Smackdown! Hitch and Sam take apart two rabbis

What do you get when you pit Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris in debate against two smart and liberal rabbis?  A debacle—for the rabbis, of course.  In a comment on yesterday’s post about Hitchens, Heber Gurrola revealed that the “afterlife debate” between Harris, Hitchens, and rabbis David Wolpe and Bradley Shavit Artson is now online at Purim, the Jewish Television Network.

The debate was held on February 15th at the Witzin Center at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, and was moderated by Rob Eshman.  The topic, “Is there an afterlife?,” was particularly poignant given that three of the participants—all but Harris—had had cancer, with two of them (Hitchens and Wolpe) in remission.

You can watch the debate here, and I recommend your doing so. It’s an hour and 37 minutes long, but you won’t be wasting your time. It is, at times, hilarious, and the clash of intellects immensely stimulating.  Pour yourself a drink and think of it as an erudite but entertaining movie.  SPOILER ALERT: the afterlife gets pwned.

Don’t expect to find good arguments for an afterlife—these are “modern” rabbis, and their capacity for waffling and turning religious “truths” into insubstantial metaphors was astounding. Trying to pin them down about what they think the afterlife really is was a futile endeavor.  When asked whether the afterlife is a place, Wolpe responded with a deepity: “The sages are not in Paradise, but Paradise is in the sages”.  One rabbi even asserted that when he says he’ll meet his grandmother after death, he really means that as a metaphor.

Silly Rabbi–don’t you know that tricks are for kids?

On the rabbinical side, Wolpe was particularly eloquent and learned, but he and Artson were trounced by Harris and Hitchens (of course, I’m hardly unbiased here, even though I’m a cultural Jew).  As always, Hitchens gave a sterling performance despite his illness, putting the rabbis in their place time after time and refusing to let them get away with assertions like, “Oh, religion doesn’t believe that stuff any longer,” or “The hope for an afterlife gives us solace and direction.” The man is a tiger on the platform. Sam showed his characteristic dry wit, and was the good cop to Hitchens’s bad one.  Do watch it.

Oh, and Landon Ross, who went to the debate, gives a pretty accurate summary at The Rational Ape.

96 Comments

  1. Michieux
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    The video was up on the site quite soon after the debate, I watched it and found it one of the most profound and engrossing debates I’ve ever witnessed, not least because of the poignancy of Christopher Hitchens’s condition. The topic is one of interest to all of us, I would think. Highly recommended.

  2. Tim Martin
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    You know, I started to watch this debate a while ago, and quickly got fed up. The rabbis had nothing of any coherency to say, and watching Hitchens and Harris swat down their nonsense seemed like a waste of time.

    But, if people think the debate was that good, perhaps I’ll go back and watch the whole thing.

    I do have one serious complaint though. What was with Harris going on about the possibility of consciousness after death, under the condition that our minds are really just programs being run on a fantastically high-tech computer of the future? When you’re debating with people scrambling for any way to make their religious claims about consciousness after death seem valid, validating it with an idea out of science fiction hardly seems appropriate.

    • Sajanas
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      That was my problem with The End of Faith… he seems, for not particular reason to me, to give consciousness some sort of special pass out of the boundaries of the material world, and I don’t think it really deserves such consideration. So much about consciousness can be altered, ruined, and changed in such freaky ways, I just can’t imagine its just a convenient operating system, like Windows is a convenient way of interacting with all the machine code that actually operates the computer.

      • Tim Martin
        Posted March 8, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

        I just can’t imagine its just a convenient operating system

        And even if it was, it’s very similar to the “what if the entire universe was just a magical illusion perpetrated by elves who like to screw with us?” conundrum. Sure, it could be true. But do we gain anything by wondering whether it is?

        • Sajanas
          Posted March 8, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

          I think I meant to write
          I just can’t imagine its *not* just a convenient operating system.
          Mornings, am I right?

        • Nina
          Posted March 8, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

          The importance of consciousness is that it most often forms the basis of our identity, whether we realise it or not. The entirety of our character is subserved by the brain, so an ability to replicate it on a machine would possibly give prolonged consciousness beyond physical death. It is a logical dimension to discuss when discussing the afterlife.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted March 8, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

        My speculation is that it is both an operating system and the hardware it runs on, and there is no firm boundary between the two.

