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(Oct. 17, 2009)

          God told me to read Rabbi David Wolpe’s recent L.A.Times opinion piece, “Maher’s Documentary Misses the Point” (Oct. 7), because God likes to prod and upset me. Or I'm sure he would, if he were the anthropomorphic-type Cosmic Dude that most people think him to be.
          Wolpe, author of “Why Faith Matters,” and rabbi of the Sinai Temple in L.A., took on Maher’s filmed expose of bonkers religious practice, “Religulous,” beginning with this concession:
          “Religion is not univocal; there are lots of varieties and personalities. There is no shortage of strange beliefs and practices. There is ample opportunity for derision. Think of the movie he could have made about people's eating habits.”
          Refreshing, I thought (despite use of such a pretentious word as "univocal.") A man of “faith” who understands that lampooning religion---chiefly modern Christianity, which was the main focus of Maher’s movie---is like faulting George W. Bush for grammar. About as challenging as mocking Paris Hilton. Criticizing Michael Jackson's make-up. (I give you. . .snake handlers.)
          But then the rabbi went on to make what he would have you believe is a reasoned defense of religion. And this is where I lost faith. You see, if you’re going to assert the veracity of God, you don’t base your argument on reason. How can you? It's oxymoronic, if not just moronic. Logic and religious belief are repelling magnets. They are Madonna and abstinence, cats and water, Frankenstein and fire. A reasoned defense of religion is like a gorgeous picture of war. It’s an ironic, perverse concept, if a concept at all.
          Unless, that is, you buy the notion that humans faced with the incomprehensible horror of a temporary existence will logically turn to supernatural fairy tales for comfort. But that’s not the rabbi’s point. This is:
          “Religion is supported by reason, however,” he wrote. “The marvel of values, ideas and consciousness -- nonphysical but powerful phenomena -- can reasonably be thought to have an origin in a nonphysical entity: that is, God.
          This is where your heretic columnist had to choose between hanging his head in exasperation, and tap-dancing while singing “Alabama Jubilee” to relieve the stress. I mean, here we go with eyeball-rolling and tongue-lolling, folks. Wolpe’s point is snake-handling in disguise. Hail, hail the mysterious Non-physical Entity! To quote Monty Python, “O, God, you are so big, so absolutely huge. Gosh, we are all really impressed down here, I can tell you. . .” This is reason?
          Consider: Wolpe is saying that the “marvel of values, ideas, consciousness” is “nonphysical phenomenae"---some sort of spontaneous ectoplasmic combustion, perhaps. Er, psst, Rabbi . .have you checked lately? You have hands and feet, and a spleen, adenoids, possibly ear wax. You are not a wisp of smoke, a phantasm, a creature of the ethers. You are a walking, roiling amalgam of pulse and blood and electricity, digestion, toenails. Everything you do is born of physical process. Or are you not telling us something? Do you cast no reflection in a mirror?
          “Values, ideas, and consciousness?” Non-physical? Why, they come straight from that most abused of all physical organs: the brain. They are born of physical processes responding to the voracious demands of adaptation and minute-to-minute activity. To suggest that the existence of a “non-physical phenomenon” (examples: ghosts, pixies, water sprites, or yes, angels) is “supported by reason” makes me wonder what, if anything, is supporting Wolpe’s thought-processes.
          Besides, all religious mumbo-jumbo (beginning with the church I attended as a kid) holds that God is beyond reason---and so, in a stunning bit of self-contradiction that seems to have eluded Times op-ed page editors, does the rabbi. Quote: “In truth, the existence of God,” he writes, “is not an antidote to fear but a consequence of wonder.” A consequence of wonder? I thought it was “supported by reason,” Rabbi. Which is it? You’ve left me in a consequence of wonder.
          At this point, I must thank Wolpe for allowing me to feel that I am back in high school. It’s not easy to make me feel young again, ready to engage in any/all sophomoric discussion. So I must take full advantage of this opportunity and respond further, especially when the rabbi contradicts Maher’s nursery-innocent, irrefutable assertion that religion is responsible for a good deal of history’s bloodshed and war (not to mention torturous Sunday mornings.)
