Sunday 16 July 2017

36 Arguments for the Existence of God

I read this book is a series of rushes over six months because of other things I was doing. This meant I had to recap when I began each reading. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is a philosophical novel by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and it references a lot of her own upbringing. She is an atheist, but was born into an orthodox Jewish family and her brother is a rabbi. The story is divided into thirty-six chapters in an almost Wilsonian manner, except that in RAW's case it was the number twenty-three. Each chapter is called "Argument from..." with a qualifier such as "Argument from Dappled Things", "Argument from Prime Numbers" etc. The story centres around an academic psychologist called Cass Seltzer, a man who has written a highly successful book that has become a "new atheist" classic, in a similar way to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, see: This has made him hot property in the media. He is always on TV and radio shows debating with religious believers; the "God vs no God" format that has become such a common popular meme. The plot then intersperses with flashbacks of his younger life when he was a student under an eccentric professor called Jonas Elijah Klapper who is a "spiritual-but-not-religious" person and is an expert on all religions and mythologies. Cass is from a hardline closed Jewish community which is incredibly strict, almost a Jewish equivalent of the Amish, but he is dating a girl called Roz who is a Reform Jew and an agnostic. They pay a visit to the community and come across a small boy who is a mathematical prodigy. The problem is that the boy is also the son of the Valdemare Rebbe, the leader of this very traditional Jewish society. It's a world in which people wear the same clothes, eat only kosher food and on the Sabbath, from every Friday evening until sunrise on Sunday morning, will not even wipe their bottoms after going to the toilet because that counts as work which is forbidden. As the boy grows up he has to choose between his predestined role to be the spiritual ruler of his people or to leave and study maths at a university, which is his passion. What's interesting is that Prof. Klapper has an almost cultic hold over his small group of students. One of the characters is an older man who befriends Cass who has been a postgraduate student of Klapper's for over a decade. He simply can't break away and leave his classes. Cass succeeds in doing so and becomes an atheist. There is a lot of humour in the book, especially around the idiosyncrasies of Prof. Klapper. Some of the characters are annoying, such as Cass' girlfriend in later life who is a rather obnoxious feminist called Lucinda Mandelbaum. She is a master mathematician who is known as the "Goddess of Game Theory", but still sees herself as a deprived victim, despite her success, simply because she is a "woman!"; and therefore she feels justified in mistreating her male colleagues. The story ends with a description of a "God vs no God" debate that is very vivid and strikes a bell for anybody, like me, who enjoys watching this ultimate verbal spectator sport. The appendix of the novel actually contains the famous three dozen real philosophical arguments for the existence of God and their rebuttals, see: Although of course anybody who follows this controversy will know that the rebuttals themselves have counter-rebuttals, counter-counter rebuttals and counter-counter-counter rebuttals ad infinitum. Does God exist or not? People have been arguing about this question throughout all of history, so if you expect a single paperback book to provide a final answer, you'll be disappointed. It was interesting to read about the atheist vs believer mindset from a Jewish perspective. Judaism has a far older and richer tradition in discussions like this than Christianity or Islam does. It is cleverly written and the author has a well-developed and amusing style that I can appreciate as a fellow fiction writer. Here are two videos of the author: and: The book can be purchased here: An interesting bit of trivia is that Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is married to Stephen Pinker, another famous atheo-skeptic pop-philosopher, see:

No comments: