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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


36 Arguments for
the Existence of God

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

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To purchase 36 Arguments for the Existence of God

Title: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God
Author: Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010
Length: 399 pages
Availability: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God - US
36 Arguments for the Existence of God - UK
36 Arguments for the Existence of God - Canada
36 Arguments for the Existence of God - India
36 Argumente für die Existenz Gottes - Deutschland
  • A Work of Fiction

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Our Assessment:

B : reasonably entertaining novel of academia, love, and religion

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 22/1/2010 Yvonne Zipp
Commentary . 1/2010 Peter Lopatin
Forward . 8/1/2010 Gordon Haber
The Guardian . 10/4/2010 Steven Poole
London Rev. of Books . 25/3/2010 Galen Strawson
The LA Times . 17/1/2010 Jane Smiley
New Statesman . 12/3/2010 Julian Baggini
The NY Times . 21/1/2010 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 31/1/2010 Liesl Schillinger
The Observer D 21/3/2010 Jonathan Beckman
The Telegraph . 23/3/2010 Lewis Jones
The Times . 27/2/2010 Melissa Katsoulis
TLS . 2/4/2010 Edward McGown
The Washington Post . 27/1/2010 Ron Charles

  From the Reviews:
  • "Thoughtful, witty, and -- I cannot stress enough -- really entertaining, 36 Arguments is part campus comedy, part romantic farce, part philosophical treatise. It is also, without question, the smartest kid in class. (...) While the religiously inclined among us may beg to disagree that the truly intelligent donít believe in God, the novel, and Cassís character himself, are utterly disarming. But it must be said that the defenders of the faith in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God are an unappealing lot. They range from the humorless to the barking mad." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

  • "A big-hearted novel, filled with energy and an encouraging zest for life. (...) In short, there is much to like in Rebecca Newberger Goldsteinís new book, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. And yet, I didnít like any of it, because 36 Arguments doesnít explore the big ideas, it mentions them. (...) My guess is that Goldstein wanted to use atheism as a theme rather than promote it. But 36 Arguments still ends up proselytizing, which can be deadly in a work of fiction. And when itís combined with all the cutesiness and self-regard, we get a novel that is actually quite narrow-minded." - Gordon Haber, Forward

  • "Every character, then, performs a strict pedagogical function as a walking (or sitting) exemplar of one style of thought. (...) The narrative voice, too, slips frequently into direct-lecture mode, discoursing on Jewish history, mathematics, or philosophy. The book is terribly eager to explain, and little escapes explication." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "Some will be impatient with what feels mechanical, a matter of flat-pack assembly, in Goldsteinís composition; the gearing of the book can be felt as it operates. There are moments of descriptive overload, and 36 Arguments is to a remarkable degree a matter of surfaces, even when it discusses inmost things. But itís also 400 pages of smarts." - Galen Strawson, London Review of Books

  • "Whatever Goldstein's case -- her book is arranged in 36 chapters, each positing a particular argument, in a sense -- I didn't think she would win me over. But she did carry me through a narrative that is more intellectual brief than plot. (...) The rare thing that Goldstein does to excellent effect is to sustain her discourse -- her arguments and her puns and her jokes and her descriptions and her comparisons and contrasts -- subsiding only very occasionally into a tone more explanatory. Her style is so effervescent and knowing that even if we have only the dimmest grasp of certain concepts, we are carried along." - Jane Smiley, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Spending 344 pages in the company of hand-picked members of Mensa has its rewards. Eavesdropping on the frighteningly smart allows the reader to indulge in the fantasy that some of their brilliance is rubbing off. But neither the characters nor their ideas are enough to power the narrative, which rarely moves out of second gear. The problem is that little of consequence happens." - Julian Baggini, New Statesman

  • "So the pleasures to be found in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God are scattershot. But there are a great many of them, and this novelís bracing intellectual energy never flags. Though it is finally more a work of showmanship than scholarship, it affirms Ms. Goldsteinís position as a satirist and a seeker of real moral questions at a time when silly ones prevail." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "But the lay reader need not quail; Goldsteinís lofty psycho-religio-philosophical subtext, or rather metatext, doesnít gray her roman à clef about love, Jewish cultural identity and academic infighting. She sews her philosophical inquiry to the material of everyday life. (...) In 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, Goldstein shows that philosophers and scholars may construct as many proofs or disproofs of divinity as they like. But to people of faith such questions remain as inarguable as the persistence of kugel." - Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Novels of ideas are crippled when their authors use the story to peacock their cleverness and patronise their audience. Here we are subjected to game theory for dummies, Kabbalah for dummies, Matthew Arnold for dummies -- none of them integrated in the texture of the novel. Much of her comedy is abysmal, relying on flaccid wordplay, and even her good jokes are destroyed by the accompanying exegesis, as if she is concerned that her readers who don't get them should at least realise how well-read she is." - Jonathan Beckman, The Observer