          Perhaps Maher's greatest misunderstanding of religion is his central indictment: that religion is responsible for the world's violence,” writes Wolpe. “It is not. Violence is a product of human nature. Before monotheism, the Assyrians were not kind; the Romans were bloodthirsty beyond the imagination of religious regimes. When religion became less potent in people's lives after the French Revolution, instead of making the world less violent, it became far more violent: World War I and WWII, communism, Nazism -- all shed blood on an unprecedented scale. None were religious regimes or religious wars.”
          There is much to cover here. First of all, in a statement of stupendous arrogance so typical of religious persons, Wolpe dates the beginning of "faith" to monotheism. This would seem likely to rile up modern Hindus, for example. In fact, it’s just that kind of religious intolerance that leads to. . .war.
          As to violence, Wolpe tries to let religion of the hook by saying that humans would have slaughtered one another just as gleefully without it. What would they have killed over, then, checkers? My god’s bigger than your god certainly has been a convenient impetus for mass murder, and remains so. Yes, it is true that humans are innately violent and seem to really enjoy killing---the rabbi is correct there. But how does this square, one might ask him, with “made in God’s image?” God doesn’t seem to have exactly helped calm this nasty aspect of human nature. Does he endorse it?
          With apologies for what the Rabbi would consider blasphemy, I must note that the polytheistic Assyrians and Romans were very much guided by their imaginary gods, as any fourth-grade student knows. Or used to know. (After wiping out Babylon, with their gods on their side, the Assyrians rebuilt the joint out of fear of the Babylonian god, Marduk.) Pleasing this or that deity warranted all manner of atrocity, assault, attack, rape, execution, torture, dismemberment among most primitive polytheistic societies.
          As for the assertion that the Romans were bloodthirsty beyond all religious regimes, well, again, the Romans were religious. But that aside, plenty of women and children were impaled under orders from the Catholic Church between the 11th and 13th centuries, so the Romans had some stiff competition. Religion, monotheistic or otherwise, is as historically intertwined with warfare as, well, I can’t think of anything more intertwined with warfare, conquest, or hegemony than “God” and gods, with the possible exception of humanity’s most beloved god, wealth.
But there is a kind of insidious implication here: that love and kindness are rooted only in religious belief or come from that Big Nonphysical Entity somewhere to the left of Jupiter.

          It is the following point that most indelicately introduces the jaw to the linoleum: the rabbi casually cites all of WWI, WWII, communism and Nazism as examples of blood spilled for non-religious reasons. While it is accepted that politics, greed, racism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, Bolshevism, fascism, megalomania were the architecture of the world wars, to aver that religion was uninvolved is such a pedantic statement as to be disingenuous. One need merely pose a single question: how did men claiming to be deeply religious commit nations to two monstrous global conflagrations? How did soldiers of “faith” engage in the most brutal, depraved, diabolical sort of violence? Did they ignore their beliefs? Hardly. God was always on their side. Every side. He’s always been the great cheerleader of war. God was behind the Japanese when they raped and tortured their way through Nanking, in the person of their Emperor, who was deemed immortal. God was with the Allies in WWII, as many a major speech by a world leader attested. When Winston Churchill met Roosevelt in 1941, he wrote this:
          “We sang ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals ... it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.”
          For a Jew, let alone a rabbi, to suggest that Nazism had no relationship to religion is appalling. Germans did not stop attending churches as their government built death camps. Let it be remembered that Hitler considered himself a devout Christian, and believed that his fiendish enterprises, including the attempted genocide of the Jewish people and extermination of other “undesirables” were God’s will. Der Fuhrer even attempted to nationalize Germany’s churches (for Germans only), and merged Nazi precepts with Christian tract, prayer, hymn, and thought.
          As for blood spilled in the name of communism, well, it greatly fueled by a renunciation of organized religion---carried out with religious fervor. Mao murdered millions to replace Buddhism and Christianity with his little red book. Communist Pol Pot, architect of "the killing fields" of Cambodia, incorporated Buddhism and Catholicism into his genocidal "governance." And on and on.
          Wolpe’s ideas are the sort of willfull, ungainly attempts at “reasoning” that tend to spring up every time a religious figure tries to justify “faith” with logic, or to exculpate religious zealotry as a factor (if not the central factor) in the history of human warfare. As if that isn't embarrassing enough, he extrapolates his arguments into responses to assertions that Maher’s film never made. To whit:
          “Centuries of people emboldened by, and ennobled by, faith can reasonably be thought to have something more than foolish illusions in their minds and hearts.
