Beliefnet is currently featuring a debate I had April 24 with Larry Flynt, the pornographer. Putting aside for a moment the gist of our arguments, I wanted to address a more basic question: why I proposed the debate in the first place. I have faced severe criticism for even agreeing to stage this discussion. "How can you give that man a platform? You're legitimizing him," was the recurrent theme. A close rabbinical colleague wrote to me, "I stuck by you through the attacks you encountered when you published 'Kosher Sex.' But I truly believe that you have now demeaned yourself by appearing together with that abominable man."

On the Saturday after the debate, I went to synagogue in Los Angeles. At the conclusion of the service, a man walked over to me and asked me if I was Rabbi Boteach. When I confirmed that I was, he berated me severely for participating in the debate. "How could you invite people to hear that man speak," he asked me. So I began to tell him the reasons I felt the debate was important. He abruptly cut me off. "Sixty years ago, would you have debated Adolf Hitler?"

"Of course, I would have," I told him. "You forget that Hitler was democratically elected. One of the reasons that he was able to rise to power and prominence was because everyone refused to debate him. No one took him seriously. They all thought he would just go away. But while the respectable crowds ignored him, dismissing him as a delusional hooligan, the rabble embraced him. It wasn't long before he gained mainstream credibility and an enormous following."

"That's just a bunch of bull," he told me. "If I were alive at that time, I wouldn't have debated him, I would have shot him myself." On that bombastic note our conversation ended. I was left to ponder the tragic fate of mankind that this great hero whom I had just met had not lived a half century earlier.

Sarcasm aside, this conversation and the criticism that it represents augur ill for religion and spirituality. It is becoming symptomatic of religion to recuse itself from the great debates of the age and choose moral condemnation instead. Rather than engage with the great issues of the day and demonstrate to the young that a strong, logical, and compelling case can be made for a spiritual way of life, what believers do instead is simply denounce the nonbelievers. They're wrong because they are sinners. Case closed.

Once upon a time, religion used torture and crusaders to silence its dissenters; today it uses the stern voice of moral condemnation. There is one major problem with this tactic. It doesn't work. When people see that religion ducks the great debates of the modern age, preferring instead to engage in character assassination, the conclusion they draw is that religion is unable to make its case rationally. The people see right through moral condescension and interpret it as moral cowardice.

I do not wish to review here my arguments against pornography, since anyone wishing to listen to the actual debate can do so on Beliefnet. Rather, my intention is to point out that in this age of rationality, people await compelling reasons to return to their heritage and to incorporate a spiritual component into their lives. Afraid of getting our hands dirty by debating "the wrong kind of people," we are abrogating our responsibility to bring religion to life.

In the celebrated evolutionary debate of 1860 at Oxford University, the mother of all religious debates, the moment that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce ridiculed Thomas Huxley and inquired whether he was descended from an ape on his grandmother's side or his grandfather's, he not only lost his dignity, he also lost the debate. A moment later, Huxley muttered, "The Lord hath delivered him into my hands," and then rose to give a brilliant defense of Darwin's theory, concluding with the rejoinder, "I would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man and afraid to face the truth." A dignified and rational defense of creationism amid pointing out some of the flaws in evolutionary theory--missing links in the fossil record, paucity of favorable mutations--might have put Wilberforce over the top. Instead, he went down the road of ridicule and irrelevance.

There are millions of men who would give up their Playboys and Hustlers in an instant if only they could be rationally persuaded that doing so would give them a better sex life with their wives and greater possibility for intimacy with their girlfriends. Likewise, there are scores of college students all across America who would wait to have sex until they fell in love and commit to their beloved if only someone was there to persuade them that doing so will lead to unparalleled passion with their chosen partner. But when they go to their churches and synagogues, all they hear is the voice of moral condemnation and that ever-present word: sin. They hear that premarital sex is wrong not because it is filled with artifice and pretension--but because it's a sin. To be convincing, religion needs to speak in terms understood by this

Finally, a word to those who make the argument that debating Larry Flynt grants him legitimacy: I work with a 10% recognition threshold. For example, while I have debated everyone from Jews for Jesus to world-renowned evolutionary atheists, I would never debate a holocaust denier. My rationale is that which has already been articulated by Alan Dershowitz. Holocaust deniers enjoy only a 3% credibility threshold among Americans. Therefore, to debate them is to raise them from the ranks of the totally obscure and to give them exposure. The same could hardly be said of pornography. Larry Flynt runs a media empire that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. He hardly needs me to give him exposure. On the contrary, we religious people are fighting a rearguard action against adult material that we have been losing now for a hundred years. It's our point of view that needs the exposure.

There is a religious revival taking place in America, but it is only positive if it encourages by way of argument rather than condemnation. We need a spiritual path that mixes passionate faith with sympathetic humanitarianism and well-reasoned arguments.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best: "Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion--its message becomes meaningless."

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