I recently finished Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. The subtitle is key here: “A Work of Fiction.” This is not a theological or philosophical treatise on apologetics. Rather it is a well-crafted work of fiction set squarely in the academic worlds of Cambridge and Waltham Massachusetts. The characters are memorable and sympathetically portrayed.
The cultural backdrop to the story is “The New Atheism” phenomenon as embodied by folks like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. The protagonist of the story is Cas Seltzer, a psychologist with little prestige in wider academia who has been grinding out a fine, but small career. Cas becomes a celebrity after publishing a book called, The Varieties of Religious Illusion which is clearly an homage to William James and Sigmund Freud. It becomes a best-seller and Seltzer is dubbed as “The Atheist with a Soul” in the popular media.
But that is just a backdrop, albeit, a topical and relevant one. The story’s center is in the relationships between the main characters. Friends, lovers, mentors, ex-wives and others are brought together to create a (mostly) believable and (certainly) rich narrative.
Without giving anything away, two things that tickled my fancy:
- The funniest dissertation topic I’ve read about since John Irving’s The Water-Method Man.
- Two examples (caricatures, perhaps) of the foibles and flaws of “academic superstars.”
Watch a short interview with Goldstein below.