  • "Iím afraid I find it easier to believe in God than I do in Cass and Lucinda, or in any of the other characters in this novel (.....) Goldstein, however, tirelessly demonstrates her knowledge of science, and fails to grasp that the first duty of fiction is to engage and amuse the reader." - Lewis Jones, The Telegraph

  • "(A) vast, rambling fiction based on the traditional tenets of the good old university campus novel (eccentric professors, beautiful postgrads, lots of barely repressed sexual tension), but which is nonetheless possessed of a steely intellectual coherence that is frighteningly impressive to behold. (...) Her business -- like Seltzerís -- is to proselytise wonder and openness of thought. That she spins a mighty fine yarn along the way only sweetens the life-saving pill that she is gently, but quite necessarily, ramming down our sorry, secular throats." - Melissa Katsoulis, The Times

  • "The zigzagging structure of the novel means that the full richness of these confliciting impulses is never quite played out in narrative terms. Nonetheless, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is an enjoyable feastof ideas that also serves as a very funny satire on the politic of campus life." - Edward McGown, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Like God's, Goldstein's ways are mysterious. The intellectual demands of 36 Arguments are considerably magnified by the novel's convoluted structure and its inability to resist any tangential character or subject. These bright people banter about the philosophy of soul-making, mathematical models of game theory, the psychological benefits of suffering, the contemporary relevance of Maimonides, the poetry of Matthew Arnold. Much of this is parody of gassy intellectualism, but more of it is an exploration of the complexities of religious expression that will provoke and amuse anyone serious about the nature of faith." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The main character in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is forty-two-year old Cass Seltzer, who has managed to jump on the 'new atheist'-tide (along with authors like Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens) and is now enjoying quite a ride. He's a professor, and his field is the 'psychology of religion', a field that, for almost two decades, had been all his -- "but only because nobody else wanted it." But all of a sudden religion is a hot topic again: it might have seemed that the whole god-idea had been widely written off, but now there are defenders of the faith(s) all over the place again -- and, as a consequence, there's a whole corps of 'new atheists' trying to reason them (or at least their misguided notion) out of existence.
       Cass hit the big times with his book on The Varieties of Religious Illusion. But the success he achieves is built, in part, on a misunderstanding:

