36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction

by Rebecca Goldstein

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Overview

From the author of The Mind-Body Problem: a witty and intoxicating novel of ideas that plunges into the great debate between faith and reason.
 
At the center is Cass Seltzer, a professor of psychology whose book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, has become a surprise best seller. Dubbed “the atheist with a soul,” he wins over the stunning Lucinda Mandelbaum—“the goddess of game theory.” But he is haunted by reminders of two people who ignited his passion to understand religion: his teacher Jonas Elijah Klapper, a renowned literary scholar with a suspicious obsession with messianism, and an angelic six-year-old mathematical genius, heir to the leadership of an exotic Hasidic sect.
 
Hilarious, heartbreaking, and intellectually captivating, 36 Arguments explores the rapture and torments of religious experience in all its variety.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307456717
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/01/2011
Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 608,863
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein received her doctorate in philosophy from Princeton University. Her award-winning books include the novels The Mind-Body Problem, Properties of Light, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction and nonfiction studies of Kurt Gödel and Baruch Spinoza. Her most recent work, Plato at the Googleplex, was released from Pantheon in March of 2014. She has received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, has been designated a Humanist of the Year and a Freethought Heroine, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She lives in Massachusetts.

Rebecca Goldstein is represented by Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau (www.prhspeakers.com).

Read an Excerpt

The Argument from the Improbable Self

Something shifted, something so immense you could call it the world.

Call it the world.

The world shifted, catching lots of smart people off guard, churning up issues you had thought had settled forever beneath the earth’s crust. The more sophisticated you are, the more annotated your mental life, the more taken aback you’re likely to feel, seeing what the world’s lurch has brought to light, thrusting up beliefs and desires you had assumed belonged to an earlier stage of human development.

What is this stuff, you ask one another, and how can it still be kicking around, given how much we already know? It looks like the kind of relics that archeologists dig up and dust off, speculating about the beliefs that once had animated them, to the best that they can be reconstructed, gone as they are now, those thrashings of proto-rationality and mythico-magical hypothesizing, and nearly forgotten.

Now it’s all gone unforgotten, and minds that have better things to think about have to divert precious neuronal resources to figuring out how to knock some sense back into the species. It’s a tiresome proposition, having to take up the work of the Enlightenment all over again, but it’s happened on your watch. You ought to have sent up a balloon now and then to get a read on the prevailing cognitive conditions, the Thinks watching out for the Think-Nots. Now you’ve gone and let the stockpiling of fallacies reach dangerous levels, and the massed weapons of illogic are threatening the survivability of the globe.

None of this is particularly good for the world, but it has been good for Cass Seltzer. That’s what he’s thinking at this moment, gazing down at the frozen river and regarding the improbable swerve his life has lately taken. He’s thinking his life has gotten better because the world has gone bonkers. He’s thinking zealots proliferate and Seltzer prospers.

It’s 4 a.m., and Cass Seltzer is standing on Weeks Bridge, the graceful arc that spans the Charles River near Harvard University, staring down at the river below, which is in the rigor mortis of late February in New England. The whole vista is deserted beyond vacancy, deserted in the way of being inhospitable to human life. There’s not a car passing on Memorial Drive, and the elegant river dorms are darkened to silent hulks, the most hyperkinetic of undergraduates sedated to purring girls and boys.

It’s not like Cass Seltzer to be out in the middle of an icy night, lost in thought while losing sensation in his extremities. Excitement had gotten the better of him. He had lain in his bed for hours, mind racing, until he gave up and crawled out from under the luxe comforter that his girlfriend, Lucinda Mandelbaum, had brought with her when she moved in with him at the end of June. This comforter has pockets for the hands and feet and a softness that’s the result of impregnation with aloe vera. As a man, Cass had been skeptical, but he’s become a begrudging believer in Lucinda’s comforter, and in her Tempur-Pedic pillow, too, suffused with the fragrance of her coconut shampoo, making it all the more remarkable that he’d forsake his bed for this no-man’s stretch of frigid night.

Rummaging in the front closet for some extra protection, he had pulled out, with a smile he couldn’t have interpreted for himself, a long-forgotten item, the tricolor scarf that his ex-wife, Pascale, had learned to knit for him during the four months when she was recovering from aphasia, four months that had produced, among other shockers, an excessively long French flag of a wool scarf, which he wound seven and a half times around his neck before heading out into the dark to deal with the rush in his head.

