The HUMANIST Interview with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Author and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s new novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (Pantheon, 2010), follows the past and present of one Cass Seltzer, a professor of the philosophy of religion who Time magazine dubs “the atheist with a soul” after his book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, becomes a runaway best seller. With fame comes a previously unattainable romance with a game theorist, the sudden appearance of an old flame searching for immortality through biochemistry, and a professional offer that’s hard to refuse. While processing it all, Cass flashes back to his days as a beleaguered graduate student who returns—along with his larger-than-life, messianic advisor, Dr. Jonas Elijah Klapper—to the Hasidic community Cass’s mother had fled as a young woman. There he and Klapper encounter a six-year-old mathematical genius who also happens to be destined to succeed his father as the leader of the sect. Goldstein spoke recently with the Humanist about her funny, complex, and illuminating book.

The Humanist: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God swirls with all manner of ideas about faith, reason, devotion, and the games we humans play. (And of course there’s the title of Cass Seltzer’s bestseller The Varieties of Religious Illusion.) Would you say your novel is fundamentally making the argument that we should argue about the existence of God?

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: I don’t know that I’m urging people that they ought to argue about the existence of God, just mostly exploring how they do, when they do. Often when people argue about the existence of God they’re speaking about other issues as well, expressing attitudes that extend so deep that they define that person’s way of locating himself in the whole shebang. They’re speaking out of intuitions regarding the limits of human understanding, betraying whether they’re irritated by, indifferent to, or revel in a sense of ultimate mystery. Such intuitions shape our general philosophical personalities.

The Humanist: What do you mean by philosophical personalities?

RNG: I think we have philosophical personalities, just as we do political personalities. And just as you’ll never get a political conservative to see things the same way as a political liberal—Thomas Sowell has brilliantly argued that two irreconcilable visions of human nature underlie these opposing political personalities—you’ll never have a mystery-reveler see things the same way as a mystery-shunner. Even with the very best of arguments telling against the existence of God, still the force of one’s philosophical personality can exert itself in opposition. One of the best expressions of this is William James’s article “The Will to Believe.” James was a wannabe believer, a mystery-reveler who couldn’t quite overcome his seeing all too clearly the shortcomings in the arguments for God’s existence, and he’s ready to distort his entire conception of truth in order to accommodate the embrace of mystery.

All in all, I’m on board with the New Atheism bringing the arguments for God’s existence into prominence, even though I don’t think we’re ever going to reach consensus here, any more than in our fundamental political debates. But I wouldn’t give up subjecting those arguments for God’s existence to rigorous analysis, precisely because it reminds even those who find a home for their core philosophical personalities within religion that those who do not aren’t making a mistake that calls for correcting.

The Humanist: The Washington Post review of your book concluded, “Goldstein doesn’t want to shake your faith or confirm it, but she’ll make you a believer in the power of fiction” and John Brockman of Edge said you were “pushing the envelope” of the New Atheism by crossing over into the fictional realm. How is fiction better suited to discussing the big questions of God’s existence and the importance of religion? How do you see this book fitting into—or would you say disrupting—the New Atheist canon?

RNG: Sam Harris and others are sometimes criticized as coming on too aggressively in attacking the arguments that people put forth for their religious beliefs. I’m not sympathetic to this criticism. I think that all beliefs should be examined rigorously. If someone is claiming to know how the world is, and offering us arguments as to how he knows the world to be this way such that others, too, ought to accept his conclusion—and that’s what an argument purports to do—then it’s only reasonable to subject those arguments to thorough-going analysis. But I also believe that religion is about far more than argued beliefs in God’s existence. Religion is a place where people can take their existential dilemmas, and their need for community, and their sense of the mystery of existence, and their fear of death, and their moral uncertainties, and their need to feel their lives to be of significance, and their disgust at their own distasteful impulses, and…I could go on and on. Showing the inadequacy of arguments for God’s existence isn’t going to make these needs disappear for those for whom they are an insistent presence. So treating religion as a simple propositional affair seems to miss a great deal of what’s going on when people disagree about religion. Grasping what the world is like for those who see and feel it quite differently is surely a requirement for communicating, and here’s where the art of fiction can be helpful. It trains one’s mind that way in general.

