No Holds Barred: Shmuley Boteach vs Christopher Hitchens

In the upcoming debate on the afterlife with the famed author and self-proclaimed atheist I will dismiss the notion that religion comes from insecurity.

September 6, 2010 22:43
4 minute read.
Shmuley Boteach

Shmuley Boteach 58. (photo credit: d)

Is atheism necessary for religion? Rabbi Zusya would say yes. The great Russian hassidic rabbi, who lived more than 200 years ago, was one day teaching his students when he emphasized the necessity of atheism and agnosticism. His students were aghast. Had the master lost his mind? He proved his point. “Say you’re walking down the street and see a hungry man or a homeless woman. If you’re certain there is a God, you’re reaction might be, ‘I need do nothing because God will provide.’ But if you don’t believe in God, or if you doubt His existence, then only you can provide.’”

Religion is the most powerful tool known to mankind. It is capable of inspiring the artistic wonders of the Italian Renaissance and the reliefs of Michelangelo, and is capable of inspiring 19 young men to fly airplanes into buildings. It can show mankind a vision of a perfect world in which “the wolf lies down with the lamb” and it can give the world a vision of people needing to be burned at the stake or stoned as infidels.

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Without intelligent and earnest critics, the heavenly vision can easily twist into the hell on earth. Hence the necessity of atheism and agnosticism.

I would argue that religion learns more about itself from its critics than from its admirers.

I have debated many atheists, from Richard Dawkins to Daniel Dennett to Sam Harris to Christopher Hitchens. Of them all, Hitchens has been by far the most formidable opponent, the one I have most loved and the one that has most gotten under my skin. Religious people have no real interest in Dawkins, whom they find extreme, clinical, mechanical and monolithic. But Hitchens is passionate, utterly unpredictable, contrarian and fluent. And while he has been, at times, highly unfair in his criticism of religion, he redeems it all by being all too human. It is his most likable quality. He is also supremely entertaining.

I BELIEVE this is the reason that my upcoming debate with Hitchens on September 16 in New York City at the Cooper Union on “Is there an afterlife?” has generated such interest, particularly among religious people. The news that Hitchens may be terminally ill has provoked sadness all round, particularly among the faithful.

Groups praying for Hitchens’s healing have sprung up all over America.

Are the faithful praying for Hitchens recovery because they want him to have enough time to convert? Is it because they want a miracle to open his eyes to God’s presence? I can’t say. I can only speak for myself.

I have no interest in converting Christopher Hitchens to religion. His atheism has not stopped him from being a champion of human rights , and he can teach religious people a thing or two about standing up to tyrants. I am not so naïve as to believe for a moment that Hitchens would be so intellectually dishonest as to suddenly abandon his antipathy toward religion because of impending death. Only a coward forsakes his personal truth in the face of death, and one thing Hitchens is not is a coward. I am not a believer in religion-in-the-foxholes and deathbed confessions. Religion is too important to be embraced out of fear.

Rather, what I intend with our debate is to finally dismiss this notion that religious people invented the idea of an afterlife out of a sense of insecurity. We’ve heard it all before. Religion is the opiate of the masses. It’s a drug that weak-minded people take to help them deal with the meaninglessness of life. They invented the afterlife because they couldn’t accept the finality of death.

Then they invented God to give purpose and design to a fundamentally chaotic and unjust world.

The afterlife in Judaism is none of these things. It is not an escape from the flaws of this world or a reward for the suffering endured here. Any religion that promises an eternal reward for living righteously is better characterized as a business promoting celestial remuneration. Worship God so that He’ll pay you in the hereafter.

Judaism demands that we do the right thing because it’s right and never for any reward.

Most Jewish sages understand the World to Come as the world the way it will be when it reaches a state of perfection through human endeavor – what we call the Messianic Era.

Judaism’s focus is not on the heavens but on the earth, not on a disembodied existence in the sky but on souls animating bodies and doing good deeds here on earth. Our ground zero is not God’s celestial throne but the Earth’s sacred spaces.

I have no intention of converting Hitchens to my religious point of view, and don’t believe I could even if I wanted to.

But I can convince Hitchens that his ideas about religious people are wrong. That we are strong rather than weak, focused on this life rather than on the next, dedicated to healing the world rather than gaining entry into the heavens, fundamentally opposed to fundamentalists, extremely suspicious of any kind of extremists and open to ideas – and criticism – from every quarter.

That’s what Rabbi Zusya was trying to demonstrate. Religious people learn how to serve God and humanity better from everyone they meet.

The writer is host of The Shmuley Show on 77 WABC in NYC. He is the international best-selling author of 23 books, and has just published Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.

Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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