[Introduction by NPR's Tom Ashbrook]
ASHBROOK: I made a mistake with my third child: I waited until she could speak to have her baptized and when—baptism, you know, water on head—and when the preacher, you know, got the water with the droplets and began to put it on her head and he said it was in the name of God and she said, “What is God?” Let’s just do it, let’s just start with the simplicity of a child. What is God, Rabbi?
WOLPE: Well, it depends who you’re answering. If you’re answering a two-year-old, you answer one way, but if you answer—discussing it with an adult, you begin with a recognition, which actually the entire debate should be framed with, of human limitation. In the following sense, when you were two years old, could you imagine what it’s like to be an adult? Of course not. A two-year-old has no idea what an adult is like. And yet we make definitive statements about God all the time when in every religion that I know of the distance between God and human beings is infinitely greater than the distance between an adult and a two-year-old. So, when I say, as I’m going to in a second—I’m not going to avoid your question—but understand that I say it against the background of a religious recognition of our own inability to understand that which is infinitely greater than ourselves. My thumbnail definition of what God is is that God is the source of everything that exists and God is someone, something with whom a human being can have a relationship and that you can lead your life in alignment with a godly purpose. But any definition that is greater than that is, in some ways, to introduce God, which is, by the way, the title of Christopher’s book is exactly right. God is not great, because to say God is great or God is something is to put a definition on God, which we know from classical Jewish philosophy you ought not to do. So, in fact, Christopher is exactly right and we can wrap it up right now.
ASHBROOK: Thank you very much for coming, it’s been a wonderful evening. Apologies perhaps to Muslims in the audience who say, “God is great” all the time. We’ll circle back.
ASHBROOK: Chris Hedges, to you...
HITCHENS: If you don’t mind…
ASHBROOK: …answer my daughter's question, maybe you’ll warn her off.
HITCHENS: If you don’t mind, it would be Christopher, and Hitchens.
ASHBROOK: Yes, sir.
HITCHENS: Chris Hedges is a horrible…
ASHBROOK: Hedges, did I say Hedges?
HITCHENS: Yes you did.
ASHBROOK: Forgive me.
HITCHENS: Chris Hedges is a horrible apologist for liberation theology.
ASHBROOK: Christopher Hitchens.
HITCHENS: That’s better.
ASHBROOK: Too many guests, too little time.
HITCHENS: Sorry, I exist too, if you see what I mean.
HITCHENS: May as well start by establishing that ontological claim.
HITCHENS: Well, Friederich Nietzsche famously said that God was dead and Sigmund Freud can be rendered as having said that God was dad. And I think both of them were probably right. The concept of God is, like everything else in our vocabulary, man-made. It’s an invention of human beings. Unless you take the view that God made us, in which case there’d be a lot to explain: how many—why did we, in that case, make so many gods? It does seem to be much, very much more probable that men and women made many gods than any one god made all men and women and the rest of creation. And, as well as being man-made, it’s fear-made. It is the unexpressed, or partial expressed, wish for a protector, a parent, someone who will never desert you, someone who will do, in a way, your thinking for you, especially on questions of moral philosophy. At its best it’s that, it’s a wish to be loved more than you probably deserve. And at its worst it’s the underdeveloped part of the human psyche that leads to totalitarianism, that wants to worship and that wants a boss, that wants a celestial dictatorship and that’s the bit that’s now threatening to destroy our secular civilization. And so you’re quite right to start where you do. It used to be believed—I mean, the number of gods now is infinite and a new god is created almost every day by some cult or other—but it used to be that there was a belief that gods were in the trees, in the woods, in the springs, in the sea, in the clouds and so forth (polytheism of a kind). Then, something a bit more polytheistic like Olympus where there was at least a location for the divine, but it was multi-faceted. And then monotheism, getting it down to one. So I regard this as progress of a sort because they’re getting nearer the true figure all the time.
WOLPE: I actually…
ASHBROOK: Rabbi, yes. Progess, maybe.
HITCHENS: Which, by the way, is why the Vatican, in it’s old days, was very upset by the concept of zero, didn’t like zero at all, the most important number of all, the number without which you can’t do anything, which wasn’t there in Roman numerals.
WOLPE: No, it was invented in Islamic civilization, actually.
HITCHENS: And unfortunately also struck them as a sinister import from—impartimus infidelium, from pagan lands, but also the trouble—the concept of zero was very troubling for theism and must be and does indeed remain so. It’s one of the many, many ways in which theism is not compatible with the scientific world view.
ASHBROOK: Rabbi Wolpe, may I ask you…
WOLPE: I just want to point out, without even taking issue with the incorrect statements that he made, I want you to…
HITCHENS: Why would you…
WOLPE: I want you to understand—wait, wait, wait, I want you to understand the progress of the argument that you just heard because it’s important that people do this all the time and at least you should be aware of it whether you accept it or not. Very often when people argue with you, especially when they argue about religion, they attribute their own beliefs to logic and your belief to psychology. So religious people believe in something because they need to be loved, or they need a crutch or they’re weak. But I believe what I believe because it’s true and scientific. And I just want you to be aware that you cannot actually disprove someone’s belief by impugning an unworthy motive to it. You actually have to disprove the belief. So don’t let Christopher pull the psychological wool over your eyes. You can actually be just as worthy or unworthy of love, just as tough-minded, just as thoughtful, just as deep, and still believe in God as most human beings have throughout all of human history as if you are Christopher Hitchens.
ASHBROOK: Christopher, are you a trickster?
HITCHENS: Well, I don’t think that—you couldn’t accuse that of being an incorrect statement, he would accuse it of being an incomplete one. I didn’t give all the reasons why people believe in God. After all, you did write a whole book that argues that the belief in God can be very useful to people in times of crisis, did you not? I mean that’s…
WOLPE: Yes, but I never said that was why you shouldn’t believe in God.
HITCHENS: No, and I don’t think it is the reason why many people do.
HITCHENS: But remember there are two questions—I better now say, lest I be accused of not having exhausting the entire subject in my first response—I’d better say there are at least two questions. One is this: is there a god, a creator, a prime mover, an uncaused cause, whatever you like to call it? And this was the question answered at a certain point not very long ago in our history by the deists—people like Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and many others who said that the order of the universe seemed to suggest that it couldn’t just have been random, that there may have been a designer but that the designer didn’t take any part in human affairs. And that, in the late seventeenth, early eighteenth centuries—sorry, late eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries—was probably a very intelligent position to hold. It was pre-Einstein, pre-Darwin. It was probably as far as you were likely to get with philosophical speculation. But believing that there might be a cause or a mover or a creator is one thing but believing that there is a supervising, intervening entity who cares who wins the war, who cares who you sleep with and in what way, who cares what you eat and on what day, and—in other words, who makes you the center of the whole cosmos, is another thing altogether. So people who say, “I believe in God, I’m a deist,” have all their work in front of them before they can say that they are really religious.
ASHBROOK: Are you prepared to be a deist?
ASHBROOK: No divine mover, even at the whatever, the origin?
HITCHENS: There’s nothing in the natural, cosmic order, or—that’s the macro level—or the mirco level, that’s to say the constituent of our own DNA and the things that we have in common with the other animals and indeed other forms of life, like plants, but isn’t susceptible to a much better explanation.
WOLPE: Well, here's—I'm…
HITCHENS: In other words, as the great physicist Laplace said when he demonstrated his working model (his orrery, as it’s called) of the solar system to the emperor and Napoleon said, “Well I see there’s no God in this system,” and Laplace said, “Well, Your Majesty, it works without that assumption.”
ASHBROOK: Rabbi, I don’t want to play God…
ASHBROOK: …but to give form to this…
ASHBROOK: It’s 2010. You said you think of God as the source of all. In the year BCE 2010 why it should be the source of all to divinity, what about science? And you’ve just said…
WOLPE: Sorry, that’s exactly what I was going to address is the—first of all, there are two separate ways of thinking about this, both—and I’ll offer them both briefly and you can decide if both or neither is congenial to you. One is that of course you can’t equate God and proof for God and discussion of God with a demonstration in a laboratory. That’s never been the case. The idea is different, to shift it differently which is this: I would ask you this question instead: deep down, do you believe that the universe is constituted only by stuff, by material? Or is there a mystery at the heart of things? Do you believe that you are purely synapses or is there something immaterial and eternal about you and those you love? Do you believe that things like love are just an epiphenomena of the way evolution has put us all together or do you think there is something that in the fact that immaterial things like ideas and love and consciousness have such a profound influence on our lives that lead you to believe that the intangible can be at least as real or more real than the tangible. If that way of looking at the world appeals to you or speaks to you, then you understand that Laplace, in order to explain how the heavens go, may not need the hypothesis of God, but that in order to explain why there is something rather than nothing, why there is a deeper meaning to life than stuff alone that that’s something that speaks to you and lets you understand that God is real. That’s part one. Wait, wait, wait. Part two is there are in fact things that are suggestive of something greater in even the scientific world, which is why, by the way, in the American Academy of Science more than half consistently, and this has been true over the last 100 years, 51, 52% of scientists say that they believe in God and that is the fact that everything exists rather than nothing, that consciousness, which is still inexplicable to human beings is real, that I make sounds, which is immaterial, and it touches you in some way that it makes you want to change things. The way of looking at the world even from what we can see and touch and feel suggests that there's something greater than know and now, go right ahead.
