KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Books

The Religious Impulse: An Argument for the Novel of Ideas [review]

by Estelle Tang , June 9, 20101 Comment

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

Publisher: Atlantic Books (Allen & Unwin)

ISBN: 9781848871540

RRP: $29.99

In Jeff Sparrow’s recent essay for the March edition of Meanjin, the current crop of militant atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens and the perhaps lesser known Sam Harris) are rightfully criticised for ignoring the observation that ‘particular beliefs become activated in particular social and political settings’. Sparrow comments that determinate political and social contexts can give rise to heightened religious belief as a salve against intolerable material conditions and unconscionable suffering. He argues, against the reactionary conservatism and juvenile intellectualism of the New Atheists, that religion isn’t ‘overcome simply by demonstrating the intellectual fallacies that underpin it [but] by changing the conditions under which God seems necessary.’

The argument not only points to the political and social settings that provoke the religious impulse but also to the emotional function of belief and the inadequacy of logical argument to completely counter it – and it is precisely this tension Rebecca Goldstein attempts to work through in her sixth novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God ­– A Work of Fiction.

The book opens on a bitterly cold evening in Cambridge, Mass., with Cass Seltzer, a small-time professor of religious psychology, ruminating on the

tiresome proposition of having to take up the work of the Enlightenment all over again [against the] weapons of illogic [that] are threatening the survivability of the globe.

His problem with this state of affairs, apart from the obvious, is that it has proved to be quite a boon for Cass. His latest book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, has become an international bestseller largely because of its afterthought of an appendix – a set of concise rebuttals of 36 arguments for the existence of God. As a result, he has a job offer from Harvard and is now part of the New Atheist alumni, appearing on talk shows and being profiled in glossy journals.

Over the proceeding week, Cass’s unlikely intellectual celebrity brings oddball past lovers, a young Hasidic mathematics genius and Cass’s messianic former professor back into his life. Hapless and unassuming, Cass is thrown into a series of misadventures as we are given insights into his tragicomic love life.

36 Arguments is punctuated by lengthy flashbacks to Cass’s days as a graduate student under the bizarre tutelage of the Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature and Values, Jonas Elijah Klapper. The professor, who demanded the ‘Extreme’ be added to his title, is a walking critique of the theory-laden literature departments Goldstein relishes in deriding both here and in a recent New York Times article.

The book, then, is a novel of ideas presented as a kind of life-in-the-academy romp. At times genuinely tender and philosophically astute, it explores the idea (shared by Cass’s own godless book), that ‘the emotional structure of religious experience can be transplanted to completely godless contexts with little of the impact lost’. Each chapter – given titles such as ‘The Argument from Transcendental Signifiers’ or ‘The Argument from Lucinda’ – in some roundabout way considers a secular expression of the religious impulse while ironically claiming to be an argument for God’s existence.

One of the strongest of these ‘arguments’, in terms of embedding this idea into the narrative itself, takes place in a strict Hasidic community where Klapper, Cass and his then girlfriend, Roz, meet the mathematical prodigy Azarya. Six years old and with no formal schooling, Azarya has discovered prime numbers and Euclidean proofs – his maloychim, or angels. He’s precocious, polite, energetic and entirely lovable; Goldstein’s affection for him is palpable and contagious.

In a religious celebration called a tish, the boy expounds and sings the transcendental beauty of his mathematical proofs in the language of the Torah. The congregation (the Hasidim) and Cass are whipped into a joyous religious fervour. The irony, however, is that Cass (and the reader) are only ostensibly sharing the experience.  We know that Azarya’s beloved Hasidim are not marvelling at the godliness of his primes; they don’t understand his proofs. They are worshipping God speaking profoundly and incomprehensively through the young boy, and Azarya’s joy at being understood by his community is entirely illusory.

That the experience of the religious impulse is examined in a novel, rather than the logically rigorous Anglo-American philosophical tradition Goldstein is trained in, is apt given fiction’s ability to embed ideas into a narrative for the purpose of affect and understanding. Unfortunately though, Goldstein’s novel falters in its attempt to marry philosophy with narrative propulsion.