Lucinda’s away tonight, away for the entire bleak week to come. Cass is missing Lucinda in his bones, missing her in the marrow that’s presently crystallizing into ice. She’s in warmer climes, at a conference in Santa Barbara on “Non-Nash Equilibria in Zero-Sum Games.” Among these equilibria is one that’s called the Mandelbaum Equilibrium, and it’s Cass’s ambition to have the Mandelbaum Equilibrium mastered by the time he picks her up from the airport Friday night.

Technically, Lucinda’s a psychologist, like Cass, only not like Cass at all. Her work is so mathematical that almost no one would suspect it has anything to do with mental life. Cass, on the other hand, is about as far away on the continuum as you can get and still be in the same field. He’s so far away that he is knee-deep in the swampy humanities. Until recently, Cass had felt almost apologetic explaining that his interest is in the whole wide range of religious experience—a bloated category on anyone’s account, but especially on Cass’s, who sees religious frames of mind lurking everywhere, masking themselves in the most secular of settings, in politics and scholarship and art and even in personal relationships.

For close to two decades, Cass Seltzer has all but owned the psychology of religion, but only because nobody else wanted it, not anyone with the smarts to do academic research in psychology and the ambition to follow through. It had been impossible to get grants, and the prestigious journals would return his manuscripts without sending them out for peer review. The undergraduates crowded his courses, but that counted, if anything, as a strike against him in his department. The graduate students stayed away in droves. The sexy psychological research was all in neural-network modeling and cognitive neuroscience. The mind is a neural computer, and the folks with the algorithms ruled.

But now things had happened—fundamental and fundamentalist things—and religion as a phenomenon is on everybody’s mind. And among all the changes that religion’s new towering profile has wrought in the world, which are mostly alarming if not downright terrifying, is the transformation in the life of one Cass Seltzer.

First had come the book, which he had entitled The Varieties of Religious Illusion, a nod to both William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience and to Sigmund Freud’s The Future of an Illusion. The book had brought Cass an indecent amount of attention. Time magazine, in a cover story on the so-called new atheists, had singled him out as the only one among them who seems to have any idea of what it feels like to be a believer—“to write of religious illusions from the standpoint of the regretfully disillusioned”—and had ended by dubbing him “the atheist with a soul.” When the magazine came out, Cass’s literary agent, Sy Auerbach, called to congratulate him. “Now that you’re famous, even I might have to take you seriously.”

Next had come the girl, although that designation hardly does justice to the situation, not when the situation stands for the likes of Lucinda Mandelbaum, known in her world as “the Goddess of Game Theory.” Lucinda is, pure and simple, a wondrous creature, with adoration her due and Cass’s avocation.

And now, only today, as if his cup weren’t already gushing over, had come a letter from Harvard, laying out its intention of luring him away from Frankfurter University, located in nearby Weedham, Massachusetts, about twelve miles downriver from where Cass is standing right now. Cass has spent the last two decades at Frankfurter, having first arrived to study under the legendary Jonas Elijah Klapper, the larger-than-life figure who had been Cass’s mentor and Cass’s tormentor.

After all that has happened to Cass over the course of this past year, he’s surprised at the degree of awed elation he feels at the letter bearing the insignia of Veritas. But he’s an academic, his sense of success and failure ultimately determined by the academy’s utilities (to use the language of Lucinda’s science), and Harvard counts as the maximum utility. Cass has the letter on him right now, zippered into an inside pocket of his parka, insulating him against the cold.

It will be a treat to tell Lucinda about Harvard’s offer. He can see the celebratory clinking of flutes, her head thrown back in that way she has, exposing the tender vulnerability of her throat, and that’s why he’s decided to wait out the week until she comes home to tell her. There’s no one in all the world in a better position than she to appreciate what this offer means to Cass, and no one who will exult more for him. Lucinda herself has known such dazzling success, from the very beginning of her career, and she has taught him never to make apologies for ambition. Ambition doesn’t have to be small and self-regarding. It can be a way of glorying in existence, of sharing oneself with the world and its offerings, of stretching oneself just as wide to the full spread of its possibilities as one can go. That’s how Lucinda goes about her life.

It’s 1 a.m. now for Lucinda. She’s taken the little amber bottle of Ambien with her—he’d checked their medicine cabinet round about 2 a.m.—so she’s down for seven and a half hours. She’ll be sleeping in T-shirt and shorts, her muscled legs—Lucinda competes in triathlons—probably already having fought their way clear of the bedclothes. Lucinda begins each night neatly tucked within her comforter, carefully placing her cold feet in the pockets, but no sooner is she asleep then the long struggle for freedom begins, and her legs are nightly manumitted.

