Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s religious fiction, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God
(2009), follows an atheist professor on a quest to understand religion and why people believe in God. The book is popular with readers of religious fiction for its exploration of the tension between religious belief and skepticism. An award-winning writer with a PhD in philosophy, Goldstein taught courses on subjects such as the rationalists, the empiricists, the ancient Greeks, and philosophical theories at Barnard College before writing full-time. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God
is one of her most popular works.
The protagonist, Cass Seltzer, is a psychology professor who specializes in debunking religious beliefs and traditions. His proudest achievement is his book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion
, in which he argues that all religions are manifestations of the illusion that God exists. An unwavering atheist, Cass knows he will never change his mind about God.
In his book, Cass sets out thirty-six arguments that people use to justify the existence of God. Picking apart these arguments one by one, Cass hopes that fellow atheists can use his book to show believers how wrong they are. The media dubs Cass the “atheist with a soul” because he is so passionate about what he believes. Although he hates to admit it, Cass loves the attention.
The first and, for Cass, the most important argument he disputes in the book, is the cosmological argument. He says that, if everything that exists must have a cause, then something caused God. Since nothing and no one created God, God cannot exist. Cass also refutes the argument that there is nothing greater than God because, to him, the argument doesn’t make sense. Although Cass discusses the arguments at length throughout the text, he also includes an appendix with snippets reminding readers about the key takeaways from the book.
As the buzz around Cass’s book grows, so does his status and public notoriety. He becomes a national celebrity, and everyone wants to interview him or have him on their TV shows. Before long, he attracts the attention of a beautiful woman, Lucinda Mandelbaum. A distinguished mathematician, she is drawn to men like Cass. They begin a passionate affair; for the first time, Cass feels that he has found a woman who understands him.
One week, Lucinda heads off to an academic conference. One of the headline speakers, she is offering talks on game theory. While she’s away, Cass doesn’t know what to do with himself. He misses having her around, and he longs for their conversations about atheism. With nothing better to do, Cass reminisces about the past and, most importantly, he remembers how he ended up where he is now.
Cass owes his success to Professor Jonas Elijah Klapper, also known as the Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature, and Values. Jonas always believed that he knew everything. He assumed that everyone else was stupid and it was up to him to educate them. Cass hated Jonas’s attitude and so he set out to prove him wrong. Jonas motivated him to write the book.
Cass reflects on other important figures in his life. He remembers his ex-wife, Pascale Puissant, and his ex-girlfriend, Roz Margolies. They both shaped him in different ways, and he keeps in contact with them. He is especially interested in Roz’s never-ending quest to unlock immortality. He doesn’t believe immortality is possible because there is no God who can preserve our souls or spirits.
Another important influence on Cass is his family—in particular, his mother. His mother grew up in a strict Orthodox Jewish sect, but she ran away when she started doubting God. Although she keeps in touch with her family inside the sect, she didn’t want them influencing Cass with their religious talk. Cass wonders if his mother is responsible for his atheism.
For all Cass’s philosophical musings, there is one person he can’t quite work out, a boy called Azarya Valdener. Azarya is a prodigal mathematician growing up in the same sect that Cass’s mother grew up in. Unlike Cass’s girlfriend, Lucinda, Azarya believes that mathematics and religion can coexist. He is on a mission to show the more radical Jewish community how to accept science and God without sacrifice.
Cass doesn’t understand how Azarya can possibly believe in God while accepting how formulaic and rational science is. Ultimately, Azarya shows Cass that the arguments for and against the existence of God are far more complicated than he first thought. Although Cass has no intention of retracting the statements he made in his book, he does realize that science can’t give us all the answers, and that there is room in life for a little bit of imagination.