetoric: At least I know time exists.

  7. Janine says

    I have a very stupid question to ask. How can anyone make the claim that Gould did not believe in evolution? From what I can tell, his ideas about punctuated equilibrium was about how one aspect of evolution worked, not a denial of evolution.

    Is this a misdirection for the people who never read anything by Gould?

  8. Jody says

    Hitchens isn’t a knife. He’s a whiskey bottle that’s been smashed over the edge of the bar.

  9. says

    PZ, don’t worry about posting about debates a lot, it’s a necessary service, it’s important that people see the creationists getting trounced like this (and it’s a lot of fun to boot).

    I don’t feel sorry for Rabbi Boteach either, nor should anyone else. He entered into a debate of his own free will and got his ass handed to him. His arguments are bunk, his beliefs are ludicrous and his religion is crap. Isn’t the purpose of a debate to see who has the best support for their position? He didn’t, he lost. Same as Simmons, same as every creationist who has ever debated science. These people will just ignore their losses because they don’t care if they win or lose, their faith will remain just as strong in their silly religions no matter what happens.

    Maybe in that regard, we should feel sad for all theists.

  10. Michael X says

    Absolutely Humbert. The willfully ignorant receive no credit or pity from me. And if Hitch is a whisky bottle, well, all the better to smash jell-o with.

  11. trj says

    #8. If I interpret the rabbi’s perception correctly (and considering his wacky statements about evolution in general, I think I do) he was not aware that punctuated eq. is part of the theory of evolution. Instead, he thought it constitutes an alternative explanation altogether.

    Rather ironic that he used this argument to discredit the theory of evolution.

  12. Xavier says

    Why feel sorry for the rabbi, he probably did his job reasonable well.

    From the point of view of the illiterati, he repeated a number of ‘facts’ that they had heard before from a position of authority, hit all the main ‘common sense’ arguments (improbabibility of evolution, science as religion, disagreement amongst scientists etc.)
    He is attacked by a glib, licentious demagogue who ridicules the Great Man from his own position of ignorance (according to the rabbi – that was the most telling mis-statement), making the rabbi a more sympathetic figure. To an undiscriminating listener with only a slight bias towards venerating a religious figure, the misleading and simply untruthful but comprehensible assertions of the anti-science brigade gain a little more weight while the harder-to-understand retorts are dismissed as smart-arse rhetoric from the rude, irreverent, immoral drunkard who dares to gainsay a church leader!

    The aim of these debates is not to win converts (they need complete control over conditions for that, like any cult) but to keep the ignorant from (the wrong sort of) enlightenment and to continue to undermine the prestige and trust of science.

  13. david says

    I found a short clip from the debate.

    A great line from Hitchens:

    Name me if you can a noble action performed, or a noble though uttered by a believer in god that could not be uttered by a non-believer. […] There’s another question that goes with it, a corollary question: name a wicked action performed, or a wicked thing said, by someone purely because of their religious faith. You don’t even have to blink before you’ve thought of one.

  14. Helioprogenus says

    Why should any of us feel any sympathy for this ignorant asshole? I don’t feel one iota of sympathy for someone who doesn’t understand the scientific principles he’s there to counter. He’s completely misunderstood Steven J. Gould’s argument, and one reason why Richard Dawkins is so critical of Gould’s non-overlapping magestrias and his understanding of punctuated equilibrium is because it can easily be misinterpreted. Gould made it seem like punctuated equilibrium was this whole new revolutionary idea that Darwin had not considered, and helped explain the sudden jumps in the fossil record. What Dawkins explains is that these jumps may seem sudden based on the fossil record, but punctuated equilibrium isn’t that revolutionary. What may seem like exponential growth in terms of speciation, is actually more gradual when the time frame is looked at more closely. It’s only due to our lack of a decent fossil record that punctuated equilibrium seems like an interesting phenomenon. Gould was wrong, and Boteach is beyond wrong, just a stupid asshole who can’t put aside his indoctrinated beliefs to truly investigate the world. It goes to show, it’s not just Evangelical Christians who represent the visible front for catering towards stupid imaginary beliefs, but it’s all religions. Whether they’re minsters, rabbis, priests, imams, mullahs, monks, gurus, nuns, etc; they’re all completely wrong and full of shit. They waste their lives investigating some extremely useless and infantile imaginary things, while real scientists are discovering cures for cancer, increasing agricultural yields, and generally preventing death, misery, and total anarchy.

