Text size
related tags

Cass Seltzer, the mild-mannered hero of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's new novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God(Pantheon, 416 pages, $27.95 ), has recently emerged as one of America's favorite public intellectuals. Dubbed an "atheist with a soul" by a fictional Time magazine, for the kindler, gentler argument against God he presents in his best-selling book, "The Varieties of Religious Illusion," he is a palatable alternative to more strident deniers of the divine like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Descended from a line of Hasidic rabbis, Cass is a professor of psychology at "Frankfurter University" outside Boston (named for a legendary Jewish Supreme Court justice ), but is being wooed away by Harvard. He's also recently begun living with the woman of his dreams, and he can't get over the feeling that somehow his life is blessed, even if he lacks belief in the greater force that might have blessed him.

Cass seems to share a great deal with his creator. Goldstein, 59, is descended from a long line of rabbis on her father's side, and has made her name as both a professional philosopher and a popular writer of both fiction and non-fiction, beginning with her 1983 novel "The Mind-Body Problem." She has taught at Princeton, Harvard and Brandeis, and was a 1995 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. Her non-fiction works include a book about the mathematician Kurt Goedel and the 2006 "Betraying Spinoza," about the 16th-century philosopher of Amsterdam's Sephardi Jewish community, who was banned from the community for his views equating God with nature.

"36 Arguments" gets its name from the appendix of Cass Seltzer's book, in which he presents three dozen philosophical proofs for God's existence, and then finds the flaws in each of them. This is also the way Goldstein concludes her book, and if the reader has successfully kept up until then with the arguments of philosophy and logic that make up a lot of the novel ("36 Arguments" is a romp, but not a mindless one ), reading through the appendix will be like a post-prandial aperitif.

What pushes Goldstein's book beyond the simple "academic satire" category up to another level entirely, however, is the character of Azarya, the 6-year-old scion of the fictional Valdener Hasidic sect, who has been born with a once-in-a-generation mathematical talent as well as the character of a tzaddik. Cass meets Azarya on a visit to New Walden, the suburban New York town where the Valdeners live in hermetic seclusion, and remains a friend to him as the boy matures and must confront the conflict between his own desire to study mathematics and the expectations of his family and community that he will become their next rebbe. The figure of Azarya, and the sympathetic way the author depicts the ultra-Orthodox in general, are testimony to Goldstein's own remaining ambivalence regarding religion.

Goldstein lives in Massachusetts, with her husband, Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. Haaretz spoke with her by phone from Seattle, where she was appearing as part of a book tour for "36 Arguments."

Q Your book seems to have struck a chord. Could it be that the issues that have always preoccupied you are now of interest to a larger public?

A: I hadn't thought about it, but there's an interesting analogy with my protagonist, Cass Seltzer. He was pursuing his obsessions about the psychology of religion for decades. Nothing changed about him. It was the Zeitgeist that changed, and now, instead of being marginal, he's suddenly getting attention, and he doesn't know what hit him. I feel a bit like that.

Q Do you consider yourself, like Cass, "an atheist with a soul"?

A: (Laughs ) I am not a believer, but I think religion is very complicated and fascinating. I sympathize with a lot of the impulses that get expressed in religious terms, for example the ontological wonder, suffused with a sense of gratitude for the grandeur of existence, that I show gripping Cass at odd moments of his life. Like Cass, I'm given to experiences of that sort, and, like Cass, I fastidiously avoid giving them religious expression, drawing any conclusions from them concerning the nature of reality. So I guess that makes me an atheist with a soul.

Q Where did the idea for that very unusual appendix come from?

A: Cass thinks that religion is about far more than believing in God, and that the reasons people give for believing, offering up gestures toward rationality, are often really more afterthoughts than actual motivations. So as an afterthought, Cass attaches an appendix to his own book, giving a multitude of arguments for God's existence, far more than I've ever seen formulated before. He gives the arguments, and he knocks them down, one by one. His contention is that demonstrating the fallacies of all the arguments -- the classic ones as well as his own contributions -- will have little effect on believers. And then it's the appendix, the afterthought, that wins him all the attention -- an irony. So I thought it would be fun to show his appendix. And of course, as a philosopher, it was fun for me to write it. I just kept coming up with more and more.

Q But I wonder if people have accused you of being wishy-washy, or not following through with your arguments. After all, you describe the book's believing Jews with great sympathy.