      • Robert
        Posted March 8, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

        I think that when Harris brings this up it has two effects as far as the debates he is engaged in are concerned.

        The first is to point out that you can make better (more logical, more reasonable, more grounded in scientific hypotheses for example) arguments about the afterlife. Religious arguments aren’t just guesses, they’re extremely poor guesses.

        The other is to remind people (including on his side) that there is nothing magical about a consciousness. Hypothetically we can store one once we can make (or shortly thereafter) and hypothetically we can make one once we can replicate a brain. Whether he personally believes these things will happen or not are beside the point – it is a reminder that consciousness is not magical just because it is difficult to explain.

      • Posted March 9, 2011 at 3:43 am | Permalink

        In “The End of Faith”, Harris said something like “no one has any idea what happens to consciousness when we die”. He repeated this in the debate.

        Er, we do have a pretty good idea of what happens to consciousness when the brain dies. It disappears and doesn’t come back. It doesn’t even take brain death to cause that — just a certain amount of brain damage is enough.

        This aspect of reality sucks, but it is pretty obvious.

        It’s not impossible that somewhere, somehow the same patterns of “consciousness” could continue to operate in some other media, but since there’s no explanation of how or where this could happen, it’s just a fantasy.

    • J
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      I agree, some of Harris’ comments seemed a bit odd, even if he was talking hypothetically. I recommend watching it all though, Hitchens was great to listen to.
      It was an odd debate title, it sounded like no one was really advocating the position that there was really an afterlife.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted March 8, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

        Indeed, how could anyone rationally take the position in favor, since there is absolutely zero evidence for any formulation of the concept.

        It just isn’t possible to have a rational debate, when there is simply nothing to really debate.

    • JS1685
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      And that was only one of a variety of possibilities regarding consciousness after death, he claimed.

      I didn’t like it either. Perhaps Sam is having trouble completely jettisoning his Eastern mysticism? I really admire Sam’s work, but despite the claims some make that he’s toned it down on the Eastern front, I still see little clues like this that he’s still trying to validate some of that Eastern stuff.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted March 8, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

        the claims some make that he’s toned it down on the Eastern front

        Harris’ next book:

        “All Quiet on the Eastern Front”

        • Sam
          Posted March 9, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

          Jokes aside, I read in an article that his next book is tentatively titled ‘The Illusion of the Self’. Sounds like he’s vamping up the eastern meditation stuff. Which I don’t mind, by the way. All you have to believe to meditate is that the mind can be trained, and if you are a materialist you should already be reconciled to the idea that there is no real ‘self’ or ‘I’ lurking somewhere in the brain.

          • JS1685
            Posted March 9, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

            Agreed, as far as your comment goes. I was thinking more along the lines of things like xenoglossy. And this whole “consciousness after death” thing smacks of reincarnation. Not that I think Sam’s arguing for reincarnation, but perhaps that notion has served as the impetus for his arguments about consciousness surviving the death of the brain.

    • Heber Gurrola
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      The truth is that there are many quandaries with respect to consciousness, and most of them are even conceptual. Consciousness when defined as self-awareness is truly complicated to understand objectively at the level of the brain.

      As you probably know, most of human motor/cognitive skills have been located in some particular cerebral region, with the exception of consciousness. We simply do not know where consciousness is or what is made of. This of course doesn’t suggest an immaterial soul and Harris fully acknowledges that the mind is but the product of what the brain does. All Harris is suggesting is that right now we don’t have the same degree of certainty about consciousness as we have with respect to the source of most other mental qualities.

      • JS1685
        Posted March 8, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

        It seemed to me that Harris was suggesting rather more than that. He was explicitly addressing the question about consciousness surviving death.

        • Heber Gurrola
          Posted March 8, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

          He addressed the question because that was the subject matter in the debate, but I never heard where he suggested that an afterlife is probable. Maybe you can refer me to that minute in the video.

          • JS1685
            Posted March 8, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

            By “rather more” I did not mean that Harris argues for an afterlife as would be understood by religious people. He doesn’t.

            I meant that Harris was suggesting more than “we don’t know how consciousness arises, and we don’t know where the locus of consciousness can be found.” He was suggesting that our consciousness mightl outlast the death of our physical bodies. Somehow.

