Wolpe's Faithful Response


By David J. Wolpe
Foreword by Rick Warren
224 pages. HarperOne. $24.95.


I haven’t seen the new movie Religulous yet, but my guess is director Bill Maher didn’t invite Rabbi David Wolpe to be a guest in his film. Religulous, the documentary by the comedian best known for his show Politically Incorrect, pokes fun at religious believers and all the wacky things—from biblical parables to the tenets of Scientology to the ultra-Orthodox case against Zionism –that they believe. For anyone curious to see the movie, but scared of how it might challenge their own faith, it might be wise to bring a copy of Why Faith Matters to the theater.

It’s serendipitous that this movie and Rabbi Wolpe’s new book are coming out around the same time, but Wolpe’s book actually originated as a response to Maher’s print predecessors. For years, secularist and atheistic books like The End of Faith by Sam Harris, Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens have found their place on bestseller lists. Wolpe, who openly details his own struggles with faith and periods of doubt, decided after overcoming a bout with cancer that it was time to set the record straight.

His book takes on these bestsellers directly, though he doesn’t mention any of them by name. Instead Wolpe devotes a chapter to each of the major contentions of these writers and debunks their theses: that religion causes war and violence, that science refutes religion, that the Bible is improbable, and that the existence of God is impossible to prove. His arguments on these topics aren’t necessarily original, but he writes about them beautifully—his words are heartfelt and convincing. He acknowledges organized religion’s many faults but extols its virtues. “Despite the many sins committed in the name of faith, progress is often propelled by religious movements and institutions,” Wolpe writes in the chapter on religion and violence. “Even as religious fanaticism imperils the world, there is increasing evidence for the religious decency that can save it.” In an era when religious groups are often still the leaders in movements like the one against atrocities in Darfur or the first on the ground after natural disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis, this is a lesson we don’t hear enough.

Wolpe is similarly even-handed about the relationship between science and religion. In explaining an in-person debate he performed with the late biologist and philosopher Stephen Jay Gould, he explains how he and Gould shared the same essential message: “religion is not science, and science is not religion. Each has its own joys and its own mission.” He accuses, indirectly, the anti-religion writers and scientists of starting a “false war” between science and religion, wondering why “some are so adamant in denying the possibility” of God. Wolpe explains that to assert that God did not create the world is a claim as impossible to prove as the existence of God, and that science and religion can together enhance one’s understanding of the world instead of offering conflicting visions.

It is in episodes like the one he details about his surprisingly open encounter with Gould that Wolpe is at his best. As he usually is (I had the fortune of being the rabbi’s editor at Beliefnet for several years) Wolpe is most readable, and most moving, when he gets personal—when he shares his own experience and explores how his worldview can bring meaning to others’ lives. He writes touchingly about the older man who accompanied his father to say kaddish every morning after his father’s father died, even though doing so required the man to walk an hour out of his way each day. For Wolpe, moments of pure selflessness like this are evidence enough to counter the claim that religion is primarily a force for evil in the world. When he describes his own and his family’s bouts with cancer and other illness, it is easy to see how someone so thoughtful and questioning could seek the good in episodes as heartbreaking and terrifying situations like lymphoma and brain surgery. The world of faith Wolpe describes in Why Faith Matters is a world of questions, not of answers. It is one any rational person would want to inhabit, or at least visit every so often.

Unlike so many of the authors of those books that argue against religion, Wolpe isn’t trying to convert anyone to his way of thinking. People are free to believe or not to believe as they choose, he implies. But if you don’t believe anything… well, he thinks you’re missing out.

As convincing as the book is about the benefits of a religious life, I would have liked to see Wolpe confront his anti-religion adversaries more directly. He rarely quotes from their books. I suppose Wolpe wanted to let religion speak for itself, but for a book that is so obviously a response to what has come before it, his arguments would be stronger if they were more specifically directed. There is also very little in this book, besides Wolpe’s personal stories, that is specifically Jewish. It’s obvious that “the #1 pulpit rabbi in America” (as he’s described in the author blurb) intends for this book to be his crossover book. From his lack of specifics about Judaism to the fact that the foreword was written by Rick Warren, a leading evangelical pastor and author of the bestselling religion book, The Purpose Driven Life, it’s clear that Wolpe wants this book to reach far beyond a Jewish audience.

The Purpose-Driven Life is known for bringing thousands of people to a life of belief in Jesus, most famously a murderer in Atlanta a few years ago, who read the book during his escape from the crime scene and was convinced to turn himself in. While Wolpe’s books is unlikely to have that dramatic an impact, it will definitely give doubters—even those as zealous as Bill Maher—something to think about, and believers new mettle in the ever-intensifying battle with religion’s most virulent critics.