For thirty-five weeks now, Cass has had the privilege of acquiring this intimacy of information regarding Lucinda Mandelbaum: her rituals of brushing and flossing and exfoliating and lotioning; the facts that she gets hiccoughs if she eats hard-boiled eggs too quickly and that her cold hands and feet are the result of Raynaud’s syndrome; that she had spent her junior year of college at Oxford and had acquired a taste for certain British products that she orders from a Web site called British Delights; that as a girl she had wanted to be either a concert pianist or Nancy Drew; that she sometimes makes a whole dinner of a product called Sticky Toffee Pudding, is mildly libertarian in her politics, and gasps always with the same sound of astonishment in lovemaking.

How is it that Cass Seltzer is intimate with the texture of Lucinda Mandelbaum’s life? His election—in that old crazy Calvinist sense, about which Cass knows more than a little—is absolute.

Suspended here above the ice-stilled Charles, he pictures Lucinda asleep, her mouth slightly open and her delicate eyelids fluttering in dreams—oh, make them happy!

She usually falls asleep before him, and the sight of her sleeping always wrenches his heart. All that mental power temporally suspended, her lashes reclining on the delicate curve of her high cheekbone, her fluffy ash-blond hair released from its daytime restraints and spread fragrant and soft on her Tempur-Pedic pillow. He sees the little girl she must have been. He sees the phantom child yet to be, materializing before his mind with her mother’s incandescent skin and hair, her gray eyes outlined in blue and lit with points of fierce intelligence. Watching Lucinda sleeping or absentmindedly playing with a strand of hair while she scratches out the esoteric symbols of her science, or leaving his front gate—with its sign left over from the previous owners, “Please close the gate, remember our children”—the force of the fantasy catches him off guard.

Nobody out there is keeping the books, of course, but maybe he’s earned the right to such happiness? Maybe the years he’d given up to mourning Pascale have paid out a retributive dividend? No. He knows better than to believe in such hocus-pocus, nothing else but more spilled religion.

Pascale’s absurd scarf mummying him up to his rimless glasses, he hadn’t thought much about where he would go at this hour and had headed straight for Harvard Square and then down to the river, and then up onto Weeks Bridge, dead center, which seems to be the spot that he’d been seeking.

The night is so cold that everything seems to have been stripped bare of superfluous existence, reduced to the purity of abstraction. Cass has the distinct impression that he can see better in the sharpened air, that the cold is counteracting the nearsightedness that has had him wearing glasses since he was twelve. He takes them off and, of course, can’t see a thing, can barely see past the nimbus phantom of his own breath.

But then he stares harder and it seems that he can see better, that the world has slid into sharper focus. It’s only now, with his glasses off, that he catches sight of the spectacle that the extreme cold has created in the river below, frozen solid except where it’s forced through the three arches of the bridge’s substructure, creating an effect that could reasonably be called sublime, and in the Kantian sense: not cozily beautiful, but touched by a metaphysical chill. The quickened water has sculpted three immense and perfect arches into the solid ice, soaring fifty or sixty feet to their apices, sublime almost as if by design. The surface of the water in the carved-out breaches is polished to obsidian, lustered to transparency against the white-blue gleam of the frozen encasement, and, perspective askew, the whole of it looks like a cathedral rising endlessly, the arches becoming windows opening out onto vistas of black.

Standing dead center on Weeks Bridge, in the dead of winter in the dead of night, staring down at the sublime formation, Cass is contemplating the strange thing that his life has become.

To him. His life has become strange to him. He feels as if he’s wearing somebody else’s coat, grabbed in a hurry from the bed in the spare bedroom after a boozy party. He’s walking around in someone else’s bespoke cashmere while that guy’s got Cass’s hooded parka, and only Cass seems to have noticed the switch.

What has happened is that Cass Seltzer has become an intellectual celebrity. He’s become famous for his abstract ideas. And not just any old abstract ideas, but atheist abstract ideas, which makes him, according to some of the latest polls, a spokesperson for the most distrusted minority in America, the one that most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

Reading Group Guide

1. This novel takes the reader straight to the heart of one of the major debates of the present day, the clash between faith and reason. Why do you think Goldstein decided to write about this topic in novel form rather than nonfiction?

2. A reviewer in Booklist described this novel as being about “love in all its wildness.” How is this novel about love? What kinds of love?

3. Do the events in the novel prove Cass right in his claim that the religious impulse spills over into nonreligious contexts? How do the various episodes bear out Cass’s belief?

