Thursday, August 19, 2010

36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Hard Work of Fiction

This here is one of them there smart folk books. And as such, in order to enjoy it, you have to really enjoy weeding your way through smart folk stuff, like mazes of logical proofs, esoteric Jewish mysticism, faith vs. reason debates, and metaphysical philosophy. Believe it or not, though, 36 Arguments for the Existence of Godactually is a work of fiction with characters and a plot and the whole nine yards.

To be clear, it's not "a novel," it's "a work of fiction." And you have to believe that someone as intelligent as Guggenheim fellow and Harvard faculty member Rebecca Newberger Goldstein would choose her words carefully when deciding how to describe her book on its cover.

My guess is that she is hoping to subtly signal to her reader not to expect a novel, as one would normally conceive it. Instead, because the characters on which Goldstein's builds her work of fiction are almost too easily recognizable, too typical, it's pretty clear they are just vessels. The real point of this work of fiction isn't the fiction, it's the work required to understand the ideas. That's not inherently a bad thing, just something to be aware of.

Cass Seltzer is our protagonist — a middle aged college professor, and best-selling author of an atheist tome titled The Varieties of Religious Illusion. Despite his fame (notoriety?) as an atheist, Cass's charisma and humbleness have earned him the label "atheist with a soul." Cass is brilliant, but for all his logical faculties, he can't quite seem to reason out love. His first marriage ended when his wife got sick, and then fell for her doctor. Now he's dating a fellow academic, and he's trying to decide if he loves her. "Romantic infatuation can be form of religious delusion, too," Cass realizes at one point.

Cass studied for his doctorate under the eccentric, mercurial Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature and Values, Jonas Elijah Klapper. Goldstein takes us through several scenes that flashback to Cass's graduate school days. When Klapper learns that Cass's family came from a relatively famous ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect, he insists Cass take him to visit. Klapper becomes infatuated. We get our first real signal that he has gone off the deep end when he tells Cass his doctoral dissertation must be on the specific symbolism and or Kabbalistic meaning of traditional Jewish foods — like kugel.

Then, there's Azarya, the child genius "imprisoned" in that Hasidic sect. The kid is a math prodigy, proving that there's no largest prime number at the age of 6. Azarya's purpose in the book seems to be to give Goldstein a vehicle for discussing the philosophy and ethics behind "wasted genius." Will Azarya waste away in the insulated religious sect or will he be permitted to leave and enrich the world with his gift?

Much of this work of fiction is told as conversation, or, like the first scene of the novel, Cass standing on a bridge in Boston doing an internal review of his current state of affairs, much is also told through characters' contemplations. There is also quite a bit of description of Jewish mysticism and Hasidic ritual, much of which is a real slog, frankly. The novel is capped off by a Harvard debate between Cass and another guy about the proposition "God exists." Who will win?

It should be pretty clear by now that this novel isn't exactly beach reading. I'm not going to lie, it's hard work at times to keep up with the arguments and concepts. And so to use a cliche, you get out of it what you put into it. I was a lazy reader on this one and didn't expend the necessary effort to really enjoy it. So I didn't. But you might...

Tip on reading the work of fiction, should you decide to: The Appendix contains the 36 Arguments for the existence of God Cass included in the appendix of his book. There are (surely not coincidentally) 36 chapters in Goldstein's book, so I read one argument in the Appendix after each chapter. That seemed to work out nicely, and made them more interesting and manageable. I can't imagine reading all 50 pages of those 36 Arguments after finishing the story.


  1. This sounds a little too much like homework for my taste, sneaking philosophy through in the guise of fiction. Like when you have to give a dog a pill and you put it in a spoonful of peanut butter so they'll scarf it down.

  2. As an atheist myself, I am always intrigued by how atheism is portrayed in books, movies, etc...I would never have even read the book jacket for this one because it sounds too much like something Rick Warren might preach about from Saddleback. But your review makes me wonder if I would enjoy the slog...

  3. I took a look at this in the bookstore and decided it was too deep for a summer read. Thanks for the review - now you've saved me from having to reconsider in the fall!

  4. This sounds a lot like my experience with this book, though I never finished it. I had this internal conflict going, "It's smug!" "No, it's not!" "Yes, it is!", etc, so I couldn't really dig into it. Not to say I won't pick it up again later, though.

  5. Hmm, sounds like a tough one to get into -- I like my books to sweep up in the world, but not one where I get lost. I'm a little intimidated by this one, but am intrigued by the overall premise.

  6. ehh, doesn't sound like my kind of a book. If characters start being more like 'vehicles' of ideas than people, it's usually not for me.

  7. @the Ape - Exactly like homework, and tricking you into doing homework at that.

    @Heather - I think you'd actually enjoy this novel, then. It's pretty much the polar opposite of something Rick Warren would preach about.

    @2little - You're right - not a good summer book. During the winter, with fewer distractions, I may have liked it more.

    @Doug - I kept wanting to call it pretentious, but it's not really, because Goldberg actually is that smart and isn't really trying to put on airs. But, you're right, either way, it was tough to enjoy.

    @Coffee - The premise is good, yeah. It just takes a lot of work to get in, you're right.

    @mumma - Thanks for clarifying that. ;)

    @Christy - Yep, the characters aren't there to be real people - they're more like amalgamations of lots of different academic stereotypes.

  8. It sounds interesting to me. I will put it on my list of deep books. Once it a while I like to dive into one. This is how I fell in love with Rushdie.

  9. Probably not for me. I appreciate your thorough and honest review!