Rabbi, atheist debate with passion, humor

Times Staff Writer

I like to call it my night with the atheist and the rabbi.

The American Jewish University invited me, as an editor of articles on religion, to moderate a debate this fall between author Sam Harris and Rabbi David Wolpe, and for about 90 minutes they analyzed the role of religion in public and private life.

Harris, author of the bestsellers “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” noted the violence committed in the name of religion. “You can get good people to believe some very terrible things in the name of God,” he said.

Wolpe, who has written several books on faith, acknowledged that virulent forms of religion have sparked violence. But he added that religion is “something that’s lived and is bred in you, and if it works well produces magnificent human beings.”


The debate unfolded before about 500 people gathered in November at the American Jewish University campus in the Sepulveda Pass. Video of the event is on the university’s website, The school has lined up another bestselling atheist author, Christopher Hitchens, to debate Wolpe next fall.

Much of the evening centered on religion and science, and early on Wolpe rejected the notion that science now answers questions that religion cannot.

Proponents of this view “don’t get that science is powerful, but it’s narrow,” he said. “And the idea that science explains human life is an idea that I think is promoted only by people who are under the misimpression that the place of science in human life is a scientific question, when in fact it’s a philosophical or religious question.

“And you can’t explain the place of science in human life in scientific terms. Just like you can’t explain what an idea is in scientific terms. It’s intangible and philosophical and religious,” Wolpe said.

To this Harris observed: “The one thing to notice is that the dialogue between science and religion has gone this way: It . . . has been one of relentless and one-directional erosion of religious authority.

“I would challenge anyone here to think of a question upon which we once had a scientific answer, however inadequate, but for which now the best answer is a religious one. Now, you can think of an uncountable number of questions that run the other way: Where we once had a religious answer and now the authority of religion has been battered and nullified by science and by moral progress and secular progress generally. And I think that’s not an accident.”


Many religious claims, Harris added later, “are at odds with science. The belief that Jesus was born of a virgin may be a cherished claim by most Christians. It is also a claim about biology. That is why you can’t keep science and religion apart.”

Wolpe, rabbi of Sinai Temple, then prompted one of the biggest laughs of the night. “I don’t want to spend my night defending the virgin birth,” he said. “It’s not a claim about biology. It is a claim about natural laws, which themselves are an article of faith.”

“That’s a very slippery and dangerous slope,” Harris interjected.

Wolpe, undaunted, added that it’s an article of faith to say that natural laws can’t be altered. “There’s no reason why a Christian can’t say that the laws of biology have been suspended once in history,” he said.

I asked the men to comment on letters, published this year, which revealed that Mother Teresa suffered her own crises of faith. “I am told God loves me,” she wrote, “and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”

What did Harris and Wolpe think of that?

“Well,” Harris began, pausing with perfect comic timing, “there was a certain gratification that spread in the atheist community -- ill concealed.”

This got a big laugh. But then Harris made a serious point, noting that Mother Teresa’s superiors “recommended that she view all of this as a sign that she was sharing Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Now, this is kind of a brilliant moment -- of hermetically sealing a world view. So when I wrote about this I said, ‘Ask yourself, when even the doubts of experts are used to confirm a doctrine, how could it possibly be disproved?’ You see this all the time in religion.”


Wolpe: “Yes, you do.”

Harris: “And this is precisely what you don’t see in science.”

Wolpe: “That’s right. And that’s not a bad thing. First of all, ask yourself this: Even despite her doubts, if Mother Teresa were not a devout Christian, do you think she would have spent her life among the lepers of Calcutta?”

Harris: “Many secular people do just that sort of thing.”

There were brief moments when the authors sounded the tiniest bit alike. Harris once wrote that “there is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life.” That sounds pretty spiritual.

“I part company with many atheists in that I’m interested in spiritual experience,” he said.

“There is such a thing as profoundly transformative, meaningful experience that can be very hard won. You might have to go into a cave for a month or a year to have certain experiences. The whole contemplative literature is something I read and I take very seriously. The problem is it is also riddled with religious superstition and dogma, [so] that you have to be a selected consumer of this literature,” Harris said.

Later in the evening, Wolpe alluded to the ability of humans to find deep meaning in life -- an ability rooted in humankind’s connection to the godhead. As he put it, “We not only can understand the world, but we can understand more than the world because our origin is of the world and also not of the world. The reason that our minds can do something more than just operate on instinct is because we operate all the time with things that are not physical -- ideas, words.”

The conversation ping-ponged about, often returning to science. When Wolpe noted that religion brings a person to God, this exchange followed:


Harris: What are you calling God? Where is God?

Wolpe: God is the intangible creator of the universe in whose presence a human being can live and according to whose dictates or will a human being can live in this world.

Harris: But what is your evidence for the existence of God right now?

Wolpe: I don’t have evidence because it’s not a scientific claim.

It was that kind of night.

But it must be noted that both men received respectful applause, and both fielded pointed but polite questions from the audience.

Harris’ logic and eloquence probably did not persuade anyone to abandon his or her faith. And it’s unlikely that Wolpe’s heartfelt comments moved anyone out of Harris’ camp. But conversion wasn’t the point.

The atheist and the rabbi shared their views with grace and passion and often humor. Each man tossed out an occasional barb, but no one threw a bomb, much less a punch. When all was done, they chatted amicably backstage.

And that, perhaps, was the real lesson of the night.