Religious disillusion?

A fictional sociology of faith starring an atheist with a soul, the mathematical genius son of a rebbe and the goddess of game theory.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God
By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein | Pantheon Books | 402 pages | $27.95
As intellectual heroes go, Cass Seltzer – the principal of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s new novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God – is a rather unlikely candidate. Affable and unassuming, he teaches at the cash rich but second division Frankfurter University near Boston. He is descended from a line of respected hassidic rabbis, albeit thoroughly secularized; his mother tells him once, in connection with religious ritual, that “if it seems crazy to you, then you understand it completely.”
His specialty is the psychology of religion, a field that has been all his for two decades, “because nobody else wanted it.” But when he pens a monograph on his subject, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, it taps into the zeitgeist of the moment and becomes an unexpected best-seller. His theory – that an actual belief in God is largely irrelevant to the appreciation and enjoyment of “religious” experience – strikes a chord; he is lionized by the secular public as the “atheist with a soul.”
Professional success begets personal contentment – a new relationship, with the ultra-competitive Lucinda Mandelbaum, “goddess of Game Theory,” sets to rest the uncomfortable history of his disastrous first marriage to a glacier-cold French poet. But other ghosts from the past linger, competing to contradict the delicate tapestry of secular belief that he has created through his analytical reasoning.
Goldstein, a philosopher, the author of eight previous works of fiction, short stories and biography, and a past recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant – has, with 36 Arguments, written an intellectually ambitious consideration of the contradictions of faith. The centerpiece of Seltzer’s book, paradoxically, is its appendix, in which he demolishes with a cool rationality the 36 arguments commonly employed in favor of the existence of God. But niggling doubts, reinforced by his past, prevent him from throwing the baby out with the bathwater. He cannot bring himself to reject the validity – and the value – of faith ab initio; even as he defends his thesis before rabidly positive and negative audiences, he gropes his way along a third path, one that neither wholly rejects nor allows itself to be subsumed by blind faith.
The book, while enjoyable enough, is something of a complicated read. Maybe this shouldn’t surprise, given the subject matter; arguments for and against the existence of a supreme deity do not always lend themselves to tidy exposition or collegial debate. Goldstein’s fluid, at times digressive, narrative is much in the same vein, not always offering the reader a distinct thread that can be followed from beginning to end.
What it does create, however, is an array of memorable, if at times slightly over-hysterical characterizations. Mandelbaum, Seltzer’s girlfriend, for instance, has built her – significant – academic reputation upon an arcane variant of game theory; in essence, she believes that the jumble of human impulse and behavior can be reduced to clean mathematical lucidity. But the irony is that by subscribing to this theory, she overplays her hand and winds up teaching at Frankfurter rather than at the top-ranked universities that she considers her due.
Or Professor Klapper, Seltzer’s one-time mentor and doctoral supervisor: Irascible, intellectually insufferable, and quite happy to allow a cult of personality to build itself around him, his search for the overarching theory to explain the effervescence of religious faith entangles him in Kabbala and Jewish mysticism. Eventually he decamps to Safed to seek intellectual clarity, abandoning his doctoral students – including one who had labored away for 11 years.
Goldstein’s supporting cast are generally believable, but at times come across as insufferable caricatures with no place in the real world. Perhaps this is willful – the worlds of academia and devout faith are both, in their own ways, remarkably insular. But their quirks occasionally spill over into the story as a whole, and they make it hard at times for the reader to empathize with the worlds that they represent.
But it is another ghost from Seltzer’s past, that of the fair-haired Azarya, that perhaps captures the spirit of the book best. From the same hassidic sect that Seltzer’s family once belonged and six years old when they first meet – whilst Seltzer is still studying under Klapper – he is a mathematical prodigy and grows up to dream of studying in the field. But the expectation is that in due course he will become the sect’s next rebbe; it is the tension between the two impulses, and the ineffable beauty and maturity with which he engages with his plight, that illuminate both Seltzer as he grapples with the seemingly willful obscurantism of his mentor, and ultimately the book as a whole.
On the whole, 36 Argumentsdeserves a sympathetic read, if not for its all round cohesiveness thenfor its ambition. In a cute post modern twist, Goldstein appends thebook with the same 36 arguments for and against the existence of Godthat Seltzer includes in his book. Cool and composed, they are aninteresting counterpoint for the at times giddy excitement of the maintext. But not a substitute. As Seltzer puts it: “There are expansive,life affirming emotions that can find a natural expression in thecontext of religion, which is why I can never offer a wholesalecondemnation [of it]...” One suspects that Goldstein agrees.