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36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction Hardcover – January 12, 2010

3.8 out of 5 stars 118 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

Amazon Exclusive: Rebecca Goldstein on 36 Arguments for the Existence of God

Dinner party hostesses used to be warned to steer the conversation away from politics and religion. I used to wonder why, but I don’t anymore. There are some differences that reveal rifts so deep that dialogue breaks down. Among these are the current debates that have been raging between God-believers and the so-called new atheists. It often seems that people on one side can’t begin to grasp what the world is like, what it feels like, for those on the other side. When the person with whom one is conversing appears utterly opaque, then mistrust and contempt are easily aroused: How can he be saying that when the opposite seems so obvious to me? Is he stupid, dishonest, maybe just a touch evil? These are not the sort of suspicions that the gracious hostess wants intruding at her candle-lit dinner table.

But for me, as a novelist, it’s differences like these, indicating entirely different orientations toward the world, which are the most tantalizing to explore. Arguments alone can’t capture all that is at stake for people when they argue about issues of reason and faith. In the end, I place my faith in fiction, in its power to make vividly present how different the world feels to each of us and how these differences are sometimes what is really being expressed in the great debates of our day on the existence of God.

The title of the book is 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. I meant the subtitle to be understood as a sort of joke, but as a serious one, too. --Rebecca Goldstein

(Photo © Stephen Pinker)

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. An atheist with a soul is in for a lot of soul-searching in MacArthur genius Goldstein's rollicking latest (Mazel). Cass Seltzer, a university professor specializing in the psychology of religion, hits the big time with a bestselling book and an offer to teach at Harvard—quite a step up from his current position at Frankfurter University. While waiting for his girlfriend to return from a conference, Cass receives an unexpected visit from Roz Margolis, whom he dated 20 years earlier and who looks as good now as she ever did. Her secret: dedicating her substantial smarts to unlocking the secrets of immortality. Cass's recent success and Roz's sudden appearance send him into contemplation of the tumultuous events of his past, involving his former mentor, his failed first marriage and a young mathematical prodigy whose talent may go unrealized, culminating in a standing-room-only debate with a formidable opponent where Cass must reconcile his new, unfamiliar life with his experience of himself. Irreverent and witty, Goldstein seamlessly weaves philosophy into this lively and colorful chronicle of intellectual and emotional struggles. (Jan.)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1 edition (January 12, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307378187
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307378187
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (118 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #282,054 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Rebecca Goldstein is a MacArthur Fellow, a professor of philosophy, and the author of five novels and a collection of short stories. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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With a doctorate in philosophy from Princeton, Guggenheim and MacArthur (genius) awards, several novels, and non-fiction studies of Gödel and Spinoza under her belt, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is nobody's fool. But I can't decide whether her decision to populate her latest novel exclusively with people like herself is good or bad. Set in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts, partly at Harvard but mainly at another elite university which might be a fictionalized Brandeis, the entire cast of characters seems to consist of academic philosophers, psychologists, mathematicians, or theologians, all determined to prove that they are smarter than anybody else. Readers who enjoyed the intellectual name-dropping of Muriel Barbery's THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG might well enjoy this, but it can be hard going. I soon began to wish for at least one character who did not know the Wittgenstein Paradox or Heideggerian Hermeneutics inside out. After about 80 pages, however, I found myself drawn into the strange world of the book, for three main reasons. I list them in increasing order of importance.

1. Goldstein can be very funny. There is splendid scene when the great professor Jonas Elijah Klapper (think Harold Bloom) makes a state visit to the Valdener Rebbe, head of a Hasidic sect headquartered in a building described as "A Costco that had found God." In the ensuing dialogue, the professor tries hard to impress with obscure references to early Jewish mystics, while the Rebbe merely wants to discuss how best to secure federal matching funds.
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Format: Hardcover
Having taught a boy genius the fundamentals of musical composition, I found the descriptions of Azarya both accurate and inspiring. Goldstein's latest is one of the most enjoyable books I've read on the recent faith and reason discussions. It is also a splendid satire on academe, a fun novel with engaging characters (who are defined as much by the complexity of their ideas as by their personality traits), and a passionate defense of secular humanism, with excursions into such areas as Hasidic culture and the seductions of number theory (why 36? read the book!) The appendix alone is worth the price of the book: the clear deductive presentation of the 36 arguments allows theists, agnostics, and atheists many opportunities to clarify and organize their thought. (It should stimulate believers, especially, to seek "flaws in the flaws," assuming there are ones). These arguments are in splendid counterpoint to the more tumultuous "arguments" that constitute the main body of the novel.

Cass Seltzer's moving discussion of moral progress and the View from Nowhere almost persuades me. But in this pleasure-dome of the Golden Rule, I still hear "ancestral voices prophesying war." Beethoven wrote to someone: "I don't want to know anything about your system of ethics. Strength is the morality of the man who stands out from the rest, and it is mine." Could those terrifying words overwhelm Cass? Should he have debated Beethoven rather than the trendy neoconservative Findley?

Also, I am "almost persuaded" about the potential depth and vitality of a "third culture." As the humanities become increasingly absorbed into the necessary world of science, can they retain their traditional richness and vitality? This novel and other work of Goldstein encourage this hope.
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Format: Hardcover
First the good news: The appendix, which includes the actual arguments for the existence of a god, is everything that the rest of the book is not: pithy, direct, accessible, amusing. I would love for that section of the book to stand alone. Alone and far away from the laborious, pretentious mess that comprises the body of the work.

As an atheist--a New Atheist, even--I went in to this work of fiction with the highest of hopes. After battering my head against pages of vapid, indulgent narrative, practically unbroken by anything like dialog, plot, or characterization, I gave up. How, you ask, can I judge a book that I did not finish? That is my judgment--it is unreadable (again, except for the excellent appendix).

I feel like a traitor writing this, but if you to want to read a book set in similar environs, centering on a similar topic, try John Updike's "Roger's Version." With its vivid characters, lush descriptions and lively dialog, it is a far more interesting and entertaining read (even though I profoundly disagree with Updike's theistic leanings).

And if you want to read great atheist writers, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan are among our finest contemporary novelists, and both are outspoken atheists. But their fiction does not often address atheist themes directly (nor should it--propaganda makes shoddy art).

What I await is a work of popular fiction with atheist themes that sparks and moves. So far the closest thing I know of to a contemporary example is Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy "His Dark Materials." Surely now that the best-seller lists have been conquered by atheist nonfiction writers, atheistic fiction page-turners cannot be far behind?

I give Ms.
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