Rabbi Wolpe

Tom Shipka

In his most recent book, Why Faith Matters (1), Rabbi David J. Wolpe makes the case for religion and rebuts recent critiques of religion by a quartet of prominent atheists called the New Atheists. (2) This is a book that deserves a large audience among religious and seculars because it is accessible, well-argued, and thought-provoking.

One of Rabbi Wolpe's main objectives is to defend religion from the charge that religion is the main cause of violence in the world. He argues that violence is due not to religion but to human nature. (p. 43, p. 52) All of us, whether religious or secular, he says, are prone to hostility. (p. 69) The Rabbi concedes that the Crusades, the Inquisition, and 9/11 demonstrate that religion "is capable of great evil" (p. 53), but he insists that seculars who believe that there will be peace without religion are naïve. (p. 71) He notes that most ancient tribal societies were at war continuously (p. 50) and that the great empires in history, from the Persian to the Assyrian to the Greek to the Roman, give us a "chronicle of cruelty." (p. 51) Further, he charges, secular movements have brought explosions of violence, not peace and love. On this score he cites the excesses of the French Revolution and the millions of deaths at the hands of Mao in China, Stalin in Russia, and Pol Pot in Cambodia. (pp. 65-67)(3) Here he is right on target. On the other hand, Rabbi Wolpe is silent on a critical issue: if humans are aggressive by nature, and God is the architect of human nature, doesn't God deserve a measure of blame for violence?

One part of Rabbi Wolpe's case for religion disappoints me - his use of Bertrand Russell as the poster child of secularism. Russell made important contributions to moral theory, logic, mathematics, and literature, but as the Rabbi properly points out, his private life was a "mess," with four marriages, "proudly proclaimed infidelities," and abandonment of his children. (p. 6) Russell prompted young David Wolpe to abandon his faith for ten years. Later, when the Rabbi discovered that his hero was irresponsible, he concluded that a life without religion is lonely, selfish, and hedonistic. (61) This is a classic case of hasty generalization. Russell is as representative of secularism as pedophile clerics are representative of religion. Has Rabbi Wolpe never heard of seculars such as world class cyclist Lance Armstrong, baseball Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams, media mogul Ted Turner, golfer Annika Sorenstam, investor Warren Buffett, actor Angelina Jolie, TV personality Andy Rooney, composer Irving Berlin, inventor Thomas Edison, computer entrepreneur Bill Gates, and countless others, whose talent, service, and generosity have enriched lives near and far?

Rabbi Wolpe's book also includes a series of insightful criticisms of what he views as the overblown attempt by the New Atheists to explain all human behavior through evolutionary theory. For instance, he argues that if, as Richard Dawkins holds, the key to human behavior is the drive to reproduce our genes, why do wealthier families who can afford many children have so few, and why do so many women opt for abortion when adoption is available? (p. 30)

Whether you are religious or not, you'll find much of value in David Wolpe's Why Faith Matters.


  1. See David J. Wolpe, Why Faith Matters, HarperOne, 2008, with a Foreword by Rick Warren. References to this book herein are by page number. Wolpe is not alone in replying to the new atheists. Among other replies is John F. Haught, God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens.
  2. He specifically identifies Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. See Sam Harris, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation; Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great; Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion; and Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.
  3. He also mentions Hitler's Germany as an atheist regime (p. 67) but that is debatable.

© 2009 Tom Shipka