Saturday, September 13, 2008


"Why Faith Matters": Rabbi David Wolpe.

In the August 29th "Forward," Rebecca Spence interviews the rabbi of one of our city's leading synagogues, Temple Sinai on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood. "Keeping the Faith, L.A. Rabbi Grabs a Pen." Wolpe debated Sam Harris, author of "The End of Faith," and critiques Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Since I read and reviewed (here for D & H and all three on Amazon) these neo-atheist champions, I figured Wolpe's response, plugging his newly published "Why Faith Matters," might be intriguing. Recovering from cancer, Wolpe figured he'd better join the debate sooner than later. He seeks to address the same audience that Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris have engaged. I share the core of Spence's brief chat with Wolpe.

D.W.: I believe that the book makes a very compelling case that religion is not responsible for war, and that science is compatible with religion. The other way it enters the dialogue is by refocusing people on the real content of religion. Eighty-five to 90% of religion is not about abstract ideas; it’s about the way people live their lives, and when people are in trouble, or rejoicing or need community, or are sick, or have died, suddenly religion steps in as that which supports and cares for them. There is no real understanding or acknowledgment of that in many of these polemics.

R.S.: Do you think such books have had an effect on perceptions of religion, or are they merely literary phenomena?

D.W.: I actually do think that they’ve had an effect on the perception of religion. That perception — and what I’ve tried to counter — is the idea that you can’t be intellectually sophisticated and morally sensitive and still be religious. That’s the real underlying case that the atheistic books make, and that’s just wrong. And someone has to say that clearly and concisely, and that’s why I tried to make the book short and readable while at the same time trying not to sacrifice the content of the argument or of my own experience.


The 85%-90% of religion not as intellectual but as palliative may be precisely what clergy like Wolpe deal with on a daily basis with their congregants, I reckon. The neo-atheists, like their theological counterparts, mull over philosophical speculation, given their academic training and often their tenured positions. I doubt if Harris or Dawkins in their university settings, or Hitchens in his liberal Washington-London polarity, deals much with those suffering, in doubt, or in despair who reach out to a loving God. This may sound harsh, but it's similar to elite colleges, where few faculty have to teach the types of street-wise, academically unprepared, recovering veteran, and/or full-time/minimum wage students that I do, in a less rarified classroom that sits by a freeway in an "office park" masquerading as a campus.

My point here? There's enormous leaps that most intellectuals rarely have to hop from their coddled suites into the realm where ordinary people think, work, live, pray, and doubt. One chasm opens between top-tier education and lower ranks of universities. Dawkins at Oxford, Harris at Stanford, and Hitchens as a product of the British upper echelon of schools lack these encounters with everyday folks, unless they run into them on book tours or in airports.

Certainly Wolpe's correct when he comments how the secularists have (often subtly or outrageously?) belittled anybody who tries to claim one can be highly educated and still stay-- or become?-- a believer. The gaps between conservative and liberal, working-class and privileged, and atheist and devoted widen in much of our urban society. Not many outside of certain teachers or social workers or medical providers perhaps must bridge the divides that gape across so much of the civilized world.

They tell me there's "purple" states neither red nor blue, but I can count the number of Republicans my family knows on one hand and still wave fingers about. When there's such lacunae in our conversations, how much more will there be among the professional class, the literati, the pulpit rabbis, and the tenured ranks? These people talk among themselves, unless they volunteer for debate to sell a book or earn a honorarium (see below). They make their living this way, and I'm not complaining. I'm making a point about how much of the God vs. no-God argument goes on with the two sides smugly chattering amongst themselves, two camps, two rooms.

Meanwhile, 92% of Americans believe in God, and two-thirds in demons and angels. And nearly half in the world being made in six days as narrated by inerrant Holy Writ. Few of these faithful, I suspect, will be weighing carefully Dawkins, Hitchens, or Harris' counterclaims. Having read hundreds of reviews on Amazon of "The God Delusion" before posting my own, I can attest that most readers tended to parrot their own previously held beliefs in their responses to Dawkins.

Wolpe works on the tony Westside, and his temple's one of the wealthiest around. His rounds probably encompass machers and shakers in the entertainment industry, academia (nearby's UCLA), and media mavens. Many of them, on the other hand, may be much more likely to have read Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins than most synagogue members elsewhere. So, he may be much better placed to answer the neo-atheist claims with his own erudition, having previously taught at the JTS, the flagship seminary of the Conservative movement of Judaism in NYC.