HITCHENS: I can’t paraphrase him properly, but you really ought to get a hold of—it’s easy to find on Google—a lecture given by Lawrence Krauss, who I regard as the greatest living physicist, and it’s about the quantum and it’s about a whole universe from nothing. It’s exactly how you get from nothing to something, in fact quite a lot of things. One means by which this happens is the following: every second that we’re speaking a star the size of our sun or bigger goes out, blows up or goes out. That’s been the case every single second since the first moment of the Big Bang. It’s a lot. That’ll be a lot of suns going out as we speak. And there’s a lot of annihilation, isn’t it? It’s a lot of destruction. It’s on a—it’s rather what you might call almost a wasteful scale. It does have the positive outcome though that we are all constituted of those materials. We are made of star dust. Now I find that a rather more majestic and wonderful and even beautiful idea than, say, the idea of the burning bush. A bit more impressive, gives you more to think about.
WOLPE: Are they mutually exclusive? Are they mutually exclusive? Did God make you of star dust?
HITCHENS: One has the virtue of being true and provable and studyable, which the other doesn’t. And I do think that the verifiability of something is a virtue.
ASHBROOK: Are we simply material?
HITCHENS: Yes. We don’t have bodies, we are bodies. Until 50,000 years ago there were four other kinds of biped, humanoid, not unlike us, still living on the planet, died leaving no descendents. We’re the only survivors of those people, that family. We're the last—we don’t know if they had gods or not.
ASHBROOK: So you think you’re inexplicable?
HITCHENS: No religion invented appears to have known that these creatures even existed because the religious are forced to believe that the only really significant event that happened in the human story happened about 3,000 years ago.
ASHBROOK: Are the mysteries inexplicable? Are we just waiting to understand them?
WOLPE: That’s not true. That’s factually not true.
HITCHENS: Now, all of this massive Big Bang cosmological churning and destruction and annihiliation—which is paralleled, by the way on our own earth where 99% of all species that have already been on the planet have ever gone extinct, leaving no descendants. All of this could be part of a plan. There’s no way an atheist can prove it’s not. But it’s some plan, isn’t it, with mass destruction, pitiless extermination, annihilation going on all the time and all of this set in motion on a scale that’s absolutely beyond our imagination in order that the Pope can tell people not to jerk off. This is stupid.
WOLPE: Yeah, right. No, I think here…
HITCHENS: This is—it’s childish to be [indecipherable].
WOLPE: I can care—we've reached actually—we’ve reached an area of agreement. I, too, repudiate that statement, by the Pope, and I’m happy to do it publically.
HITCHENS: I’m—we’ll leave it right there.
WOLPE: No, no, no, no, no, wait just a second, hold on. The—first of all it’s just not true that religions don’t actually acknowledge very important things that happened before their own founding. Just read the beginning of the Bible, which goes back far beyond the founding of the Bible. But, more important than that, there are actually things that if you are material you can’t give an accounting of. For example, you might not believe that you have free will. You might think that everything you do was predetermined from the beginning of the Big Bang and (just the fact, by the way, that all the universe, physics tells us, came from something tinier than the head of a pin, is, to me, there is no other word than miraculous for it, but nonetheless) you might believe that all—that everything you did, the words tonight, the fact that those flowers would be orange on the table, that was all predetermined from the beginning of time. But if you believe that you actually make a choice, that human beings have free will, then I ask you how you account for that? You didn’t pick your birth, your genetics, you didn’t pick your environment. So from the very beginning all of that was predetermined for you and unless there is something immaterial about you that allows you to choose, then everything human beings do is already set from the beginning of time. I don’t understand how you get free will if you don’t have God.
HITCHENS: It’s pathetic, I’m sorry to say, to say of the cosmological and the genetic that these are deterministic processes. They’re not at all. They’re full of extraordinary randomness and in the genetic case of mutation—Stephen Jay Gould, the great paleontologist, wrote a book which I recommend to you called The Burgess Shale, which is—it’s the side of a mountain in Canada, in the Canadian Rockies, that sheared off so you can read—you can see the inside of a mountain. You can see it as if you were looking at a blackboard and you can see the growth and development of the species. And you realize it’s not a tree, it’s more like a bush. There are various branches that go off and go nowhere and there are others that succeed and different kinds of failure and different kinds of mutation. His most exciting thought, most revolutionary thought is this: if you could, so to speak, put all of that onto a tape and rewind it and then press play again, there’s no certainty it would come out the same way. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that it would not. So there’s nothing predetermined. There’s nothing deterministic about this at all. Thanks to our understanding of our genetics, which are also not predetermined because they’re the result of random mutation and natural selection as everyone now knows. That’s why we can have, sad to say for the kosher, but we can have skin transplants and organ transplants from pigs, who are much closer to us than we used to think. We can also sequence the DNA of viruses and learn how to immunize ourselves from it. It works, in other words. But yes, it can be tampered with, it can be engineered for good as well as for ill. There’s nothing deterministic about it at all. It’s much more exciting, it’s much more interesting, it’s much more rewarding, it’s verifiable. And yes, there are elements, I was trying to say, the miraculous, the awe-inspiring, the tragic, the majestic in this that there simply are not in the incantations of Genesis where the supposed authors claim to know the divinity, the creator, on personal terms. This is nonsense. It’s for children.
WOLPE: First of all, it is interesting—I mean, Stephen Gould who was, by the way, very sympathetic to religion, and wrote a book called Rocks of Ages which I also recommend to you where he said that religion and science don’t overlap.
HITCHENS: They sure don’t.
WOLPE: One second. If you read his book on the Burgess Shale he does say if you rewind then you assume if you push play again you would get a different result and that’s certainly true unless the result was intended. But, more important than that: yes, there’s randomness in the system. Nobody would argue that there isn’t randomness in the system, but randomness isn’t free will. Randomness is getting a result you don’t expect. The question is how do you get a directed choice, which isn’t random? I choose right now to pick this glass up. Now how did I make that choice if I’m purely a product of my DNA and my environment? Then it’s not a choice, then it was programmed in, then it’s instinct. And the whole point that religion’s always made about instinct would that human beings can rise above it. Unlike animals, which are the same at age two as they are at age ten as they are at age fifteen, a human being grows and changes and chooses. That’s the basis of religious [indecipherable].
ASHBROOK: I have to say to me it doesn’t seem a matter of religion that I can choose to pick up this glass. That seems to me to be well within what could develop on a purely scientific basis.
WOLPE: How? How?
ASHBROOK: I’m not a scientist but it doesn’t seem like a mystery of God to me personally.
WOLPE: Oh sure it is. Well no—but seriously, where does the element of free choice come from?
ASHBROOK: I could be purely instinctual and put my head in a stream and drink and choose to do that.
WOLPE: But that—now, wait, wait, when you say “choose,” where does the choice come from any more than my—[picking up a glass of water] than the choice of this glass to fall down? Where do you get a choice as opposed to a complex interaction of DNA and environment, neither of which you chose?
HITCHENS: Again, piling on completely unnecessary assumptions, and also inviting a question that will make you uncomfortable.
WOLPE: Go ahead.
HITCHENS: If you say that, “No, it’s because God has given you free will,” I have to ask you how do you know that?
WOLPE: Well, are you assuming that we have free will?
HITCHENS: One who…
WOLPE: Are you assuming that we have free will?
HITCHENS: If you answer my question…
WOLPE: Then give me another source.
HITCHENS: If you answer my question with another question…
WOLPE: Give me another source.
HITCHENS: …I’ll still answer it…
HITCHENS: I will still answer it…
WOLPE: Thank you.
HITCHENS: …even though your question is an answer to mine—not an answer, a response to mine.
HITCHENS: The view I take about free will is that of course we have free will, because we have no choice but to have it.
WOLPE: No, that’s a quip, not an answer.
HITCHENS: I was and still am, to some extent, a dialectical materialist and I also think there are some ironies in the universe as well as in history. But to say, “Of course we have free will, the boss says we’ve got it,” is to make a mockery of the whole concept and it’s also to invite the question what kind of tyranny is this that you want? You want an all-supervising, all-deciding person. I asked you first, what sources of information so you have about this person’s existence that I don’t have, that are denied to me? I’d like to know. And second, why do you want it? Why do you want to arrive at a terminus of unfreedom where there is a celestial authority upon whom all things depend and from which all things flow? Why do you want that and how on earth do you know that there’s any case to be made for its existence?
ASHBROOK: Yes, please, that’s a good question.
WOLPE: I don’t think it’s a terminus of unfreedom.
HITCHENS: I think you’re only free when you’ve declared against it, frankly. That’s the beginning of freedom is the emancipation...
WOLPE: Is that the coda to the question?
HITCHENS: ...from the tyranny of theocracy, yes.
WOLPE: I actually think that the whole point that I was making was that a belief in a god who creates you is what gives you free will and that without it you have to fall into a determinism. And, by the way, you may think that science gives it to you, but every scientist I’ve asked on this question, including David Barash, who’s an evolutionary biologist says that it is—Steven Pinker had the same reaction—is that it is more or less a commonplace of modern science that determinism is the only world view that’s consistent with an understanding of the way science works. So, you may be able to find it in science, but I haven’t met a scientist yet who’s been able to account for it. Now, putting that aside...
ASHBROOK: But not every scientist is a believer.
WOLPE: No, of course not. I’m saying that…
HITCHENS: Almost no scientist is.
WOLPE: … those who don’t use determinism as their philosophical assumption. But let me answer his question, too, which is therefore, I assume that as a religious person you’re granted freedom. That’s the whole point, is you do make choices.
HITCHENS: Once you’ve said “granted”…
WOLPE: Better choices, better…
HITCHENS: Once you’ve said “granted,” you’ve made my point.
ASHBROOK: And he’s English, he knows about [indecipherable].
WOLPE: Well, you’re granted—you’re granted…
HITCHENS: “Thank you for making me free,” what’s that?
WOLPE: No, you’re granted freedom—so you’re granted freedom by the evolutionary process, I’m granted freedom by a creator. Either way, what you—either way you have to be…
HITCHENS: I’m not granted all sorts of freedom. I mean…
HITCHENS: Of course scientists are right to that—to this extent. There are—Einstein says, “The miraculous things about the laws of nature is they’re never suspended.” That’s what so amazing about them, is they’re immutable. Religion claims that, on occasions, the laws of nature are suspended in order to prove what they wouldn’t otherwise prove.