4. Do you consider Cass to be, in some sense, a religious man? Is he a spiritual man? Is there a difference?

5. Does Azarya make the right decision, given that his father has died? Had his father not died, do you think his decision would have been different? Should it have been? Do you see Azarya as a hypocrite, a saint, or something in between?

6. Did you guess who was sending the e-mails?

7. Why do you think the author chose to make Azarya a mathematical prodigy?

8. In your opinion, who wins the debate, Cass Seltzer or Felix Fidley? Who has the better arguments? Why does the debate come to focus on the issue of morality?

9. Is Lucinda’s decision concerning Cass understandable? What kind of woman is she? Is she a sympathetic character?

10. Religion is an immensely serious topic and yet the author chose to write her novel in a mostly comic vein. Why do you think she did that? What role does humor play? Do you find her humor to be sometimes cruel?

11. There are various “tribes” in the novel: the Onuma that Roz studies, the tribe of students around Klapper, the Valdeners. How do these tribes compare with each other?

12. Why does Goldstein tell her tale in the third person, rather than Cass’s first-person voice? Are there times when she leaves his perspective and enters the minds of other characters?

13. Many of the characters are struggling to find meaning in their lives as they decide which paths to take. Do any of them succeed?

14. Which of the thirty-six arguments is the most convincing? Why do you think the author included the appendix?

15. Why does Thomas Nagel’s idea of the View from Nowhere resonate so deeply with Cass? Have you ever experienced anything like the ecstatic sense of getting outside of yourself that Cass describes throughout the novel? Did you know what Cass was talking about with his distinction Cass here/Jesse there?


(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center e-newsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com.)

Foreword

1. This novel takes the reader straight to the heart of one of the major debates of the present day, the clash between faith and reason. Why do you think Goldstein decided to write about this topic in novel form, rather than non-fiction?

2. A reviewer in Booklist described this novel as being about “love in all its wildness.” How is this novel about love? What kinds of love?

3. Do the events in the novel prove Cass right in his claim that the religious impulse spills over into non-religious contexts?  How do the various episodes bear out Cass’s belief? 

4. Do you consider Cass to be, in some sense, a religious man?  Is he a spiritual man?  Is there a difference?

5. Did Azarya make the right decision, given that his father had died?  Had his father not died, do you think his decision would have been different?  Should it have been? Do you think that Azarya is a hypocrite, a saint, or something in between?

6. Had you guessed whom the emails were from?

7. Why do you think the author chose to make Azarya a mathematical prodigy?

8. Who won the debate, Cass Seltzer or Felix Fidley?  Who do you think had the better arguments? Why do you think the debate came to focus on the issue of morality? 

9. Was Lucinda’s decision concerning Cass understandable?  What kind of a woman was she? Is she a sympathetic character or not?

10. Religion is an immensely serious topic and yet the author chose to write her novel in a mostly comic vein.  Why do you think she did that?  What role does humor play in the novel?  Is her humor sometimes cruel? 

11.There are various “tribes” in the novel: the Onuma that Roz studies, the tribe of students around Klapper, the Valdeners. How do these tribes compare with each other?

12. Why does Goldstein tell her tale in the third person, rather than Cass’s first person voice? Are there any times when she leaves his perspective and enters the mind of other characters?

13. Many of the characters of the novel are struggling with finding meaning in their lives and deciding which paths to take. Do any of them succeed?

14. Which of the 36 arguments is the most convincing?  Why do you think the author included the appendix?

15. Why does Thomas Nagel’s idea of the “View from Nowhere” resonate so deeply with Cass?  Have you ever experienced anything like the ecstatic sense of getting outside of yourself that Cass describes throughout the novel?  Did you know what Cass was talking about with his “Cass here/Jesse there”?