Still, when the rabbi steps in to stress the feel-good nature of religion, this may be tossing ameliorative apples to butt against neo-atheist oranges. The trio, from my reading of them, all strive to offer alternatives for religion that can comfort us. They suggest turning away from scare tactics, simplistic legends, and moral restrictions based on outdated cosmologies peddled by half-literate nomads. They tell us to grow up, stop praying to discredited Middle Eastern nobodaddies in the sky, and accept both human limitations and mortal possibility.

Not that I've been totally convinced that contemplating a quasar (or as I've mentioned, why not then a cancer cell as one of the wonders of creation?) can replace the quiet or forceful encounter with a deity that many insist that they continue to have and cherish. This appears to me the moral of Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins. They cook up for us a spartan diet to replace the sloppy feast of past religious experiences, for all their blend of what's good for you and what's not.

The neo-atheists diminish what culturally religion has brought us; they heighten what politically, sexually, and emotionally religion has wrought to crush humanity. Substitutes, as clever vegans invent pork-like fare or non-dairy Twinkies, appear the answer for our soul's cravings. But, the smells of animal sacrifice, on the grill or the altar, tempt many even who try to eschew their former revelry or gluttony. I wonder if we can evolve away from the sky-god, given our slow pace, our need for illusion, and our wish for escape. For me, the cloudy glimpse at the glow of stars can be scary as well as soothing. The trio tells us we can find hope in verse, concert halls, or the Hubble's photos. These can give, they say, solace more fitting human potential rather than the putdowns of an overloaded hierarchical system bent on conformity, submission, and shame at shul, revival tent, or parish.

Ultimately, the neo-atheists turn back to the venerable lack of proof that outrages every skeptic. They tire of the wriggle room that allows believers an out, a recourse to One who is not there. They want the lab report, the dissected corpse, the solved equation. Yet the neo-atheists appear to me often as naive in assuming that music or poetry can replace mysticism or inspiration as felt by the faithful.

On parallel tracks to those pursued by believers, the rabbis and the professors may never meet. Such a Being as sought by Wolpe may, of course, not be plotted with the accuracy given a quadratic equation or a double helix. The neo-atheists demand "habeas corpus": let the body be produced. Those pursuing the soul's satisfaction may never be able to deliver the quivering goods to the empiricists. I understand both the believer's yearning and the scientist's precision. The sheer dissimilarity of talking about faith and discussing evidence appears to be a divide that by definition cannot be answered.

I think of Anselm, a millennium ago with his Ontological Principle, addressed by all three neo-atheists with varying degrees of success. (Dawkins tried hardest.) He came to Canterbury from the frontier of Lombardy and Burgundy, one of the first British intellectuals. I doubt if Russell gives him much notice; he skipped over most of the Middle Ages in his survey of what mattered in the West for those in the know. After all, Anselm silenced "the reply on behalf of the fool" who says there is no God, that straw man Ganilo. Reminiscent of Harris vs. Wolpe today?

I recall the bishop's own motto: "fidens quaerens intellectum." Faith seeking understanding. At a certain point, my medieval studies taught me, the theologians had to stop and bow. So do scientists, but they do not stop out of reaching the end of inquiry, only the edge of their knowledge.

Wolpe last year debated Sam Harris on the Jewish TV network. (Wolpe on left; Harris on right in snapshot above.) I cannot view the video due to an incompatible Flash Player, but maybe you can? "Does God Exist?" Elsewhere on the web, Hitchens debates "Kosher Sex" author British rabbi Shmuely Boteach over basically this the oldest of questions.

4 comments:

Mike Doolittle said...

Why do atheists care about evidence? Because without it, there's nothing to prevent anyone from making up whatever they want. How do we make claims to knowledge? How do we know what we think we know? How do we know what is true and what isn't? How do we know that what is true for one person should be true for anyone else? Only through evidence. That which can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.

As long as God lives comfortably beyond the rigors of skeptical inquiry, people can fabricate whatever beliefs they want, with all the certainty their delusion affords them.

corruptmemory said...

