Divine discourse drives story of ‘the atheist with a soul’

By Karen Campbell
January 21, 2010

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Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, the Boston-based philosopher and author of the best-selling “The Mind-Body Problem’’ and “The Dark Sister,’’ was awarded the prestigious MacArthur “Genius’’ prize for her ability to “dramatize the concerns of philosophy without sacrificing the demands of imaginative storytelling.’’ Goldstein’s new novel, “36 Arguments for the Existence of God,’’ bolsters that claim with a freewheeling satirical tale that is compelling, heady if sometimes stultifying, and laced with a deliciously dark wit.

The book follows two decades in the life of Cass Selzer, an expert in the psychology of religion who we meet in the first flush of fame and modest fortune. His acclaimed new book, “The Varieties of Religious Illusion,’’ has garnered him the moniker “the atheist with a soul.’’ The national attention as an intellectual celebrity has brought a letter from Harvard, hoping to lure him away from his comfy climes of the past 20 years at Frankfurter University, just 12 miles downriver in playfully named Weedham, Mass. (Area readers will love the book’s geographic and demographic details, evoking Boston and Cambridge.)

In addition, Cass is comfortably in a relationship with a gorgeous and brilliant (if sometimes insufferable) creature known as “the goddess of Game Theory,’’ Lucinda Mandelbaum. But all this attention and good fortune has set off some serious soul-searching. Cass is a fundamentally nice guy who believes that living morally is a basic human mandate that should have little to do with fear of “being spanked by the heavenly father.’’ But now he is viewed as the poster boy for the religious-ly disenfranchised and amoral with “no inner values at all, and therefore likely to be criminals, rapists, and wild-eyed drug addicts.’’

So as “36 Arguments’’ evolves, through chapters with titles like “The Argument From the Improbable Self’’ and “The Argument From the Overheard Whispers of Angels,’’ we learn what people and experiences have helped set the stage for Cass’s current status, including an ex-flame and a child math genius. The most influential person in Cass’s intellectual history has been his mentor, Frankfurter University’s legendary Jonas Elijah Klapper, a literary scholar and zealot with a tendency toward arcane, nearly incomprehensible rambling that makes for the book’s most turgid passages.

It was Klapper who sparked Cass’s need to understand religion, fueling his passion to examine, ask questions, and ultimately offer his own perspective on faith in the great age of doubt. The intellectual heart of the novel is a debate about the existence of God between Cass and the pompously arrogant Professor Felix Fidley sponsored by the Agnostic Chaplaincy of Harvard. However the most concise arguments come in what Cass inserted as the appendix of his notorious book, rebuttals of 36 notable arguments for the existence of God, from the cosmological and ontological to the mathematical. (Goldstein includes this as the appendix of the novel itself, and it’s fascinating reading for those with an appetite for existential inquiry.)

Goldstein’s book isn’t easy reading and may be too erudite for many. (Klapper’s philosophical musings, peppered with a florid vocabulary, had this reader reaching for a dictionary more than once.) But Goldstein is a brilliant exponent of her subject, and she has crafted a story that is caustically irreverent, yet provocative and informative without being completely didactic. And somewhat surprisingly, by the end, “36 Arguments’’ is also deeply touching.

Karen Campbell is a freelance arts writer. Her culture blog is at


By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Pantheon, 416 pp., $27.95