  15. says

    Good point, david, and thanks for the clip. I really wish more of these debates were made available either through online video or simply MP3s so I want to thank whoever put that up on YouTube.

    Hitchens is absolutely right though, it’s a point I’ve made for a long time. There is nothing good that the religious do that cannot be done at least as well from a non-religious perspective. Charity? Why do charity? Because you’re trying to kiss the ass of an invisible father figure in the sky or because you truly care about the people who need help? The non-religious reason wins.

  16. Andrew says

    Hitchens isn’t a knife. He’s a whiskey bottle that’s been smashed over the edge of the bar.

    Posted by: Jody | February 2, 2008 3:27 PM

    Well done Jody. You made me snort my coffee. I’m taking your comment and using it elsewhere :-)

  17. says

    Its basically contest of two contemptible self-involved blowhards. The only thing that Hitchens has going for him is his pugnacious mastery of invective. But he is full of himself just the same, basking in the attention like a walrus amid colony of seals.

  18. says

    Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has one of the most hilarious names in the whole of religious clericdom. Is there any way we can get him together with Father Guido Sarducci, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and Pope Joe Ratzinger? Preferably as some sort of memorial to Marshall “Peep” Applewhite? Even the event program would be funny.

  19. craig says

    “Preferably as some sort of memorial to Marshall “Peep” Applewhite? Even the event program would be funny.”

    I thought Marshall was Bo?

  20. says

    Rabbi Boteach is a known Geller gawker. I think that tells most of the story right there.

    Tom Foss:

    If you think about it, going by “Shmuely” is a bit pretentious anyway — wouldn’t “Sam” be more appropriate if he wasn’t being a showoff?


    While it may make him a jackoff, it does not necessarily make him wrong. (Being a neocon, on the other hand…)

  21. says

    Did anyone mention to Boteach that the last book Gould completed before his death was his 1433-page masterpiece entitled The Structure of Evolutionary Theory?

    Sounds like Boteach cherry-picked his study material form creationist bloggers or something.

    And if only he’d read Origin of the Species, he’d have known better than to bring up that ol’ chestnut about the eye’s irreducible complexity. That alone proves he was dishonest in his assertion that he’d studied more evolution than Hitchens has studied religion. (A doubtful assertion in any case.)

  22. csrster says

    Maybe he should have stuck to his job as Michael Jackson’s spiritual advisor. Because that turned out so well.

  23. says

    That’s really the problem though,theists like Boteach don’t care about reality, they’re purposely ignorant and want to remain that way. Studying the problem might bring up questions about their faith, therefore they don’t want to know more and they want everyone else brought down to their level.

    It’s a whole lot easier to pretend you’re right than to find out and take the chance that you’re wrong.

  24. Pieter B says

    Not knowing much about the rabbi, I gave Wikipedia a look for a quick bio, and what do I find as the first item in Boteach’s bibliography?

    Shmuley Boteach and Uri Geller. Confessions of a Psychic and a Rabbi. (Foreword by Deepak Chopra) Element Books Ltd (March 2000) ISBN 1862047243

    I am not making this up. It’s a trifecta.

  25. Brian Macker says

    To be expected. This guy received his ordination from the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement. He might as well have been raised by the Amish. There are many Jewish groups in the New York area that live in isolation and ignorance of the wider community.

  26. Steven Sullivan says

    And labelling Hitchens a ‘neocon’ is just silly and lazy. Neoconservatism is not defined only by support for the Iraq war, or opposition to Islamic ‘fascism’. But that’s the ONLY intersection between neocons and Hitchens. It’s like calling Boteach a Christian because he agrees with the the DI about creationism.