Agreed about the evidence comment. Furthermore, there is a broad intellectual dishonesty on the parts of theists - atheists work with a basic premise that anything that they posit for discourse is up for challenge, this is a healthy position because it admits, without qualification, the possibility of error, and more importantly opens the door for progress in our shared understanding. The important aspect of non-theistic inquiry is that the necessary fuel that drives progress in our understanding is readily available to everyone in the form of testable evidence. Theistic thinking does not even allow for the contemplation of the idea that their beliefs about God, the universe, and all that are in error, fundamentally. Sure, there are many theists that have rather liberal and 'plastic' belief structures at admit *most* of scientific thinking to live within their head along their theistic beliefs. The basic tension still remains - the scientific knowledge was hard-fought - many thinkers and many experimenters working really hard to accumulate ideas and supportive evidence capable of convincing anyone, including many of the most deriding sceptics as to their (the ideas about how the universe "works") validity. The bar for scientific credibility is very high - nature itself is the arbiter of our ideas about nature. And, scepticism is not only welcome, but necessary to advance scientific knowledge. The theist who accommodates both *most* of scientific knowledge humanity as accumulated to date and theist beliefs tacitly implement a double standard - the theistic beliefs are supported by absolutely no evidence, and are have profound internal contradictions. Furthermore, even "liberal" theists have lines that they will not cross intellectually, almost always for bad or no reasons at all - "just because". Sometimes, this line is drawn because of a twinge of doubt "What if there really is a God?", the universal retort is "What God?" History is rife with gods to choose from, why should one of the ones still in fashion have any more credibility than any of the others, or more credibility than the gods to be invented in the future? There is a short-hand for this, it's call FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) and is never the basis of sound thinking.

The recent efforts by theists have all been centered around inventing new rhetoric or bizarre impositions on the limits that atheists are allowed to pursue their skepticism religion, as if such limits could credibly be set. The reality remains: theists believe what they believe both on no evidence (some say precisely *because* of no evidence) and for bad reasons (gaining favor from their deity by observing the rules, as opposed to leading a "good" and compassionate life because of a sincere want to help their fellow humans, as well as other life on this planet - make a choice: what is more "morally" correct? the robot who follows the rules because of the fear and incentives of their particular deity puts forth, or the persons to acts out of sincere compassion for fellow life forms to do "good" - for this reason I consider all religious leaders fundamentally immoral - we (the greater we) are capable of better than this - religion sets the moral bar rather low, if it sets the bar at all).

harry said...

Ha, John, good on you. And I appreciate seeing those who believe in the Rigor of Science (I believe in God the Father, maker of peer reviews...) demonstrate the need to make belief about the faulty thinking of theists central to the premises of their own creed. I, for one, have a sense that Lifeworld is not as stable as it might seem on either side. Just like those snakey particles whose nature change when being observed, and whose split halves ache for each other across time zones, there are connections that we are still very, very far from "knowing" much about. Science, after all, at one point had us measure skulls (or IQ) to confirm Aryan superiority... and cut our limbs like neurotic adolescent girls to let humors... much of modern science may well still be balancing phlegm with yellow bile.

In the Tao, one may find that these are simply the wrong questions. The substantive reality of the universe cannot be described, or rather, what is said in words is by defintion "linguistic" and so a construct of the mind. Although we use names we have created and argue for descriptions we undertand to apply to reality, the subtle reality is beyond the description.

Through a glass darkly indeed. To me, poetry is more useful than either "science" or "theism" to accomplish David Bohm's charge, "Look for truth, no matter where it takes you..."

Fionnchú said...

Thanks, Harry, for the kind nod as always. Here's confirmation of your dark glass's radiance. Great phrasing regarding credal premises and adolescent angst!

Sogyal Rinpoche in his "Tibetan Book of Living & Dying" (which I recently re-read and reviewed) highlights more than once David Bohm's research as the intersection between Buddhism and quantum physics. You may want to go back and check the quotes (as of 1992, granted) which Sogyal incorporates from Bohm. Your comment makes me wonder if Bohm's progressed since down this path.

Sogyal wonders near the end of his book what sort of scientific breakthroughs could be achieved if one very highly trained in meditation and cosmology alike conducted such investigations. Bohm appears closest to Sogyal's own vision of a sophisticated Grand Unified Theory that'd please both eggheads and esoterics. It's a consummation devoutly to be wished, as our divinity grad student turned murdering vision-quester Hamlet might pun.