Close to the conclusion, one of the novel’s key moments – a debate on the existence of God between Cass and a Nobel prize-winning economics scholar – enters the story completely incidentally. Cass remembers the debate the night before, which not only seems a stretch for the fretful academic, but turns what could have been climactic event into a rather arbitrary scene. It’s a missed opportunity for Goldstein. If introduced earlier, the debate ­– so relevant thematically and with so much at stake for both characters and readers – could have been used as a point for the story to move towards, providing some much needed narrative momentum and maybe even correct the plotting, which at times seemed unfocused and caused some clunky shifts in time and location.

In Goldstein’s New York Times article, she says of her literature department colleagues, ‘we looked to [them] to explain a poem to us, not to tell us our epistemology.’ And though her depiction of theory-bloated literature departments, in both this article and 36 Arguments, is in some instances accurate (and at times, funny), there is also an implicit suggestion here. Literary criticism, and more importantly its object of study, has nothing to teach the philosopher. On more than one occasion in 36 Arguments I wished it had.

What I see as the brilliance of the novel of ideas is to enact thought through image and story, to use characters and relationships to console against some ideas and disturb you into confronting others. In loftier moments, such a novel can seem so profound as to alter the conditions under which God seems necessary. Ultimately, however, despite its pleasures, Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments didn’t quite convince me.

Andrew Stapleton is a freelance writer and sometimes philosophy student whose fiction has appeared in Verandah and Voiceworks.




  • http://www.samuelcooney.wordpress.com Sam

    Stape dogg. great review. always like reading your words, and your thoughts.

Frances Abbott

David Donaldson

Why #whitehousegate matters

A few days after the release of the budget, in which the Coalition government announced it was spreading the burden by increasing university fees, cutting school funding, and cutting welfare for young people comes a story that confirms what many already suspect to be the nature of opportunity: it’s much easier to come by if you’re born into privilege. Read more »

money

David Donaldson

When does lobbying become corruption?

Whether it’s Clive Palmer buying his way into parliament, the recent, varied ICAC revelations of dodgy fundraising in the NSW Liberal party, or the refusal or inability of successive governments to effectively tackle powerful corporate interests in industries like gambling, mining, media, and junk food, there is a feeling among many Australians that democracy is up for sale. Read more »

cluster munition

David Donaldson

How to make treaties and influence people

In an era when Russia can annex Ukrainian territory, when the Refugee Convention is regularly flouted, and when nobody seems to be able to do anything to stop the carnage in Syria, it can be tempting to ask: what can international law actually achieve? Read more »

My Salinger Year

Carody Culver

Searching for Mr Salinger

Joanna Rakoff’s book is ‘the truth, told as best [she] could’, of her year as an assistant at one of New York’s oldest literary agencies, a job for which many an Arts graduate would sell a kidney. Read more »

editing

Carody Culver

Giving voice to a silent profession

The role editors play in the process of ushering new writing into the world is both vitally important and strangely overlooked. Read more »

354_1

Hannah Kent

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Hannah Kent defends Highbrow Literature

I understand why many people have a problem with highbrow literature. ‘Intellectual snobbery’ is a common accusation, as though the reason people read and write the stuff is solely to intimidate their dinner guests. ‘Highbrow literature is for wankers,’ I hear them say. Well, ladies and gentlemen, so is Fifty Shades of Grey. Read more »

Mariah Carey

Is she Mariah, the ‘elusive’ chanteuse?

Two weeks ago, Mariah Carey launched her fourteenth studio album, Me. I am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse. Yes, that’s the real name, and it’s hilarious not only because the title is so long and happily shameless but because Mariah has long styled herself as one of the least elusive pop stars in the pop music galaxy. Read more »

Douglass books

Julia Tulloh

High fantasy writers who aren’t George RR Martin, and who are also women

‘Tolkien is the greatest burden the modern fantasy author must labour under and eventually escape from if they are to succeed.’ So wrote Australian high fantasy writer, Sara Douglass, a decade and a half ago. Replace Tolkien with George RR Martin, and one might say the same principle applies today. Read more »

Conchita Wurst

Julia Tulloh

Why Eurovision 2014 was a bit disappointing

No one watches Eurovision to discover surprise new talent, or even to hear good singing. I watch it for the kitschy, pop-tastic visual onslaught which rarely fails to assault viewers. Read more »

