I'm long overdue to write some book recommendations. For example, this one, which I made notes for weeks ago and then never got back to.
Last month I read 36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. This novel is funny, inventive, thought-provoking, and educational. A cast of great and often larger-than-life characters learn, debate, and fall in love, and along the way the reader is introduced to philosophy, psychology, game theory, Hasidic Judaism, prime numbers, and assorted other topics.
Cass Seltzer is a professor who studies the psychology of religion, a field he's the world's expert in, "but only because nobody else wanted it." Cass publishes a book on the subject that unexpectedly becomes a bestseller and rockets him to fame. Time magazine calls him "the atheist with a soul." However,
He would never have dubbed himself an atheist in the first place, not because he believes -- he certainly doesn't -- but because he believes that belief is beside the point. It's the Appendix that's pushed him into the role of atheism's spokesperson, a literary afterthought that has remade his life.
The Appendix in question consists of 36 frequently used arguments for the existence of God and a rebuttal to each that points out the flaws in the reasoning. It's at the end of Cass's (nonfiction, yet fictional) book, and it also appears as a real 60-page appendix to Goldstein's novel. (The entire appendix is also available on the publisher's site for the novel.) Both the arguments for and against are an engrossing read.
The novel itself contains large chunks where the story stops for an educational break, delivered either through the narration or in the form of a monologue by one of the characters. These interludes of philosophy, mathematics, Jewish culture, and so on do relate to the story, and I found it all entertaining and enlightening, but this style won't appeal to everyone. It's not a dry academic text -- I often laughed out loud while reading -- but it is dense.
A range of perspectives on religion can be found among the characters in this novel, from Cass's detached fascination to the hardcore atheism of his friends to the complete and life-controlling faith of the Hasidic community that features in one of the story's main plots. I think this book would interest readers of any belief system who are curious about what leads people into different beliefs than their own.
At times, the characters and tone of 36 ARGUMENTS reminded me of another academia novel in which disciplines collide, THINKS... by David Lodge. I recommend them both.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ Christopher Gronlund discusses A Problem With Writing Research: "One of my pet peeves as a reader is when it's clear that the writer is dumping into the story unnecessary things they discovered while researching."
→ Jenn Hubbard reminds us that any individual's tale is only One true story: "...we think of our own lives as normal, our own experiences as universal. (But of course, this may be a generalization also! Maybe others are more aware than I was of how specific our lives really are.)"