Customer Reviews

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36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 48 reviews.
Zuzana More than 1 year ago
First I must say: I LOVED this book. I will not pretend I understood all references to history, philosophy and religion. But it did not prevent me from relishing the story and intellectual stimulation of the book. Obviously, it is a challenging read, but also very inspiring and touching. Great characters, great storytelling. Read the appendix with 36 arguments first, so you can enjoy references to it in the text. Also, the appendix is the reason I want to have this book in my permanent library. It does not matter if you believe in God or not - this book poses great questions for both sides. If I were a writer I would want to write like Rebecca Goldstein.
Edmond_Weiss More than 1 year ago
In 1966, Berkley's Michael Scriven gave the world Primary Philosophy, with one chapter devoted to presenting, in a clear schematic form, about twenty traditional proofs for the existence of God and their refutations. Now, in 2010, the fictional psychologist of religion Cass Seltzer has catalogued 36+ proofs and their refutations-the larger list attributable to the overtime efforts of creationists to flog their intelligently designed dead horse. Professor Seltzer's book catches the wave of the "neo-atheist" best-sellers and catapults him from the suburbs of Frankfurter (read Brandeis) University to the Valhalla of Harvard. Rebecca Goldstein (on whom I've had a slight crush since reading the perfect Betraying Spinoza, even though there's no way I could win her away from rock star cognitivist Steve Pinker) has crafted a novel that explores a few days in Cass Seltzer's life, in which he exults over his academic good fortune and nearly forgets to prepare for the climactic debate with a glitzy theist. (Naturally, this being a contemporary novel, the contemporary narrative digresses into three or four long past narratives, converging on the present.) This "debate"-something like the big sport event at the end of so many movies, with a touch of the "Grand Inquisitor" thrown in-goes to Seltzer. He proves not only that there is no God but, more important, that atheists are just as capable, even more capable, of ethical sensibility and just action as theists. The debate is not quite the very end, however. Ultimately, the novel resolves its longest subplot involving the intellectually gifted son of a Hassidic Rebbe who is lured away from the reservation to study at MIT. In this it is an odd echo of one of the best novels of recent years, Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union. 36 Arguments is a well-made novel by an engaging philosopher/novelist. She has done what many writers try unsuccessfully to do: embody philosophical stances into characters, without reducing the text to dull speechifying. Zoe Heller also does this well in her recent novel, The Believers. Although Goldstein's prose occasionally lapses into Dan Brown territory ('furrowed brow,' "book-lined office"), the dialogue is always crisp and funny. And the satire is hilarious. I expect that nearly every person, institution, and place with a fictitious name can be mapped onto a real entity. I love Persnippity New Jersey and the ridicule of Commentary and the neocons. (Too bad The Forward assigned a neocon to review this book.) Everyone can recognize the oversized burlesque of Harold Bloom (The Perversity of Persuasion, indeed!) I wish I were enough in the know to recognize the whole Waltham-Cambridge-New York ensemble. (Is Cass Seltzer Steve Pinker, writer of popular best sellers on arcane subjects?) And then there's the Appendix, Cass's schematic for the 36 arguments. Although the charm of this book is to show that the non-existence of God (what Scriven called the presumption of atheism) is largely irrelevant to living a good life, the Appendix is nevertheless a superior bit of philosophical pedagogy, and should be required reading for every professor and undergraduate, in every department. And the Internet being what it is, the Appendix will inevitably become universally available. Some day it may even be denounced in religiously-oriented schools, by people who entirely misread her book, much as Spinoza was denounced in the Orthodox school Ms. Goldstein attended
JennBCT More than 1 year ago
Took this book on vacation with me and could not put it down. I appreciated the ideas, the characterizations and the story equally. I am not even close to an intellectual, just a stay at home mom. There were pages that I had to read two or three times to clearly understand the arguments and ideas being posited. That said, loved the challenge. It is not a quick or easy read, but was totally worth the effort, to my mind.
MairL More than 1 year ago
I have rarely given up on a book but this was one. Reviews led me to believe it would be thought provoking; it was mind numbing! The author's style was pompous, with run on sentences and vocabulary that appeared only to be for the purpose of impressing. Sorry, but I cannot recommend this book.