            • CRS
              Posted March 8, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

              “Consciousness” is not the same as “life”.

              I thought Harris did a fine job explaining his previous writings “suggesting that our consciousness might outlast the death of our physical bodies,” and separating that from his position that our life won’t.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted March 8, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

                It’s not the same as life, but it only exists in some forms of life.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted March 8, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

        There is evidence that suggests as least some of it is located in the prefrontal cortex.

    • MosesZD
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      lol. I quit after about 15-minutes. Rabbi Boring-as-Hell (the one in the purple shirt) made me want to slash my wrists…

  3. Jeff D
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    I listened to the audio of the entire debate a couple of times.

    I share Landon Ross’s exasperated reaction to the dissembling of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (although I think that Rabbi B. S. Artson is a wonderful name, in more ways than one). Rabbi Artson repeatedly invoked “nuance,” a word from the apologist’s arsenal that I now dislike even more than “metaphorical.”

    It was 1 hour and 2 minutes into the debate / discussion before the moderator asked this obvious, crucial question: What evidence is there to support the claim that some sort of afterlife exists?

    I was slightly disappointed that Harris and Hitch did not respond to Wolpe and Artson by emphasizing the difference between the scientific errors of centuries past and the outmoded or discarded religious doctrines of centuries past.

    • Curt Cameron
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Is there an MP3 of the debate somewhere?

    • Marella
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

      Yeah I noticed the continued use of ‘nuanced’, I began to wonder what the hell they actually think it means. Those rabbis were slick as an oiled pig and I have rarely heard nothing said at such great length. Since they admitted that religion was man made, I really couldn’t figure out exactly what the hell they claimed to believe in.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted March 8, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know about theology, but in politics, “nuance” means being as vague as possible in order to convince the largest possible number of people that you agree with them and plan to implement policies they support.

        • Wowbagger
          Posted March 8, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

          To paraphrase Hanns Jost (misattributed to Hermann Göring), whenever I hear the word ‘nuance’ I release the safety catch of my Browning.

  4. Veronica Abbass
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    J&M’s entry for the Templeton Prize.

    http://www.jesusandmo.net/2011/03/08/gift/

  5. Jimbo
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I flew to LA to see this debate (checked off my bucket list) and Hitch live for the first time before he shrugs off his mortal coil. It was an excellent debate but Artson was so bad. He prefaced his remarks by trying to suggest that the whole debate was just a venue to score cheap points.

    No rabbi, the point is that smart people should not believe things that are untrue or demonstrably false.

    • Posted March 8, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      And it isn’t our fault that the points are easily achieved. Pro-religion arguments in general are very easy to knock over with ridicule or cast extreme doubt on.

      Both rabbis were desperately reaching for the Courtier’s Reply toward the end; they didn’t think it was fair that Hitchens and Harris were not arguing solely against sophisticated theology and instead cutting down the beast at its ankles.

      • Jimbo
        Posted March 8, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

        I have to give credit to the moderator for FINALLY calling the rabbis on it by asking if Harris/Hitch are arguing against a caricature of your faith, then what do you believe?

        Apparently vapors lifting off of dead bodies and other mind-soul/body dualistic tosh. We had a nice demonstration from both rabbis of the ‘cancer made my faith stronger’ canard. And this is where Hitch is most potent: I’m not giving up atheism on my deathbed and hovering ecclesiastical vultures can go fuck themselves.

        It was a standing ovation moment.

  6. Sigmund
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    “two of them (Hitchens and Wolpe) in remission.”
    Hitches is in remission?
    That is good news. It doesn’t signify a cure but failure to go into remission is relatively common in advanced disease so it should mean he will be around for longer than his initial diagnosis suggested. (And good news that Wolpe’s cancer is also in remission – we cancer researchers don’t discriminate!)

  7. Tulse
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    This seems a curious topic to debate with rabbis — I thought that the afterlife was not all that central to Jewish theology. I would think that it would make far more sense to debate those whose religions are more invested in such a notion, such as Christianity or Hinduism.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Agreed.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 8, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

        I was wondering that myself.

        • Veronica Abbass
          Posted March 8, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

          Did you watch/listen to the debate? Around 45:25, Wolpe says,”the Jewish tradition is deliberately agnostic about the nature of it.” ‘It,’ in this case, is “the afterlife.”