I don’t want to argue that fiction is necessarily a better vehicle for discussing big issues though. I’d be content if people accepted that fiction can be an additional means for exploring philosophical issues, that it can add a different dimension to the discussion, especially in probing the emotional undertones of philosophical debates. Philosophical debates, precisely because they’re not empirically resolvable, summon into play a person’s core intuitions, making those who feel strongly one way or the other sometimes almost incapable of grasping what their opponent is saying. It’s as if they’re inhabiting fundamentally different worlds, and this creates, at the very least, fertile ground for fiction. What a fictional character is, after all, is a point of view. Each time a novelist creates a character she creates the world as it exists for that character.

The Humanist: In addition to the exchange of religious ideas and experiences among your characters, a reader of 36 Arguments might learn a bit about prime numbers, game theory, and the sometimes petty politics of academia. How hard is it to balance the action with the information in a fictional story?

RNG: I’m interested in creating characters who are themselves so taken with ideas that you can’t understand these characters unless you get a sense of the ideas that engage and obsess them. There are lots of people like this—in fact, almost everybody I know—and those are the kinds of people I write about. In other words, I’m piling the information in as a way of delineating character. And given the kinds of characters I’m creating, the action itself is often a function of those heads so chock full of ideas. So, for example, I have a character Lucinda Mandelbaum, who is a game theorist, and who thinks of all human relations in terms of zero-sum or non-zero-sum games—mostly zero-sum, I’m afraid, which makes her a competitive sort of a girl. My main protagonist, Cass Seltzer, is besottedly in love with Lucinda, desperately teaching himself game theory so that he can see the world as she does. And when he does … well, I won’t give away any of the plot. But that particular development really falls out of her game-theoretic mindset.

The Humanist: I loved the way Cass refutes the idea that morality must come from God: “God’s reasons for wanting us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us are the very reasons that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. The reasons are what make such actions moral, and God himself is redundant.” Humanists and other non-religious types must constantly defend their morality. Do you feel that humanists can do a better job of putting our words into action?

RNG: One of the valuable things that religious communities provide is a way of organizing people to do good in the world. Well, sometimes to do bad in the world, too, but sometimes actual good. Our humanist community should be thinking more about demonstrating the fundamental truth that goodness requires neither God nor the belief in God by organizing together as a community to do good. Less money spent on billboards that just make us feel good about ourselves and more on soup kitchens and organized visits to the sick and dying—that would be my suggestion.

The Humanist: Speaking of religious communities, Cass is connected to the very insular Hasidic enclave of New Walden in New York. What’s your own experience with Orthodox Judaism?

RNG: Cass’s mother had rebelled against that community. Cass would only go back occasionally with his mother and brother to visit his grandmother. The community—which I modeled on a real place in New York State called New Square—was quite foreign to Cass, though he was always intrigued by it.

I myself grew up in a non-Hasidic but Orthodox family. Our situation was a bit anomalous because we didn’t live in an Orthodox community. We lived in White Plains, New York, where my father was a cantor for a synagogue which, though Orthodox, was far less observant than we were. We were fairly impoverished, and as a result my parents couldn’t afford to send their daughters to a Jewish parochial school, though my brother was sent. I have to say that this was one aspect of religious sexism for which I was enormously grateful. I loved my public school, I loved my friends whose families were so different from mine, but who always treated me so nicely that I grew up thinking that WASPs feel preferentially fond of Jews. These families of my best friends used to stock special kosher food for me and even keep paper plates and plastic utensils for me to use. In fact, I probably loved it all a bit too much, since when I hit high school my mother decided that my pleasure in pluralism had gone far enough, and I got yanked out of public school and placed in a very right-wing, all-girls yeshiva that operated in a crumbling, condemned public school building down on the Lower East Side. This school discouraged its pupils from even going onto college, instead expecting us to get married and start having babies right after we graduated at seventeen. I thought of this school as a joke, and developed effective strategies of playing hooky without getting caught. Well, sometimes I got caught. I wasn’t doing anything terribly naughty, mostly just haunting libraries and museums, trying somehow or other to get myself an education.