gbill on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The debate over God¿s existence as worked into this story was of interest, Goldstein is obviously very intelligent, and there are some interesting supporting characters here, but the book was a bit too philosophical for me. What the book needed more of was Roz Margolis, the main character¿s love from the past with a BIG personality, and passages such as the game theory analysis of two people in a romantic relationship, neither of whom has said ¿I love you¿ yet, which was brilliant. If you do read it, don¿t bother with the appendix, the actual arguments for the existence of God. While an interesting collection, they are tedious in both argument and rebuttal.Quotes:On Existentialism:¿I can¿t look at other creatures who are committed to their existence and flourishing in the same way as I¿m committed to my existence and flourishing without feeling a certain degree of identification, empathy, sympathy, compassion. The intuition that we ought to do unto others as we would have them do unto us flows naturally from this outward move.¿On genius:¿Genius was a matter of incantatory intuitions and phosphorescent blasts into the dark. Genius was a matter of thunderclap reasons, of which reason knew nothing. Genius was oracular, overweening, and severe. It is left to others to grub around in dusty doubts and cavil in insect voices. ¿ Genius itself is diseased and self-destructive, antisocial and ill-mannered. It¿s also the only thing that redeems us.¿On God, and suffering:¿Suffering provides us wonderful opportunities for character-building. Yes, I¿m familiar with this line of reasoning. The only people who push it are the God-apologists, who are trying to make excuses for what an insufferable world this is, even though there¿s supposed to be an omnipotent, omniscient, and well-intentioned Big Boy running the show. Any suffering the apologists can¿t rationalize away as a product of our having the ennobling capacity for free will, including the free will to inflict unspeakable atrocities on one another, they try to explain with this character-building song and dance. I find the song pornographic and the dance macabre.¿On love, this a reference to Matthew Arnold¿s ¿Dover Beach¿:¿¿what¿s left to believe in? and to grasp the same answer that the poet had seized on: love and love alone. Love is the only solace. Not just any love, of course, not an easy, superficial love, but the love of the like-minded, the like-souled, the one who hears the eternal note of sadness in the same key and register as you.¿On loyalty:¿As wild and unpredictable as she was, she was always on his side. That was and would always be predictable. And he was on hers. Even without always getting what her side was, he knew with certainty that he¿d be on it, and she¿d be on his.¿On morality:¿When we¿re trying to teach a child why it¿s wrong to pick on another child, do we say, `It¿s wrong because if I catch you doing it again you¿ll be spanked,¿ or do we, rather, say, `How would you feel if someone did that to you?¿ And when we¿re wrestling with our own conscience, trying to resist a temptation we know is wrong, do we think to ourselves, `If I do it, then I¿ll be flambéed in hell¿s fires¿, or do we think, `Would I want everyone in the world to behave this way? Wouldn¿t I feel moral outrage if I learned of someone else doing this?¿¿On mortality:¿¿¿nobody would want to go back to the days when forty was considered a ripe old age¿¿`Forty! For the first few hundred thousand years of human history, half of the population died in infancy and childhood! A third of young men died in warfare before they were twenty. A woman¿s marriage ceremony was rape, and she had a good chance of dying if a pregnancy came of it. Talk about nasty, brutish, and short! But did our species give in to this barbarism? Of course not! And we¿re the lucky results of the Glorious Refusal, which means we have the obligation to keep on refusing the barbarities that nature is constantl
Darrol on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Evoked memories of a particular prof in college that tried to create a cult of personality and bemoaned the lack of something in the freshman. This book also evoked memories of Chaim Potok's The Chosen. I remember being at least a little attracted to the Hasidim in The Chosen, but in this book they just seemed like any other restrictive sect. I suppose that I have become more thoroughly secular in the subsequent 30 years. Cass Seltzer seems to be very unlucky with women; to bad he could not have stayed with Roz. She was my favorite character.
lynnytisc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is not a treatise on religion as a send up of the demi-gods of academia. Our hero Cass Seltzer is a straight man for his messianic professor to whom he is drawn into a complex web of study. It brought to mind Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full" in it's skewering of the intelligentia. The book has an undercurrent of very droll humor as he is invited to meet someone at the "View from Nowhere" and he finds it's a philosophy book in the university library, and then is amazed that it's the name of a campus watering hole. I would recommend this book to all Wolfe fans and Jasper Fjorde fans as well!
littlegeek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Meh. The problem with "arguing" about the existence of god is that it's asking the wrong questions. Yes, there are things we don't understand. Let's experience them and accept them and talk about them without thinking we know what they are (god or aliens, et al) or trying to convince ourselves they aren't happening (aka "being rational").
artlibrarian1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of the funniest and yet serious books in a long time. Great characters set in the Boston area. Goldstein knows her geography and academia!
