Sunday, March 29, 2015

36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

A gentle atheist, an academic, encounters varieties of religious fervor

Cass Seltzer, professor at Frankfurter University (a barely disguised Brandeis) has written a best selling book on the omnipresence of religious illusions. Cass’s girlfriend, a fellow professor at Frankfurter, the rather terrifyingly smart quantitative psychologist Lucinda Mandelbaum, is away for the week presenting a paper. During the same week, Cass receives a job offer from Harvard(!), encounters Roz, a former girlfriend who seems to be seriously planning on living to be several hundred years old, is haunted by his memory of Professor Klapper, a larger than life academic who is like a cult figure to his devoted graduate students, haunted again by Pascal, his crazy ex-wife, thinks about Azarya, the son of the Grand Rabbi of a Hasidic sect, and is taken by surprise by an important debate he forgot about with a prominent conservative economist. Premise: God exists.

This is a sly novel of ideas, however, the story really became engrossing when the ideas were discarded, letting the highly vivid and energetic characters took center stage. The first section was for me hard to wade through (why was everyone talking exactly the same?), then I was frankly charmed by several of the larger-than-life characters and ripped through the rest of the book. The characters are trying to achieve ecstasy on earth – some are aware of that, some aren’t.

The alternating scenes between old Cass and young Cass, confused me at first, although that narrative structure was more than sufficient to support a compelling story. In addition, there are cutesy emails to a mysterious night owl who turns out to be not who the reader expects. The stakes were competently raised. The mandatory plot points are handled skillfully enough, except for the debate on the existence of God which a creaky insertion to bring the story to a close. (Maybe it’s supposed to be creaky?) The debate itself is dull, completely undramatic. Also, the arguments don’t seem very persuasive. Cass’ story ends (almost ends that is) with a bunch of well heeled atheists jumping up and down in victory after Cass kicks ass in the debate. Not very realistic. There is an appendix – which details the Thirty Six Arguments for the Existence of God and is boring as the appendix to War and Peace

The opening section reads like a sneer at religious believers but is so over the top it is apparently a spoof. “…minds that have better things to do have to divert precious neuronal resources to figure out how to knock some sense back into the species.” But at the end, maybe I’m not so sure. Was the book a spoof or a sneer? Perhaps the message is that we should all relax and let Harvard professors run everything. Can’t go wrong that way.

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