Equally adept at fiction (a winner of the National Jewish Book Award) and philosophy (a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation "genius" prize), Rebecca Newberger Goldstein gives us a novel that transforms the great debate between faith and reason into an exhilarating romance of both heart and mind.
At the center: Cass Seltzer, a professor of psychology whose book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, has become a surprise best seller. He's been dubbed "the atheist with a soul," and his sudden celebrity has upended his life. He wins over the stunning Lucinda Mandelbaum—"the goddess of game theory"—and loses himself in a spiritually expansive infatuation. A former girlfriend appears: an anthropologist who invites him to join in her quest for immortality through biochemistry. But he is haunted by reminders of the two people who ignited his passion to understand religion: his teacher Jonas Elijah Klapper, a renowned literary scholar with a suspicious obsession with messianism, and an angelic six-year-old mathematical genius, heir to the leadership of an exotic Hasidic sect. Each encounter reinforces Cass's theory that the religious impulse spills over into life at large.
36 Arguments for the Existence of God plunges into the great debate of our day: the clash between faith and reason. World events are being shaped by fervent believers at home and abroad, while a new atheism is asserting itself in the public sphere. On purely intellectual grounds the skeptics would seem to have everything on their side. Yet people refuse to accept their seemingly irrefutable arguments and continue to embrace faith in God as their source of meaning, purpose, and comfort.
Using her gifts in fiction and philosophy, Goldstein has produced a true crossover novel, complete with a nail-biting debate ("Resolved: God Exists") and a stand-alone appendix with the thirty-six arguments (and responses) that propelled Seltzer to stardom.
Dinner party hostesses used to be warned to steer the conversation away from politics and religion. I used to wonder why, but I don't anymore. There are some differences that reveal rifts so deep that dialogue breaks down. Among these are the current debates that have been raging between God-believers and the so-called new atheists. It often seems that people on one side can't begin to grasp what the world is like, what it feels like, for those on the other side. When the person with whom one is conversing appears utterly opaque, then mistrust and contempt are easily aroused: How can he be saying that when the opposite seems so obvious to me? Is he stupid, dishonest, maybe just a touch evil? These are not the sort of suspicions that the gracious hostess wants intruding at her candle-lit dinner table.
But for me, as a novelist, it's differences like these, indicating entirely different orientations toward the world, which are the most tantalizing to explore. Arguments alone can't capture all that is at stake for people when they argue about issues of reason and faith. In the end, I place my faith in fiction, in its power to make vividly present how different the world feels to each of us and how these differences are sometimes what is really being expressed in the great debates of our day on the existence of God.
The title of the book is 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. I meant the subtitle to be understood as a sort of joke, but as a serious one, too.
— Rebecca Goldstein
"Rebecca Newberger Goldstein does it all. She has written a hilarious novel about people's existential agonies, a page-turner about the intellectual mysteries that obsess them. The characters in 36 Arguments For the Existence of God explore the great moral issues of our day in a novel that is deeply moving and a joy to read."
— Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated
"A remarkable novel—as entertaining as it is illuminating—savagely funny in its characterizations, brilliant in its contemplation of the self and the sublime. This is a timely and timeless book, and definitive proof of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's protean intellect and engaging talent."
— Jess Walter, author of The Zero
"So extravagantly witty and smart that it's making everything else I've read recently seem drab."
— Ron Charles, Senior Editor, Washington Post Book Review
"Goldstein ... ramps up her gifts for radiant humor and the transmutation of metaphysics, mathematics, and Jewish mysticism into narrative gold ... Goldstein is entrancing and unfailingly affectionate toward her brilliant yet bumbling seekers in this elegant yet uproarious novel about the darkness of isolation and the light of learning, the beauty of numbers and the chaos of emotions, the 'longing for spiritual purity' and love in all its wildness."
— Donna Seamon, Booklist
"A captivating, original, and at times riotously funny novel. ... Goldstein has fashioned a tale that does justice to the depth of the problem of reconciling a scientific worldview with the insistent yearning for transcendence, and has done so in a way that is philosophically sophisticated without being pedantic, and deeply moving without being weighed down by the burdensome dross of sentimentality."
— Peter Lopatin, Commentary, January 2010.
"[Goldstein] has taken on some of the deepest philosophical questions of human existence and shaped them into a page-turner at once funny and heartbreaking and challenging ... A terrifically engaging novel."
— Dani Shapiro, Moment, Jan/Feb 2010
"Comic and supremely witty, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is both a satire of the academic world and a feast of philosophical and religious ideas."
— Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dreams
"You do not have to perpetrate an act of faith to confront the question of why there is something rather than nothing. It is faith itself that consists of nothing. Rebecca Goldstein, on the other hand, is quite something."
— Christopher Hitchens, author of god is Not Great
"Rollicking ... Irreverent and witty, Goldstein seamlessly weaves philosophy into this lively and colorful chronicle of intellectual and emotional struggles."
— Publishers Weekly, 11/2/09
"A high-energy caper in which religion, relativism, passion, and primitivism meet in the brainy collisions and collusions of a best-selling scholar, ex-lovers, rabbis, cosmologists, and one tiny math prodigy."
— Elle, "Trust Us: This Month's Quick Picks," January 2010
"A hilarious novel that will add fuel to the debate that Richard Dawkins has made a million-pound industry. Rebecca Goldstein has penned a great story that will steal some of Dawkins' action ... An intellectual delight ..."
— The Bookseller (UK), picks for March 2010
"An ambitious novel about big ideas—love, sex, religion—that nevertheless faces these issues with irony and humor ... A big-hearted novel, filled with energy and an encouraging zest for life."
— Gordon Haber, Forward, Jan. 8, 2010