Acclaimed polemicist and atheist Christopher Hitchens traded wit on science and scripture last week at a debate titled “Does God Exist?” with his opponent, Orthodox rabbi and television host Shmuley Boteach.
Ticket holders filled the auditorium at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y to capacity; many hoped that Hitchens would demonstrate his irreverent, razor-edged reasoning. The fans weren’t disappointed.
“We’re all atheists,” Hitchens argued in his dry British timbre. “We no longer believe we need to tear the beating heart out of a virgin to make the sun rise. We no longer believe in the sun god Ra or in Zeus, and we now must go one step further.”
A critical essayist known for his caustic prose and attempted literary assassinations of popular figures (including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi), Hitchens recently aimed his arrows at the divine with his book “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”
At the podium, Hitchens — who discovered his Jewish ancestry only as an adult — called religion a “pernicious belief” that does “nothing good for our poorly evolved species.” He bemoaned the human psyche, which “prefers junk explanation over no explanation,” and called the belief in God “the first explanation, and the worst explanation” for the state of existence.
The human race has “nothing to look forward to,” Hitchens said, given the fact that extinction could come about in the near future, and if not soon, then within the next 5 billion years, when the Andromeda galaxy collides with our own.
Boteach took the podium next. “After hearing that,” he began, “I’m colossally depressed. If the Andromeda galaxy doesn’t finish me off, Christopher Hitchens will.” Boteach is the author of several books on Orthodox life in the modern world, including “Kosher Sex.” He hosts the show “Shalom in the Home” on The Learning Channel.
Boteach attacked his opponent’s recent book, calling it Hitchens’s “worst work yet, full of falsity.” A proponent of Intelligent Design, Boteach labeled Hitchens a scientific reductionist who belittled humanity as a race of poorly evolved apes.
“We might be 98% identical to primates,” Boteach asserted, “but in that 2% lays intellect and morality.” The rabbi asked how Hitchens could call the Bible “inhumane” when it commanded humankind to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
In his rebuttal, Hitchens asked, “What happened to the Midianites?” and argued that the Bible clearly approved of genocide. “It’s a good thing those books are fiction,” he said.