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Rabbi, atheist debate with passion, humor

Religion and science take center stage in a forum analyzing the role of faith in public and private life.

December 29, 2007|Steve Padilla | Times Staff Writer

"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.


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