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 8, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

            Yes, I did. That comment only made me wonder the more. I.e., it seems as if such a debate would be more likely between H & H and a couple of adamant believers in “afterlife.” But then, this is a Jewish broadcast… :D

          • Marella
            Posted March 8, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

            This is true but they also went on about how terrifying death is (not to me, don’t wanna die but not afraid of being dead) and how much comfort they got from pretending they’d live on after it in some unspecified form. Maybe that’s why they’re so scared of death, they don’t know what to expect. I’m pretty confident about what I expect, nothing.

    • Posted March 9, 2011 at 3:49 am | Permalink

      Actually, I also thought that mainstream Judaism was agnostic about an afterlife, since the Hebrew Bible doesn’t have much to say about it (aside from a few bits in late writings such as “Daniel”).

  8. Posted March 8, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    The turnabout by Hitchens on one of the rabbis was delicious! I can’t remember what it was exactly and not sure if I could find it again without watching the whole debate once more, but it went something like this:

    Rabbi Artson inserts foot in mouth.
    Hitchens: “Thank you, rabbi, for agreeing completely with our side…”

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      It was about whether religion was man made or not. One of the rabbis said something implying agreement with that.

      • Posted March 8, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        Thank you. :) That was it. I let the video download again and was able to find that piece for transcription.

        Artson starts out around 49:30 complaining that “what religion says in the 2nd century is grist for the mill, and what science says in the second century is of course outmoded” and goes on a riff about that, not noticing his own admission that “science works” (while leaving unsaid that religion does not) whether or not different parts of science in its current form will be discarded in favor of better working theories in the future or not. Then he refers to science and religion collectively as part of the greater “human enterprise”.

        @52:10
        Bradley Shavit Artson: “If you insist on reading Shakespeare literally, then he also would be a dunce, but you would have missed his greatness. And some of the greatest literature in the world, billions of people have thought, were religious literature. I find deeply inspiring much of religious literature, and I find deeply offensive much of religious literature. But, it’s literature made by people to make sense of the world [makes an arch with his hands] and to chart lives of meaning and of value. I think that’s good.”
        @52:52
        Christopher Hitchens: “Well, can I… [Curses at the mic to audience guffaws.] I would like to be the first to rush to the common ground that’s just been offered us, which consists of a very large and quite long admission that religion is man-made, which is our point to begin with. [Extends hand and nods toward Artson.] Thank you.”

  9. Egbert
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Is there an afterlife? A simple no will do.

    There is no great mystery about the question. Life is a process that is part of reality, once that process ends and the structures that give rise to those processes falls apart, that’s the end.

    If you want to be consistent about the afterlife, then you have to have a special place for every single process that once existed. Like a special place for newspapers or steam engines, for clouds and for snowflakes.

    • Kevin
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Maybe that’s what dark matter is…

      Or not.

  10. Posted March 8, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    I noticed how the rabbis repeatedly played the “sophisticated theology” card: when faced with a rational challenge to the core doctrines of your religion — doctrines that millions of people really believe and are motivated by (that the Bible stories are true, that the dead will be resurrected, etc.) — you accuse your opponent of caricaturing faith and ignoring religious “nuance.” Apparently, no prophet or sage ever meant anything literally: it’s all metaphor and allegory and peace and love. The unsophisticated masses have hijacked the true religion and misunderstood the true nature of God!

    I’ve transcribed two great bits by Hitchens (“God wouldn’t bugger around with Job to prove a point” and “The party will go on without you”) here.

    • john
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      agreed 100$ i mean %

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      I loved those lines, too. Also, Hitchens’s “That’s a nice cafeteria to shop at,” and Harris’s reference to “the sausage of faith.”

      • Bryan
        Posted March 8, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

        My personal favorite was Harris’ comment to the effect that it is possible to be a Jew and be “even less religious than” Artson, who spent the entire debate demonstrating that he is essentially an atheist. Now, with the likes of Rabbi Artson and Karen Armstrong, we not only have “gnu atheists” but also “nuanced atheists”!

        • Diane G.
          Posted March 8, 2011 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

          Yes, that was a great remark, and was taken in good humor as well!

          I think this was a debate amongst four people who really just love to debate.

