When Men Become Primates

January 15, 2008

By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

We religious people are not adept at taking criticism. Since religion is based on the idea of divinely revealed truth, most religions would rather hide their imperfections, the better to demonstrate that their practitioners are as infallible as their doctrines.

A recent article in Time magazine identified Utah as the state with the highest rate of depression in America, which seems curious. I have been close to the Mormon Church for 15 years. Mormons lead clean, healthy, and generous lives. They raise close-knit families. So why so unhappy? Because they are not trained to be open about things that trouble them. A Mormon mom, for example, has lots of kids which brings lots of joy but also lots of pressure. But she sometimes has to pretend to be happy, even when she’s not. And the lack of an outlet to express unhappiness becomes a dangerous source of melancholy.

The Catholic Church, of course, is legend for the inadequacy of its apologies. Whether it was the scandal of pedophile priests, or the even the great John Paul II’s grossly deficient apology for Catholic anti-Semitism and the Church’s failure to speak out during the holocaust, the Church often feels that it has to feign infallibility even when it is guilty of serious crimes.

A few weeks ago I published an article criticizing my own religious Jewish community for allowing increasingly shallow values to dictate our dating values. The article sparked scores of emails that told me that, although the problem is real, it should not be published in a newspaper. The critics seemed more upset at the problem’s discussion than its existence, even amid the ancient Rabbinical rebuke that the only way to grow as individuals is ‘to love criticism.’

Most importantly, Islam today seems wholly incapable of condemning, with a unified and authoritative voice, the atrocities being perpetrated in its name.

This lack of humility is the principal reason that religion has, over the past few years, come under such ferocious attack from so many best-selling books. Our own arrogance has brought it upon us. But this should not exempt religions’ detractors from being criticized themselves for their dangerous reductionist view of humankind that sees men and women as soulless and purposeless primates.

On January 30th, at the 92nd St. Y in Manhattan, I will debate for the second time the world’s leading religious critic, Christopher Hitchins, on religion versus atheism. On the same night, I will also launch my new book, The Broken American Male. The two subjects are connected.

Hitchens, like Richard Dawkins, is a radical reductionist. To him we humans are nothing but intelligent mammals, thinking apes. Hence, seeing nothing uniquely human about our species, Hitchens has an extremely negative view of even those whom the rest of us consider saintly. Of Martin Luther King, Jr. he writes, ³He was a mammal like the rest of us, and probably plagiarized his doctoral dissertation, and had a notorious fondness for booze and for women a good deal younger than his wife. He spent the remainder of his last evening in orgiastic dissipation, for which I don’t blame him. Of course, his favorite target is Mother Theresa:  She was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return)’Where did that money, and all the other donations, go? The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been – she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself’She was a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud.” (Salon.com)

For Hitchens, the fact that saintly individuals exhibit serious flaws is proof that we are all nothing but unimpressive orangutans. For all our talk of a noble soul and human virtue, it is our beastly nature which most predominates.

This reduction of modern man to nothing more than his animal urges is what is most destroying him. Men like Hitchens would have us believe that the material is our truest essence. Hence, wasting our lives at the office making money so we can fill the emptiness of our existence with lifelong consumption is as inescapable as is the male tendency to indulge his genetic urge to inseminate as many women as possible. To the enemies of faith, men are nothing more than walking sperm machines. It is not surprising that they cheat on their wives, programmed as they are to copulate with as many females as possible. Likewise, it is not surprising that they lust for power, conditioned as they are to hunt and horde resources in a world of limited supplies.

Both Hitchens theory and book are seriously flawed, as I intend to point out in our debate. But its mass acceptance on the part of so many who now believe that humans were not created for any transcendent purpose is what allows them to squander their lives on ephemeral pursuits like TV binge-watching and empty celebrity chatter without regret.

Communism and terrorism remain the greatest threats to human liberty. But it is soulless capitalism that has now emerged as the most serious threat to human uniqueness, turning us all into a indistinguishable morass of shallow materialists. We define our success not by the blessings our lives have become to others, but by the money we have in the bank and how many people recognize us on the streets. A man who is taught that he is nothing more than an animal will have no pangs of conscience when he behaves like one, living for consumption, indulgence, and the satisfaction of his hormonal urges. This, as I say in my book, is what is most destroying the American male as he invests his energy at work and returns home an uninspired wreck, unable to love his wife and incapable of inspiring his children.

Long ago the voice of G-d went out to men and called them to the possibility of a uniquely human greatness. Possessed of a divine spirit, they were capable of transcending their genetic makeup and leading lives of romantic monogamy, parental purpose, and communal commitment. It is time for that voice to be heard again.

To a religious person, Martin Luther King’s imperfections make his achievements all the more impressive. Had he been flawless, it would have been intuitive for him to purge the United States of its Jim Crow racism and restored the country to its founding ideals of equality. But the fact that he did so amid the herculean struggle of an imperfect character proves that men can rise above their material natures and lead lives of earth-changing purpose. And in so doing, Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate this Tuesday, became the greatest American of the twentieth century and inspired the rest of us to overcome our own imperfect natures and make America a more perfect country.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s newest book, “The Broken American Male” is published this month. He has just launched “This World: The Jewish Values Network.” http://www.shmuley.com




  1. Interesting insight on flaws. I like it. We can accomplish great things in the face of great inadequacy. I think religion can at once be a help and a hindrance with depression. The shortcut is perfectionism, the true path is Eternal progression, at least in my Mormon perspective.

  2. Dear Rabbi Boteach:

    Great post!

    This idea of people doing good while struggling with their own demons is important. How many people, who could be giants in certain areas, never stand because thy know the wolves of mankind are ready to tear them down?

    I think certain actions preclude people from certain privileges, I won’t accept a pedophile priest for example, but too many people enjoy seeing great men fall.


  3. […] More than that however, this is a classic example of trying to take consciousness from the micro to macro level. These explanations always create more questions for me than they answer. Hypothetically, suppose there was a spiritual area of the temporal lobe, regardless of lack of any convincing evidence. Can we ever know that that area wasn’t placed there by God, reserved for communication? Maybe that wiring is there specifically to allow our body to recognize spiritual presence. The reductionists would claim to have rid the ghost from the machine. Does life make any sense when we seek to understand the machinations of life only to discover they don’t translate into our world experience. Perhaps more importantly, once this is our guiding truth, what do we become? […]

  4. Loved it!

    Gives more depth of meaning to the term ‘materialism’, does it not?




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: