Rabbi David J. Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens

I thought this was an interesting debate despite the emotions especially of Hitchens, one part I want to point out is transcribed below to some degree.

Final Words By SEWELL CHAN

Are there moral actions that only a believer could perform? (An audience member cited the example of a Ro’i Klein, an Israeli soldier who threw himself on a grenade in 2006 to save his comrades.)

“It’s a good try but it’s, as you can see, hopeless,” Mr. Hitchens said. “What if he shouted ‘Allahu akbar’ when he was doing that? Would it mean the same to you?”

He added: How can you tell that a nonbeliever wouldn’t risk or give their own life to save their comrades? It’s an insult to nonbelievers to say that we couldn’t do that without divine permission. You have to name a moral action performed or a moral statement made by a believer that could not — I repeat, could not — be performed by a nonbeliever.

Mr. Hitchens said that no one he had debated had been able to supply a satisfactory answer.

Rabbi Wolpe disagreed:

It’s true that religious people don’t sprout wings and they can’t do things nonreligious people can’t do physiologically, but anything from Handel’s “Messiah” to Donne’s sonnets to Hopkins’s poetry to blessing your daughter on a Friday night, which I do, to praying together at the bed of somebody sick, to creating a shiva minyan for people who are ill, to having a religious experience, all those things are things that religious people can do that nonreligious people can’t do.

Rabbi Wolpe quoted the Muslim philosopher Al Ghazali as saying, “I can describe a religious experience to you, but describing a religious experience is to having one as reading about alcohol is to getting drunk.”

He told Mr. Hitchens, “It’s powerful, it’s pervasive, and if it is not too presumptuous, I hope one day you do.”

Mr. Hitchens replied that Rabbi Wolpe had failed to cite a single “moral action or statement” that a believer is capable of that a nonbeliever is not. “Thomas Aquinas believed himself to be capable of levitating,” he said.

Mr. Hitchens concluded: It’s all the difference in the world between whether or not you believe in reason, evolution, human solidarity as the source of such morality that we have, or whether you think we are supervised, created, disposable, dispensable, part of a plan of which we have no knowledge and of which we’re not considered worthy to have knowledge.

To which Rabbi Wolpe responded: “God bless you.”


Please leave your thoughts. Sometimes the only way one can find the truth is to examine all possibilities.

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