Why Faith Matters

David J. Wolpe
  • Review
By – February 22, 2012

I am an athe­ist. This may sur­prise you giv­en the title of this essay but it’s true. As is the title. The last time I believed in God was when I was ten and Judy Blume’s book Are You There God, It’s Me Mar­garet almost con­vinced me He was there. I tried talk­ing to him. I told him about my day, about the things that both­ered me, about the ques­tions I had. And it was help­ful. My tenyear- old mind cre­at­ed a pres­ence by the mere fact that I addressed my com­ments to some­one. In the end it didn’t last. By four­teen I start­ed yeshi­va and was as cer­tain in my athe­ism going in as I was com­ing out. 

And yet, I am a believ­er. 

Let me explain. 

In recent years there’s been a surge in the pub­lic debate between those who believe in God and those who don’t, due in part to the law­suits sur­round­ing class­room poli­cies (whether or not to teach intel­li­gent design), in part to shift­ing demo­graph­ics (a decreas­ing num­ber of Amer­i­cans iden­ti­fy as reli­gious), and in part because of the explo­sion of sci­en­tif­ic research in areas such as biol­o­gy, envi­ron­men­tal sci­ence, and neu­ro­science. 

In response to this surge, a wide vari­ety of books have appeared, rep­re­sent­ing vir­tu­al­ly every reli­gious and non-reli­gious denom­i­na­tion. Among the recent books that have joined the debate with­in Judaism are David J. Wolpe’s Why Faith Mat­ters (Harper­One, 2008) and Lawrence Bush’s Wait­ing for God (Ben Yehu­da Press, 2008). Through the authors’ per­son­al jour­neys, these books cap­ture the debate that is play­ing out in the media.

David J. Wolpe is the rab­bi at Sinai Tem­ple in L.A. He grew up reli­gious, but at an ear­ly age the hor­ror of the Holo­caust shook his faith to its core. His even­tu­al return to reli­gion served him well through many fam­i­ly trau­mas. His moth­er had a stroke at fifty-two and lost her abil­i­ty to speak and write. His wife was diag­nosed with can­cer at thir­ty-one, leav­ing her unable to have more chil­dren. Rab­bi Wolpe him­self was diag­nosed with lym­phoma. Among the most mov­ing pas­sages in the book are those in which he shows how his belief in God helped him grap­ple with the most pro­found ques­tions about life and death.

At the heart of Wolpe’s argu­ment is that faith is essen­tial for liv­ing a life com­mit­ted to doing good. He argues that a true faith in God moves us to char­i­ty, moves us to ask­ing in times of trou­ble not why me” but rather how can I grow from this sit­u­a­tion and help oth­ers in the process? He reminds us of all the good that comes from reli­gion and sug­gests that with­out reli­gion there’s no incen­tive to do good.

But Wolpe gets caught up in many of the same con­tra­dic­tions that oth­er the­ists do. He reminds us of the lim­i­ta­tions of the sci­en­tif­ic search for expla­na­tions by quot­ing the Tal­mud: Teach your tongue to say I don’t know.” But if we stay true to that sen­ti­ment we’d answer the ques­tion of how the uni­verse was cre­at­ed with I don’t know,” rather than offer­ing as an answer, God. It is in fact the sci­en­tists who are say­ing I don’t know” while offer­ing bits of infor­ma­tion that may help with the search.

Wolpe sug­gests that with­out reli­gion there’s no incen­tive to do good. Giv­en the sav­agery of which human beings are capa­ble, what will they do if there is no over­ar­ch­ing stan­dard and Guide? This kind of think­ing ignores the sav­agery that has been com­mit­ted in the name of reli­gion (a fact he address­es inad­e­quate­ly in one chap­ter) and doesn’t suf­fi­cient­ly hon­or the many acts of col­lec­tive kind­ness have been com­mit­ted with­out offer­ing God as an incen­tive.

Lawrence Bush, who grew up an athe­ist, has entire­ly dif­fer­ent sen­si­bil­i­ties about God than Wolpe. He describes him­self as a young baby boomer who was drawn to the search for spir­i­tu­al­i­ty that his gen­er­a­tion yearned for in response to World War II.