     He would never have dubbed himself an atheist in the first place, not because he believes -- he certainly doesn't -- but because he believes that belief is beside the point. It's the Appendix that's pushed him into the role of atheism's spokesperson, a literary afterthought that has remade his life.
       The Appendix consists of '36 Arguments for the Existence of God' (pretty much all the popular ones), and points out the flaws and fallacies of each. Goldstein includes the Appendix -- all fifty pages of it -- as an Appendix to her novel. Meanwhile, the novel itself consists of thirty-six chapters, each suggestively titled -- 'The Argument from the Improbable Self', 'The Argument from Lucinda', etc. etc. .....
       Cass has made a lot of money, gained a lot of notoriety, and gotten the girl (Lucinda Mandelbaum, a brilliant scholar known as "the Goddess of Game Theory"). To top it off, he now finds himself with an offer of a faculty position at Harvard. He's been stuck at Frankfurter U. in Weedham, Massachusetts for some twenty years, and Harvard easily represents the fulfillment of his academic (and most other) dreams.
       Life is pretty good -- but Lucinda reminds him that: "Most of what matters in life is a zero-sum game." (It's a dubious claim, but Cass is reluctant to challenge or question her on anything mathematical.)
       The present-day action of the novel covers only a few days. During most of that time Lucinda is absent, engaged in an academic showdown of her own. Meanwhile, Cass weighs the Harvard offer -- not that there is much to weigh, but he does the Frankfurter folk the courtesy of listening to their (hopeless) counter-offer -- and keeps putting off telling Lucinda about it. An old girlfriend, Roz (Roslyn Margolis) shows up, too. Among the highpoints: Cass has to debate a Nobel Prize-winning economist on the proposition 'God exists', making the case against it.
       Much of the novel is also devoted to how Cass came to be where he is today. There are the women in his life: his first wife, the poetic Pascale (who doesn't believe in probability), the gregarious Roz, and the very smart Lucinda. And there is his mentor (and tormentor ...), Jonas Elijah Klapper.
       Cass first encountered Klapper while a pre-med student at Columbia, and immediately fell under his sway, abandoning a medical career and instead following Klapper to Frankfurter U., where Klapper was the "single professor composing the Department of Faith, Literature, and Values". One student -- a twelve-year acolyte -- warns Cass off:
The un-Adorno-ed truth: if I had any chance to go to medical school, I'd be out of here so fast the back draft would blow the foam off this beer.
       But it takes a while until Cass comes to his senses and can free himself from under Klapper's overwhelming shadow. Much of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is your typical academia-satire, with Klapper a ridiculous and pompous über-genius, his students more like members of a cult than serious academics. Along the way everything from university politics to petty professional and institutional jealousies also figure: Lucinda, for example, still resents how she was squeezed out of Princeton (leaving her also at decidedly second-tier Frankfurter U.), while students protest for and against the establishment of fraternities at Frankfurter.
       Cass also has relatives who are part of a strict Hasidic community, and his travels there -- with Roz and Klapper -- were also life-changing. While Klapper fell under the thrall of the local Grand Rabbi, Roz and Cass were awed by his son, a six-year-old mathematical genius when they first met him. Roz pointed out:
The whole problem is that Azarya belongs to a sect that thinks it reveres education, but their idea of education has nothing to do with real knowledge ! The kid doesn't even know how to read English.
       Ten years later Azarya had the opportunity to go to MIT, and faced the dilemma of choosing between his chosen path and the path his genius pushed him towards:
Going to a university is necessary but impossible. Staying in New Walden is impossible but necessary.
       Unfortunately, Goldstein makes the choice relatively easy for him. Still, it is noteworthy that under all the circumstances, genius does not fare particularly well in this novel: all the geniuses around Cass tend to get off track, one way or another, while Cass -- who doesn't seem particularly bright, at least in such august company, eventually fares quite well (even if that is, more or less, more through dumb luck and good timing than actual brilliance).
       Goldstein packs a lot into the novel. Romance is fairly prominent, and yet the end of two of Cass' relationships are almost ridiculously abrupt, neither ringing very true to life (but then the women involved -- indeed all the women in Cass' life -- do not behave in entirely rational or comprehensible ways; that said, in the case of Pascale and Lucinda, it's also because they are off-stage for most or all of the present-day action).
       The actual staged debate about whether or not god exists that takes place between Cass and the Nobel laureate is a centerpiece of sorts in the novel, though it has a bit of the feel of an afterthought; indeed, Goldstein has Cass only remember that he's due to participate shortly before the things starts. The debate itself sounds close enough to what one might expect from such a debate, though the arguments in favor of the proposition are hardly very convincing -- and surprisingly limited in scope (with far too much of a focus on the question of morality).
       To her credit, Goldstein examines belief much more broadly across the novel -- in particular through the ultra-conservative Hasidic community and Azarya's role and duties there -- but she seems far more interested in the idea of genius and the obligations of genius (or simply of knowledge). This extends from the primitive cultures Roz studies -- how much 'knowledge' and interference is permissible here (even as they succumb to easily preventable diseases) ? -- to university professors who hold sway over their impressionable charges (entirely to their detriment), all the way to true genius, as in the case of Azarya.
       (The Appendix, of the thirty-six debunked arguments for the existence of 'God', is an amusing enough exercise. Worthwhile for what it is -- a painstaking, level-headed explanation of where these arguments (and they include almost all of the most popular ones) go wrong -- it is, of course, also literally beside the point -- at least for believers, for whom the issue remains a matter of faith. (Non-believers may nod in agreement with Goldstein's sensible list of flaws and fallacies, but presumably don't need much confirmation of what to them is obvious, either.))
       36 Arguments for the Existence of God is a decent but surprisingly unremarkable novel. Goldstein weaves here storylines together quite well, and if the academic satire is somewhat exaggerated, it's still fairly funny. Too many characters are larger than life -- though the most difficult to capture reasonably, Azarya, is quite convincingly presented. The mix of issues can threaten to overwhelm the story, and in particular the one one might expect to be most prominent -- the whole god-concept question -- gets short shrift (and when she pays closer attention to it -- as in the debate -- isn't all that impressively presented).
       There's a lot of cleverness at work here, and some decent story-ideas and characters, but on the whole it's a bit underwhelming.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 January 2010

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36 Arguments for the Existence of God: Reviews: Rebecca Goldstein: Other books by Rebecca Goldstein under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction
  • See Index of books dealing with Religion

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About the Author:

       American author Rebecca Newberger Goldstein was born in 1950.

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© 2010-2014 the complete review

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