An open letter to Richard Dawkins

"I consider the speech I gave at IdeaCity to have been a fine rebuttal of your dismissal of faith."

richard dawkins 224.88 (photo credit: AP )
richard dawkins 224.88
(photo credit: AP )
Dear Richard, Thank you for your open letter of May 2. An ancient rabbinical teaching says that one should respond to points in the order in which they are made. And that was my plan until I came across the part of your letter where you compare my speech at the IdeaCity convention to Hitler and say that he would be proud of me. Perhaps it was providence that your letter was posted on your Website on World Holocaust Remembrance Day. Are you really so callous? Have you developed such uncontrollable loathing for people of faith that you would equate a rabbi who was your friend and who hosted you at his home and at so many public forums and debates to a monster who killed six million Jews and bombed the people of England mercilessly? Time for a reality check. The forum of which you speak, The IdeaCity Convention in Toronto, is one of the world's leading media gatherings. They invited us to argue our ideas about atheism and religion on a stage in which I spoke directly after you, as can be easily verified on the IdeaCity Website. I sat right next to you. When you saw me you barely said hello, and then, just before you spoke, you gave me a card explaining that you would not be staying for my response to your comments. Amid your casual dismissal of me, I started my presentation by referring to you as "a true intellectual, a very fine man, and extremely humble." I added that we had been friends at Oxford and had debated on religion and evolution. Contrary to your claim that my lecture was "a ranting attack," the audience enjoyed it thoroughly and laughed over a dozen times during the 20-minute presentation. Press reports of my speech - available online - were laudatory. Contrary to your comments that I decided to attack you after I had learned that you were leaving for the airport, I was actually quite disappointed that you did not stay, and was relieved to hear from conference organizers that you had stood glued to my comments on the outside speaker. I consider the speech I gave at IdeaCity to have been a fine rebuttal of your dismissal of faith, and encourage the readers of this open letter to view it on YouTube, or my website home page, where it has been available for close to a year, and decide for yourselves. Perhaps, as a scientist who respects fact over fiction, you too should have viewed it, Richard, before you decided to cross the Rubicon of comparing a rabbi (and friend) to Hitler. I am aware that you believe religious people to be "know-nothings," weak-minded illiterates who require a myth to get through the travails of life. Some would regard such condescension as elitist arrogance. But comparing a rabbi who refutes your arguments to the most demonic murderer that ever lived defies comprehension. As to your point that the video of the Oxford debate, which you deny ever happened, is not on my website, I am surprised. No fossil-like digging is required. It is on the very home page of my website on the left-hand column, and significant portions are also on YouTube. YOU SAY that I was never affiliated with Oxford University and that I misled attendees at one of my lectures when I claimed to have debated you. The organization I ran for 11 years at Oxford, the L'Chaim Society, was one of the largest student organizations in the university's history, which is why you agreed to participate in approximately five of our major debates. It was an official university society for most of the time I was there, with Dr. Joshua Silver, your physics colleague from your own college, New College, serving as its senior member. As to your allegation that I was never the official rabbi of Oxford University, you are correct. How could I be, when the university does not recognize any official chaplain of any religion outside the Church of England? You and I did debate. You lost that debate, which is no big deal because, as we both know, debates are more about entertainment than serious scholarship; and, as we Americans have seen in our presidential primaries, one day Hillary Clinton will win a debate, and the next day Barack Obama will. I take no pride in saying you lost, and indeed, until you denied that the debate ever took place, I had not before harped on the outcome. Unlike you, I see no deep fissure between science and religion. The biblical story of creation relates that a supreme intelligence gave rise to the world in a manner that would easily accord with evolution, beginning with inanimate matter and slowly ascending through the vegetable, animal, and human spheres. What perhaps separates us is that you believe all this happened through random mutation and natural selection, and I instead focus on the mathematical impossibility of such complex life arising spontaneously and without guidance. SINCE WE were once friends, and since we both have a responsibility to act justly and humanely, I propose a follow-up to our debate, either here in the US or in the UK, to focus on your recent book on atheism and whether God is necessary for morality. Since, in your letter, you mention my "lamentable but vocally confident ignorance of Darwinian evolution," no doubt you should take advantage of my challenge to even the score. I would appreciate if you would propose dates that are suitable. When we meet face-to-face, you will find in me someone who wishes to rekindle our friendship, respects you highly, and who, well before the Toronto debate, contacted you many times to meet up when I visited the UK but received no response. Finally, as to your comment that "gone was the urbane, humorous, polite Shmuley that I had known at Oxford" - if I have given offense to you in any way, I humbly apologize and say sincerely that I am sorry. But may I ask you, Richard, to please reflect on whether or not it is you who in truth who has changed in the intervening years since we were close at Oxford in your posture toward religion and religious people. It seems you have become aggressive and intolerant, dismissing people of faith as "fundamentalist hypocrites," "hillbillies," "vulnerable to subversion," and "suffering from a delusion." With demeaning comments such as these toward religious people, is it really me who has changed? Of the distinguished Keith Ward, Oxford's Regius Professor of Divinity and my partner in the debate against you, you wrote to a national newspaper, as he details in an upcoming book, that he should resign since theology is not a subject. Now Richard, if you can dish it out, you have to be prepared for us religious boobs to defend ourselves when attacked. And the correct response is not to accuse us of being Hitler when we bring intelligent rejoinders. Rather, I would advise you to behave scientifically and to respond to us on the merits of our arguments. Indeed, I welcome a strong critique of religion and believe that it must always, as Maimonides put it so beautifully, "embrace the truth regardless of its source." As I have always written and maintained, especially in my book Moses of Oxford, where you are discussed at length, I respect you, admire you, and wish to be your friend. I wish you and Lala all the best and may God bless you always.