12 February 2008

An Open Letter to Rabbi Schmuley Boteach

Before I get to the letter, the video of the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi Schmuley Boteach is below the fold, if you wish to watch it. I would advise you to watch it on an empty stomach, as fits of nausea and revulsion will most likely accompany the portions in which the good rabbi speaks his turn. My letter also begins below the fold, with the video at the end. Comments and constructive criticisms are welcome.

Dear Rabbi Boteach,

I must say that I have not seen such a distasteful display in any intellectual debate in a long time. I wonder if you realize just how much of a farce you made of your position by, on the one hand accusing Mr. Hitchens of character assassination, while on the other hand using nearly EVERY opportunity you had to speak to deliberately quote Mr. Hitchens (and others as well) out of context for blanket ad hominem attacks. Essentially, all you did was build up a poorly-constructed strawman of him and proceed to try to tear it down.

I also found it distasteful that you deliberately quote distinguished scientists out of context, especially Stephen Jay Gould, who I had the honour to meet at Fermilab in Chicago a few years before his death. It's quite tragic that you so profoundly misunderstood Dr. Gould that you would make the ridiculous claim that he did not believe in evolution, even AFTER Mr. Hitchens had pointed out, quite correctly, that the contention over evolution between Dr. Gould and Dr. Dawkins was between the "how" of evolution, namely the debate between gradualism and Gould's own hypothesis of punctuated equilibrium. Both gradualism and punctuated equilibrium still rely on natural selection and mutation, e.g. they are BOTH hypotheses within the context of the larger theory of evolution.

I also cried out vocally, even though I was alone while watching the debate on YouTube, when you trotted out the painfully old and tired argument about Darwin and the eye. Here, again, you deliberately and ignorantly quoted another scientist out of context. Is there no end to your dishonest quote-mining? Here is the quote you presented:

"To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. "

Now, that was merely the setup Darwin made SO THAT HE COULD KNOCK IT DOWN. Here is the REST of his argument, which you FAILED SO CONSPICUOUSLY to mention:

"Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound."

Darwin then spent the next three pages going over the evidence that supports his notion that the eye has evolved and is not, as you so ham-fistedly implied, irreducibly complex and therefore designed. Keep in mind that Darwin was writing this in 1872, and since that time we have only EXPANDED our knowledge of how the eye evolved. I'm not a biologist, but I can clearly remember a recent article in National Geographic Magazine (Nov. 2006) that gave an excellent overview of the current research involving how our different appendages and organs evolved, including the eye. I would suggest you at least look into that so next time you won't be so quick to make a complete and utter fool of yourself.

Finally, as a graduate student studying history, and since I wrote my undergraduate thesis on totalitarianism in Nazi Germany, which was published in my alma mater's history journal "Legacy" (2007, Southern Illinois University Press), I found it particularly outrageous that you would employ such absurd reductionism in making the claim that men like Hitler and Stalin were motivated primarily because they were atheists. Totalitarian ideology like Naizism and Stalinism was hostile to religion because totalitarian ideology is a form of religious ideology (and we all know how religions generally treat other religions, or even how denominations within a single religion treat each other). Given that, I find it very hypocritical of you to, in one breath, cite the 10 Commandments, while in the next breath you act indignant when all Hitler and Stalin were doing was appropriating the 1st Commandment for their own new religions of racist Aryanism and extreme Marxism/Leninism, respectively. That both totalitarian systems were centered around a cult of personality should make it obvious enough just how strikingly similar Nazism and Stalism were to organized religion. That Hitler used a "scientific" form of racism, itself based on a profound MISUNDERSTANDING of science, is really no different than when Christians used the idea the Jews being cursed by God. I'm sure you can appreciate the similarity, the only difference being that Christianity belief the Jews to be divinely cursed, while Hitler believed Jews to be biologically cursed. That BOTH types of racism have long been repudiated, much less supported by people like Mr. Hitchens or Dr. Dawkins, should have been enough to keep you from attempting to use the issue as a moral cudgel to try and beat your opponents down, but then, I realize that such desperation is all you have to resort to, having nothing substantive to argue in the first place.

That you also draw a direct line from Darwin to Hitler is another agonizingly obvious example of just how much you misunderstand science. In fact, I don't know who is more ignorant of science: yourself or Adolf Hitler. Both of you show such a prodigious LACK of understanding about science that the irony is almost tangible: A Jew who makes claims about Hitler's knowledge of science while having almost no understanding of science himself. Normally, such a farce would be comical, worthy of Neil Simon, but the context instead renders it particularly tragic and depressing.

For myself, I am not a theist, but nor am I a strict atheist. Like Albert Einstein (whom you also managed to sorely abuse by claiming he was a theist), I find my spirituality in Spinoza's God, the pantheist God. So while Mr. Hitchens and I agree on principle that organized religion can be dangerous, I find his materialism to be too reductionist and in denial of common human spirituality. I only mention this in the interest of full-disclosure, and to head off any underhanded attempts to dismiss my criticisms as "just another atheist" or as some kind of Hitchens acolyte. Given your uncouth behaviour during the debate, I don't think I'm being too careful in making sure I'm clear on that point: I am not a strict atheist, nor in any sense a materialist, but I AM a non-believer and I AM completely in opposition to organized religion.

I personally do not know how anyone could think you to be any kind of scholar, much less that you should be placed on the same intellectual level as someone like Mr. Hitchens or Dr. Gillman (whom I felt particularly sorry for in that, despite his patience and repeated chances given by him to you, you could not provide him with any kind of coherent answer when he asked you to briefly expound on "Who or what is God?").

You are a hack, in short. And unlike the charge you leveled at Mr. Hitchens, it is you who is the fundamentalist, you who is the dogmatist, you who is closed-minded. You are no scholar, and you clearly have no business engaging in debates of this kind...I don't think you would even survive at the level of "Model U.N." high school events.

But I suppose it doesn't matter much. Oprah likes you, for whatever reason, and you'll continue to ride her coat-tails to further riches, using the platform she's given you to continue to spout non-sense and vitriol to the masses.

I'm just glad I got to watch you get dismembered by someone who actually DID know what he was talking about (not to mention Dr. Gillman), and I will be sure to refer anyone who mentions your name to this debate, which was, to paraphrase Mr. Hitchens, a perfect example of your "character committing suicide."

I hope the next time you decide to enter the intellectual arena, you arm yourself with better information than your own prejudiced, dogmatic, incoherent, and internally inconsistent beliefs and opinions.


William Cowan
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL

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