Book Review: '36 Arguments for the Existence of God'

The first lesson I learned from my wise Talmud teacher was that if the text offers you multiple arguments for a conclusion, it is because no one argument is sufficient. So watch out, he said -ten weak arguments are still weaker than one strong one.

Rebecca Goldstein's "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" recalls this admonition. This is the novel as scythe; an attempt to raze the arguments that have been raised for God, but also to show a certain hollowness and even craziness at the heart of religious life. By parading the many arguments that have been offered, the novelist subtly proffers a critique of faith. If you need so much, as my Talmud teacher might say, you haven't got a lot.

The argument is supported by the cast: the characters crafted to capture the reader's heart include a man whose central achievement is a book arguing against the existence of God and a prodigal child whose life threatens to be hemmed in by the Hasidic sect into which he is born. On the flip side the single defender of theism in the book is a flinty, arrogant academic, and the one 'convert' to faith is downright nuts.

So you would think that a rabbi like me who writes in defense of faith would have flung the book across the room in fury. I have read several of Rebecca Goldstein's works in the past, and I confess I expected more warmth toward religious life. But despite the suspicion of religious enthusiasm that threads through the book I found myself reading at first with attention and then with joy. "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" is an intriguingly structured work, tricky but also very traditional; a book that tries to make a serious argument but also tells a captivating story.

The book is Cass Seltzer's story. He has written a book called "The Varieties of Religious Illusion". It is an atheist polemic, but shorn of the vituperation that characterize the thunderous certainties of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. Seltzer becomes known by the kind of paradox beloved of ad men -- the "atheist with a soul." His book is structured around refutations of the 36 arguments for God. All the arguments are appended to the book. These pages serve as an atheist's mini-handbook.

Some of the characters feel familiar. There is the old world Rabbi who is surprisingly up to date; a prodigy who, like "The Chosen"'s Danny Saunders, strains to discover the real world. Cass' love interests all have an element of extravagance, from the early love of the poet Pascale ("I must of necessity break your heart") to the chilly, beautiful academic star Lucinda, to the anthropologist Roz, a near caricature of the large hearted woman who embraces everything from savage tribes to befuddled men. Goldstein draws a considerable amount of wit and some fascinating interactions from all of them. In each we see a particular kind of mind at work, a novelist nurtured on philosophy. Some of the most gripping parts of this book are the mathematical asides and the fabulous chart in which Cass tries to figure out who should say "I love you" first in order to extract maximum benefit from the exchange.

The unsympathetic portrait of religion, in other words, is overridden by the novelist's warmth toward her characters. The book is more playful than hectoring. Despite the arguments that are tacked on to the back, it is more pageant of life than polemic.

Each of the chapters has an 'argument' title (e.g. "the argument from Strange Laughter or the Argument from Fraught Distance") as though 18th century novelistic conventions were grafted onto modern seminars in epistemology. The headings point us to the novel's theme of the interplay between abstract thought and concrete realities.

Ultimately "36 Arguments for God" is a primer on living in a world bereft of a loving, benevolent intelligence superintending our lives. Nietzsche's madman may not run through the streets proclaiming God's death; now it is done more causally, in seminar rooms and coffee shops. But Goldstein is wise enough to know that the insouciance of the declaration does not make it less powerful and portentous.

The novel's answer to God's absence? Love is "the splendor that's still there after the disenchantment of the world." This is a charming story, deftly told, crackling with intelligence. If I can be granted the license to end with a rabbinic flourish the book itself would frown upon, I would say this work is evidence of the gifted novelist's ability to create world in imitation of the Author of all.