cbobbitt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The stream of consciousness third-person narration makes the story interesting if a bit rambling in its commentary about graduate school, messianic behavior by egotistical scholars, and arguments about the existence and relevance of God. The subplot of the rabbinical succession at the New Walden community of hassidic Jews clutters the primary struggle of the main character (Cass Seltzer) with conflicts in his personal and professional life. The 36 titled chapters and the 36 sections of the appendix add to the cleverness of the "work of fiction" conceit. Goldstein's erudite vocabulary also adds to the pleasure of reading this novel.
michaelbartley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
There were some wonderful parts of this book, at time Rebecca Goldstein is excellent writer, however she seems more interested in writing about the big ideas that she misses the detail of life which results in the characters being flat. still it is a excellent book
crazy4novels on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The opening chapter of Rebecca Goldstein's 36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction finds Professor Cass Seltzer giddily contemplating his uncanny luck. His recent publication, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, couldn't have been timed more perfectly. His book wouldn't have made the slightest blip on the bestselling list ten years ago, but a current firestorm between crusaders of the religious right and their nemeses, the "new atheists," has catapulted his book and his career to unforeseen heights. Recent muscle-flexing by fundamentalists has awakened intellectuals from their slumbering complacency ("it's a tiresome proposition, having to take up the work of the Enlightenment all over again," but someone's got to do it.), and Cass's book is a prime weapon in their academic arsenal against "mass weapons of illogic."As Cass lingers with his thoughts and gazes at the Charles River (he's recently been offered a professorship at Harvard), he reviews the 180 degree turn his religious views have taken during the course of his academic journey. Years ago, during the final semester of his pre-med undergraduate work at Frankfurter U, he impulsively signed up for a life-altering class entitled "The Manic, the Mantic, and the Mimetic," taught by the legendary Jonas Elijah Klapper. Rumors of Klapper's ability to transfix students with incantatory lectures about spirituality, delivered with unequaled emotional profundo, were not exaggerated, and Cass threw over his medical plans and joined Klapper's select group of starry-eyed acolytes.Roz, Cass's girlfriend at the time, bought none of it. What kind of a pompous pedant would abandon Columbia University for Frankfurter U based on the offer of a one-man department ("The Department of Faith, Literature, and Values") and the absurd title of "Extreme Distinguished Professor?" How could Cass expect to succeed if none of Klapper's graduate students ever managed to actually wrestle a PhD out of him? She nicknamed Klapper "The Klap," howled at his secretive name change from Klepfish to Klapper, and refused to kowtow when it was called for.Cass was thoroughly mesmerized, however, and Klapper latched on to him with zeal ("I sense the aura of election upon you") after discovering that Cass was a distant relative of the reknowned Rebbe (rabbi and spiritual leader) of the Valdeners, a sect of Hasids living in a self-proclaimed shtetl near New York City. Klapper, a rapt student of arcane Hasidic and Kabbalist hermeneutics, used Cass to wrangle an audience with the Rebbe. Roz drove the two to Valden (to Klapper's irritation), and the ensuing visit altered the lives of all three visitors, the Rebbe's young son (a mathematical genius), and the possible future of the Valdeners themselves.Gold's book is basically a classic academic send-up with a religious twist that is simultaneously biting and circumspect. Her exposition of Cass's gradual disillusionment with Klapper will have you rolling on the floor (suffice it to say that some pivotal points rest upon an oversized ethnic fur hat and the hidden numerical mysteries of potato kugel), but her razor wit is always aimed at Klapper, never the Rebbe or the Valdeners. It is clear that Gold is mind-bogglingly intelligent (I kept reviewing her photograph on the book flap, wondering who IS this woman?). It is also fairly clear that she rejects religious dogma. Her addition of a 52-page appendix presenting Cass's devastatingly cogent refutation of all 36 traditional arguments for the existence of God probably makes this a safe assumption (ultimately, the reader cannot know whether this is Cass or Gold speaking). And yet, she softens the edges by making it clear that Cass, although confident in his book's anti-religious assertions, is nonetheless the gullible victim of a few secular illusions of his own (there's an entire romantic subplot that I've not mentioned). Similarly, her subplot of a profound choice that the Rebbe's son must ultimately make i
MeditationesMartini on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read not the novel but the appendix, which is not a work of fiction but an actual catalogue of 36 arguments for the existence of God with extensive rebuttals. Improbably but not perhaps so incongruously, my review takes the form of an extended block quote from Terry Eagleton's review of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion:

