Faith is difficult at the best of times, but these days finding and holding on to faith is even more difficult. I recently completed a book after undergoing both a brain tumor and chemotherapy for lymphoma, and faith has been much on my mind. The book is intended to answer the claims of recently published works on atheism, but more, it is a journey of spirit. In this political season, I hear the same tropes of faith and fear of faith.


There is no doubt that faith begins where reason does not hold sway. So does almost every starting value of life. Why get up in the morning? Why care for another? Why sacrifice yourself, or your interests, for the good of people whom you do not know?

As I read through books on promoting theism, I kept hearing how reason was a guide to life. This is simple minded and unrealistic. Reason proceeds from premises. Compassion is a premise, often an unreasonable one. Faith is supported by reason but does not rest on it.

If you read these books you will hear a good deal about Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor is a rhetorical principle teaching that entities or assumptions should not be multiplied beyond necessity. It is named after William of Occam (c. 1288-1347), an English Franciscan Friar and philosopher. Occam’s razor is used to propose, for example, that in theorizing about the creation of the world, if one can account for it without Creator, so much the better. Your philosophical checkbook is balanced. Not a cent wasted. No reason to ‘add’ the idea of a Creator if you can do without one.

Actually to expel God requires a bunch of other assumptions. While Darwinism supposes that the less complex becomes more complex in biology, as single cell organisms make their way up to become Bach, to suppose that complexity arises in physics may not work so easily by analogy. Imagining the universe came from nothing might be far more complicated, and require many more assumptions, than to believe something outside the universe got it started.

So Richard Dawkins writes: “...however little we know about God, the one thing we can be sure of is that he would have to be very very complex and presumably irreducibly so!” This is a startling example of applying the laws of physical beings, and indeed physical beings that have evolved on earth, to God. If God were a biological creature like the possum or the crawfish, Dawkins would have a sound point. But here biology is doing the work of theology. The argument for the unity of God, which was formulated in different ways by all the great medieval theologians, was intended precisely to prove that God is an intangible unity, not a complex or compound organism.

So Occam’s razor, as intended by Occam himself, can actually do the work of faith. Throughout the centuries many educated and unlettered people have been able to understand the idea that God created the world. It might be in many ways the less complex idea.

Here is a strange contradiction: To believe in God, we are told, is simultaneously too simple minded and too complex. It is far easier and economical, to believe the universe arose without a guiding intelligence. Yet it is also simple minded to believe in a guiding intelligence. In other words, religious people are too unsophisticated to realize that the belief they hold is too intellectually complex for the problem.

In place of Occam’s razor I would like to propose that the key medieval parable for our time is Buridan’s ass.

Jean Buridan (1300-1358) was a French Priest. His name became attached to a parable that apparently predated him, but no matter. It still speaks to us and is worth remembering.

To put this in context recall how often the ‘god’ of reason is invoked in writings by rationalistic anti-theists. “Reason” Sam Harris tells us in The End of Faith, “is the guardian of love.” More, he writes “I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.” Hitchens writes “...we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason”

Now reason is an invaluable tool. Without it nothing, including faith, can flourish. But reason alone is not only dangerous but virtually impossible. Such is a ringing truth brought to us by Buridan’s ass:

Imagine a donkey equidistant between two barrels of hay. Now imagine that this donkey is a rationalist, someone who will do nothing if it is not in accord with the dictates of reason. He cannot reason why one mound of hay is superior to the other. He stays in the middle trying to decide which should be his supper. Since there is no reason to move to one or the other, in time, the donkey starves to death.

Obviously Buridan’s ass is a parody, although a parody with serious intent. In making fun of philosophers Buridan was teaching that reason bleached of value starves us. Reason does not give us a reason to live, to get up in the morning, to improve the world, to help another who will not be able to return the favor. Reason is a powerful tool to accomplish ends that are established by means other than reason. The neurologist Antonio Damasio has demonstrated that when people who suffer brain injuries that destroys their capacity to feel seek to make decisions, their decisions are disastrous. Reason alone, unaided by emotion, by vision, is a poor compass to navigate this world.

When Leviticus counsels “love your neighbor as yourself (19:18)” it is not a counsel of reason, but a command of faith. The world needs reason, but reason alone will doom the world. To fashion a reason that will help us survive, the world needs God.


Religion did not bring fighting into the world. Religion entered a world in which human beings fought, over and over again. What was the world like before belief in one God? Were the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans, the Greeks, peaceful people? The chronicles of the ancient world are unrelentingly savage.

The simple antidote to the simple conclusion that religion causes war is to remind ourselves that people have always fought because, alas, that is what people do. Conquest and subjection are part of the dispiriting narrative of human history at all times, in all parts of the world.