At the heart of Bush’s argu­ment is that the mind fools us into think­ing that the feel­ing of one­ness we expe­ri­ence with God or the uni­verse or even with oth­ers stems from some­thing out­side of us rather than with­in our­selves— from super­nat­ur­al rather than nat­ur­al sources. But this is a mind trick, he says. In fact the source of these sen­sa­tions is inter­nal. More impor­tant­ly, he argues that this real­i­ty is not devoid of faith. He writes, There is a leap of faith implic­it in this vision of mine: faith in the human capac­i­ty for change, faith in the valid­i­ty and use­ful­ness of at least some ther­a­peu­tic the­o­ries and modal­i­ties, and faith in the supe­ri­or val­ue of the exam­ined life’ over the unex­am­ined life’ for indi­vid­u­als and for soci­ety at large.” B u s h refers to him­self, as many do, as a spir­i­tu­al athe­ist. For him spir­i­tu­al­i­ty means love, nature, sci­ence, polit­i­cal activism of peo­ple, their col­lec­tive risk-tak­ing and sac­ri­fice in the name of jus­tice and self-tran­scen­dence.” Bush has been inspired to try to see all human beings, even the stranger — even the wicked stranger — as hav­ing the same mul­ti-dimen­sion­al­i­ty behind the mask of their appear­ance that I have behind mine.” These words are not much dif­fer­ent from the words a believ­er might use, from the words David Wolpe might use. So why is God nec­es­sary?

It is dif­fi­cult to talk about spir­i­tu­al­i­ty or the sacred with­out evok­ing God. Words like joy or humil­i­ty don’t quite cap­ture the tran­scen­dence that the reli­gious terms evoke. Believ­ers would argue that what they expe­ri­ence when they pray is dif­fer­ent than the words used to describe emo­tions like con­nec­tion or one­ness. What we have is a lin­guis­tic prob­lem of extra­or­di­nary pro­por­tions. We need a new lan­guage.

For starters, why don’t we refor­mu­late the ques­tions: Where do you find your spir­i­tu­al­i­ty? (Rather than do you or don’t you believe)? Athe­ists are defined as dis­be­liev­ers in a supreme being, but athe­ists are also believ­ers in a great many things that are not incom­pat­i­ble with spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. To reduce the world to believ­ers and non-believ­ers is to cheat all of us out of the extra­or­di­nary nuance of life.

What does it mean to be Jew­ish and athe­ist? It means valu­ing the prac­tices that cel­e­brate the ele­va­tion of the human spir­it. Athe­ism doesn’t dimin­ish the solem­ni­ty of light­ing the Sab­bath can­dles, even if the can­dles aren’t lit for God, and even if we acknowl­edge that that par­tic­u­lar rit­u­al is only one of many that can move our spir­its.

Rit­u­als, tra­di­tions, prac­tices are not unique to reli­gion. Fam­i­lies devel­op their own tra­di­tions and rit­u­als that revolve around expe­ri­ences that are mean­ing­ful to them. A Jew­ish athe­ist might see the light­ing of the can­dles as a tra­di­tion that con­nects us to a past whose sto­ries we grew up with. Does the sto­ry of Job offer any less inspi­ra­tion if it didn’t come from God? Do the epic tales of long­ing, of rage, of stu­pid­i­ty, of jeal­ousy, of gen­er­a­tions lost, of strength test­ed— do they offer any less of a guide if they came from peo­ple rather than God?

Rab­bi David Wolpe grap­pled with the most dif­fi­cult of life’s ques­tions by look­ing to God for guid­ance. Lawrence Bush found his faith in the human mind and spir­it, in dis­cov­er­ing that our life guides can come from with­in as well as from with­out, that it’s pos­si­ble to cel­e­brate the sacred with­out wor­ship­ping it. For those of us who do not believe in God, let’s cre­ate a new lan­guage, one that does not define itself by an absence of belief but by a hum­bling, joy­ous, per­sis­tent belief in the beau­ty and pow­er of human­i­ty and the nat­ur­al world. Let’s call it pro­found opti­mism in the worst of times and in the best of times; for lack of a bet­ter word, let’s call it sub­lime. 

Addi­tion­al Title Fea­tured in Review

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