Monday, October 24, 2011

36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein

If you ever look closely at the rational arguments for the existence of some god or other, I think you will find that only those who already believe on grounds quite other than reason or argument tend to be impressed by the arguments. The arguments, sometimes called proofs, are afterthoughts given to buoy up beliefs and to give them a patina of rationality. Rebecca Goldstein, who got her PhD. in philosophy from Princeton, is well aware of the above, but she also realizes how the lived life of religion, what some have called the phenomenology of religion, is far more important than rational arguments for or against the existence of a God. To put it another way, the psychology of religious belief is far more important and interesting than the logic of religious belief.

In her highly amusing and clever novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, Goldstein has a lot to tell us about what has been dubbed evangelical atheism, Hasidic Judaism, some of the many absurdities of academic life, the current state of analytic philosophy, the split between reason and emotion, and much, much more.

Goldstein’s main character, Cass Seltzer, is a professor of psychology in a small eastern college which, like so many small colleges and state universities, suffers from what some have called the ‘little Princeton syndrome’. In its attempt to achieve the elevated status of a Princeton or Harvard or Yale, the mythical Frankfurter University lures big name academicians with promises of light workloads, generous salaries, lush offices and other perks. Jonas Elijah Klapper, as pompous and didactic as his name suggests, is one such academician hired by Frankfurter. Klapper’s encyclopedic memory and his love affair with himself have catapulted him to fame. The novel jumps back and forth between the mature and newly famous Cass Seltzer who has just written a book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, and the much younger Cass who, while struggling along as a premed student, finds himself bowled over by the excitement and breadth of the history of ideas, and more particularly by the compendious mind of the already famous Jonas Elijah Klapper. He changes his major and his university in order to sit at the feet of the intellectual giant.

The other central characters in the book are Cass’s early girlfriend, Rozlyn Margolis, who resurfaces in his life after he has become famous, and Lucinda Mandelbaum, “known in her world as ‘the Goddess of Game Theory.’ Lucinda is, pure and simple, a wondrous creature, with adoration her due and Cass’s avocation.” The beautiful and mathematically talented Lucinda, while trying to leverage more money and more privileges from Princeton by threatening to accept a monetarily huge offer from little Frankfurter, finds herself outmaneuvered and ends up, much to her dismay, in the psychology department of Frankfurter with the newly famous Cass.

While the novel suffers to some extent by overblown, one-dimensional characters, none of whom is quite believable, the underlying themes in psychology of religion, and insights into academic wars currently raging between computer driven number worship and an older humanistic view of the history of ideas, make up for the stylistic weaknesses of the book. It is no mistake that the title of Cass’s book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion is so close to William James’ famous, The Varieties of Religious Experience and Sigmund Freud’s essay "The Future of an Illusion". Although James was all in all unimpressed with the so-called proofs for the existence of God, he was very interested in what might be called the religious temperament and religious experience. Cass is adored by many undergraduates as well as intellectuals sympathetic to what has been dubbed evangelical atheism, but he, himself, is not really an ardent atheist, nor is he immune to the attractions of religious life. I think we can say the same for Goldstein. Her dismantling of the 36 arguments in an appendix to the novel is both insightful and amusing, and quite clearly she does not think reason can take us far towards religious belief. But that hardly ends the matter for her, since she sees clearly that logic has so little to do with religious belief or religious lives.

One central character whom I have not yet mentioned is a brilliant young Jewish boy, son of an Hasidic Rabbi and heir to the leadership of an isolated Hasidic community. His name is Azarya, and at the age of six he exhibits a mathematical genius that astounds Roz and Cass. It is quite obvious that Goldstein, who is herself gifted with a wonderful analytic and mathematical mind, is intrigued by mathematical and musical geniuses who seem almost to be born with their prodigious talents. Certain that his tremendous mathematical talents will wither and die if he remains in the isolated community of New Walden, when Azarya is sixteen Roz and Cass find a way to hook him up with a famous mathematician at Columbia who is equally impressed with his intellectual promise. But as Azarya himself sees, while it is necessary for him to leave New Walden if he is to prosper as a mathematician, it is impossible for him to leave his people and his role as future leader and Rabbi. And while it is in some sense impossible for him to remain in New Walden (he is not himself a believer in God), it is necessary—as a debt to his loved father and his loved community. An unresolvable paradox, impossible and yet necessary, necessary and yet impossible.

I read this book with a colleague of mine, and we found ourselves wondering why Azarya and New Walden were brought into the novel at all, since it seemed almost an appendage to the main storyline. But in retrospect, I think that Azarya characterizes a split in Goldstein herself, and a living proof that the logic of religious belief has so little to do with the lived life of religion or with the psychology of religion. No doubt Goldstein uses Azarya and New Walden to talk about the dangerous intellectual narrowness of fundamentalist religious beliefs and communities, but also to bring up the psychological benefits of religious community. Whatever she believes about the existence of God or the powers of reason to establish God’s existence, she is culturally Jewish (as are her main characters)—to leave behind the beliefs is not to leave behind the culture.

I have not said much yet about the bombastic Jonas Elijah Klapper or the very funny and irreverent Rozlyn Margolis, but both play very significant roles in the novel. Roz calls the allegedly great man simply The Klapp, and tries to warn Cass early on that his near worship of Klapper will lead to nothing good. We in academia have met many Jonas Elijah Klappers, and while it is easy to laugh at him and his pretensions, Goldstein also gives him some great lines and uses him as a mouthpiece for her own humorous asides about the Academy.

This is not a great novel, but it is often very funny and it contains much of importance about religious experience and warns against a too quick rejection of all that is so-called ‘spiritual’. There is a wonderful mind at work in this novel, not Jonas Elijah Klapper’s, but Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s, and it is well worth the read.

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