WOLPE: It depends who you ask. Not Maimonides. It depends who you ask in religion.
ASHBROOK: Is there a fundamental contradiction in your mind, Rabbi, between Jewish teaching and evolution?
ASHBROOK: None at all?
WOLPE: Certainly not. Nope. None.
ASHBROOK: But evolution, as we learn it, doesn’t require a deity.
WOLPE: No. Well, it depends what you mean by “require a deity.” It’s just like saying that building this stage doesn’t require a deity. The question isn’t whether the discovery of the mechanism by which God made the world requires God, it just requires the discovery of the mechanism by which God made the world. But it also doesn’t outlaw God or make God impossible or make it, in fact, less plausible.
ASHBROOK: What’s the difference to your mind between mystery and incomprehension?
ASHBROOK: In other words, will we solve…
WOLPE: Incomprehension describes my reaction to the question.
ASHBROOK: Oh, great. America’s Rabbi thinks my questions incomprehensible.
WOLPE: I’m not sure I understand, tell me again.
WOLPE: In other words…
ASHBROOK: Science progressively made a lot of things comprehensible.
WOLPE: Yes. Mystery means those things that by the very nature of the world are unfigureoutable no matter how bright we are, no matter how hard we work at it.
ASHBROOK: How do you know that they’re unfigureoutable?
WOLPE: Well, you’re asking…
ASHBROOK: I prefer that over incomprehensible.
WOLPE: You’re asking me to know in a way that I’m not willing to concede is the proper way to describe religious conviction. It’s like saying to me, “How do you know that love exists?” or “How do you know that another human being is beautiful?” or “How do you know that”—I don’t know—“that these lights are a pageant of gorgeous colors?” The answer is you don’t know it. Some things you have as the deepest conviction of your soul and there are things that make sense of the world in ways that nothing else makes sense of the world but if you ask me do I know that God exists the way I know that that glass is on the table then I say you’re putting in an empirical, scientific framework which is exactly the framework that religious people want to keep religion out of because [indecipherable].
ASHBROOK: But I want to [indecipherable]—how do you know the mystery won’t be solved one day?
WOLPE: Because it’s not a mystery of a question that’s solvable. It’s like saying, “How do you know the mystery won’t be solved that you have an ineradicable sense that the world is wondrous?” I don’t know how you would even think about solving such a mystery.
ASHBROOK: If I could understand it and still find it wondrous, Christopher, what about you, if it’s not God…
WOLPE: Oh, I…
ASHBROOK: …is it all soluble?
HITCHENS: Well first…
ASHBROOK: One day?
HITCHENS: …you’re right that science has made many things more comprehensible to us and it’s explained things that religion used to take credit for. In other words, now we know there’s a germ theory of disease. Diseases are not curses or revenge from heaven. Same with earthquakes and so on. The stuff they used to teach us, and many of them still do is nonsense—evil nonsense as well as ignorant nonsense. But, it’s also taught us, just in my lifetime, an enormous amount more about how little we know. We’re much, much more ignorant…
HITCHENS: …than people who lived before Galileo. Because we have now an increasingly large idea...
WOLPE: Of how ignorant...
HITCHENS: ...of the fantastic expanse of the unknown. That’s precisely the moment at which to say that skepticism is what’s necessary, inquiry, debate, doubt. Where’s faith in this? Where’s the usefulness of faith there? There’s no use to it at all. Socrates, who, as far as I know, existed, but may well not have done, it doesn’t matter to me. No one will insult me if they say, “Socrates, your great hero, didn’t exist.” Try it on a Muslim, try it on a Christian that their prophets didn’t exist, or tell people that Moses is a myth. They start hurling themselves about making menacing noises very often. Socrates said you’re only educated when you’ve understood how ignorant you are. And you’re only going to even find that out by doubting everything all the time. There’s all the difference in the world between that outlook and that mentality…
HITCHENS: …and the mentality of faith. And second, on metaphysics, which you, I noticed, take refuge in several times already this evening like, “What is love,” “Is something poetic or is it prosaic?” Very good questions, but metaphysical ones. Those who say, “God exists and intervenes in the world,” in other words, those who say there is a religious god, the god of religion, are saying that redemption is unoffered to human beings, that salvation is unoffered to them, and that if they reject the offer they can be in really big trouble. Now don’t start talking on [indecipherable] like this or, if you don’t mind, to a debate partner like me as if religion was a private matter because everybody knows that if it was there wouldn’t be anything to argue about. It's precisely because it claims to be a total solution, a complete solution to all problems, available on pain of death, sometimes, in some forms, but available to you if you’ll only have enough faith. Well we just found out that faith is probably the most overrated of the virtues and the one most—least useful to use in the real dilemmas that we actually have to face.
WOLPE: There are so many things to unpack in that statement that I’ll just pick on two or three. First, being interestingly that Socrates, whether he existed or not, according to Plato, at least, believed in the gods and even in an afterlife so he didn’t doubt everything, but…
HITCHENS: Gods, maybe.
WOLPE: Wait, no, wait, wait, wait, didn’t interrupt you. But, I want you to know, and you should know this in particular…
HITCHENS: Couldn’t think of anything to say.
WOLPE: I didn’t interrupt you twice.
WOLPE: But I want you to know…
HITCHENS: You weren’t quick enough.
WOLPE: It may be true that part of it was speed but I also think it's because civility is a very religious virtue. So the…
HITCHENS: I could’ve said that.
WOLPE: The Jewish tradition actually doesn’t tell you that everyone must do this in the world. Rather, it prescribes goodness and that’s what it is that religion is supposed to bring into the world. Now can you point to examples of religious wickedness? Of course you can. But that’s clearly what Judaism asks of people. The first obligation that you have is goodness and that’s why when you talk about religion as though it is inherently totalitarian, it tells you you must act this way it makes two mistakes. First of all, it doesn’t see religion as evolving as anything else does, when in fact the Judaism of thousands of years ago ought to be, must be, should be, is expected to be different than the Judaism of today.
ASHBROOK: Still has ten commandments.
HITCHENS: None of which mention goodness.
WOLPE: Alright, guys, guys, guys, you have to let me finish my statement, ok?
WOLPE: Thank you.
HITCHENS: You’re welcome.
WOLPE: I feel a little bit between a sandwich here, but—and the second part of it is, if you say that faith does nothing for you, as Christopher repeats over and over again, it’s very hard to explain why it is that millions and millions of people all over the world and throughout history have felt that faith deepens their life, gives them meaning, increases their goodness, and why it is, for example, in America that people of faith give more to charity, vote more in elections, volunteer more, help more. Do you know what the largest aid organization is—aid and development organization is in the United States? It’s not CARE, it’s not Save the Children, it’s One World, which is a Christian organization out of Seattle, which not only gives millions and millions and millions of dollars across the world but sends people all over the world to the most beleaguered, helpless places and they do it because they believe they’re called to do it by God. It’s just not true that having faith makes no difference in this world. It makes a tremendous difference and the vast majority of that difference, not all of it, but the vast majority of that difference is for goodness.
ASHBROOK: [To Hitchens] Let me put a question in if you'd be so good. The Rabbi feels in a sandwich and I don’t mean for you to feel in a sandwich. Let me put this to you.
WOLPE: Oh, that’s ok.
ASHBROOK: Christopher, what about the solace of faith? Some of the most religious people I know ended up there…
WOLPE: Oh this is a softball. I want a hard question.
ASHBROOK: No, I mean I…
WOLPE: I know what he’s going to say to this…
ASHBROOK: Well, maybe, but he’s been called…
WOLPE: …you hard-minded, hard-hearted, non-needer of solace.
ASHBROOK: Yes. Worse, you’re a misanthrope because you’re not sympathetic to peoples’ need for religion.
HITCHENS: I say in my book, available in fine bookstores everywhere, that as long as I don’t have to hear about it, I don’t mind what people believe. If they say, “Well, thanks to Joseph Smith and his gold plates I have real faith now and I've got a family and I have friends and I have a real system and so on,” and I say, fine, fine, just don’t come to my front door with it. Don’t ask for a tax break for it. Don’t ask my children to be taught it in the schools.
WOLPE: Did you sign up tonight thinking you wouldn’t hear about it?
HITCHENS: And I ask them a question—I ask the question in the book, people think they have a personal relationship with a creator and they’re the possessors of a wonderful secret and it must feel—I’ve never felt it, I presume it feels great. Why doesn’t it make them happy? They’re not happy. They can’t be happy until everyone else believes it too. They go out and proselytize, very often—and here's—I can’t let your last answer go—very often in the guise of charity. You notice how often religion, rather than ask the questions that I put like how do you know there’s a god, what evidence do you have for it? Which you say, “Well, lots of good people do good things because they’re religious.” Well let’s take the most recent impressing case. Richard Dawkins and I and a few others, in response to the Haiti earthquake, set up an emergency charity for people of non-belief to give to because so many charitable organization are, in fact, proselytizing groups. So, we raised about two million in a weekend and all that money goes straight—and, by the way—thank you. If you go to Richard’s website you can find out more about how to donate to this because it’s permanent, it’s going to stay into being. All that money went straight to Doctors Without Borders, of course, and the International Red Cross which, though it has a cross isn’t a religious organization. Both of these organizations are already in Haiti, they’re proven. None of the money goes to support any missionary activity. None. And the Scientologists and all the others who turned up in Haiti, and the other that turned up in Haiti to kidnap babies to convert them to their faith and there are Catholics who turned up and said, standing in the ruins of their own cathedral with a quarter-of-a-million Haitians buried under the rubble, “God spoke here today and you should listen to his message.” Don’t tell me that’s good. Don’t tell me that’s good. That’s wicked. It’s proselytizing. It’s proselytizing with the helpless, using them as objects of charity and conversion. It’s lying to people.
