Religion & Beliefs

Royal Rumble: Hitchens vs. Boteach

Last night the 92nd Street Y hosted a debate between Mr. "Shalom in the Home" Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and the inimitable Christopher Hitchens on the existence of God, something so wholly unprovable that the only guaranteed outcomes were bruised egos … Read More

By / January 31, 2008

Last night the 92nd Street Y hosted a debate between Mr. "Shalom in the Home" Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and the inimitable Christopher Hitchens on the existence of God, something so wholly unprovable that the only guaranteed outcomes were bruised egos and hangover scars from all the ecclesiastical elbowing and bad kosher wine. The buzz around the sold-out event was louder than a book-selling rabbi's shrill or a drunk Englishman's demand for another drink. (Just speaking stereotypically of course.) The 92Y Blog has a video excerpt from the evening, and we asked bloggers in attendance for feedback. Looks like God took a beating of Biblical proportions:

Felix Salmon: "I can't recall ever seeing such a lopsided debate — if 'debate' is the mot juste, which it really isn't. Boteach didn't even attempt to defend his side of the motion, preferring instead to bash Hitchens's book; he ignored substantially everything that Hitchens said. His logorrhea was an embarrassment, especially when it became obvious that he had no strategy at all: all of his points about evolution, for instance, even if they had hit their mark (which they didn't) did nothing to bolster his purported cause. In any case, he was disqualified on account of Godwin's Law so many times that Hitchens would have won by default even if he didn't win overwhelmingly on the merits." Rex Sorgatz: "Rabbi Shmuley Boteach proved, once and for all, that god is not dead. He's just exceptionally boring." Neal Ungerleider: "Here's the thing… despite both Hitchens and Boteach being annoying, self-righteous egomaniacs, there's a difference between the two. Last night's debate taught me that Hitchens is an intelligent, annoying, self-righteous egomaniac. I wish I could say the same for Boteach. However, he still didn't convince me on the non-existence of God. Sorry, Hitch." Lilit Marcus: "Thanks, Shmuley Boteach, for caring more about selling copies of your latest book than about making people who believe in God not come off like complete morons."

Phoebe Maltz: "I found myself wishing the rabbi could make one coherent point, not just evoke the Holocaust every two seconds, only to call Hitchens 'not a Nazi, but.'"

Sara Ivry: "Boteach’s repeated use of the name 'Christoper Hitchens' really made me think of the Bill Murray segment of Coffee and Cigarettes where RZA and GZA keep calling Bill Murray 'BillMurray,' as if one word. It made the whole debate seem particularly absurd, but at least brought back the good days of Wu Tang." Daniel Radosh: After the way Hitchens treated Boteach, it was a little hypocritical of him to chastise God for condoning bloodbaths. To see the rabbi reduced literally to incoherent sputtering was almost sad, but then again, he had no one to blame by himself. Declaring that Steven Jay Gould, author of the classic essay 'Evolution as Theory and Fact,' did not believe in evolution, was probably not the wisest strategic gambit. I think the exchange that best captured the evening came when Boteach accused Hitchens of 'character assassination,' and Hitchens retorted, 'you should be more concerned that your character is committing suicide right here in front of everyone.'" David Kelsey: "In a strange twist demonstrating that this debate was not personal in the least, both men argued that the other’s moral decency proved his own point. Boteach argued that morality came from religion generally, and Judaism’s influence specifically. 'It’s our morality he is embracing,' insisted Boteach. But Hitchins countered that, 'Religion borrows its morality from us, not us from religion.'” Jeff Bercovici: "Hitchens wiped the floor with Boteach to such an extent that it was actually Hitchens who lost, in a sense, just by showing up. Lost stature, that is. He should be debating his equals, not publicity-hungry TV rabbis."

Rachel Sklar: "In the cab on the way home, we coined a new phrase: 'To Shmuley,' denoting the making of pathetic, unsupported non-sequitur arguments and the taking of flailingly weak intellectual positions, with a dash of name-dropping bluster thrown in for good measure. Excruciating. Christopher Hitchens could Bo-teach him a few things about theology!"

Emily Gordon: "Is God a mystical force or a conscious mind (I liked the moderator's vision of 'a New Yorker cartoon kind of God'), a present parent or a deadbeat dad, the same idea in many forms (including nonreligious ones) or accessible only by secret red phone? How can people be born moral, or inherently moved by religion or the Golden Rule, given all the baddies that both Hitchens and Boteach included in their survey of humanity, and how do you account for their nasty behavior? There are countless questions that could have made for a spirited and genuinely intellectual debate instead of the ping-pong of statistics, political arcana, and smooth putdowns–all of which I enjoyed, of course–that stood in for it. I would have liked to have heard how humanism can transcend the question altogether, or account for both points of view in a civilized and meaningful way, but it was not to be. I admire the Y for holding the debate, though, and perhaps it can be reprised with different and more fruitful combinations."