What remains when you drain transcendence from a society and leave it with the worship of human beings? You get the disfiguring fantasy of the ubermensch, the individual who is greater than all rules and restraints. Here is Hitler on Christianity: “The heaviest blow that was ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity...” The novelist Joseph Roth, drinking himself to death in Paris before the war, said that as Hitler murdered Jews he probably had the Christians in his sights, too. If you wish to capture the devotion of men’s souls, it is best to wipe out their consciences first. This is what Nazis set out to do, at times counting on the passivity or even acquiescence of Christians throughout Europe. Individuals in whom the religious light continued to flicker, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were not swept into the prevailing barbarism, and paid for their protests with their lives. Interred in concentration camps Edith Stein and Leo Baeck and countless, nameless others held fast to a faith that gave them courage in the face of monstrous cruelty. Around them, God was absent from the ideology of the society and the world burned.

Preceding Hitler were a series of terrible wars that followed the French Revolution, when Europe freed itself from the political influence of the church. The Napoleonic wars rages across the continent; the First World War became the most terrible slaughter the world had yet known. Following Hitler, communist regimes killed in numbers that dwarfed even those of the Nazis. In startling contrast to what we are told, a world without faith is far more bloody than the world in which faith is a powerful component.

In his book “God is Not Great” Christopher Hitchens compares North Korea to what it must be like to live with an all present, all knowing God. In North Korea portraits of the “great leader” are everywhere, everyone is watched, and there is no escape.

The irony is that those who escape North Korea go to South Korea, a flourishing, modern state. South Korea is also a home of a very vigorous Christian movement. Religion flourishes in South Korea. North Korea, however, is officially atheistic.

So the atheistic state is a totalitarian nightmare, and the state with a strong religious community is free.

Human beings do not fight because of religion. They fight because human nature is split, illuminated by goodness to be sure, but also filled with cruelty and violence.

Human interactions, from boardrooms to playgrounds, demonstrate hostility alongside cooperation. On the swings and the climbing bars children show all the passions and impulses that later cause society heartache. When a new child comes to the park exclusion is a foretaste of more hurtful examples. Religion at times encourages these negative traits in human beings, but it does not create them.

In the many years I have taught children in all sorts of settings what strikes me is the enormous efforts and time society gives to civilizing human impulses. Most of what we learn of morality comes through teaching. Impulses to be unkind are instinctual. Religious tradition and simple parental guidance exist to counteract that instinct. We are born wanting for ourselves and must learn to want for others. We are born with the capacity for frustration and anger and must learn the tendency toward tolerance and gentleness. In time we can cultivate those whispering parts of ourselves, the moral instincts we were born with, that tend to others, hurt for them, reach out to help.


When I called the Center for scientific education and explained that I was a Rabbi soon to debate Stephen Jay Gould on the question of science and religion, there was a pause at the other end of the line. Then a voice spoke:

“My condolences."

Gould was well known as a preeminent scientist, and a fearsome debater. He was extraordinarily well read, an evolutionary biologist from Harvard, quick witted, opinionated, often brusque.

Yet the debate quickly turned into a discussion. For Gould agreed that science and religion deal with essentially different questions. Values do not appear under miscroscopes.

I grew up in a home that was a curious mix of science and religion. I am the third of four boys. My father is a Rabbi, as am I and my younger brother. My oldest brother is a geneticists and the second brother is a sociologist of medicine and a bioethicist. Discussions in our home always straddled the borders between science and religion. We were as likely to be discussing injecting mice as interpreting Scripture.

Around the dinner table I learned that science was a vast, glorious tribute to the abilities God gave us to discover secrets about the created world. As I moved out of my home and encountered scientists and thinkers in the public arena I found a dispiriting readiness to assume that religious people must oppose science, or worse, that science must demonstrate that religion is unsophisticated and ultimately untrue. That is simple-minded and wrong, and has ever been so.

It is a myth that science and religion have always been at war. This misperception is due less to history than to a few irresponsible historians. Once more Gould untangles the confusion: (Rocks of Ages, P. 83) If “religion really did demand the suppression of important factual data at key points of contradiction with theological dogma, then how could the ranks of science include so many ordained and devoted clergymen at the highest level of respect and accomplishment – from the thirteenth-century Dominican bishop Albertus Magnus, the teacher of Thomas Aquinas and the most cogent medieval writer on scientific subjects; to Nicholas Steno, who wrote the primary works of seventeenth century geology and also became a bishop; to Lazzaro Spallanzani, the eighteenth-century Italian physiologist who disproved, by elegant experiments, the last serious arguments for spontaneous generation of life; to the Abbe Breuil, our own century’s most famous student of Paleolithic cave art?”

Once we add Newton, Kepler, and even one of the fathers of evolutionary biology, Theodore Dobzhansky to the list of scientists who were deep believers, the commonly held picture of two opposing camps no longer holds.


Believers need not be defensive or scared of those who would argue against them. Belief lives in receptivity, in listening, in understanding. It need not fear questions.

The best belief is not shut off from the world but engaged in it. Pastor Rick Warren wrote the foreword to my book because we both believe that this is not a task for any single faith but for all faiths, hand in hand, showing what the world would be like if we took seriously the task of healing God’s world. There are many who deride or belittle faith, but they are best answered by serious thought, by soulfulness, and by love.

David J. Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a teacher of modern Jewish religious thought at UCLA. His latest book is 'Why Faith Matters.'

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