ASHBROOK: But there’s also a lot of [indecipherable]…
HITCHENS: It’s wrong to lie.
HITCHENS: It’s wrong to lie to people. And it’s giving them false hopes and false explanations for their plight. Now, we’re not guilty of any of that. And now I’ll ask you another question: where in the Decalogue does the word “goodness” appear? Where? It’s a good swathe of Exodus for you. Where in Exodus does the word “goodness” appear? Where, in this commandment-rich territory does the word “goodness” or the enjoinment to be good occur? [To Wolpe] This should be a softball for you.
WOLPE: Ok. First of all, it tells you what you ought not to do. It says love your neighbor as yourself. In the book of Leviticus—I mean, I’m allowed to move to Leviticus from Exodus, right?
HITCHENS: Yes. Yes, that’s fair.
WOLPE: Yes, ok. Thank you, I appreciate that. It says you should pursue justice. Justice you shall pursue. It says over and over and over again—and also, by the way, I, you know, no tradition, at least certainly not the Jewish tradition and I’m not aware of any other tradition, is only the Bible. Judaism is a long exegetical tradition and it says several times in the Talmud that the one purpose of the mitzvot is letzharef et habriyot, which means "to refine human character." It’s clear that Judaism is directed around goodness. It’s repeated over and over again. The whole system and framework of mitzvot is to get people to treat each other decently and if you say, which you do, that people use authority (governmental authority, religious authority, military authority, poltical authority) to do bad things, my answer is of course they do. Any time you set up a structure of authority, people will do bad things—churches, other things.
HITCHENS: That isn’t what I said.
WOLPE: But that—yes, of course it is. So what you say is—what you heard is: when religion does good things it doesn’t count because sometimes they want people to believe what they believe, when it does bad things it’s because of religion. When you make everything good that religion does invalid and everything bad that religion does representative that’s called arguing in bad faith which is ironic for someone who has none.
ASHBROOK: It seems a fair question.
HITCHENS: Yes, it’s not—I mean, as I know you know, that isn’t at all what I said. I don’t say bad things are done in the name of religion or by authorities, I say it’s religion itself that is the problem. I go out of my way to make clear that I don’t take refuge in any other position. Now, in Leviticus and in Exodus if you're a neighbor, you better not—and you—this person, you’re supposed to love him—this person had better not be an Amalekite, a Midianite, a Moabite, better not be a…
HITCHENS: Better not be a witch…
HITCHENS: …the desctruction of whom is enjoined.
HITCHENS: Better not be a homosexual, the stoning of whom is enjoined. Better not be a slave, the terms of enslavement of which are all laid out. Now, these are primitive, tribal, agricultural—(most of the commandments, by the way in the Decalogue, are addressed to the property-owning classes. "Here’s what you can’t do with your servants." "Here your servants must also obey this commandment." Why are the commandments addressed only to people who have staff? Why are the women—rather a large objection I would have thought—why are women counted as part of the animal and chattel that’s disposable by these holders of property?) It’s—couldn’t it be any more obvious that this is a man-made phenomenon and at a time when people were not at their best and full of fear and ignorance and greed and covetousness of other people’s property?
ASHBROOK: Can we be faithful and not be trapped by history, not all of its elements are attractive?
WOLPE: Well, it’s not only that but as Christopher knows very well I assume that the Bible was put together by human beings and that the Jewish tradition is a long, evolving tradition as are other traditions in which the dross of history is gradually refined in the same way that you would not expect someone 3,000 years ago to be able to understand the sort of arguments that you’re making tonight. People change, there’s an evolutionary process also, not only to biology, but to sociology, to ideology, all of those things and that’s why the question is very much does religion make people better and can these systems refine themselves and can they get rid of the stuff that’s bad in religion? I think that to assume that you can cherry-pick the things and the statements in religion that are negative and those things are necessarily enduring contradicts the history of every tradition I know.
HITCHENS: Well “cherry-picking” is an odd word to use for something that’s thrust upon you. I’ve got no choice but to study the Decalogue.
WOLPE: No, actually, it’s not…
HITCHENS: I point out it says it suggests to property owners and enjoins them to keep women as property…
WOLPE: So are you…
HITCHENS: …and they say, “Oh, you’re cherry-picking, you’re nitpicking.” I’m not.
WOLPE: So are you in favor of theft, murder, and adultery? Do you think those are good things?
HITCHENS: There’s now—here’s exactly the nub of my question:
HITCHENS: If what you say is true…
HITCHENS: …not that I—and I’ve never said, I wouldn’t—I couldn’t be interpreted as having said no religious person can do a good thing.
WOLPE: No, I didn’t say that. Right.
HITCHENS: If what you say is true, this should be true and you should find it easy to point it out:
HITCHENS: There must be something, not that they can do or do but that I cannot do that’s a good thing. Either a moral statement made or a moral or ethical statement performed that a person of faith could perform that I cannot.
HITCHENS: You must be able to identify that…
WOLPE: No actually…
HITCHENS: …if your point is to have any force at all.
WOLPE: How could you—how, how can one human being do something that another human being can’t do physically? Physically, of course, you could do anything that I could do but I can say lots of things you don’t do.
HITCHENS: No, I said a moral or ethical.
WOLPE: I can say lots of things you don’t do, not that you can’t do. You probably don’t do, as I do, bless your child on a Friday night. You probably don’t create great works of art based on religion. You probably don’t go half way across the world feeling that you’re motivated and called by a god who tells you to help other human beings. I mean, all those things are things that religion motivates people to do, not that you can’t do them, but that people generally don’t do them if they’re not motivated by religion.
HITCHENS: Oh come on, get real. I mean, pronouncing an incantation…
HITCHENS: Isn’t a moral action.
WOLPE: Of course it is.
HITCHENS: No, it isn’t.
WOLPE: It’s only not a moral action if you don’t feel the enormous...
HICHENS: It can subjectively be [indecipherable]—it's not a moral...
WOLPE: If you don’t—it's only not a moral—hey, hey…
HITCHENS: And anyway, it is something I could do.
WOLPE: It's not—of course you can and I encourage you to do it. It’s only not a moral action...
ASHBROOK: Maybe one day.
WOLPE: ...if you don’t feel the unique expression of love when it takes place in an atmosphere of sanctity that is not the same as saying to a child, “I love you.” I have to tell you, some of you knew my father who passed away in May who was a rabbi. When I think of the most powerful and intimate moments that I had with my father it was when he put his hands on my head and blessed me on a Friday night. Now, he would not have done that were he not religious and it wasn’t the same as when he kissed me goodnight and said, “I love you,” because there is an element in which religious people dwell, it’s called a world of sanctity that you can’t invoke and can’t dwell in if you don’t believe that that realm exists.
HITCHENS: Do you—well, wait. [To Wolpe] First, I’m sorry for your loss…
WOLPE: Oh, thank you.
HITCHENS: …as the Irish say, sorry for your trouble. Second, I’m still going to have to insist, I don’t think anyone in the audience can consider that’s an answer to my challenge.
WOLPE: Of course it is.
HITCHENS: One has to say a moral or ethical statement or action that an unbeliever could not perform…
WOLPE: But “could not” means that you’re physically incapable of it.
WOLPE: And I'm willing to concede...
HITCHENS: No, if it’s goodness it would be morally capable…
WOLPE: ...right here you can do everything I can do.
HITCHENS: Well, let’s not go that far.
WOLPE: Of course you can. Of course you can.
HITCHENS: Well then, ok, alright.
WOLPE: You have to say “wouldn’t do,” you can’t say “can’t do.”
HITCHENS: Since you won’t answer it I’ll just leave the question to the audience.
WOLPE: I did.
HITCHENS: If anyone can come up to me and say, “Here’s a moral thing you couldn’t do”—not don’t do but could not do—“that only a religious person could do,” I’d be very interested to hear of it. No one’s been able to come up with any point.
ASHBROOK: Let me ask a second…
HITCHENS: Second, there’s a brief corollary: think of a wicked thing done or an evil thing said that is done precisely because of faith. You’ve already thought of one.
WOLPE: But any that someone who doesn't have faith couldn't do? Wait, tell me something that someone who doesn't have faith could not do.
HITCHENS: I didn’t say that.
WOLPE: Ok. But that’s exactly the point.
HITCHENS: No it’s not.
WOLPE: A human being can do certain things whether they’re believers or not. They have the physical ability. Believing something doesn’t give you a new physical ability.
HITCHENS: It still doesn’t—so to you it’s not a problem that the suicide murder community, the genital mutilation community, these are all faith-based communities?
WOLPE: Do you want me to answer that?
HITCHENS: And while we’re on the subject of charity, who doesn’t hear Hamas saying, “The reason we’re loved by our people is because we provide social services. We help the needy. We’re the only people who come out and do that.” Which is, by the way, I’m horrified to have to say, is true. But do you excuse them for that because they are charitable?
WOLPE: Of course not.
HITCHENS: Do you not think that they bless they’re children a whole lot?
WOLPE: Yes, and I think that’s a beautiful thing that they do.
HITCHENS: I bet you can—I’ve heard them do it.
WOLPE: Right. I don’t think there’s…
HITCHENS: You try being a Muslim child and not be blessed the entire time. That’s part of the authority that they claim. They claim to own these people.
ASHBROOK: But Christopher, I want to ask…
HITCHENS: This is all faith-based.
ASHBROOK: Who steps up to—you don’t like any of the language but life has a lot of despair. People fall into despair. Who steps up to save them? I don’t mean in Christian terms necessarily at all, but who steps up to reach out to those people? And for society as a whole, if you don’t have the teaching of religion, what will offer a kind of moral construct? I don’t see it in schools. I don’t—union halls are gone. Who’s going to give people a structure of meaning?