Happy Christmas

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Joe Swanberg’s Real Women

In Happy Christmas, the female characters are a pleasure to watch, largely because they’re so familiar in life and so rarely depicted on screen. Read more »

Gabrielle

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Beyond tics, limps and prosthetics

Think of a disability – mental or physical – and there’s sure to be a film that features it. What about giving big roles to actors who actually live with the disability they’re depicting? Now that would be authentic. Read more »

Under the Skin

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Size Matters

Bigger isn’t always better, but some films will open themselves up to you and pour themselves out in new ways when you see them on a cinema screen. Read more »

5881861191_90de8b5bc9

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Making trolls eat their words

If we’re not conscious of a troll’s desired response, we risk inadvertently encouraging further trolling by allowing ourselves to be played. Read more »

filter

Reality vs. Instagram

It’s been over three years since Instagram launched, and we’re still not sure whether processing a photograph might be considered akin to doctoring a memory. Read more »

2014 Budget

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Could we crowdfund the dole?

Following the announcement of the 2014 budget, the director of a leading arts organisation posed a question on Facebook: ‘What recourse do the people have to stop these changes? What are next steps? Would be curious to know of any other effective measures to get the message across… apart from complaining on Twitter.’ Read more »

tumblr_inline_n6wz16ohb91r8e10g

Danielle Binks

YA is the New Black

Apparently those of us who do read and enjoy youth literature should be ‘embarrassed’. At least that’s what Ruth Graham said in her recent clickbait article for Slate, ‘Against YA’. Read more »

A Little Pretty Pocket Book

Danielle Binks

Who run the book world? GIRLS!

‘It’s no wonder boys aren’t reading – the children’s book market is run by women.’ So claimed the headline of an April article in The Times.

*Cue Liz Lemon eye-roll* Read more »

The Fault in Our Stars

Danielle Binks

The Fault in the Cult of John Green

I like John Green as much as the next YA-aficionado. I’ve snot-cried through his books, and chuckled over his YouTube videos. But now it’s time to talk about the media-led oversaturation of John Green, and the insulting way he’s been heralded as the saviour of young adult fiction. Read more »

splash

Chad Parkhill

Queering the Power: The Soft Pink Truth’s Why Do the Heathen Rage?

The Soft Pink Truth’s new album ‘Why Do the Heathen Rage’ demonstrates that despite their superficial differences, dance music and black metal have a lot in common. Read more »

The Knife

Chad Parkhill

Never Settled: The Knife’s Shaken-Up Versions

Making live electronic music engaging is a difficult task, and The Knife’s Silent Shout tour shows a band committed to breaking the visual cliché of performers standing still behind banks of electronic equipment. Read more »

Tori Amos

Chad Parkhill

Loving (and hating) Tori Amos

Tori Amos is hardly to blame for the existence of her fans’ expectations, nor for their disappointment when her work does not live up to them – but that doesn’t prevent that disappointment from feeling intensely personal. Read more »

Alg-90210-jpg

Stephanie Van Schilt

Sick-Person TV

The only upside to getting sick was the many afternoons I spent curled up on the couch at home, watching daytime TV. I inhaled the drama of pre-recorded episodes of Beverley Hills 90210 while playing with my Brandon and Dylan sticker collection (interspersed with sporadic vomiting). Read more »

The_Million_Dollar_Drop_logo

Nicholas J Johnson

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Nicholas J Johnson defends Lowbrow TV

I can’t stop looking at Eddie McGuire’s smug, stupid face. It’s not my fault. It’s just I’ve never been this close to the man before, and it’s not until now that I’ve realised how oddly smooth and tanned his skin is. As if someone has stretched the orange bladder from a football over a slab of marble. Read more »

deadwood-03-1024

Zora Sanders

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Zora Sanders defends Highbrow TV

I’m going to be honest with you. I feel a little guilty being gifted highbrow TV as a subject to defend. Highbrow TV doesn’t need a defender! It’s a battle that has been won! Highbrow TV is downright fucking awesome and every single person reading this already knows it. Read more »