A Savage Beating

I’ve now had a chance to watch the Hitchens-Boteach debate, and it wasn’t pretty. I don’t know who thought these two might be evenly matched, but it was a sad spectacle. I was reminded of H.L. Mencken’s description of the doomed William Jennings Bryan’s spasms of desperation at the Scopes trial (the comparison is apt, as Boteach also spent much of his time railing, incoherently and with astounding ignorance, against evolution):

His last battle will be grossly misunderstood if it is thought of as a mere exercise in fanaticism — that is, if Bryan the Fundamentalist Pope is mistaken for one of the bucolic Fundamentalists. There was much more in it than that, as everyine knows who saw him on the field. What moved him, at bottom, was simply hatred of the city men who had laughed at him so long, and brought him at last to so tatterdemalion an estate. He lusted for revenge against them. He yearned to lead the anthropoid rabble against them, to punish them for their execution upon him by attacking the very vitals of their civilization. He went far beyond the bounds of any merely religious frenzy, however inordinate. When he began denouncing the notion that man is a mammal even some of the hinds at Dayton were agape. And when, brought upon Darrow’s cruel hook, he writhed and tossed in a very fury of malignancy, bawling against the veriest elements of sense and decency like a man frantic — when he came to that tragic climax there were snickers among the hinds as well as hosannas.

[from the Baltimore Evening Sun, July 27th, 1925]

Mind you, Shmuley Boteach is no William Jennings Bryan — a man, who, by dint of his commanding presence and ringing oratory, rose in his day to the loftiest strata of American politics. But, brought upon Hitchens’s cruel hook, the rabbi descended to a comparable abysm of rhetorical bathos. Particularly embarrassing was his lecturing of the audience on the finer points of evolutionary theory (and his mocking of Hitchens for not being as well-informed on the topic as he himself was) when it became clear at once that it was a subject about which he was in fact deeply confused. To give an example: the man insisted, repeatedly, that the late Stephen Jay Gould did not believe in evolution by natural selection, but instead, favored “punctuated equilibrium”. That punctuated equilibrium is a model of timescales within the context of evolution by natural selection, a fact of which anyone familiar with Gould’s work (or evolutionary theory generally) should of course be aware, was apparently beyond his ken. And that anyone could suggest that Gould rejected “unguided” evolution, as Boteach also claimed, simply boggles the mind.

Hitchens, who was generally in fine style, was placed in the difficult position of being confronted with such a flood of falsehood and non-sequitur that there was simply no way he could debunk it all; by the end he and the moderator were reduced to sitting in bemused silence as Boteach blathered on, to nobody’s benefit; certainly not his own. It has been quite a while since I have seen anyone make such a fool of himself in public.

I would take the time here to examine Boteach’s remarks, but the game seems hardly worth the candle. Of course, if there are any points that commenters feel are worthy of discussion — I very much doubt it — by all means let’s do so. But this was no “debate”.

Far more promising, I think, will be this videotaped conversation between Sam Harris and Rabbi David Wolpe on the same question, namely whether God exists.

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