          • Bryan
            Posted March 8, 2011 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

            I wonder is Sam was thinking of Professor Coyne when he made that remark…

  11. Posted March 8, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    A tiger indeed. Thanks for the shout, Jerry.

    I spoke with Hitch afterward and he was still griping over the shiftiness of the opposition – over being made to debate against so non-discrete a position.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

      A rapier is foiled against fog.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 8, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

        Or is a foil rapiered?

  12. Posted March 8, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I too have seen the debate and listened a few times. As a reform Jew, and a devout atheist, I’m familiar with the verbal meanderings of both rabbis. “Reform” means that the dogma is constantly reforming as more is revealed from god and human experience. Still, Judaism of any variety is still indoctrination, and does (I can attest) contribute to the “them vs. me” mentality common to most religious adherents. One day, the religious will not be so desperate to adhere to irrational and untrue beliefs, and many rabbis and ministers will be out of work?

    • Marella
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

      Oh I don’t know about that, these guys seemed to me to be nothing more than well read social workers who are willing to prentend that after you die you may go on in some unspecified and inexplicable way. I don’t think they actually believe in anything themselves so there’s no reason why they’d be out of a job when nobody else believes either. Even atheists are prepared to pay for someone to perform weddings for the well and hand-pattings for the sick.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 8, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

        Well said. It almost seemed to me at times that they were trying to communicate that; that they only keep up the more-religious front because as of now they feel a demand for it…nearly winky-nudgy…

        • Bryan
          Posted March 8, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

          Totally agree. How many different times (three?) did Artson profess to “completely agree” with “every” criticism of religion that Harris and Hitchens have made in their books?

  13. john
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I love when Christopher was asked, “So dead is dead? no nothing afterward?” and he said “wait- wait- the survival of the mind -consciousness- somehow apart from the brain is a completely different question than here is a pathway you have to follow and consequently you’re rewarded if you do this…”

  14. john
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Oh, and Wolpe sometimes talks so much in circles that he seems like a nice guy but an idiot lol

    • Veronica Abbass
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      I don’t see that Wolpe does not comes across as “an idiot.” However, it is obvious early on in the debate that he knows he going to lose.

      One comment Wolpe makes and repeats is “you lose everything when you die.” This is a strange comment for a religious person to make.

      • Veronica Abbass
        Posted March 8, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, ‘I don’t see that Wolpe does not comes across as “an idiot.”’ should read, ‘I don’t see that Wolpe comes across as “an idiot.”’

      • Bryan
        Posted March 8, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

        Exactly – I’m still not sure what the point of his conceding that was. It’s like he was trying to refute Hitchens’ Freudian point by conceding it.

  15. Sastra
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    One of these days I hope to employ the following strategy against a “sophisticated” theist: tell them that you are beginning with the hypothesis that THEY are a humanistic atheist, and all their religious language and talk of transcendence is simply poetic metaphor for perfectly natural phenomenon.

    Religion is a useful narrative which helps with group bonding and personal therapy. “God” is not an entity, being, person, form of energy, or spirit: like “Cupid” or “Santa,” it is a symbol for human values and aspirations and that is what they mean by it. So we already agree. That is my hypothesis.

    Refute it.

    What this would do, I hope, is force them to start out by bringing on the crazy. Cut to the chase: if they want to distance themselves from atheism they’ll have to make clear the distinctions between naturalism and supernaturalism. No hiding or ducking behind bland assertions and vague handwaving that can mean anything. If you keep invoking “metaphor” in religion you don’t stymie the atheists: you meet us. So get literal or be assimilated.

    It also places them in the uncomfortable position of being the Negative Nelly who must break the lovely unity of consensus you have presented them with. None of this posturing about how the theists are all about harmony but the atheists won’t reach out the hand of brotherhood across the bridge. We just took down the damn bridge: build it up and show us your work.

    Or, perhaps, they’ll actually agree that they’ve been playing word games and outside of the vocabulary there’s not a hair’s breadth of difference between their views and atheism.

    Either way, it would probably save a heck of a lot of time, I think.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      I think they would agree with everything you say in your first two paragraphs and still adamantly maintain that they are absolutely not atheists.

      • Bryan
        Posted March 8, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

        Totally agree – in fact, I just spent 1 hour 37 minutes watching that happen. But, they are ABSOLUTELY NOT ATHEISTS!