WOLPE: I live in such a world, it’s called Hollywood.
ASHBROOK: Hollywood, exactly. I mean, what—it may have blemishes, it may be deeply flawed, it may be fatally flawed you would say, but I mean, what’s the substitute? What’s the structure for moral teaching and save the despairing?
HITCHENS: I think despair is quite a good starting point myself. I mean I think it’s very good to know that we’re born into a losing struggle. I think that the stoicism that comes from that and the reflection that comes from that is very useful. I’m not very impressed by people who say, “Well, I wish it wasn’t true so I’ll try and act as if it isn’t.” It is true. Everything is governed by entropy and decline and annihilation and disaster and you’re born into a losing struggle and because you’re a mammal primate, a primate mammal, you know you are and you know you’re going to die and there’ll be a lot of struggle and pain along the way. I don’t want a world without anxiety and grief and pain and struggle. I can’t get it.
ASHBROOK: No one’s saying you can’t have that.
HITCHENS: But those who offer it to me, I spurn the gift. I don’t want what you want. I don’t want the feeling of an eternal love and peace. Love and peace, very, very overrated in my view. One reason—one of the many reasons—I should despise all religions equally, and I do in a way—
WOLPE: [To Ashbrook] I want to say something.
HITCHENS: ...but one way in which I prefer Judaism to its rivals is that the emphasis is more on justice than on love.
WOLPE: I want to go [indecipherable]. [To Hitchens] Why is that not misanthropic of you, that attitude?
HITCHENS: Misanthropic? It doesn’t mean I have to hate people.
ASHBROOK: Well, it’s tough [indecipherable]. It’s hard [indecipherable].
HITCHENS: It means I respect them enough not to offer them false consolation.
WOLPE: I do think it’s important…
HITCHENS: The realm of illusion will not help you to cure this condition.
WOLPE: I do think it’s important to say that part of this—part of this is based in temperament, part of it is based in life experience. I spend a lot of my time at the bedside of people who are dying, with parents who lost children, with husbands who lost wives, and wives who lost husbands. The sense of community that is created by religion, the sense that life is meaningful even if it’s short, all of that, it’s not trivial, it’s not cheap consolation, it’s not illusion, it goes to the depths of questions that human beings ask themselves and I know that you can make a clever remark about the cheap selling of religious consolation but, you know what, the remark is melted by the heat of human anguish when you’re standing by the grave of a child who died and the mother is saying a prayer and that brings her some measure of comfort because she really does believe that this world, in some sense, is meaningful and is not nihilistic and is not empty and is not foolish and, although I can’t prove to you in an empirical sense that in fact the world is meaningful, at that moment, even as I question it, it seems to me the deepest instinct of my soul.
HITCHENS: Gosh. Well, if you’ll pardon me, I won’t share any of my griefs with you. But I’ve never had one or had any—know anyone who’s had the faintest consolation from religion and indeed being told, as the Christians tell them, that they’re off to a better place and so on, I think is positively wicked thing to do. I think lying to the dying for a living—what self-respecting person can do that? And once you've faced...
WOLPE: And you know it’s a lie because—I just—just tell me how you know it’s a lie since you assert it again and again.
HITCHENS: Because the person saying it cannot possibly know it to be true.
WOLPE: And therefore it’s a lie?
HITCHENS: They don’t have access to information that was denied to me.
WOLPE: Even if they believe it it’s a lie?
HITCHENS: Yes, yes, it’s a lie.
ASHBROOK: But how do we create, for those who aren’t able or don’t desire to walk around in despair or to walk around in irony, in a world that brings [indecipherable]…
HITCHENS: Try it, try it.
ASHBROOK: Try it, fine. But I think it’s manifestly clear lots of people don’t choose that. So, what does atheism offer?
HITCHENS: Well, it offers the chance of living without illusion, which I think—it says philosophy and literature will do a great deal more for you. They're much more—there’s a lot more morality in them. There’s a lot more ethical discussion in Dostoyevsky, say, than in any of the holy books. Or George Eliot…
ASHBROOK: But who will present them in our society—real society, who will present them in a way…
WOLPE: There is. There is.
HITCHENS: For now I’m presenting. For now I’m presenting. I can’t do…
ASHBROOK: You’re going to be very busy.
HITCHENS: I can only appear in my own person here. I'd even say, to some extent, this works for me. Irony, I think, is tremendously useful, as is philosophy, especially the philosophy of Spinoza, especially in times of anguish. And the realization that there’s no false consolation can actually cheer you up. Once you face the fact that you’re born into a losing struggle things immediately appear a great deal more manageable in some ways. And of the remarks against this made, not one of these remarks couldn’t have been made by a devout member of the Muslim brotherhood. And what I want to ask him is this: if anything of what he says is true, is he really saying that he would prefer me not to be myself, not to be an unbeliever and someone who believes in irony and the unillusioned world, but I’d be morally better off if I was a Wahabi Muslim, for example, or a Roman Catholic.
WOLPE: Is me asking—is “he” me? Ok.
HITCHENS: I mean, according to you, I would be a better person if I was a person of faith.
WOLPE: No, no, no, don’t answer the question. You asked me the question...
WOLPE: ...you’re not allowed to answer it for me.
HITCHENS: You imply. I want to know if you really mean that.
WOLPE: Actually, I never said that you were automatically better off if you believe than if you didn’t believe. I think Christopher is very useful in the world because he forces religious people—I mean, he’s useful for many, many reasons, obviously, to the world but he also forces religious people to think seriously about their faith and and as I understand the god that I believe in and the god that Judaism presents, the first and primary demand is not belief, the first and primary demand is goodness. That’s exactly what characterizes Judaism and therefore if you say to me, “I’m a good person but I don’t believe. Is it better that I would be a miserable person who believed?” All I have to do is look at the sources and say, "Obviously not." Obviously it’s better for you to be who you are and to promote goodness in the world. That’s exactly—[HEBREW] is what the Jewish tradition teaches (to make the world better under the sovereignty of God) But notice the first clause in that is to make the world better. So if you do that, that’s the primary demand of any faith I think is worth its salt.
ASHBROOK: May we turn, on that point, to what Barry [indecipherable] as an acute concern, that is, violence. And the question of whether violence is integral to religion or exceptional and an offense to religion, or both, or all three? [To Wolpe] Violence and religion.
WOLPE: Ok, so, I’m going to try to abbreviate this. There are two things to remember. First of all, most religious conflicts are not about religion. What you find is religions will fight when there’s land, when there’s power, when there’s resources, where there’s water, when there’s money. It’s very rare for a religious group—not inconceivable—very rare for a religious group to say, “Hey guess what? There’s someone half way across the world who believes differently, let’s go get them, alright? It’s the people who live next door to us who are other than us. We should get them and by the way, along the way we’re going to take their land and we’re going to take their riches and we’re going to take this." And that’s because—and if you look in the Encyclopedia of War, which is probably not something that you peruse in your leisure hours, but if you do, you will see that it identified 1763 wars since the beginning of time. 123 of them are identified as religious wars. When you take religion out of a society, you don’t get a more peaceful society. We look at the twentieth century, it was a like a laboratory for that: Stalinism, Maoism, Nazism, Cambodia, North Korea versus South Korea, on and on and on and on. The fact is the record of extracting religion is very poor. And the final point is this, which is: if you ask why religious people fight, the answer is clear: It’s because they’re people. I have a colleague, not a rabbi, but a psychologist in Los Angeles who studies bullying. Do you know at what age bullying is most prominent? Think to yourself what age and then I’ll tell you the answer. By far, the answer is preschool. Because we’re not born all sweetness and light. It’s why it’s so much hard work to get a kid to be good, alright? Parents don’t have to say to their child, “Why don’t you share a little bit less, you know? Because you’re—really—you're too selfless. You’re too kind.” Instead it’s very hard work to get people to do well. What religions are known for is their attempts to make something straight of the crooked nature of human beings and they fail again and again and again exactly as you would expect if you know human nature. But that doesn’t mean that the attempt to do it makes people worse. Quite the opposite, at least according to the evidence of history.
HITCHENS: Well, violence—there’s no mystery about violence. Violence arises because we are primates, imperfectly evolved. Our prefrontal lobes are too small, our adrenaline glands are too big. There are various other deformities of this kind, sexual organs designed by committee, all the rest of it. And we’re greedy…
WOLPE: We’re back to politics, I guess.
HITCHENS: …and fearful and—but—and covetous of other people’s property. And also, surprisingly, it’s probably our biggest defect given that the reason we’re so successful is there’s almost no genetic difference between us. If we were dogs we’d all be the same breed, fantastically little variation. But we’re incredibly prone to tribalism and ethnic and racial—what Freud calls the narcissism of small differences. So of course if a tribe, let’s say, that's calling itself the children of Israel, for the sake of argument, decides they should kill all the other tribes that get in its way, take their women as slaves, butcher their men, take their land, take their cattle and so battle this way across to Caanan and take every elses land and burn down their—that’s going to happen whether there’s a god or not or whether there’s religion or not but it'll happen very much more intensely if they believe they have the mandate from heaven to do so. It’s a terrific force multiplier. I think there would have been a quarrel between the Hutu and the Tutsi of Rwanda, say, once Belgian colonialism had established that there were these two different character groups (types, tribes)—but a terrific force multiplier that the Catholic church was as strong as it was in Rwanda, the most Christian country in Africa, made it infinitely worse. What makes the Isreal-Palestine two-state solution ungettable? Because there’s a chunk of people on both sides who say they have God in their corner and God gave only their group the land and they can negate the votes of everybody else including the whole of the international community, by the way, just because of their faith. Northern Ireland is the same. There wouldn't have been a Republican nationalist dispute. It’s infinitely worse because of religion. So I think that the possible—the corollary I’d like to hope would be that the less religion there was the less violence there would be but I can’t in good Darwinian conscience say that. But I think the more that people refuse orders that were divine, as for example, to take the preposterous allegation that the Rabbi makes that the wars of the twentieth century were secular wars: the belt buckle worn by every soldier in the Nazi army that says, “Gott mit uns” (God on our side) I don’t think that was a help, do you? Things were bad enough as they were. On page 70, I think it is, of Mein Kampf Hitler says that "in taking on the filthy virus of Judaism I know I’m doing the work of the Lord and I’m called, I’m summoned by the Lord to do this work," a book—one of the very few books that the Vatican didn't ban in that period, by the way. And I don’t think that was a help, either. So I’d say, on the whole, we’d be better off without the belief either in a supreme dictator, because that leads to violence, or the idea that God takes sides in our pathetic, mammalian disputes. Thank you.
