September 22, 2011

36 Arguments for the Existence of God

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.)"


Anonymous said...

Arguing about faith is like catching a sunbeam. Considering the first cause problem is no less the same. Who is to say that all has not always been here. In fact, in different form, we prove over and over again that's the case. Why must we need a start and a finish, and therein lies the problem. Give up on that idea - a concept never proven and in fact just the opposite - and all falls into place. Beliefs do not require reason, arn't even close friends and so why do we conisitantly argue the question with reason. Dave L.

Christopher Gronlund said...

I've always been an atheist, but growing up around Jewish cousins and a big Catholic community, it all kind of blurred together for me. My Catholic friends and cousins accepted me; I accepted them. Faith (or lack of faith) was just a little difference to us all--like hair color or favorite TV shows.

I was picked on for being an atheist, but saw that the Christians who picked on me also picked on Jewish friends, math nerds, and others. For them, my atheism was just another difference--like the kid with the thick glasses who carried his bug collection around with pride.

So the book sounds interesting to me; I'm glad you reviewed it. And...thanks for the mention in the "Good Stuff Out There" section. I always appreciate it!

Lisa Eckstein said...

Christopher, I think you'll probably enjoy this book. I liked the way you wove the question of belief through HELL COMES WITH WOOD PANELED DOORS -- not what you'd normally expect to find in a goofy road trip story!

laurenhat said...

I didn't like THINKS... even though I really wanted to like it -- but of course, at this point, I can't really remember why with any confidence. I think I didn't find it enough of a page turner and didn't like or sympathize with the characters enough. But 36 ARGUMENTS sounds like something I should at least try!

Lisa Eckstein said...

Lauren, I hope you like 36 ARGUMENTS better. Especially because I believe I'm also the one who recommended THINKS... to you, so I'd hate to be wrong on both counts. :)

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