        • truthspeaker
          Posted March 9, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

          They remind of the male character on “Kids in the Hall” who has sex with men but is glad he isn’t “queer”.

          • Bryan
            Posted March 9, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

            hmmmm… I assume that the Kids sketch pre-dates one of my all time favorite Mr. Show sketches, which sounds pretty much identical: A rock band watches home video of the previous night’s party, during which they all have sex with each other, but then seem mystified when someone comments “I didn’t know you guys were gay”.

      • Sastra
        Posted March 9, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

        I suspect that’s because they don’t really agree with everything I say in the first two paragraphs. They aren’t atheists playacting at believing in the supernatural by using metaphorical language; they’re theists playacting at being perfectly reasonable by hiding behind metaphorical language. Otherwise, they wouldn’t get so upset with atheists, insisting that we don’t get it.

        It’s like a liberal theologian version of transubstantiation: their statements may look just like humanism from their outward appearance, but they’re really supernatural in essence, where the real reality is.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      OK; it’s past time to invite Sastra to these debates!

    • Tim Martin
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Wow, I like this idea a lot!

    • JS1685
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

      Excellent!

      Although, I have to agree w truthspeaker.

    • Karmakin
      Posted March 9, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      Yup. And this is why I say that once non-belief hits cultural critical mass in a society, that it goes fast. There’s a ton of people who are in reality atheists (in my mind, if you don’t believe in an interventionist deity, you’re not a theist. You could still be a deist, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish) but maintain the theist status due to the cultural marker that it provides.

      I’ve actually changed my line of thinking over time. I no longer think that Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism is the problem. I think that simple theism, the belief in an interventionist god, is the problem. Which is why I think it’s very important for progressive religious folks to be VERY CLEAR that they believe that most/all this stuff is metaphor and not literal, and what exactly the nature of the god that they believe in is.

  16. Jimbo
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Did any of you know that Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was supposed to do this debate but found out that Hitch and Harris were to be paid more for their appearances than he was so he went public about it? See:

    http://www.thejewishweek.com/blogs/gary_rosenblatt/when_rabbi_airs_his_no_respect_complaints

    I’m SO grateful that that carnival barker wasn’t there but then again, anyone would have been better than Artson.

  17. st.baad
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    I would rejoice to learn that Hitchens’ cancer was in remission. But I’ve heard nothing to this effect. And indeed he recently canceled an engagement due to health (which may or may not be cancer-related); I fear this is an ominous sign.

    Watching this debate, Hitch seems like a blue light of brilliance, a blue light that is fading.

  18. Diane G.
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Actually, I’ll admit that for the most part I enjoyed both rabbis, maddening though their content usually was. I appreciated the lack of bombast and the self-deprecating humor (even if some of it was faux–that holds for the other debaters as well).

    I have a hard time thinking of a Christian “personality” who’d come off as pleasant as these two. But maybe that’s because the so-called liberal or moderate Christians leave the debating to the fire-breathers.

    • Marella
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

      Bishop Spong maybe? He seems capable of being an atheist religious.

  19. Ilya
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Well, Judaism is particularly hazy on the subject of “afterlife” and I’d even argue quite close to atheism. E.g. Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes:

    “For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is meaningless. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust. ” (Ecc 3:19-21)

    “Anyone who is among the living has hope[a]—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward,
    and even their name is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.” (Ecc 9:4-6)

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      Any chance that “a more nuanced” Jewish view then “evolved” in reaction to Christianity overwhelming the world? (Admittedly, that doesn’t sound very Jewish-like.) What do Orthodox Jews believe?

      • Posted March 8, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

        Pretty much what evangelical Christians believe, without the Greek scriptures (“New Testament”). Not very nuanced at all…. And since the Hebrew scriptures have very little to say about the nature of the afterlife, so have they. Come to think of it, only the Christian Heaven is a gated community with St Peter and his keys and book. Anyone else can just stroll right into theirs….

        • Diane G.
          Posted March 8, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

          Well, that’s better already! If only they hadn’t been so misogynist…

          But if there’s nothing in the Hebrew scriptures, how did they arrive at the need for an afterlife?

          • truthspeaker
            Posted March 8, 2011 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

            Worried about losing people to Christianity, maybe?

            • Diane G.
              Posted March 8, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

              Makes sense to me!