WOLPE: I want to just add as a coda to this: when you say that we shouldn’t take orders, I just want to remind you of a long history, for example, the abolition of slavery was almost entirely the work of people who believed they were taking orders from something higher than societal orders. Wilberforce in England, here, you know Beecher and John Brown and so on, they believed they were doing God’s work...
HITCHENS: So did the slave owners.
WOLPE: ...by abolishing slavery and it’s interesting that the opposition to slavery was a Christian movement but the idea is it’s not an issue of who you take orders from, it’s an issue of the orders you take. That’s the issue and it comes down, in part, to the kind of religion you practice, not whether you practice religion.
HITCHENS: Comrades, I just—I’m sorry…
WOLPE: Comrades? What kind of orders you take, when it comes down to it.
HITCHENS: Brothers and sisters.
WOLPE: That’s better.
HITCHENS: Comrades, friends: I suppose it is somewhat to the credit of some Christians that in the waning decades of thousands of years of slavery that were biblically mandated, some of them belated joined things like the American Anti-Slavery Society, stars of which were Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, non-believers, right? Whereas to the last day of the confederacy, the flag of the confederacy said “Deo vindice” (God on our side) and every justification for that slavery came from the Bible where indeed it’s not hard to find it.
ASHBROOK: We’re going to take questions from the audience…
HITCHENS: Not hard to find it at all.
ASHBROOK: …in about one minute. There are microphones. If you have questions make your way and we will take them very shortly. As we begin to do that, may I ask, Christopher Hitchens, you’ve debated Rabbi David Wolpe on this subject, you’ve debated the Reverend Al Sharpton.
ASHBROOK: What’s the difference between these debates?
HITCHENS: Well the Reverend Al Sharpton is another case of the damage done to society by religion because once it was agreed by the rest of America that black people are best led by preachers and once it was agreed to write out of the Civil Rights record the heroic black secularists like Bayard Rustin and the great black union leader Philip Randolph (who actually organized, with the help of the United Automobile Workers, the march on Washington), once all that had been forgotten and we decide, “Yeah, black people, they really love their preachers,” then once Dr. King is gone then it’s one succession of junk demagogues after another, all of them given the mantle because they’re in holy orders. There’s no fraudulance you can’t get away with in this country if you can get the word reverend put in front of your name.
ASHBROOK: Questions from the audience.
HITCHENS: Sharpton’s a very conspicuous example of that.
ASHBROOK: We’ll begin right here. Madame, your question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: Sir.
ASHBROOK: Sir. I can’t see, I'm sorry, the light—Hedges, Hitchens, madame, sir.
HITCHENS: Mr. Hedges.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: I’m going to come up there and beat you up, man.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: Ok. It seems to me that, you know, most religions deal with operational aspects of life such as human capital development, that is the accumulation of literacy and technology, economic development, mental and physical well-being, and public service, which deals with charity and those kinds of things.
ASHBROOK: These are the work of religion, you’re saying?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: Yes, that they profess this, yes. And that all faiths profess these things and since they do, it seems to me that it’s not so much their profession that causes the negative externalities between people who profess these things but it's the labels that they take hold such as—I think Mr. Hitchens alluded to the fact that people say things about their faith that they actually don't practice or believe and so I’m saying that should we just abandon these labels and stop calling ourselves Jews, Christians or Muslisms or whatever and deal with the operational facts of life which deal with, again, human capital, you know, literacy, economic development, mental and physical well-being, and public service and charity, helping others without the labels?
WOLPE: If I understand your question correctly, I would say this: the largest organized groups of charities in the world over and over and over again all around the world organize themselves around religious groups. I don’t think that that’s a mistake and I don’t think that that’s a coincidence so that in fact if you disband the idea that we’re doing this as a religious group you will, in one stroke, undo a great deal of the good that happens in the world. So no, I think that communities which, by the way, without religions I don’t know where you get communities, where young and old sit together in common purpose. It’s very rare, especially in our atomized society, if you disband that I think you get trouble.
ASHBROOK: Christopher, without community, without the labels?
HITCHENS: Implied in what David says is that a person exists who would say, “Now that I don’t believe in God I’ll stop giving money to charity. I don’t care any more.” I don’t know—I don't think there is such a person and if that were so it would be a very strange religion that they’d been professing, wouldn't it?
ASHBROOK: Who will organize good works in the absence of religion?
WOLPE: Why is it—not only that but why is it that in survey after survey religious people do give more...
HITCHENS: I'll tell you.
WOLPE: ...and religious people watch less television and have—use drugs less and use alcohol less. It has social utility.
HITCHENS: This is what religion is down to. It’s very impressive to me.
WOLPE: Ok, good.
HITCHENS: It’s very often the first thing, when debating with Catholics, they always change the subject to charity right away. With Jews it’s usually a little later.
WOLPE: You just said that they…
HITCHENS: And with Muslims it’s…
WOLPE: It’s at the very end.
HITCHENS: …it’s all the time because what else can they—they don’t want to defend their faith…
WOLPE: But you just said the opposite. You just said that if you didn’t believe you wouldn't do it.
HITCHENS: They don’t want to defend their faith, they don’t want to say—they feel uneasy talking about redemption, salvation, all these kinds of things, but look at the good work we’ve—if you talked to the Mormons they’ll say, “You may not think much of Joseph Smith,” and I say you got that right, “but, boy you should see our missionaries in Peru.”
ASHBROOK: The government will do the work if religion does not?
HITCHENS: Excuse me what has this got to do with the existence of God or the validity of religious claims? It has nothing to do with it. It’s always introduced as a time-wasting tactic. Nothing to do with it.
WOLPE: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, don’t applaud that. But, all of you who applauded I just want to ask you this: if Christopher says to me, “God doesn’t exist,” and I say, “But we do good things,” he’s got a point. But his previous comment was people who don’t believe in religion do good things. In response I say—in response to the question people who believe in religion do good things to a greater extent and then he says, ‘Well why aren’t you talking about whether God exists?” You made an argument against the social utility of religion, I then made an argument for the social utility of religion and you turned theological on me.
HITCHENS: Excuse me, I have not conceded that it is to a greater extent. Let me give you an example: with the great Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, whose wonderful work on the primary producers of the third world you ought to be familiar, the great—one of the great photographers, he’s the ambassador as the UNICEF cause of the United Nations Children’s Fund for the eradication of polio. I went with him all over Bengal. We got it down to the point where except for a few bits of Afghanistan and El Salvador, polio was almost gone from the world, it could go with small pox. Not a small thing, done by UNICEF, a secular organization and we nearly got—a date was announced where we were pretty sure it would be gone and it spread back because largely Muslim groups in Nigeria and also in parts of Bengal and Afghanistan told people, “Don’t go get your children inoculated. It’s a plot by scientists and Jews and others to sterilize Mulisms.” And that, plus the Hajj, plus the wonderful devotional habit of going to Mecca all the time and taking all your own diseases with you has meant that polio is back all the way across Africa now. So I’m not going to have it said that in order to do good you’ve got to be more religious than someone who…
ASHBROOK: It’s going to be complicated but I want to get another question if I may, sir.
HITCHENS: All the practical evidence is the other way and it's nothing to do with the claims of faith. Nothing.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Thank you, thank you. First, comment to Mr. Hitchens: thank you for a very well-argued book.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: You and I are in violent agreement.
HITCHENS: Appreciate it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Second, it seems to me—not to talk about religion and faith for the moment but the question as to whether God exists, let’s not duck that one. It seems to me that to discuss that subject, one needs to have some scientific knowledge. [Video edit] My question is very simply to Rabbi Wolpe—and please take a second to think about it—my question is—and I’ve asked this of priests, reverends, and rabbis many times…
ASHBROOK: We’re ready.
HITCHENS: We’re braced.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: My question is: if no one ever explained God to you, not in writing, not aurally, would you have figured it out? Thank you.
WOLPE: So first of all, I think that it’s important to understand that the idea that there’s an inbuilt opposition between scientific knowledge and belief is contradicted by some very prominent scientists, including Francis Collins, who’s the head of the Human Genome Project who wrote a book in favor of God, Owen Gingerich, who’s an astrophysicist at Harvard who wrote a book talking about his belief in God. I always find it interesting that people assume that the expertise that they have is necessary in order to make the assertion that someone else makes and if they don’t have it then they can’t speak about it. I grew up in a home where one of my brothers is a PhD in bioethics and the other one is a PhD in developmental biology. They talk science all the time. I think for a lay person I have a reasonably good grasp of some sciences and I would say absolutely I can make the assertion that God exists precisely because the criteria that is used for a scientific assertion is not used for a religious assertion. Nobody asks a—in the same way that you make philosophical statements that are not subject to scientific criteria. If you ask yourself what does the world look like to something that’s not human, to a bat, to an ant, the answer is we can’t possibly know that because we can’t unknow what we know and we can’t look at the world through different eyes. So if you ask me would I have come to this belief if it wasn’t explained to me, my only evidence to answer that is yes, human beings did and either it was explained to them by God, which is what I assume, or you would come to it naturally. So yeah, I think that I would come to it naturally but can I prove that to you? No. It’s precisely one of the many examples of unprovable questions that we nonetheless we can feel deeply about.
