When Rabbi David Wolpe was 12 years old, he watched the Holocaust documentary Night and Fog, and stopped believing in a higher power. “Seeing radical evil convinced me that there was no God,” recalls Wolpe, the son of a rabbi and leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. “But as I got older, I began to appreciate that religion wasn't a weakness — that some of the smartest and strongest people I met were religious. [I realized] that reason wasn't enough to build a life [on].”
That’s why the reformed atheist will battle against the motion, “The World Would Be Better Off Without Religion,” at the live Nov. 15 Slate/Intelligence Squared U.S. debate in New York. But he’ll fight with some sympathy for his nonbelieving opponents. “For many years, I used all the same arguments [against religion] that now I hear from the other side,” admits Wolpe, who remained an ardent atheist and Bertrand Russell devotee until his early 20s. “I understand them, because it makes sense to believe that this is all just an illusion that makes people feel better. But it’s not experienced that way from the inside.”
Recently, I caught up with Wolpe for a conversation about why he’ll face an uphill battle on Nov. 15, how faith relates to toothpaste, and what most people don’t understand about praying. Excerpts from the interview are below.
Slate: You’ve done similar debates on religion before. Some have gotten a little mean. Will the debate on Nov. 15 be different?
David Wolpe: I expect that this won’t be that vituperative. I may be wrong, but I don’t expect that you’re going to get a debate whose central thrust is ridicule — which you sometimes got in previous debates — as opposed to a sort of reasoned exploration of the historical and contemporary record of whether religion is good or bad for the world. [Also], the question is somewhat different [than past debates]. It’s not, “Does God exist?” or “Is there an afterlife?” but [rather] whether religion is good for the world. It’s less a theological question than a sociological and historical one.
Slate: So does that mean it will be easier for you to win?
DW: (Laughs). As opposed to the other times when it was hard to win?
Slate: I mean, since you can point to hard facts in historical evidence, rather than more elusive arguments.
DW: Let me put it this way. In one sense, there are no winners for such a debate because there’s so much evidence to go around. How you massage the facts depends on where you stand. If you judge by the votes, my sense is that the temper of the times among the people who come to such debates is that religion is a negative force. I think we’re fighting an uphill battle. I’ve sort of come to believe that people who are religious tend not to come to such debates, and that people who are opposed to religion come to see religion take a proper bashing. My guess is that in New York, we’re going start off at a disadvantage. Whether we’ll be able to make up some ground, I don’t know.
Slate: This idea that the world would be better off without religion seems pretty modern. Is it? Or has there simply been a wave of anti-religious sentiment recently?