A: I haven't heard that yet. Maybe I will. I'm on Sam Harris's board -- of the Reason Project. And maybe I'll be asked to leave for showing too much sympathy toward believing Jews. But if you ask me my philosophical position and ask me to argue it, I will be as strong or stronger than any of these guys. So why the sympathy for at least some believers? I guess one [reason] is that I'm so sympathetic to the transcendent impulse. There's no great art without it. There's no great science or math or any bursts of extraordinary creativity without it, without that sense of being pulled beyond yourself, into an expanded vision. It's a powerful experience, and I think religious language and concepts give us a way of trying to articulate it. Religious language provides a metaphor for that experience. I think it's a mistake to take that metaphor too seriously -- it is, after all, only a metaphor -- but I'm sympathetic to the emotion behind it. As long as that emotion is expansive and world-embracing, embracing of others. And not the contracting, holier-than-thou, you're-a-lesser-human-being-if-you-don't- agree-with-me emotion. Those are other emotions that find expression in religion, which is why religion is so complicated and to speak of "the religious personality" is absurdly simplistic.

Q Are you still a traditional Jew in your personal life?

A: No, I'm not. But I spent most of my life within an Orthodox community.

Q What do you mean, most of your life? Until age 25?

A: No, no, much later. My daughters went to a Jewish day school. We lived as Orthodox Jews. My first husband, Sheldon Goldstein, was Orthodox, an Orthodox physicist. I have a lot of ... a lot of annoyance toward that way of life, but also a lot of love for it. As a narrative, it touches me as a novelist. Though not as a philosopher. So, it was okay with me. I very much followed the model of Spinoza. He waited until his father was dead before he gave any intimation of his heresy. As long as I could think what I think, and could be honest with people when they asked me what do I think -- which they mostly didn't bother to do -- the way of life was okay. And I didn't want to upset my parents while they were still alive. It was very, very important to them that I live the way they wanted.

Q Tell me about the Azarya character. You said somewhere that you've been carrying him around with you for 15 years.

A: Well, there's a story by Aldous Huxley, called "Young Archimedes," about a child mathematical prodigy, and the child ends up dying. I read this story when I was about 14. It haunted me and never left me. At some point, about 15 years ago, I started thinking about it, without rereading it, and I started thinking about transposing it into a Jewish story. It was just going to be a short story, about a boy born with these prodigious abilities into a community that couldn't allow his gifts to flourish. Instead of a little boy born to Italian peasants, which was Huxley's story, I started to think about a little prodigy born into a Hasidic culture. I thought I'd have to kill the boy, the way that Huxley killed his boy -- so I didn't write it. But the child really started emerging. I could see him, I could hear him. But I wasn't going to bring him into existence in order to kill him. That would just break my heart.

Then, as I got drawn into the atheism debate, I felt that justice was not being done to the nuances of the situation. I said to myself somebody should write a novel about this, because a novel can present the complexities of worldviews, the interactions between beliefs and emotions, as nothing else can. But of course if you're going to write a novel about this, you have to write about religion concretely and specifically. When Dostoyevsky wrote "The Brothers Karamazov," he didn't present us with a picture of religion in general -- what would that even look like? -- but rather with the practices and beliefs and feelings of the Orthodox Church. So for me of course it's going to be Judaism. And then I thought, Azarya is waiting here to play his part in this larger story. His dilemma is going to be the heart of the book. Then it all sort of came together. And it only took -- oh, half a lifetime.

Q How long did it actually take you to write it?

A: Oh, the writing was nothing, Once I write, I write in a fever. It was interrupted by travel, but altogether, I'd say, about six months. But it's the germination that takes forever.

Q So, Azarya isn't based on a particular child?

A: No, but I know Azarya-like people in my family. I have members of my family, if you looked at them, you'd think you know everything about them. You know, they have black hats, and they're sitting and learning. Actually I think their metaphysics is quite similar to mine. I don't know if you get this anyplace else other than Judaism. When I told this to [philosopher] Dan Dennett, he looked at me like I must be making up stories again. After all, I'm a fiction writer. I must be making this up. When I speak to other Jews, they understand this perfectly. Loyalty to the group, to the historical narrative, can take precedence over beliefs concerning the ultimate nature of the cosmos.

Haaretz Books, February 2010, haaretzbooks@gmail.com