"Self-deception, set to music" those were the words with which Sam Harris ended his diatribe against religion in The LA Times in March of 2007. I read it shortly after completing a course of chemotherapy for lymphoma. The experience of illness, the warmth of community and intimacy with God that shaped my understanding of faith were dismissed with this caustic phrase. It required a response.
More than a year later I am publishing a book Why Faith Matters. Into the swirling pool of cynicism -- where religion is a delusion, a deception and a fraud -- there is a need for some calm and correction. Countless generations of believers regulated their lives by faith. They believed not out of fear, but out of wonder; not from a desire to judge and exclude, but to understand and embrace. Where was that truth in this bitter broadside against faith?
The charges are that religion causes war, that it is an unscientific and dangerous delusion.
Does religion cause war? Before Judaism, before Christianity, was the world a peaceful garden? Did the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, not slaughter each other in numbers and proportions that would make later Christians blanch? The difference is that while religion has principles that oppose cruelty and conflict, no Assyrian stood up to say "How can we do this? After all, we are Assyrians!" Slaughter did not contradict their values. There was no restraining faith in God.
When that restraint was lifted, beginning with the Enlightenment, the world became bloodier. The "First Total War" as historian David Bell put it, followed the French Revolution, which opposed the influence of the church. It was Napoleon's war, trailing graves across Europe. In the past century, the First World War and the Second World War were not religious wars. Communism slaughtered millions, but it did not kill in God's name. The worst depredations of the Crusades and Inquisition pale in comparison with the suffering tyrants inflicted as faith was systematically suppressed. Even when religion plays a role in conflict, there are invariably other considerations -- power, land, tribal enmities, political divisions.
Then there is the drumbeat of "scientific truth." As the renowned Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote "either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs." In a debate I had years ago with Gould in NY, he was quite willing to admit that science was powerful but limited. It does not give life a purpose, or explain why the universe exists -- such questions lie outside the domain of science.
Religion is no set of abstract beliefs. In different universities I have taught all the "proofs" for God: the ontological proof, the teleological proof, the cosmological proof. Never did a student come up to me after class, clap her hand to her forehead and exclaim "Ah, now I believe!" Belief is not a series of toting up the declarations in column A and column B. It is an orientation of soul.
Sitting with a IV in my arm receiving the life-giving poison of chemotherapy, I felt the prayers of my community, the love of my family, the certainty that with God I was not alone. I was under no illusions that this guaranteed recovery. As a Rabbi I have seen too many good people suffer to believe that prayer is a promise. Prayer is how we draw ourselves closer to God, achieving intimacy and acceptance.
Attacks against religion are replete with phrases about the ignorance, pettiness and 'mania' of religious people. Belief is derided as a psychological symptom. Such taunting makes good copy but it is counterproductive in achieving a fulfilled life. Cynicism is a good sword but a poor shield.
Atheism, wrote the Preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, is the theoretical formulation of a discouraged life. That is too often true. God must not exist because things have not gone as I expected them to go. There is suffering and pain and anguish and death.
Yet there is a reason why people who are part of religious communities give more to charity, are healthier and happier - as demonstrated in study after study. Faith is not the child of hope but its parent. Faith gives one the courage to find purpose even in dark times. Far from self-deception set to music, it is the subtle harmony that the blare of self-regard too often obscures or obliterates.
Human beings are unsettled and often cruel. Religion does not make them perfect, but serves to make them better. Having survived both a brain tumor and lymphoma, being engaged in daily counseling people of trouble and in grief, I know there is music to life that I did not create but I can hear. The proper response to it is gratitude, goodness and praise.
David Wolpe is Rabbi of Sinai Temple in LA and author of Why Faith Matters (HarperOne)