AUDIENCE MEMBER X: My point though is that early on…
WOLPE: Is this a debate or is this a conversation?
ASHBROOK: Let me put it to Christopher, do you assume that everything one day will be solved scientifically? Does it matter to you?
HITCHENS: No, all that science is going to do is keep on teaching us how little we know and multiplying the distance between our own attainments and our desire to master these matters. Many of these questions will remain undecidable which is the way I like them. Religion and science can coexist in the same person, that’s true and I know Francis Collins. He writes brilliantly on the genome but if you’ve read C. S. Lewis you don’t need to read him on religion, it’s unbelievably naïve. Sir Isaac Newton was an alchemist, a very strong if rather superstitious Christian, thought the Pope was the antichrist (might have been on to something there), but a very weird—full of very weird beliefs and thought if you knew the measurements of the old temple you’d know more than if you understood gravity. Alfred Russel Wallace, who did most of Darwin’s work for him, was a spiritualist who would go to table rapping sessions listening to burblings from the beyond. Joseph Priestley was a Unitarian and believed in the phlogiston theory.
WOLPE: Shouldn’t that be a [indecipherable]?
HITCHENS: But it’s really only until—I would say it’s only until Albert Einstein—not until I mean—Albert Einstein, I mean, that you get a scientist who’s also essentially a philosopher of pure mind. That’s the great breakthrough and now you can have private beliefs and be a scientific person but no one says my science helps to vindicate my religion, no one says that anymore. That’s not doable.
ASHBROOK: I want to get to more questions please.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: Yes, I have a question for both of you regarding the existence of universal morality. My question for Mr. Hitchens, is there one and if so where does it come from? And my question for the rabbi is if there is one and it's, for example, in the 613 mitzvot how do you personally pick and choose which ones to follow because I noticed, you know, you’re not wearing tzitzit and so many other prescriptions so if it's universally…
WOLPE: I might be. It might be under my shirt.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: Well, there are—I won’t go there. But, generally speaking can you be a good Jew and not follow the 613 if that is the prescription for universal morality?
HITCHENS: Well, the most commonly taken universal absolute moral statement is what’s sometimes called the Golden Rule which, well, Rabbi Hillel says, “Don’t do to another person what would be repulsive to you.” Others say, “Do as you would be done by,” just putting it another way. It’s in the Analects of Confucius, it’s—very few societies don’t have it, so I think that’s what we’d have to take as the nearest to an absolute. It’s obviously subject to various relativities, alas. For one thing, it’s only really as good as the person saying it. Should I not do to Charles Manson what I don’t want him to do to me? Well, if you see what I mean. I mean, should we say, “Don’t lets do to Charles Manson what we wouldn’t want done to ourselves”? Obviously not. It’s just like the contradiction between the Old and the New Testaments. The Old Testament says an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth which would lead to a very eyeless and toothless world. And then the Nazarene says you can’t condemn anyone unless you can cast the first stone. (Actually that bit was knitted into the Bible quite late and it was most certainly a fabrication. But it’s believed in by many Christians who, you know, as you know will believe practically anything, but...) If you can’t condemn anyone without being yourself without sin then we can’t even arrest Charles Manson unless we were sinless ourselves. So these moral absolutes are actually more full of moral relativism than you might think and they certainly—the reason people want there to be absolutes is this: they want there to be an absolute authority who can give them to you because wouldn’t that save you from all the trouble of thinking out ethics for yourself, which is where I started. Why not take that chance? More enjoyable, less subject to appalling commandments to stone witches and murder homosexuals…
ASHBROOK: And all the rest. Rabbi, universal morality? And if there is, which…
WOLPE: The—I’m not sure that Christopher said whether he believes in a universal morality, but yes, someone who believes in God assumes that there is a universal morality but also assumes that it’s very hard—and it’s not that the 613 mitzvot instantiate universal morality and moral reasoning, as far as I know, certainly in other traditions, but obviously in Judaism, is an essential part of the Jewish tradition. It’s not that you get out of thinking by being part of the Jewish tradition. In fact, questioning, reasoning, wondering, thinking, objecting, is an essential part of Judaism and anyone who studies Talmud knows that it’s filled with objections and questions but the assumption is that there actually is a right and a wrong in any given case. If all human beings are evolved primates, there’s not a right and a wrong, there’s a better and a worse, there’s a more powerful and less powerful. Nietzsche was exactly right: if God is dead then power is all that matters because ultimately there isn’t a right and a wrong, there’s something that promotes your interest and something that negates your interest but I don’t believe that.
HITCHENS: Excuse me, do you or do you not believe that human beings are evolved primates.
HITCHENS: But you say [indecipherable]…
WOLPE: But I also believe—I said if all they are is evolved primates as opposed to evolved primates who have a spark of the eternal in them, which I believe we do.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: Two questions for Mr. Hitchens. The first one is I was taught by a physics professor that if you go back to the Big Bang, the beginning of the universe, in the first one-to-the-sixty-first to the first second the entire universe is in a tiny amount of space and at that size space and time can cross. And his point was that the whole universe came into existence out of a hiccup in the space-time warp and therefore it’s just kind of a big accident that we were here. And so my question is the same one that I posed to him that day: why is there a space-time warp? Which leads me to the second question which is wouldn’t it make more sense that there would be nothing? There is—should be no universe, there should be no space-time warp, there should be none of us and unless we’re hooked into The Matrix right now we seem to be here and so…
ASHBROOK: Should we take that as an argument for God, is that what your saying?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: For something. There’s a great mystery at the core of the universe. Then why are we here is the second question to argue those in.
ASHBROOK: Ok, thank you very much.
HITCHENS: Well again, I’d commend to you someone who’s much more expert on this subject, I started by mentioning Lawrence Krauss’ lecture on a whole universe from nothing but where’s the grandeur, where’ the divinity in the hiccup? And who produces the hiccupper? All you get from this is an infinite regression. Who creates this creator? Who—it gets you nowhere. And again, if you do make the assumption which I can’t dispute or certainly cannot refute that there is a first cause or an uncaused cause, it still doesn’t mean that there’s a god who takes sides, answers prayers, enjoins moral [indecipherable]…
AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: I didn’t ask about that, no.
HITCHENS: No, but I mean—so I’m afraid you only—you compel me to somewhat to repeat myself.
WOLPE: Can I ask a quick question about what you just said?
WOLPE: If it’s an assumption that you can’t refute, which I understand—I think everybody here would say you can’t prove that there’s not a god, that doesn’t mean that there is one—but if it’s an assumption that you can’t refute, why is it that when someone says, “I believe that it is true,” do you say that they are lying?
HITCHENS: I didn’t say that they’re lying.
WOLPE: You said to me when someone stands—when you lie…
HITCHENS: I say someone who goes to tell a child that if they don’t behave well they’ll go to hell is lying.
WOLPE: That’s wasn’t the example that we used.
HITCHENS: Someone who goes to the deathbed of a dying person…
WOLPE: …and says that I believe that there’s another world other than this one…
HITCHENS: …and says, “You’re going to a better place,” is, I think, a charlatan, a neauseating charlatan.
WOLPE: I’ll let it…
AUDIENCE MEMBER 5: ...and the question is whether religious people at the highest level have a better understanding of themselves than people who claim to be atheists and in particular we can ask the question is Mr. Hitchens himself really as great an atheist as he claims?
WOLPE: He’s pretty good. Yeah, he’s pretty good.
ASHBROOK: Mr. Hitchens are you a closet believer?
HITCHENS: No, a point of agreement between the rabbi and myself is that the human species—mammalian, primate, so on, that it undoubtedly is, and made out of the dust of exploded suns—does have a need for, I would say, the transcendent, would be one word, the numinous, even the ecstatic, wouldn’t trust anyone who hadn’t felt this and it has obviously to do with landscape, light, music, love, and I think also a permanent awareness of the transience of all things and the melancholy that invests all this so that it isn’t just gaping happily at a sunset while listening to music. You’re doing that knowing that it can’t last for very long, very important part of the awareness. People who didn’t have this would, I think, be beyond autistic. But there’s no need for the supernatural in this at all. There’s no supernatural dimension of which this gives you a share. And yes, of course, for poetry and literature we are rather stuck with the pathetic fallacy, if you know what I mean, the pathetic fallacy is giving human attributes to material things, so we’re tempted to do that too.
ASHBROOK: Rabbi, can religions be saved?
HITCHENS: Just on the word “evil” though: I personally find it’s a word you absolutely have to have. I decided this in Iraq, as a matter of fact, after I’d seen the—Saddam Hussein’s attempt with chemicals weapons to destroy the Kurdish people of northern [indecipherable] and seen the, as it were, the stench of evil and I thought there’s something else you can say about Saddam Hussein: psychopathic dictator, mass murderer, genocidalist, “bad guy” as some people used to call him, things of this kind, wasn’t up to it. There was a surplus value to totalitarianism, a sort of a numinous bit, a shimmer around it that meant that “evil” is a word we could not do without.
ASHBROOK: [To Wolpe] Do you see in he who speaks up for the numinous the possibility of belief? Do you smell a potential person of faith in Hitchens or no way [indecipherable]?
WOLPE: I think, no, I mean—to be perfectly honest and not to make a cheap joke about it, I think that Christopher is a person of tremendous, impressive faith. Not the faith that I have at all but faith in justice, faith in goodness, I mean what he’s done with much of his life is, I think, really awe-inspiring. That doesn’t mean for a minute that I think he’s being dishonest about his lack of faith in the things that I believe, but does he have faith in a different sense, absolutely.