The Humanist: Well, your readers are certainly fortunate that you followed your intellectual impulse. I suppose young women who do so these days aren’t seen as rebelling so much, but it really is too bad that sexism continues to creep into the intellectual arena. In fact, you were recently dubbed a “pink atheist.” What does this mean to you?

RNG: The suggestion was that those of us of the female persuasion are not as concerned with the truth or falsity of various propositions—such as that God exists, or that God is the foundation of morality—but rather just want everybody to get along and play nicely together. We’re not as concerned with analyzing arguments (so male!) and are rather more concerned with protecting the civil rights of nonbelievers, a sort of Freethinkers Anti-Defamation League. Well, the best way of defending atheists against defamation, it seems to me, is to employ good old rigorous argument, aggressively going after, for example, the flagrantly fallacious argument that without God there can be no morality. And showing up the weaknesses in arguments for God’s existence is also an important aspect of the Freethinkers Anti-Defamation League. It’s not at all like the B’nai Brith, defending people who are Jewish by reasons of birth, without having any say in the matter. We’re not passively atheists, but actively arrive at this position, just like those logic-wielding men.

The Humanist: Here, here. It’s interesting that your character Cass Seltzer also seems uncomfortable with being labeled as a kinder, gentler atheist.

Elsewhere he ruminates on the religious impulse toward spiritual purity, or the longing for it, and relates it to the psychology of disgust with basic human traits. Ironically, nontheists are often disgusted by religious sensibilities. Is this at play when Cass’s first wife coldly receives the young Azarya Sheiner but then thaws when they discover a shared musical appreciation?

RNG: One of the points of the novel is that some impulses that find religious expression are so deeply ingrained in human nature that they spill over into secular contexts. The varieties of religious illusion, which functions as the title of Cass’s book, can mask themselves in secular settings. In fact, I play with this theme throughout the novel. Pascale’s squeamishness at the sight of Azarya, a young Hasid, certainly displays the disgust at the Other, and she keeps her distance until she discovers a shared humanity in the universal language of music and mathematics.

When I was still living within the bounds of Orthodoxy—which I did well into my adulthood and long after I had become a nonbeliever, for reasons having to do with my family—I sometimes experienced the withering assessments of scientific sorts. There was one doctor, in particular, after I gave birth to one of my children, who made a few cutting remarks, probably assuming that I was too stupid even to understand them, imputing a primitiveness to me that clearly provoked his distaste. I was remembering such experiences when I was writing that scene with Pascale.

The Humanist: Speaking of the personal, a reader of 36 Arguments who knows certain details of your past and present might think she knows who’s based on who and all that. Is real life just a springboard? How do you harness inspiration in creating your characters?

RNG: I live with my characters for a long time before I start to write them. Most of them are created out of whole cloth, but sometimes there is a detail of a real person that forms the kernel of a particular character. I incubate my characters long enough so that they emerge as something new, and I can hear them loud and clear, speaking in ways that are entirely distinctive to them. But you know sometimes I start with a kernel of something I’ve observed—a remark somebody has uttered, or a particular isolated fact about a person that catches my fancy—and I let my imagination go to work so that I feel that I’m coming up with a new creation, and then I learn that I’ve deduced—as if by mathematics—some other feature that belongs to the original person. This always amazes me, and makes me think that the imagination is not as free as we sometimes think it, that deductive reason is playing a big part. This happened with a few of the characters in this book. There is one character, in particular—I won’t say who—who was inspired by just one quoted statement that I’d read in an article. The character burgeoned out from that. And then later people who read the novel reported to me that other features of this person had been captured as well. When this happens I never know whether to be pleased or not. It seems a kind of vindication of the cognitive abilities of the imagination, but it’s also potentially embarrassing.

The Humanist: The character Lenny Shore, described as the “spiritual leader of the Agnostic Chaplaincy of Harvard,” moderates the debate near the end of the book between Cass Seltzer and a Nobel-prize-winning economist on whether God exists. The chaplain is portrayed humorously as a kind sycophant flattering them both. Do you think someone in that position would have to do a fair amount of straddling?