              Though it also sort of conflicts with my view of Jews as nurturing a certain amount of exclusivism. I must say, Judaism has always fascinated me for not only being so persistent but also for being so persistently tiny with respect to the other prominent religions. Why, for instance, didn’t they hit on the utility of encouraging large families? (And please don’t think I’m overlooking their very real persecution, here.)

              • Tacroy
                Posted March 8, 2011 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

                Judaism is an older and less memetically fit than modern Christianity; it is precisely because they never hit on such things as “God commands you to have babies whether you want to or not” and “you must go out and tell people about this” that Judaism is smaller than the later Abrahamic religions.

                I mean, you can clearly see an evolution in the more malleable religions over time (especially Protestant-derived Christianities, which are basically the “anything goes” buffet table of religion) emphasizing reproductive and missionary success as being something that God wants.

                It would be interesting to research and write something more substantial about this, now that I think about it.

              • Diane G.
                Posted March 11, 2011 at 1:45 am | Permalink

                That is an intriguing analysis. And here I’d been thinking, “older & therefore wiser…” Or something along the lines of, “more K-selected…” :D
                (I wonder if memes exhibit various selective strategies like that?…)

  20. stvs
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Wolpe was particularly eloquent and learned

    And pedantic. The Most Awesome debate moment was after Wolpe dragged in Kierkegaard or whatever to Hitchens quoting Princess Fucking Leia, and quoting her to devastating effect.

    • stvs
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

      Oh wait … Han Solo was quoted. Which is even better in this context.

  21. Posted March 8, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    An enjoyable foremat. I would have rather watched Hitchens vs Shavit. Sorry but Sam Harris puts me to sleep.

  22. Robert
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    I’m actually watching this a second time and my overriding thought right now is that one day someone has to say to Rabbis Wolpe and Artson and others who think like them:

    “Dudes, seriously, you’re in the wrong discipline. If all you’re going to do is acknowledge that religion doesn’t answer any question, go get a degree in science or something useful. You don’t have to make up answers just because you were unfortunate enough to end up in theology first.”

    • Robert
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

      And to add to that, thank goodness for philosophers like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett who are grounded in science and empiricism first.

      Back your shit up!

    • truthspeaker
      Posted March 9, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      Hell, get a degree in literature, art, music, or any of the humanities. Then you can dive into all the human-created narratives you want without having to pretend that some of those narratives are divinely inspired.

  23. Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    As one of only a handful of secular humanistic rabbis, I am often confronted with silliness like this coming from colleagues.

    Most Reform and Conservative rabbis just stay away from theology since they have nothing of any consequence (or logical consistency) to say. Debating them is an exercise in futility. Either they don’t know what they really believe or they can’t articulate anything that makes sense.

    The future of Judaism is cultural and non-theistic….

    See my blog:

    http://www.TheAtheistRabbi.com

  24. Greg Esres
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Kinda of a worthless debate, in my eyes, which Harris pretty much pointed out in his opening statement. None of them really had any information one way or the other, so there really wasn’t much to talk about.

    While I agree that Hitchens and Harris had the more cogent points, I’m biased because I agree with their point of view. I suspect an unbiased observer wouldn’t see any winner.

  25. aDCBeast
    Posted October 30, 2011 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    Rabbi David Volpe is a the leader of the CONSERVATIVE jewish movement in the US

    The clown who posted the above should have done a simple bio check

  26. Posted October 30, 2011 at 4:53 am | Permalink

    aDCBeast: Before you call someone a clown itis YOU who shoul get his facts straight. The Conservative Movement in Judaism is a liberal stream of Judaism. Its name is an historical anomaly. It originally consisted of those reformers who sought to conserve more tradition than the radical reformers.


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] tolerance of theological bullshit, than do Christian preachers or Muslim imams.  Yesterday we saw the sorry spectacle of two smart rabbis, David Wolpe and Bradley Shavit Artson, tie themselves into intellectual knots […]

  2. […] Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and currently teaches at UCLA”. You may remember Wolpe from the Rabbi Smackdown Debate, where he and a coreligionist debated Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.  If you saw that […]

  3. […] rabbi who should have held his tongue. It’s David Wolpe, whom we’ve encountered several times before. Over at HuffPo he writes “In defense of animal sacrifice.” (HuffPo notes at […]

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