Devil’s Bookmark: Atheism for Smarties

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is a novel that steers clear of both strident attacks against religion and sanctimonious pieties. Instead, it explores the reality of religious fervor and examines the merit of both religious and anti-religious stances. And yet, because it is so respectful, patient, and level-headed, 36 Arguments may be actually all the more subversive.

For one thing, there’s no better way to write a novel about the non-existence of God than to present it in the form of metafiction—fiction that is self-consciously aware of itself. Metafiction says “look, this is only a game, and we’re only pretending that something that doesn’t exist is real, just for the fun of it.” Applied to religion, this is equivalent to saying “look, when we say we believe in the Bible, we only pretend that we are dealing with facts, but we all agree that they are inventions.” In other words, metafiction lifts the mask from the face of any man-made illusions, be they religious or literary (or both). Not a bad device for a skeptical approach to God.

Goldstein’s novel tips its readers off about its metafictional nature as soon as it announces that the novel’s protagonist, Cass Seltzer, is basking in the success of his book titled The Varieties of Religious Illusion. Cass’ book contains an appendix that briskly refutes 36 standard arguments for the existence of God. Rebecca Goldstein’s novel also features an appendix in which she debunks one by one the 36 most common arguments for the existence of God. And so the metafictional circle is closed.

Goldstein’s appendix is another subversive cutting edge. Taken by itself, it is worth its weight in gold. Going beyond Hume, Russell, Dawkins, and others who have focused on specific religious claims and then disproved them, Goldstein goes the whole nine yards. Her appendix is a supremely neat and logically rigorous invalidation of each one of the standard “proofs” of God, from the well-known “argument from design,” to Pascal’s Wager, to the more obscure “argument from the original replicator.”

The only difference between her procedure and that of the typical “New Atheist” is that Goldstein does the debunking so gently. She doesn’t say that that there certainly is no God, knowing that proving a negative assertion is also a hopeless endeavor. What she does say is that if there is a God, his existence is not receptive to logical proof. Nor does God make himself available for empirical proof, so the margin for his existence becomes slim indeed.

Argument from the Eternity of Irony

Notwithstanding such a gentle style of debunking, Goldstein has considerable fun with the language of God proofs, spoofing their wording with such abstruse titles as “Argument from the Eternity of Irony” or the “Argument from The New York Times.” But if this suggests broad comedy or even farce, the reader will not find it in this book. In fact, Goldstein’s novel represents one of the more sensitive, humorous explorations of religious thematics from an atheist perspective. In other words, Goldstein takes religion and the religious impulse seriously, even as she exposes the various obstacles to human flourishing that are built into fundamentalistic aspects of religious life.

The specific fundamentalism that she explores in the story is the fictional Hasidic community of the Valdeners who are said to exist in the Hudson valley, near New York. Although specifically Jewish, I think that Goldstein’s intention was to present the Valdener community as representative of some elements that attach to all religious fundamentalisms. These elements have pros and cons, and the mystical transports during their meetings as well as the tight-knit, cooperative structure of their community count for something. But there are also abject elements of sexism, superstition, and cultism that the readers are clearly meant to see and resist.

The linchpin to determining where the balance between the reactionary and redeeming aspects of the Hasidic community settles is a young man by the name of Azarya Sheiner, destined to become the Rebbe of his community after the death of his father. But Azarya is no common heir to his ultra-conservative father’s spiritual leadership. He is mathematical genius who, without the benefit of formal schooling, spews mathematical proofs at the tender age of six. Azarya is not only a child prodigy, he’s obviously a rationalist who looks askance at the religious superstitions that flourish in his community. In short, he is a modern man who finds the separate sidewalks for men and women in his shtetl, or the fact that secular education is practically unavailable in his community to be irksome. At the same time, he respects the cultural integrity of his Jewish clan, and he reveres the religious traditions that give life and meaning to the tight-knit community of the Valdeners.

Faced with the decision of leaving for MIT or becoming the new Rebbe of his archaic Jewish community, he choses the latter, well knowing that thereby he choses existential loneliness.

Faced with the question “why should the Valdeners continue with their superstitions and their insularity and their stubborn refusal to learn anything from outside? Why is that something to perpetuate?” the future Rebbe answers: “It’s tragic, a diminishment, when a people goes out of existence, a way of life, a culture, a language.” Here lies the vaunted respect that Goldstein brings to her subject. Here the perpetuation of superstition and ignorance is worded in terms of a preservation effort, and the question “why do the Valdeners not deserve to go extinct” is kin to the question “why do spotted owls not deserve to go extinct?”

It’s a true dilemma, but the secular humanist’s heart wants Azarya to pursue his calling as a math wizard not as a super-orthodox preserver of his small community’s archaic ways. It is to Goldstein’s credit that her stance on this decision remains wholly implicit. It’s up to the readers to support or critique Azarya’s decision.

I have to admit that I’ve read this novel primarily as a compendium of ideas. The story itself is not as compelling as the thought behind it. In fact, there hardly is a plot. True to metafictional form, the story jostles the reader back and forth from one time period to another, without warning, with the result that any sense of temporal progression eventually breaks down and everything is reduced to the present. The resulting disorientation is disconcerting. Perhaps, though, it was precisely Goldstein’s intention that we be disoriented. Which brings me back to the point about metafiction.

Narrator as God

The Hungarian literary critic Georg Lukacs has referred to the discreet, omniscient narrator of Victorian fiction as a God-substitute. In his view, once God was knocked from his throne by evolutionary science (Darwin), modern geology (Lyell), and Nietzschean philosophy (James and Freud), man had the need to find a new God. That new God, according to Lukacs, is the omniscient narrator who, god-like, creates worlds and populates them with actors, as well as inventing goals and life-paths for his protagonists, all the while holding the strings in his (invisible) hands.

Well, if metafiction is the death of the omniscient narrator, it may well be the death of the God-substitute as well.

Metafiction is also the home of irony, and that is another nail in the coffin of religiosity. Indeed, the mortal enemy of faith is not atheism, it is irony. Faith relies on sincerity.

Goldstein’s metafiction is incessantly ironic, beginning with the title: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. This implies right there that all of these pro-God arguments are “works of fiction,” too. And then, in the appendix to the novel (as if novels usually come with appendixes!), what we get is the demolition of each and every one of the 36 actual “proofs,” yielding in effect 36 arguments against the existence of God. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has shown that atheism can coexist with respect of religious traditions. That is neither traditional defensive atheism nor militant new atheism, but something different yet—post-new-atheism?