Sam Harris and Rabbi David Wolpe

The American Jewish University hosted authors Sam Harris and Rabbi David Wolpe to discuss the existence of God and the role of religion and faith in society.

You can watch the full video here.

Steve Padilla, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, moderated the informal debate and wrote about the event. He excerpts a few snippets of the dialogue. Like this bit:

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.

By that reasoning, Christians can claim anything they want. To me, it sounds like a slam dunk for Harris.

Here’s the end of Padilla’s piece:

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.

What is with reporters trying to balance a debate at all costs?

Nightline did the same thing (with very similar words).

Both claimed that the real victory was getting the two sides (atheists and theists) to talk in the first place.

That’s not a very difficult achievement.

It’s more of an achievement to get the audience members to listen to both sides of the debate when most of them are used to hearing just one side.

It’d be a real victory if either side learned anything from the opponent.

I don’t get the sense that that happened in either scenario.

Frankly, watching a bulk of this debate, Harris dominates it. I didn’t pick up much from Wolpe other than the typical theistic soundbytes that atheists have heard many times over (such as the argument that Stalin/Mao/Pol-Pot were atheists so atheism must be wrong). Harris answers these claims as well as he can. I got the feeling that Wolpe didn’t care for any of the explanations. He just went on to the next soundbyte.

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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