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36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction Hardcover – Bargain Price, January 12, 2010
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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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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. Nevertheless Klapper treats this as deep rabbinical wisdom expressed in parables, silencing a doubter with the words: "You are the sort who, should she witness the Messiah walking on water, would be impressed that his socks had not shrunk."
2. The chief character, Cass Selzer, is the least pretentious of the lot and really very likeable. A psychologist, he has recently published VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS ILLUSION, vaulting him to the New York Times bestseller list and a Time Magazine feature as "The atheist with a soul." The 36 Arguments of the book's title form the appendix to Selzer's book, reprinted as a 50-page appendix to the novel. Each argument is laid out in clear syllogistic form only to be dismissed by equally clear analysis of its flaws. But for the most part, Cass leaves the logical legerdemain to the appendix. As a character in the story, he speaks normal conversational English, and is really quite sympathetic as he moves from hero-worship to rejection of the monstrous Klapper, and tries to find a life partner among a sequence of dauntingly brilliant women.
3. The book does indeed have a soul. The visit to the Valdener Rebbe (a distant relative of Cass) is more than a comic tour-de-force. Cass also meets the Rebbe's son, Azarya, clearly a mathematical genius and as lovable for his personality as amazing in his desire for knowledge. At the age of only six, he explains discoveries in number theory that he has made by himself, describing the various classes of primes as orders of angels as real to him as Cherubim and Seraphim. Uniquely, he unites religion and science, not as opposites, but in a single world view. There is a great set-piece (pages 214-222) which is an ecstatic description of a "shabbes tish" or ceremonial meal, which draws me further into the spirit of Hasidic life than anything I have read before, including Chaim Potok's THE CHOSEN. Towards the end of the book, Cass argues against the existence of God in a public debate at Harvard. But the last chapter is not left to the arguments of philosophers but to another celebration at the Valdener shul, a glowing scene that somehow makes the entire debate almost irrelevant.
With regard to the debate between theism versus atheism, the book introduces some arguments and explanations that are new to me. It does this explicitly and by way of parable through the story itself. "36 Arguments" is a breeze to read, includes moments of something like transcendence, and leaves you with alot to ponder.
Much of the heat and light of “36 Arguments” is generated in the context of intense Judaism; this is Goldman’s background and clearly a source of her fascination with faith, logic and the big questions. Had the book been written by a Methodist, Catholic or Muslim philosopher of Goldman’s depth and analytic bent, no matter: what’s at issue is whether a singular deity exists, not which team he plays on. The drama of Goldman’s characters is a search for meaning in life; their Jewishness is exquisite set dressing.
Most arguments about the existence of God devolve quickly into, “Faith transcends logic. End of discussion.” Atheists/agnostics fortunate enough to find themselves in a deeper debate, with more than knee-jerk dogmatism on the table, will come well-armed for having read “36 Arguments.” Believers who, having been subjected to the 36 Arguments, retain their faith, have indeed survived a test by fire.
Goldman, her characters, their voyage through doubt and conflict, reveal that there is more logic in religious belief than meets the eye.
P.P.S. Readers who prefer a more accessible reflection on these headachy matters can turn to Raymond Chandler’s excellent last novel, “Playback,” wherein Philip Marlowe opines with his inimitable brand of cynicism: “If God were omnipotent and omniscient in any literal sense, he wouldn’t have bothered to make the universe at all.”
End of discussion.