The debate Dawkins chose to forget
A friend recently called my attention to the official Website of Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist, where, as a way of assailing me, he denied having ever debated me. "Boteach organized debates, with himself as chairman, and I sometimes took part in debates with the outside visitors that he imported, for example Robert Winston. Boteach was a surprisingly impartial chairman, but he was always just a chairman, never a debater in any of the debates that I attended."
That is a particularly bold untruth. Our debate, which took place at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, on Oct. ‘3, 1996, attracted hundreds of students and featured, on the atheist side, Prof. Dawkins and chemistry Prof. Peter Atkins, and on the religion side, besides myself, Prof. Keith Ward, Oxford’s Regius Professor of Divinity. Student president Josh Wine was in the chair. In a vote at the end of the debate as to how many students had changed their minds after hearing the arguments, Dawkins’ side was defeated and religion prevailed, which might account for his selective memory. (The full footage of the two-hour debate is available on my Website via IAmplify.)
There are two significant developments in the new cycle of verbal war between atheists and religionists. The first is that the atheists are feeling so emboldened that they distort facts in the belief they will never get caught. Second, religious people are so utterly indifferent that they can hardly muster the resolve to respond intelligently to the growing atheist assault. Thousands of atheist bloggers are ripping religion and its adherents to shreds, and yet people of faith continue to slumber.
I have always taken pride in getting along with people with whom I have serious ideological differences and firmly believe that human relationships are determined not by what we believe but how we act. This is why I see the current outpouring of atheist writers with such deep hostility toward religion to be particularly troubling. Surely we can all disagree without being disagreeable.
Dawkins and I were quite friendly at Oxford. He not only participated in approximately five large debates that I organized but even came to my home for Sabbath lunch after I invited him to meet the renowned philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who I thought would enjoy meeting a noted zoologist. Dawkins was always amiable and gentlemanly toward me, as was his lovely wife, Lala. So why has Dawkins suddenly attacked me? And why did he offer me such a cool reception when we shared a stage last summer at the University of Toronto for yet another debate at the IdeaCity Convention, where I responded to his criticisms of religion (the video is available on YouTube)? Whatever the reason, no doubt a man as honorable as Dawkins will correct the error about the debate he alleges never took place and apologize.
On a related subject, many people have written to me to inquire who won the bet between me and Christopher Hitchens in the most memorable exchange of our second debate, last January, when I challenged him to cite a source for his contention, on page ’08 of his book "God Is Not Great," that "many Israeli religious courts have confirmed" that a Jew may not "treat non-Jewish patients, such as Israeli Arabs, especially on the Sabbath." I told Hitchens that this was a gross defamation of Judaism and if he could cite a single Jewish court as a source, I would buy 100 copies of his book. If he could not, he would have to buy 100 copies of my new book, "The Broken American Male." A few days later Hitchens sent an e-mail to the 9’nd St. Y, which hosted the debate, citing the book "Jewish History, Jewish Religion," by Israeli writer Israel Shahak, as his source, and asking that his e-mail be circulated to the debate’s vast audience.
I quickly wrote back that Shahak’s 1965 claim to have witnessed an Orthodox man’s refusing to allow his telephone to be used to call an ambulance for a non-Jew because it would violate Shabbat and to have had a "rabbinical court in Jerusalem" confirm that the man had acted properly, was exposed as a fraud a year later by Lord Immanuel Jakobovitz, later to become the universally venerated chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth. Jakobovitz wrote in Tradition in 1966: "Dr. Shahak, challenged to substantiate his personal ‘testimony,’ was eventually forced to admit that the Orthodox Jew he had ‘witnessed’ refusing the use of his telephone simply did not exist. The whole incident had been fabricated in true Protocols style. Equally overlooked was the circumstance that the Rabbinate, far from having confirmed Dr. Shahak’s allegation, had in fact ruled that the Sabbath must be violated to save non-Jewish no less than Jewish lives."
I asked Hitchens to go back to the well and find a non-fraudulent source. And since his book cited "many" Jewish courts that had so ruled, surely it would be easy. I told him that I was happy to forgo his buying 100 copies of my book in exchange for a simple correction of the defamatory error. To his great credit, Hitchens wrote back that it was "very good of you to put it like that: I will certainly undertake to correct anything in my book that doesn’t survive a challenge…. Shahak was a friend of mine and it’s his honor that is posthumously at stake, not mine (or OK, as well as mine)."
After the exchange of several more e-mails, Hitchens wrote with a link to a column that in turn cited the controversial New York Times piece of July, ”, ‘007, by my close friend Prof. Noah Feldman of Harvard, in which a Jewish teacher in his day school mentioned the existence of religious sources that would distinguish between a Jewish and non-Jewish life on the Sabbath. The column, however, conceded that these are minority opinions that are not authoritative and that have been overruled throughout Jewish history by Jewish courts that have never wavered from the ruling that Jews must save non-Jewish lives on all occasions and on the Sabbath. Based on this, and being unable to find a single court to back up his serious libel against Judaism, Hitchens wrote, "I would consider changing religious courts to fundamentalist rabbinical authorities." And that’s where it now stands, with Hitchens agreeing to do the honorable thing and amend the slur in his book, which I trust he will implement.
I should mention that I have always liked and respected Hitchens and went out to a warm and enjoyable dinner with him after our first debate on Sept. ‘7, ‘004. But a few years later, Hitchens also seems to have been infected by a deep animosity toward religion, going so far as to give his book the highly inflammatory subtitle "How Religion Poisons Everything."
Lord knows, religion has its flaws and it is in the interest of all people of faith to take to heart the well-meaning challenges of atheists and scholarly critics. But irrational hatred of religion and contempt for people of faith must surely lead, as above, to factual errors on the part of atheists who are no longer objective in their criticism but have simply replaced religion with an uncritical and unscientific ideology of their own.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author of "Judaism for Everyone" (Basic Books). He lives in Englewood.