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.

9781926428239

Abigail Ulman

Cold Feet and Hot Little Hands: Abigail Ulman on writing – and not writing – her first book

Post-book deal, every time I sat down to try to write something, I felt paralysed by some kind of literary stage fright. I had shown my work to other people before – for writing workshops, and submissions to literary journals and competitions – but I had never before written a story while thinking This story is going to be published in a book. Or, more accurately, This story idea is nowhere near good enough to be published in a book. Read more »

9781926428239

Sian Campbell

Girlhood and The Woman-Child in Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands

Each of the stories in Hot Little Hands navigates girlhood in some way, from the lives of high school-age teenagers to those of young twentysomething women. ‘Girl things’ such as horse camp, gymnastics, feminised bodies, clothing, periods, crushes, yoga and gossip weave through the fabric of the text. Though the subject matter is often adult – the girls of Hot Little Hands navigate abortion, sex trafficking, young motherhood, drugs, and deportation – the girls themselves are not… even when they technically are. Read more »

Dont-Try-This-at-Home-_-cover_-FINAL1-300x460

James Tierney

Subscriber Stories: Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This At Home

As a subscriber to publisher And Other Stories’ distribution model, I am in the unusual position of reviewing a book – Angela Readman’s short story collection Don’t Try This At Home – that thanks me by name for making its existence possible. Read more »

amy-schumer

Rebecca Shaw

Amy Schumer and the equal right to be funny

I don’t think men should be banned from making jokes about contentious subjects. I am of the belief that anything can and should be laughed about, and if done right, it can be beneficial. But more often, women are doing it right, and women are doing it better. Read more »

womens-home-companion

Kate Iselin

Trivial Pursuits: The media and ‘women’s interests’

Women, especially in public life, exist as a part of men’s worlds – a big part, sure – but still a part. Even as women become more vocal in demanding accurate and respectful representation, we are kept at arms length by a mainstream media which struggles to catch up. Read more »

SGbTsPQ

Rebecca Shaw

Command and Control: Trophy daughters and overprotective dads

There is no doubt that an overprotective parent is better than a parent who couldn’t care less what their child gets up to. And there is no doubt that most overprotective mums and dads are well-meaning. But paternal ‘protectiveness’ shticks often boil down to fathers not wanting their daughters to have sex, and by extension, get pregnant. Read more »

kstew

Joanna di Mattia

Kristen Stewart Through the Looking-Glass

Kristen Stewart is an actress who has been criticised, maligned even, for an acting style that transmits from set to screen as sullen, adolescent, wooden, blank, fidgety and inelegant. But perhaps she’s an actress concerned with authenticity, and the defining feature of her style is to show us herself by appearing like she’s not acting at all. Read more »

it-follows-4

Anwen Crawford

Behind You: The subtler horror of It Follows

I don’t watch many horror films. Lifelong victim of an overactive and slightly morbid imagination, I regularly envisage disasters, natural or otherwise, that might befall me, without requiring the added stimulus of cinema. Read more »

anne-dorval-and-antoine-olivier-pilon-in-xavier-dolans-mommy

Joanna Di Mattia

All About His Mother: Xavier Dolan’s fierce women

Xavier Dolan has created an exuberant body of cinema that privileges women (and others on the margins) as complex, chaotic beings. Dolan’s fierce mothers are cleaved from the pedestal that so much of cinema places them on, so that they may dig around in the dirt that is life. Read more »

Struggle+Street+KEY+IMAGE

Anwen Crawford

Shame and Stigma on Struggle Street

Struggle Street framed poverty as a combination of genetic inheritance and natural disaster – a barrier to be overcome only through ceaseless positive effort. Those who sabotage themselves through bad choices are therefore fair targets for our scorn, while those who gain employment or remain sober deserve praise for overcoming the odds. The deserving and undeserving poor, in other words. What an old story. Read more »

TheSlap_Show

Genevieve Wood

The Slap: What’s lost when a cricket bat becomes a baseball bat?

‘A cricket bat wouldn’t make sense in an American context’, says Tony Ayres, executive producer of the US adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. He’s right, of course – it wouldn’t. But when, in US playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s version, the eponymous slap occurs as the result of a swinging baseball bat, something’s not quite right. Read more »

empire-tv-review-fox

Anwen Crawford

Rise of an Empire

Watching Empire, I wondered why there haven’t been more television shows about record labels, the music industry being the cesspit of venality that it is. Forget TV dramas about police departments and hospital wards – a show about a record label comes with all that conflict, plus outfits, plus songs. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

DUKMRUTRHLU31425064919799

Katie Williams

The Currency of Games: The real world cost of in-game purchases

A new item introduced in World of Warcraft lets players purchase a month of playing time for the real-life price of $20, which they can then sell to other players in-game in exchange for virtual currency. It’s an exchange of real money for a virtual currency that has in-game value but none in the physical, ‘real’ world – and it makes me incredibly uneasy. Read more »

Arts House_Image_10c_Oedipus Schmoedipus (post)_Credit – Ellis Parrinder copy

Jane Howard

A Case for Diversity in Theatre

Attracting different audiences to the theatre is about many things. It’s about accessibility for people without high disposable incomes, but it’s also about marketing and publicity; about creating venues which are physically accessible for people with disabilities; and about ensuring the performers on stage are as diverse as we want their audiences to be. Read more »

2909252617_1f456d0c81_b

Jane Howard

A Working-Class Mythology: Ironing boards at the theatre

In theatre, there is perhaps no prop piece more mythologised than the ironing board, which came to signify the birth of contemporary British theatre. Read more »

ForceM6609

Jane Howard

Witness and Connection at Melbourne’s Dance Massive

In a city where it feels not a day goes by without an arts festival, or three, happening, Melbourne’s Dance Massive is resolutely unique. Australia’s largest dance festival is by necessity heavily reliant on Melbourne-based companies and shows that will go on to tour independently of the festival. The festival is undeniably of, and for, the dance sector in Melbourne. Read more »