"We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain. Only positivists think that `rational¿ means `scientific¿. Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.

"Dawkins holds that the existence or non-existence of God is a scientific hypothesis which is open to rational demonstration. Christianity teaches that to claim that there is a God must be reasonable, but that this is not at all the same thing as faith. Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster. This is not to say that religious people believe in a black hole, because they also consider that God has revealed himself: not, as Dawkins thinks, in the guise of a cosmic manufacturer even smarter than Dawkins himself (the New Testament has next to nothing to say about God as Creator), but for Christians at least, in the form of a reviled and murdered political criminal. The Jews of the so-called Old Testament had faith in God, but this does not mean that after debating the matter at a number of international conferences they decided to endorse the scientific hypothesis that there existed a supreme architect of the universe ¿ even though, as Genesis reveals, they were of this opinion. They had faith in God in the sense that I have faith in you. They may well have been mistaken in their view; but they were not mistaken because their scientific hypothesis was unsound."

jwhenderson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
akblanchard on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Even though I¿m a person of faith, and even though I didn¿t like every aspect of this book, I am really glad I read it. It has some great writing in it, especially the lyrical first chapter. What I didn¿t like about it was that the characters were not well-developed, especially the women. They were either caricatures (Pascale, Lucinda) or mouthpieces for philosophical points (Roz). It was disappointing that the main character, Cass, the ¿atheist with a soul¿ didn¿t turn out to be all that interesting. A reviewer for Amazon called Cass a ¿milquetoast¿ and I concur. I also didn¿t find Azarya, the Hasidic genius, torn between his duty as the Rebbe¿s son and his quest for knowledge, quite as endearing as the author did. The characters of this novel of academia live in a bubble where everyone is Jewish but there truly is no God (one issue the book did not touch upon,but I wish it had: if there truly is no God, what is the point of identifying with Judaism in any way at all?). The professorial characters are every bit as cut off from the modern world as the book's Hasidim in their isolated, transplanted shetl. I also think that the main character¿s mostly-absent love interest, Lucinda Mandelbaum, is a a stand-in for (what some would see as)the cruel, jealous, arbitrary God of the Old Testament (so God does actually exist, and Her name is Lucinda Mandelbaum!). Despite its flaws, it is a book that makes you think, but perhaps not as the author intended.
jasonpettus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)As I've mentioned here many times before, it's always a dicey proposition anymore when a modern author chooses to set a novel within an academic environment: get it right, like for example how Michael Chabon does in his early hit Wonder Boys, and you end up with a real winner, a deeply moving tale that uses the backbiting minutia of the ivory tower to tell a story greater than the sum of its parts, while get it wrong and you end up with...well, all the rest of the million sh-tty academic novels out there that now exist, a million interchangeable stories about whiny, pretentious real-world failures, living in some precocious little town in the Midwest, where they are constantly having affairs with their 19-year-old students and getting into petty fights over tenure with their fellow professors, the product of a million lazy f-cking academic authors who literally can no longer think of anything to write about other than autobiographical screeds regarding how their farts smell like spring wildflowers. Thankfully, though, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's new novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, falls firmly in that former Chabon camp; and since this tends to be a rare occurrence, I thought I would use it as an excuse today to do a little analyzing as well as critiquing, to examine why in my opinion this book succeeds so wildly when so many other academic novels fail so badly.But first, to be fair, let's acknowledge the natural strengths of academic fiction, the reason its fans like it in the first place, which can basically be boiled down to two main points: that unlike so-called "genre" fiction, most academic novels don't worry themselves too much with trying to come up with an action-filled plot, spending their time instead constructing complex and rewarding character studies of the people involved, and thus telling us more about the true human condition than most crime or horror or sci-fi novels do; and since they tend to be written by people who study language full-time and are designed for other people who study language full-time, such novels tend to be written at a poetically high level of quality, purposely ignoring the plebes in order to please those instead who demand that their pleasure reading be dense, witty and challenging. And 36 Arguments succeeds wildly at both of these things, essentially the story of an obscure east-coast academe whose specialty (combining the study of psychology and religion) usually gets poo-pooed by his more focused peers in both departments, until one day he writes a non-insulting guide to the "New Atheism" that accidentally becomes a runaway bestseller, and turns him into a famed pop-culture figure along the lines of Malcolm Gladwell or Richard Dawkins. (Why, he even gets to go on The Daily Show, an event that causes no end of jealousy among his peers.)As you can already see, this is one of the first big ways that Goldstein sets herself apart from so many other academic authors: because even though her novel too is mostly a character study instead of plot-focused, she at least takes the time to come up with some fascinating situations in which to place her characters, and makes sure that her occasional big plot turns all count for as much as possible; because what this novel is really about is not the New Atheism bestseller itself but rather all the various relationships in this author Cass Seltzer's life, and the complex ways that both science and religion have ended up defining and shaping these relationships. Like Chabon's novel, then, this gives Goldstein an excuse to introduce a whole series of engaging, unique characters, ones who literally make the book a little brighter merely becuase of their interesting backgrounds: there is his former Hasidic
julie10reads on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I stuck with this treatise pretending to be a novel simply because I had NOTHING else to read at the time. The character of Azarya drew me deeper into the book and it is his story that I find myself thinking about. If I am not mistaken, Azarya is a modern type of Jesus and his community not unlike the Pharisees of Jesus' time. What Azarya, unmistakably a genius, chooses to do with his life invites the reader to make comparisons with Jesus' life, particularly how he evolved into Messiah. Worth reading for that part.
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