A novel approach to the New Atheism
Maybe human beings are fundamentally irrational – why else did I read Rebecca Goldstein's clunky, academic, atheistic novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God from cover to cover?
It’s post-9/11 and, in the East and the West, the world has gone mad with zealotry. It has fallen to smart people, like the Prius-driving, 42-year-old psychologist Cass Seltzer, to remind the world of Enlightenment values, to ‘knock some sense back into the species’, even though they probably have better things to do. For Cass, though, this state of affairs is not so much a burden as a source of personal fortune.
That is what Cass, a professor of the psychology of religion, is pondering during a nocturnal walk through a freezing Cambridge in Massachusetts in the opening chapter of Rebecca Goldstein’s new novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. With his surprise hit book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, Cass has unwittingly tapped in to an emerging zeitgeist and has been propelled into academic superstardom. He has become a public intellectual feted for his abstract, atheist ideas, ‘which makes him, according to some of the latest polls, a spokesperson for the most distrusted minority in America’.
Dubbed by the press as ‘the atheist with a soul’, Cass Seltzer is suddenly dominating international bestseller lists, pontificating in radio and television studios and signing his autograph on young women’s arms. Yet much like his fellow ‘new atheists’, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (whom the book lists as his peers), Seltzer is somehow imagining himself to be a social pariah, widely seen, according to those polls, ‘as harbouring alien and subversive values’.
In short, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God chronicles a week in the life of a surprisingly humble, wet-blanket of a man as he awaits the return of his love Lucinda Mandelbaum, nicknamed the goddess of game theory and formulator of the Mandelbaum Equilibrium, from a conference in Santa Barbara. He can’t wait to break to her the news that he has been head-hunted by Harvard University, which is trying to lure him away from the less prestigious (fictional) Frankfurter University. Alongside this present-day narrative, the book dips in and out of Seltzer’s past as well as his recent, mid-life, pivotal experiences.
The central tenet of Seltzer’s book The Varieties of Religious Illusion is that, when it comes to religion, belief in God is beside the point, and can be so irrelevant that ‘the emotional structure of religious experiences can be transplanted to completely godless contexts with little of the impact lost’. The reasons people give for believing are afterthoughts, argues Seltzer, a way of rationalising their religious commitment. That is why he added only as an appendix to his book a list of 36 arguments for God’s existence, with rebuttals, and these also form the appendix to Goldstein’s novel. For Seltzer, the appendix was simply an add-on, but in the hands of a discerning literary agent, it helped propel him to new atheist stardom.
Seltzer, like some of his fellow, real-life ‘new atheists’, feels religious adherence is some kind of emotional dysfunction, a mental blind-spot – it is no coincidence that Goldstein has made him a psychologist. But, with his own Jewish background and fond memories of his beloved orthodox grandmother’s cooking and Yiddish expressions, he also has a soft spot at least for Jews’ traditions and strong sense of community and for the value they place on rigorous study.
Hitchens himself has offered a glowing endorsement on the jacket of Goldstein’s novel, which should have been enough for me to put it back on spiked’s over-crammed shelf of review copies of books. But perhaps it is true, as any new atheist will tell you, that human beings are curiously irrational. Because I ended up reading all 391 pages chronicling the highfalutin’ dialogue, existential angst, failed relationships and intellectual dilemmas of a string of unsympathetic characters in a novel that reads like an A-to-Z of subjects that Goldstein has studied throughout her career and/or researched for the purpose of this novel, from game theory to theology, from the prime number theorem to Kabbalah.
Yes, I get it. It’s satire, a ‘campus comedy’. But reading page after page of ludicrously pompous expositions by windbag professors is not much fun. And neither are the puns and quirky terms that Goldstein imagines people who have spent too long cooped up in ivory towers conjure up. Like ‘fanging’, a phrase the academic femme fatale Lucinda Mandelbaum, has coined to describe her aggressive style of intellectual one-upmanship. But perhaps this really is the way people speak at the high seats of learning, and the novel might well draw more laughs from those ‘in the know’ – those who, like Goldstein, a professor of philosophy who got her PhD from Princeton and is a research associate at Harvard, can relate to the secluded world of costly international conferences on obscure topics, inter-departmental tugs of war for resources and the vendettas of competitive academics.
Over the course of the novel, we are introduced to the various women in Seltzer’s life. There’s his old college girlfriend, the free-spirited, passionate and sexy anthropologist Roz Margolis. There’s his ex-wife Pascale, a striking French poetess whose first words to him when she recovered from a serious illness were: ‘I must of necessity break your heart.’ And finally there’s his temporarily long-distance girlfriend, Lucinda, a stunning mathematical genius. Yes, not only are the women in American academe stupendously erudite, they’re also hot.
But the legendary, and legendarily pompous, Jonas Elijah Klapper, ‘a Jewish walrus in a shabby tweed jacket’, has been an even more central figure in Seltzer’s life. He was the reason why the young Seltzer left medical school, coming to Frankfurter as a graduate student to study under the Klap, as Roz calls him, the single professor of the Department of Faith, Literature and Values, which was set up especially for this toweringly egocentric genius.
And finally, there is Azarya, a young maths prodigy and future reluctant heir to the throne of Grand Rabbi of a sect of secluded, orthodox Jews. Azarya, though he only occasionally enters the narrative in person, is in fact central to it. At a young age he has to make a choice between following his dream to study mathematics or brushing aside his own ambitions and religious doubts for the sake of his community. His dilemma is whether to remake himself in his own image or to follow a preordained destiny. Perhaps there are traces of Goldstein herself in Azarya, as she spent most of her life within an orthodox Jewish community. Azarya has surely played a role in infusing Seltzer’s atheism with some soul, leading him to recognise that the arguments for the existence of God are fallacious but that religious life can still be compelling.
Even though 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is a clunky read, it is also a complex work of fiction, infused with a sense of empathy and insight that is sorely lacking in the new atheists, who seem simply to regard religious people as delusional, mentally deranged child abusers.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.
36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, by Rebecca Goldstein, is published by Atlantic Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
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