Friday, October 22, 2010

The Religious Illusion

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: 
A Work of Fiction 
by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

"Something shifted, something so immense you could call it the world." (p 3)

I first encountered the writing of Rebecca Goldstein when I read her novel, The Mind-Body Problem. It is an informed, witty and very humorous look into the relationship of two academics and their grappling with that famous philosophical issue among other things. Having enjoyed that book enough to recommend it to others I looked forward to reading her latest novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. I was not disappointed. It reminds me that I have missed most of her writing in the interim, which includes other fiction, as well as biographical works about Gödel and Spinoza.

Her latest, however, is a big, ambitious novel that is nominally about God, although it unfolds on an extremely earthly plane. Overcomplicated yet dazzling, sparked by frequent flashes of nonchalant brilliance, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God affirms Ms. Goldstein’s rare ability to explore the quotidian and the cosmological with equal ease. The main character, Cass Seltzer, has written a book called "The Varieties of Religious Illusion" (see William James and Sigmund Freud) which has, surprisingly to the author, become a best-seller. Nobody in Ms. Goldstein’s novel thinks much of Cass’s book, Cass included. But it has become enormously popular thanks to the book’s appendix, which is called “36 Arguments for the Existence of God.” That appendix is also included as an appendix to Ms. Goldstein’s novel. And it offers a coherent refutation of each one of the 36 arguments that are listed. Cass became a celebrity because he made the case for atheism so well.

The rest of Ms. Goldstein’s book, the fictitious part, is divided into 36 chapters. Each chapter is titled with a fictitious argument mirroring the 36 in Cass's own book; titles like "The Argument from Lucinda" (his enamored beauty and current girl friend) or "The Argument from Strange Laughter". The chapter titles remind me of epigraphs in that they both suggest and connect to plot moments covered by the chapter. The main thread of the book is the argument for and against belief in the existence of God, The climax of which occurs almost by accident. Cass almost forgets that he will be debating the existence of God with a Nobel Laureate at Harvard, but remembers this commitment only the night before the debate. It is held in "the beautiful nave of the church" at Harvard and sponsored by the "Agnostic Chaplaincy"! I was impressed with the dream-like setting of the debate and the moment when the argument that "lack of a higher authority" would mean that "it all dissolves into moral chaos and ethical relativism. . ."(p 315). This reminded me of Ivan's argument in The Brothers Karamazov.

Since the debate constitutes one of this book’s big dramatic moments and is so hastily introduced, it’s not surprising to find smaller plot points being treated in equally haphazard ways. On the other hand, give Ms. Goldstein a philosophical case to make about potato kugel, Jewish cuisine and Kabbalistic numerology, and she really does soar. Some of the humor in the book comes at the expense of academia with Cass considering an offer from Harvard as a result of his book after long being stuck in the backwater of Frankfurter University. Overall, despite a bit of excess complexity, this was an entertaining novel of ideas leavened by sophisticated humor.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein. Pantheon Books, New York. 2010

View all my reviews

No comments: