Friday, November 26, 2010

Book Review: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction

On the shelf in the bookstore, Rebecca Goldstein's work of fiction, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, looked like it promised to be a meaty and entertaining philosophical novel on a topic that has had high public profile in recent years. But it was a disappointment.

Cass Seltzer (get the joke – Alka-Selstzer – there are lots of these), the main protagonist of the novel, is a psychologist who has leapt to fame following the publication of his book The Varieties of Religious Illusion. He has been called ‘the atheist with a soul’ by the media and his approach to religion has resonated with a wide readership. As the novel progresses, we meet various people Cass knows including a philosopher who has very strong delusions of grandeur. As the story tediously meanders through 344 pages Cass develops a relationship with a six-year-0ld mathematical wizard who is part of a fundamentalist sect and who is destined to become its leader. There’s also a past lover that turns up who is pursuing immortality. These are just a few of the many characters populating the story, none of whom we really come to feel much care for. Cass, his philosophical mentor, and his love interest, and the math genius are really the only characters that are developed with any degree of depth.

According to the author’s comments on Amazon.com, because ‘Arguments alone can’t capture all that is at stake for people when they argue about issues of reason and faith’, she wished to

… place in fiction, in its power to make vividly present how different the world feels to each of us and how these differences are sometimes what is really being expressed in the great debates of our day on the existence of God.

Unfortunately, 36 Arguments suffers from the author’s uninhibited exploration into all sorts of esoteric subjects which distract from the narrative arc of the book and mostly prove how clever and knowledgeable she is.  There is a tenuous relationship between these forays of obtrusiveness and the theme of religious experience. If you read the book, keep a dictionary handy! It’s almost unreadable at times and I have to admit to skipping a few chapters during the last third of the book.

I did appreciate Chapter 34 which describes a debate between Cass and a Christian apologist which articulates the nature and basis of a secular morality wrapped within an argument on the existence of God. I was relieved to arrive at this chapter as the essential perspective of the author coalesced in a moment of clarity.

In case my readers jump to the conclusion that I am biased against this book because I am a theist and it essentially argues against the existence of God, I hasten to tell you that the Appendix following the story is worth the price of the book! In this appendix, Goldstein outlines 36 arguments often used in support of the existence of God. For each one, she identifies the significant flaws that undermine their power. This is done concisely, articulately, and, at times, with wit. Anyone wishing a brief summary of the best arguments and counterarguments on the existence of God will find this very valuable and deeply thought provoking. It is a shame the novel itself did not have these same characteristics.

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