RNG: I loved the idea of the agnostic chaplain being eager to do justice to every side of every question and equally eager to ingratiate himself with the representatives of the opposing points of view. Even his body, the way he moves, expresses his hyper-flexibility.

The Humanist: That’s true! Speaking of Harvard, at the end of the book Lucinda admits her lack of respect for Cass’s work after he tells her Harvard has made him an offer. “I know that the psychology of religion is topical, but it’s soft, and it’s shoddy, and if the world hadn’t suddenly gone mad on religion, no one would be lauding you like this. It’s deplorable that academia should prostitute itself, but there it is. Not even Harvard is above it. In fact, Harvard least of all, with that ludicrous delusion of self-importance that makes every Harvard professor feel he’s a public intellectual, qualified to comment on issues far beyond his expertise.” Did that passage get you into trouble?

RNG: Not yet!

The Humanist: The book jumps around quite a bit in time, which I really enjoyed. In the story’s present Cass is in the thrall of a character you mentioned earlier, the überbabe game theorist Lucinda Mandelbaum. I loved the probability chart he designs to figure out who should say “I love you” first in order to extract maximum benefit from the exchange. It’s like Blaise Pascal meets Larry David.

RNG: That poor man, so worshipful of the Goddess of Game Theory, trying desperately to both assimilate her way of looking at the world, but also—with that chart of his—betraying his own erotic insecurities. This was again my suggesting that religious impulses spill over into seemingly secular contexts, in this case romantic love. Cass tends to deify his love objects, and no empirical evidence to the contrary can dislodge his faith. But in the meantime, I had fun with those matrices.

The Humanist: Speaking of numbers, why thirty-six?

RNG: Thirty-six is a number that has significance in Judaism. In Hebrew, the numbers are designated with the letters of the alphabet. This means that certain numerals spell out words. Eighteen spells out the Hebrew word for life—chai—and thirty-six is twice chai—twice life. Judaism is a very this-life rather than an afterlife-oriented religion, and the significance of eighteen and its multiples demonstrates this. There’s not much attention given to the afterlife, and it’s not even clear that Judaism commits you to the belief in it. That’s one of my favorite features of Judaism. There’s also a Jewish legend that there always exist thirty-six pure souls for the sake of whom God doesn’t destroy the world—which is otherwise so eminently worthy of destruction. Of course, the thirty-six virtuous ones are so modest that they never suspect their role in protecting the world from God’s wrath. Can I confess that as a child I rather suspected my father might be one of the thirty-six? Anyway, I was being mischievous in setting out that many arguments for God’s existence, and then having my character demolish them one after the other. Also, just mathematically speaking, thirty-six is a very nice number, a perfect square, with other sweet qualities, as well. For example, 1 + 2+ 3+ 4 + 5+ 6 + 7 + 8 = 36.

The Humanist: I don’t know, thinking your father is one of the thirty-six may just be the truest mark of a happy childhood. One of your book’s main characters is a child, Azarya Sheiner, who shows signs of mathematical genius and is also heir to the Valdener sect. I found the novel’s ending truly beautiful in its assessment of the choice he has to make between a rewarding pursuit of his mysterious talent (a gig at MIT) and his familial responsibility. “If to be human is to inhabit our contradictions, then who is more human than this young man? If to be human is to be unable to find a way of reconciling the necessary and the impossible, then who is more human than Rav Azarya Sheiner?” In a sense he’s a savior figure and you, as his “creator,” and the one posing such powerful questions, are the ultimate humanist! Do you accept that title?

RNG: I think it is the most extravagant compliment I’ve ever received, and I can only say thank you.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a philosopher and acclaimed author whose other books include the novels The Mind-Body Problem, The Dark Sister, and Mazel, along with biographical studies of Kurt Gödel and Baruch Spinoza. In addition to numerous writing awards, she’s received the MacArthur “Genius award,” a Guggenheim fellowship, and a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She got her PhD from Princeton and has taught at her undergraduate alma mater, Barnard College, as well as Columbia, Rutgers, Brandeis, and at Trinity College in Connecticut. Goldstein is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 2008 was designated a Humanist Laureate by the International Academy of Humanism.

Jennifer Bardi is the editor of the Humanist.

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