          Let’s simplify the rabbi’s statement here: good people through the centuries have acted out of religious conviction, therefore such religious conviction is not “foolish illusion.” Really? I dare say that some, even many, who believe genuinely foolish religious notions (yes, you, in the magic Mormon underpants), are quite capable of acting nobly. What's more, I know of atheists who are absolutely splendid people. Selfless, caring, passionate, moral. Most Buddhists do not worship a deity, yet they contribute to constructive human endeavors. People with private, more clinical beliefs about existence have intelligence, drive, compassion, curiosity, and other exalted human qualities. I also know of persons who hold foolish illusions---alien beings are all around, and psychics can see the future---yet do very nice fine volunteer work for animals.
          Yes, it is indisputable that people who embrace Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Krishna Consciousness, Catholicism, etc., might with total justification cite their religions as their primary sources of inspiration. It’s all in the interpretation, and this is the big gray area that the rabbi does not address. One God instructs followers to kill. Another God tells followers to nurture. Both Gods have their messages filtered by human intelligence, or lack of same. Ultimately, it is personality and environment that determine whether actions are constructive or otherwise. Religion is merely a potential influence.
          The greater point here, though, is that Maher’s movie does not discount the value of religion as a source of inspiration to do good (as Wolpe implies.) It’s a satire and expose of beliefs that he finds absolutely crazy, not a mockery of contributory and peaceable behavior. In extrapolating, Wolpe is arguing against an imaginary opponent.
          There is another claim made by the rabbi that must be addressed. When exactly has religion become “less potent in people’s lives?” After the French Revolution, he says? Well, if he is referring to the lessening of the church's fear/guilt-stoked grip on the masses, yes, but this brought about greater personal liberty, freer thinking, more education, enlightenment. The church had largely been the controlling influence in the western world, determining politics, war, culture, for centuries---and psychologically enslaving the hapless. The fact that persons studying anatomy would no longer have to write backwards to avoid being sentenced to death for heresy, well, this was a good thing. 
          Yet I don’t see the faintest evidence to support Wolpe’s absurdly broad contention that religion is “less potent in people’s lives,” and neither does Maher. Are there fewer churches, synagogues, temples since the French Revolution? Are there fewer people worshipping Allah, Krishna, Christ? The idea is laughable. The world is more “religulous” than ever. Holy rolling fundamentalism is all the rage from South Korea to Brazil to the Midwest to England to Africa. Evangelical so-called “Christianity,” Maher’s main target, has about 420 million(!) dunderheads believing that Jesus romped with T. Rex six thousand years ago, and that evolution is a commie/ socialist/liberal/gay plot. Need it be mentioned that there are also about a billion Muslims? (Most of which do far less harm that Oprah or Rupert Murdoch; only a small percentage has decided that murdering innocents puts a big smile on Allah’s face.)
          Religion is less potent in people’s lives since the French Revolution? Two words: End Times. And what about the well-documented efforts in the U.S. military to “Christianize” Iraq? Crusades redux. Religion is more pervasive and more influential than at any time in human history.
          Here is still another choice chunk of fuzziness from Wolpe’s “reasoned” commentary:
          “’Religulous’ repeatedly calls faith irrational. True, it is not a product of pure reason, but then what is, apart from mathematics? Reason does not get us out of bed, or move us to love or kindness.
          What is a product of pure reason, apart from mathematics? Well, how about. . .philosophy? Logic? Psychoanalysis? Medicine? Three-dimensional chess? This is such a downright stupid thing to say as to be shocking from man as learned as a rabbi is alleged to be. Reason is involved in all human thought and pursuit (if not to the extent that we might all prefer.) “Reason does not get us out of bed?” It sure as hell gets me out of bed. I get up for a reason. I don’t rise every morning out of religious rapture. Further, the rabbi flatly states that acts of love and kindness are devoid of reason. While love and kindness can be based on impulse and emotion, they are hardly confined to such motivation. Philanthropists give away vast sums of money based strictly on impulse? I don’t think so. But there is a kind of insidious implication here: that love and kindness are rooted only in religious belief or come from that Big Nonphysical Entity somewhere to the left of Jupiter. I give you: dogs. They love without religion or “faith” in the Big Dog in the Sky.
