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God Lives, but Not in Cambridge

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Random House 416 pages, $27.95.

Here is an ambitious novel about big ideas — love, sex, religion — that nevertheless faces these issues with irony and humor. A novel sprinkled with Yiddish and Hebrew, and populated mostly by secular Jews attempting to live decently and navigate their complicated lives. A big-hearted novel, filled with energy and an encouraging zest for life.

Adroit: Rebecca Goldstein has written a competent but unsympathetic novel. Image by STEPHEN PINKER

In short, there is much to like in Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s new book, “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.” And yet, I didn’t like any of it, because “36 Arguments” doesn’t explore the big ideas, it mentions them. And the Judaism, when it’s not demonstrating the usual neo-atheist fallacies, is window dressing, a tinsel dreidel. Worst of all, “36 Arguments” is smug and precious — a book in love with itself.

The book tells the story of one Cass Seltzer, a 42-year-old professor who is the author of “The Varieties of Religious Illusion,” a best-selling book about atheism. When we first meet Cass, it’s 4 a.m. and he’s standing in the freezing cold on Weeks Bridge, “the graceful arc that spans the Charles River near Harvard University.” What’s Cass doing there in the dead of winter and night? Is he gazing at the heart of the universe? Is he contemplating suicide? Nope. Cass is instead profoundly excited, “still trying to assimilate the fact that his book has become an international sensation,” and amazed by an invitation to leave the fictional Frankfurter University for Harvard.

From there, Goldstein jumps around in time (adroitly, I should add) to provide an intellectual and romantic history of Cass. In terms of the former, we get his graduate school apprenticeship with the pompous Jonas Elijah Klapper, and then his subsequent move toward academic independence. In terms of the latter, we get a procession of supposedly brilliant, supposedly delectable women: a sexy mathematician, a sexy anthropologist, a sexy poet.

All this might have added up to one of those messy, funny, sprawling novels, like a lighter effort from Bellow with a welcome feminine touch. But such novels rise and fall upon our interest in the protagonist, and there is really nothing compelling about Cass. We are supposed to be charmed by his boyish, guilt-prone, Prius-driving ways. I wanted to take his lunch money. And, as that opening scene suggests, his dilemmas are not engaging. Should he tell his girlfriend that he loves her? How will she handle the Harvard offer? As my bubbe used to say, “These are problems?”

I’m not saying that the book would have been better if Cass had a life-threatening disease, only that the author might have been able to wring some sympathy out of these dilemmas if she actually presented us with sympathetic characters. It is hard to feel sorry about Cass’s failed marriage to Pascale, the aforementioned poet, when Goldstein presents her as a hoary French stereotype and frequently describes her as “lupine.” And it is hard to share his concern about his current girlfriend, Lucinda, “the goddess of game theory,” who (in a phrase that works against the ear) likes to “fang” her intellectual opponents, or to humiliate them publicly.

Now, it’s only fair to mention that much of this is intended as satire. But the academic satire here covers well-traveled ground. And instead of religious satire, we get the trite neo-atheist fallacy, that it’s the forces of light (atheism) vs. atavistic darkness (religion). On one side we have Cass, a sensitive mensch who argues against the existence of God. On the other we have Felix Ridley, a slippery conservative who argues (of course, unsuccessfully) for the existence of God. There’s also a Hasidic rabbi who is obsessed with public funds, and there’s his son, who is forced to choose between a life of the mind and religious service. Finally, there’s Jonas Elijah Klapper, who is supposed to be a comic figure because his interest in Judaism leads to messianic delusions, and because he’s fat.

It is interesting that Goldstein is not completely dismissive of the religious impulse. Cass is depicted as “an atheist with a soul,” as less ideologically strident than real-life atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. But “36 Arguments” is tendentious nonetheless. Early in the novel, the narrator informs us that “a large proportion of Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and communists, in ‘sharing their vision of American society.’” I don’t doubt this. But it seems disingenuous to infer that atheists are an oppressed minority when their own rhetoric is hostile toward religion in any form. (Imagine if gay Americans were fighting for the right to marry and to ban heterosexual marriage.) And just in case the novel hadn’t already overstated its point, there’s an appendix that actually enumerates 36 arguments for the existence of God, along with concise refutations.

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 it’s combined with all the cutesiness and self-regard, we get a novel that is actually quite narrow-minded. In the current public debate about belief, atheists like to see themselves as intellectually courageous, but this novel reflects a rather suffocating worldview, one bordered by Cambridge, Mass., and Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

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