Why Faith Matters in a Time of the New Atheists


Let's stop assuming that folk know why faith matters. Let's start making the case for faith outside the circle of faith.

So, let's stop assuming that folk know why faith matters. Let's start making the case for faith outside the circle of faith.

The new atheists are making the case against faith. Their arguments are not really new, but they are packaging their case in accessible books and making their case on popular cable TV news shows. What is new about the atheists is effective marketing.

Rabbi David Wolpe offers a timely resource which equips theists for a new counter-offensive in the public square.

In Why Faith Matters, Wolpe, rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, writes: "I am disturbed by the charges of the new atheism and horrified by the cruelty of a brand of fanatical faith that breeds terrorism. I do not believe our choice is either an absence of God or an over-zealous embrace of God."

Wolpe quickly strides beyond the trap of a false charge: to accept faith is to embrace religious extremism.

In fact, the California rabbi devotes an entire chapter to the question of religion as the cause of violence.

"Religious violence is real but it is a small part of the lives of most believers. More powerful by far is the guidance religion offers to live decently and to care for others. There are many more people carrying shopping baskets than sharpening their swords for the final battle," he writes.

"While faith has been filled with fighting, fighting, however, is not ultimately caused by faith," writes Wolpe. "The trigger of violence is found less in sacred books than in human nature."

Score a point for the rabbi, who then works his way from the fall of the Roman Empire through the Crusades, through the two great wars, through the horrific atheistic regimes of communism, to the Twin Towers and Christopher Hitchens' inane comment that after the tsunami and 9/11 the faithful expressed "secret satisfaction."

Wolpe corrects the uninformed Hitchens by reminding readers that Christian aid workers were the first responders to the tsunami, and leaders of faith responded with services after the terrorist attacks on a September day.

The California rabbi also tackles the case of the anti-religious scientists.

In the first few pages of his book, Wolpe recalls his reading as a teenager the writings of atheist Bertrand Russell, a Nobel Prize laureate for literature, who shaped his thinking. Wolpe notes that only later did he learn that Russell's "life was a shambles," including four marriages and alienation from his children.

"My experience reading Russell made clear that the same people who propose to understand the universe do not understand each other or indeed themselves," observes Wolpe.

Indeed, those who slash faith with humor sometimes mask bitterness and hide miserable souls. As is sometimes heard, any mule can knock down a barn, but not build one. Attacking faith is easy, especially the extreme examples of faith or the dogmatic claims of the faithful.

When it comes to helping people build meaningful lives in the brokenness and ambiguity of reality and to live good lives in the midst of so much maliciousness, atheism has nothing to offer. Faith does.

Faith does not have all the answers. The faithful have flaws, sometimes deep and destructive ones. Nonetheless, those liabilities never outweigh the benefits of faith—the fashioning of caring communities which seek the common good, the hope in the impossible possibility, the sense of awe about creation.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

Also read:

HBO's Maher Attacks Mostly Christianity in Docu-Rant

Answering the Attack of the New Atheists

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