ASHBROOK: [To audience] Can we do more? Yes?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 6: Mr. Hitchens, you are likely the world’s most charming, roguish, and enlightened atheist and I love you for that but as a Sufi Muslim I’m very ruffled by the title of your book. Of all the titles you likely had at your disposal did you have to settle for the literal negation of “Allahu akbar”?
ASHBROOK: Thank you for that question. Thank you. It’s a very good question and I’m glad. I wanted to go back to it. Why?
HITCHENS: The—as I said, I think that all religions are wrong in the same way in that they privilege faith over reason but they’re not all equally bad in the same way all the time. I mean if I had been writing in the 1930s I would certainly have said that the Roman Catholic Church was the most dangerous religion in the world because of its open alliance with fascism and anti-Semitism, which—the damage from that our culture has never recovered from and never will but at the moment it’s very clear to me that most toxic form that religion takes is the Islamic form, the horrible idea of wanting to end up with Sharia, with a religion-governed state (a state of religious law) and that the best means of getting there is jihad (holy war) and that Muslims have a special right to feel aggrieved enough to demand this, I think is absolute obscene wickedness and I think their religion is nonsense and…
ASHBROOK: But the entirety? In its entirety?
HITCHENS: In its entirety. The idea that God speaks to some illiterate merchant warlord in Arabia and he’s able to write this down perfectly and it contains the answers to all human—don’t waste my time, it’s bullshit.
ASHBROOK: But you’re saying the same thing…
HITCHENS: Also that God speaks—the archangel Gabriel speaks only Arabic, it seems, is crap.
WOLPE: [To audience member] I just want to say in retrospect you were very civil, actually. I don’t know what I was thinking.
ASHBROOK: Is this the same characterization of all religions, you think?
HITCHENS: And this is—wait—actually no because remember, Islam makes one very important claim for itself. All religions claim to be revealed truth, that they are all founded by divine revelation, but Islam rather dangerously says, “Ours is the last and final one. There can’t be any more after this. This is God’s last word.” Now that’s straight away a temptation to violence and intolerance and if you note, it’s a temptation they seem quite willing to fall for.
ASHBROOK: Rabbi, do you have any…
HITCHENS: Second, I had another motive, which is this: if you remember Dick Gregory, the older comrades here will, great black comedian and civil rights activist, when he came to write his memoir he called it Nigger.
HITCHENS: It upset a lot of people, including his old mum who called him and said, “Why are you doing this?” and he says, “Momma, every time you hear that word again, they’re selling my book.” So every “Allahu akbar” reminds people that we’re in a very serious struggle with a very depraved religion and that there are…
ASHBROOK: With our—even for our Sufi friend you give no quota?
HITCHENS: Look, he believes in the prophecy of Mohammed, I'm sorry to say I think he’s being at best conned. Yeah.
ASHBROOK: Our time is ticking down. With respect, if I may be the protocol guy, sorry.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 7: I want to go back to your answer to the question just before this because I think—and particularly I want to interrogate you, Rabbi because you—in your earlier discussion and your answer to a couple of the questions you seem to suggest that if there is something beyond the material that’s evidence for God or it—and then on the question of whether there can be moral behavior, one can have a reason to act morally you say that only, you know, that requires the existence of God, if God doesn’t exist you don’t believe in God, you don’t have reasons to behave morally but then I think in your answer—so I think that’s where it was until your answer to the question before last and at that point you seem to grant that the gentlemen sitting to your left actually did have reasons to act morally even though he does not believe in God…
ASHBROOK: Yes, that’s right.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 7: …and I’m trying to figure out…
WOLPE: I’ll explain. The difference is not whether people in their own minds have compelling reasons to act morally. The question is if you don’t believe in God and you say, “You know what, I’m going to”—why would you do good in secret, as Balzac put it, perhaps only believers in God do good in secret. Now, obviously that’s not true but you understand the ideology behind it which is if you don’t believe that there’s a universal moral code that comes from beyond us and that human beings make up what’s right and what’s wrong why is it that I as a human being can’t decide this is right for me even though I know it’s going to be wrong for anyone else? In other words, the standard that arises only from human beings is easily broken by human beings whereas if you think that goodness is woven into the fabric of the universe, which is what a believer says, then it’s always wrong at all times in all places whether someone’s watching or their not watching, whether you’re a believer or not a believer, that’s always true and that’s the distinction I was trying to get at.
HITCHENS: I was very struck—because this is the core question, so we might as well revisit it. I was very struck this week reading—I’m sure you saw it—the Pope’s brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, who runs the choir school in Regensburg. He’s discovered recently there’s been some unpleasantness at the school of which he was the steward for about twenty or thirty years. He said he didn’t know about any of that and surely claims not to have taken any part in it but he did say he used to smack the boys around quite a lot, he said, until Bavarian law changed and made it illegal for teachers to hit children. Well I don’t want to be told any more that without religious people we wouldn’t know what morality was. He didn’t know this until the secular law intervened and taught him how to behave. Now, wait, wait, wait, what is the whole racket of The Church in this protecting itself from it saying they were all ordered don’t go near the courts, don’t go near the police, we’ll sort this out among ourselves and they say they’re the people who prevent us from succumbing to moral relativism? I’m not hearing it from them. I’m sorry, it’s insulting to be talked to in that way. The great recent governer of this state, Mr. Romney, wants to be president. Ok, there’s a constitutional issue here: Mormons are supposed to say that their prophet, as they call their leader, his word is sovereign over any one else’s, including the Constitution of the United States. So Romney has to say, and finally people did force him to answer the question, “Well, do you think that about your prophet?” He said, “No, the Constitution takes precedence in all cases.” Fine, so to the extent that he’s an acceptable person is to the extent he’s not a Mormon. The discipline of secularism is necessary to civilize these superstitions. I hope very few of you begin your day by thanking God that you’re not a female or a goy, for example.
ASHBROOK: Our time is short, we’re going to swing it around for just a little bit. Yes, back here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 8: This is for Mr. Wolpe. At the start of your talk you said that this was scientific but you spent the rest of the talk backpedaling from that. But my real question is about free will: you say that you cannot get free will from a deterministic system. I can create the pseudo-random number generatorthat you cannot distinguish from randomness no matter how long you look at it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 8: It’ll take longer than the life of the universe.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 8: So where did you get...
WOLPE: That gives you randomness, that doesn’t give give you intentional free will and I never said…
AUDIENCE MEMBER 8: But if you use that…
WOLPE: I didn’t say at the beginning, by the way, that my belief was scientific. I said that the system is scientific.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 8: But if you use that as an output it’s deterministic but it gives you a random result that you can use for free will.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 8: Now, where did your deity get free will, if it has it? If it doesn’t have it, it’s not much of a deity. If it does have free will, either it got it itself, why can’t we do it? Or some other deity gave your deity free will, which gives you an infinite regress.
ASHBROOK: This is your last question, I’m afraid.
WOLPE: The answer is that there is no analogy between this deity and between human beings. Just like when someone says, “Who gave birth to God?” that’s a misconceiving of the religious concept of God which is that God has always existed and God isn’t a biological creature, therefore God doesn’t get free will the way human beings get free will. The objection and the problem with human beings getting free will is that if we’re purely biological how does that [indecipherable] chemical free will get into us? And a random generator doesn’t give you free will, even if it gave you random numbers. That’s quite different from actually choosing to do something or to do something else.
ASHBROOK: Who do you think in our society is winning this debate? The atheists, the New Atheists? The religious? Where’s the center of gravity going? And this will be the last question, I’m afraid.
HITCHENS: I think a very large number of people don’t—and I say this based on experience debating in a large number of churches and synagogues—go there for some of the reasons the Rabbi gives: community, Tocquevillian reasons, you might say, American communties, self-help, often they run a school, this kind of thing. They don’t really believe the holy books. They don’t think they have been specially noticed by God or can expect any special favors from Him. But they see, as it were, no harm in it. And there’s a great deal of schism among those who do believe, an enormous amount of schism, so when people say in opinion polls that—or when you read that 90% of American believe in the virgin birth and in Satan and so forth I don’t believe it at all. I don’t believe it. And I don’t believe that people have doubts about it would tell someone who rang them up in their kitchen on the telephone either. I think that underneath this there’s a huge crust of doubt and a great resentment against American theocrats. They—if you want to know how to piss of an American Protestant in the south say, “Are you one of those Jerry Falwell people?” They hate that, rightly.
ASHBROOK: You think you’re winning, then?
HITCHENS: Well no, I think that the supposed religious monolithic nature of America is grossly overstated. It doesn’t describe reality. And it is certainly true, as one of the questioners mentioned, that the number of those who say, not that they’re atheists, we’re still a very small minority, but those who say they have no faith and no allegiance to any church has doubled in the last few years and that’s according to a decent opinion survey, the Pew one, not a random poll.
ASHBROOK: Rabbi, where do you see the center of gravity?
HITCHENS: And it’ll double again.
ASHBROOK: Toward you? Toward Christopher? Somewhere else?
WOLPE: I’m not—I mean, I don’t have a sociological expertise. I can’t tell you in terms of statistics where it’s going. This is what I would say: I think that there are lots of reasons why organized religion has trouble, many of them have been enumerated by Christopher and there are various other reasons as well but I actually think that the impulse to piety and the sense of something greater than ourselves is deeply implanted in human beings and will never go away and in that sense, although people will find different expressions for their religious belief, I feel quite confident that actually most people will continue to be religious in the sense of believing that in fact life isn’t an empty, howling wilderness the way that Christopher describes it but that there is something deep, lasting, eternal, meaningful about you, about those you love and about the world that we live in.
ASHBROOK: Rabbi David Wolpe, Christopher Hitchens, you’re a great audience, thank you very much.