By Chet Yarbrough
36 Arguments for the Existence of God
By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Narrated by Stephen Pinker, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Oliver Wyman
Rebecca Goldstein writes like Stephen Pinker on steroids. (Coincidentally, Goldstein is married to Pinker.) Goldstein’s novel is not the story one expects from its title because “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” is about denial; not affirmation of existence.
A more apt title for Goldstein’s book might be “The Science of Human Nature Denies the Existence of God”.
Goldstein has done a masterful job of creating “fear and trembling” in believers. This is “fear and trembling” in the opposite sense of Soren Kierkegaard’s meaning. Kierkegaard’s meaning awakens believers in God. Kierkegaard, an author, theologian, and philosopher, argues one should fear and tremble at the truth of God’s existence.
On one level this is a story about a man named Cass Seltzer and his personal (sometimes romantic) relationships.
On a second level it is about human ethnocentrism. Characters, including Cass Seltzer, see through myopic eyes based on who they have become and what peer group they belong to.
On a third level “36 Arguments…” is about human nature and cultural memes (Richard Dawkins defines a cultural meme as an inherited learned behavior).
On multiple levels, Goldstein’s writing is about the elephant in the room; i.e. mankind’s belief in a Supreme Being.
The story of Cass Seltzer’s life is absorbing. The women he loves are monumentally independent, fantastically alluring, and maddeningly self-centered (as self-centered as Cass Seltzer). Each character believes what they believe with conviction that directs their lives.
The introduction of Felix Fidley exemplifies tribal ethnocentrism and conviction; i.e. a believer who says one way is the only way.
Ms. Goldstein cleverly introduces the town of New Walden. Its isolated belief system reflects the heritability of good and bad genetic markers and memes that trap people in worshipful repetition. One might categorize it as a cult or, more politely, a commune.
Finally, Goldstein creates a straw man debate about God, The debate is conducted in the next to last chapter. It pits Cass Seltzer against a purportedly renowned debater. Seltzer beats his debate opponent. Believers in God lose. In the last chapter, 36 arguments for belief in God are stated and refuted.
One doubts Goldstein will change the world with her book but its rational arguments are a big add to the non-believing world’s arguments for a scientific theory of the world that explains everything about everything.
If you are a believer, “36 Arguments…” is a clear explanation of your battleground; it reveals the manifesto, strategy, and tactics of a non-believer. Faith is always a refuge but is it enough?
“36 Arguments for the Existence of God” is a fascinating piece of literature.