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Questions and Answers

Rebecca Goldstein discusses Spinoza, the ‘New Atheists,’ and the biggest question of all

Ari M. Brostoff
January 15, 2010
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein(Stephen Pinker)
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein(Stephen Pinker)

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s new 36 Arguments for the Existence of God notes prominently on its cover that it is “a work of fiction.” But you can’t always judge a book by its cover. 36 Arguments is indeed a novel, if a pretty heady one: it tells the story of Professor Cass Seltzer, whose studies in the psychology of religion launch him to sudden prominence when books by the “New Atheists” are discovered to be publishing gold. Seltzer is a non-believer of a gentler and perhaps wiser sort, “the atheist with a soul,” and Goldstein tells the story of how he got that way.

But the book’s real highlight is its “appendix,” in which Goldstein has meticulously collected 36 common arguments for God’s existence, credited to everyone from Descartes to intelligent-design proponents; worked them into formal proofs; and just as formally rebutted them. In creating this catalog, Goldstein, who is both a product of Orthodox day schools and a professor trained in analytic philosophy, has made both a real contribution to intellectual history and written a strange, affecting tale of logic in the tradition of Borges.

Goldstein has written five previous novels, but her most recent book was a study of Baruch Spinoza—whose ideas about God, consciousness, and morality have influenced her profoundly— published by Nextbook Press. Tablet Magazine spoke with Goldstein about 36 Arguments and how the shadow of Spinoza hovers over it.

This is the first novel you’ve written since Betraying Spinoza. Did working on that book affect how you thought about this novel?

By publishing that book I encountered a lot of pro-science, secular humanist, freethinking groups—organized non-religion. I was on the circuit, on both circuits actually: the Jewish circuit and the freethinking circuit. And it became apparent to me that a lot of the people I was speaking with had no idea what it felt like to be religious and to belong to a religious community. I think maybe that’s more apparent to a person who’s Jewish. It’s not a dogma religion, it’s something else—something else we’re all struggling to figure out, of course.

Beyond that, I am a Spinozist; he’s always with me. Spinoza demonstrated that there is a way of having a strong spiritually transcendent experience that is not a conventional religious experience at all—whether or not he’s an atheist is a matter of great debate—and I wanted very much to demonstrate this. So, in 36 Arguments, my atheist-with-a-soul is very much a version of this, the way he keeps stepping out of himself and getting swept away by the exhilaration of existence.

It seemed like some of the arguments in the appendix were familiar from the Spinoza book, too. Were any of them taken from your day school experience?

When I was making that list, I kept trying to think of arguments I had heard over the years but that had never been made formally, the way the classic philosophical ones are, and I turned them into formal proofs. The argument for moral truth gets the biggest rise out of me, because it’s the one that makes people think atheists have no values. It perniciously causes people to think that other citizens are not good people. I certainly heard that argument very much growing up—not so much in yeshiva, because, you know, that’s one of the differences between Judaism and Christianity, it’s not so concerned with proofs for God’s existence, the way it is with the Jesuits, you just take Hashem’s existence for granted and move on from there—but there is that presumption that if you are a believing Jew, you don’t have to struggle to give a foundation to morality. God gave us the Torah and that’s how you have to behave, so you’re relieved of this question of the philosophical foundations of morality. What was there was more the sense that God’s will is synonymous with morality. And also the argument from purpose—that because there’s a God, there’s purpose to our lives.

Would you describe yourself as an atheist?

I would. Well, I have an inclination toward the idea that the world explains itself, that the world is thoroughly self-contained, that if we had a complete vision of the world we could understand why it had to exist. If you describe that as a religious point of view, as Spinoza does, then you could say I had a religious point of view. Do I actually believe that? I’d like to believe that. The idea of explanatory gaps in the universe is ugly to me. But, if you understand belief as the idea that there is a transcendent god who created the universe, then, yes, I reject that. I don’t see evidence of that, and I do see a lot of evidence that it isn’t the case.

How do you feel about the New Atheists? It seems that maybe you’re suggesting that the self-identified freethinkers are a pretty goyish bunch. Do you think Jews have a more nuanced view of religion?

I should say I’m friends with all of them—except Christopher Hitchens, whom I’ve never met. But Richard Dawkins is a friend and Sam Harris is a friend, and Dan Dennett. But in terms of their ideas, the emphasis on belief in God, that that’s the be all and end all of religion, is very Christian.

One of my nephews—he wears a black hat, and he is a professor, but to look at him you would think you knew everything about his metaphysics. He’s my go-to guy when I need any technical knowledge about Talmud. I asked him a very technical question about two years ago about something I was writing, and he said, “Why do you want to know this?” And I said, “You don’t want to know why I want to know this,” because obviously I wanted to use it for some satiric person. And he wrote back, “Aunt Rebecca, I thought you would know me better than this, I’m sure there’s no heretical thought you’ve had that I have not also entertained.” That strikes me as quintessentially Jewish. And it just causes utter amazement: if someone thinks like that, why would they dress like that and send their children to Jewish schools? It’s incomprehensible to them, and it’s not incomprehensible to me.

There’s a lot of conflict in the book between Seltzer and the mathematician women in his life over their different approaches to epistemology—Cass, as a psychologist, is always accused of being too “soft” in his ideas. Are these relationships drawn from your own experience being married to Steven Pinker? And if so, which of you is which?

I think not. But you’re right that both he and I are a strange mixture of soft and hard and it would be hard to say which of us is the hardnosed and which is the softy. I have much more tendency to have these kinds of transcendent spiritual experiences. This is something that I’m given to, probably a lot of artists are; it’s part of what motivates one toward art. I think Steve might roll his eyes a little bit when I talk about these things, but when he finished reading the first chapter he said he had a better understanding of what it’s like to have one of those experiences that aren’t so familiar to him. Also, both of us are very aware of the limits of science. Neither of us think it can answer all questions, at least at this moment—and never will be able to, regardless of how far science progresses.

Marissa Brostoff, a doctoral student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, is a former staff writer at Tablet and the Forward.

Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.