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.

  • Sam

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


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