          How a man of such fraudulent postulation can accuse Maher of lacking reason is almost funny. As is yet another passage from his commentary:
          “(Maher) told Mother Jones magazine about the Jews praying on his plane to Israel: ‘Even on the plane over, they were, at a certain point, they all stood up in the aisle of the plane davening [praying] ... they just looked like crazy people, always bowing their head. It's disconcerting.’ No doubt had they worn Armani suits and been tapping at a keyboard, Mr. Maher would have found them rational; but seeking transcendence in coach -- crazy.
          Yes, exactly, rabbi. It is absolutely “disconcerting” to see groups of religious people so fanatical that they must engage in public ritual, on an airplane, no less. A place where there is considerable ground for suspicion and fear of open displays of religiosity, given the Islamic madmen who dream of hijacking and blowing up passenger flights. It is also arrogant, in my view, for any adherents of any religion to engage in ritual in public (secular) spaces. Are synagogues not sufficient worship spaces? “Seeking transcendence in coach”---mass recitation of prayer---is, if not crazy, anti-social and rude. It cuts against the grain of mutual respect in a public place.
420 million(!) dunderheads believe that Jesus romped with T. Rex six thousand years ago, and that evolution is a commie/ socialist/liberal/gay plot.

          Given that the rabbi is hardly disturbed by overt displays of ritual breaking out among people of various religions in a public space, it is hardly surprising that he continues with such blunderbuss, blinkered observations as this:
          “If faith is, in part, the summit of our hopes, a guide and an aspiration, then what does Maher's creed leave him with? Again, as he tells Mother Jones: "I'm telling you. I've got nothing." It should not be hard to understand why someone might choose ancient wisdom over modern nihilism. It is not heroic to believe we are accidents of chemistry.”
          Let’s dissect. “Faith” is the “summit of our hopes, a guide and aspiration.” Well, one assumes that he is using “faith” interchangeably with “religion.” How is it, then, that people who are conventionally irreligious have “hopes, guide, and aspiration?” Again, Wolpe stuffily, eyeball-rollingly implies that such qualities are unique to conventional God-believers. And he quite uncharitably seeks to belittle Maher’s own belief-system, whatever it happens to be, simply because it is not one of “faith.” He does so with a downright idiotic assumption: Maher chooses “modern nihilism” over “ancient wisdom.”
          Such condescension. First, who said that Maher is a nihilist? Wolpe thinks that one who does not believe in an organized “faith” therefore believes that life has no intrinsic value. How does he know this of Maher, or anyone? It is presumptuous, if not haughty. Maher certainly does not conduct his life as if he thinks life has no intrinsic value; he is nothing if not passionate in his work. Not incidentally, the notion that “ancient wisdom” is somehow better than modern wisdom simply because it is ancient, is the stuff of grandiloquent sermonizing. I’ll take the wisdom of, oh, Martin Luther King, over the wisdom of Solomon. Finally, we have the dazzling, “It is not heroic to believe that we are accidents of chemistry.”
          Au contraire, mon rabbi, it might as well be heroic. It is at least iconoclastic, eccentric, socially alienating, individualistic to believe that we are “accidents of chemistry” in this largely religious world. There are plenty of “good people of faith” out there who believe that they are absolutely right, are headed to heaven, and that if you do not share their views, you are going to hell. Still others would find such “atheist” notions as “accidents of chemistry” alarming to the point of arousing murderous contempt. This is, after all, a country of people so small minded and frightened of death that they have coined terms like “intelligent design” to justify scientifically bankrupt fever dreams. To accept the apparent reality that everything is “happenstance” is not an easy thing to do (And yet, what is wrong with happenstance? It’s pretty marvelous stuff!) Such a belief---“I believe in what I don’t know,” as I like to say---does not negate the intrinsic value of good deeds or laudable philosophies.
          Wolpe concludes what really is nothing less than pomposity and borderline proselytizing with this:
          “Maher's dislike of religion is not reasoned, however, but visceral.”
          It’s actually 100 percent the opposite, Rabbi.
          In fact, that sentence more accurately describes the very source of your own religious conviction. And illusions.

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