36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Goldstein

by |April 6, 2010

With both Easter and Passover drawing to a close, matters of faith are on the public agenda. And whenever matters of faith are discussed, questions of belief are raised as well. So perhaps now more than ever, it is tempting to ask whether religion and science represent two fundamentally different mind-sets.

This question is even more timely considering the debate that has been generated in this country since last month’s Global Atheist Convention. And what a conference it was with the big names all there – philosophers AC Grayling and Peter Singer, biologist and popular science blogger PZ Myers, and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins all weighing in on matters of minds and faith.

For those of us following the conference from afar, the highlight was probably the podcast of AC Grayling’s speech on the ABC’s All in the Mind. Grayling may be an intellectual light weight in the halls of academia, but as a translator of matters philosophic to us mere mortals, he is unsurpassed.

Physicist Richard Feynman said, ‘science is what we do to keep us from lying to ourselves’  the believers amongst us might well think otherwise.

The Global Atheist conference was surrounded by all the usual hoopla, the low point (for me at least) with the unedifying sight of Richard Dawkins pitted against Senator Fielding in a televised romp that was embarrassingly easy walkover for the the former. A meeting of equals it wasn’t.

Meanwhile, the new Bishop of Parramatta Anthony Fisher used his inaugural Easter address to launch a scathing attack on atheism as leading to the major ills of the twentieth century – Nazism, Stalinism, the genocide in Cambodia, mass murder and broken relationships –  an attack which made headlines all around the world, mainly due to the absence of reference to the current condemnation of the Vatican’s role in supposedly protecting paedophile priests.

Back in Australia, Bishop Fisher has been challenged from all sides, with perhaps the most amusing (albeit juvenile) coming from the Young Australian Skeptics.

All of which makes for marvellous fodder in the book world.

And so to two new releases.

First up is the dauntingly named 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Goldstein. This is a campus comedy of ideas exploring morality and humanity. There is much to savour with this one. In fact, it is probably the ideal reading group book.
Goldstein is interested in the different experiences of the world, according to whether one is of secular or religious inclination. She is obsessed with the tensions between religious and reason. However, the book is dividing the critics.

While the US Publishers Weekly gave it a huge thumbs up in January, a recent review in the UK is much more circumspect.

From Publishers Weekly

An atheist with a soul is in for a lot of soul-searching in MacArthur genius Goldstein’s rollicking latest. Cass Seltzer, a university professor specializing in the psychology of religion, hits the big time with a bestselling book and an offer to teach at Harvard—quite a step up from his current position at Frankfurter University. While waiting for his girlfriend to return from a conference, Cass receives an unexpected visit from Roz Margolis, whom he dated 20 years earlier and who looks as good now as she ever did. Her secret: dedicating her substantial smarts to unlocking the secrets of immortality. Cass’s recent success and Roz’s sudden appearance send him into contemplation of the tumultuous events of his past, involving his former mentor, his failed first marriage and a young mathematical prodigy whose talent may go unrealized, culminating in a standing-room-only debate with a formidable opponent where Cass must reconcile his new, unfamiliar life with his experience of himself. Irreverent and witty, Goldstein seamlessly weaves philosophy into this lively and colorful chronicle of intellectual and emotional struggles.

On the other side of the Atlantic however, there is a percpetion that Goldstein is just too clever by half. The Guardian’s Jonathon Beckman is particularly scathing.

So why should we care? Well, Goldstein, her husband Steven Pinker, Ian McEwan and Richard Dawkins are all colleagues and are all concerned with religion, atheism, and the struggle against fundamentalism. We can expect to hear a lot more about the 36 Arguments in coming weeks and months.

Here are Goldstein and Pinker in conversation.

Meanwhile, in keeping with the calendar, I was fascinated to read of another new release, this time by Newsweek’s religious affairs editior, Lisa Miller, called Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife.

According to Miller, 80% of Americans believe in heaven but there is little common ground as to notions of what exactly heaven is, nor how to get there. To address this, she has written what sounds like a history and travel guide all in one.

Religion Dispatches recently asked Miller about the biggest misconceptions concerning the topic of heaven. Here is how she answered.

First, that Jews don’t believe in heaven. They do. Jews basically invented the basic idea of heaven as we understand it today: a place, in the sky, with the angels—a reward after death for righteous behaviour on Earth. Orthodox Jews continue to be committed to the idea of physical resurrection after death (that is, the restoration of one’s body at the end of time), though Reform Jews have essentially abandoned that belief.

Second, that “when you die you go to heaven.” It’s not that simple. All the monotheisms teach that “going to heaven” is a two-part (or even three-part) process: You die. You go… somewhere (some say purgatory, some say the in-between phase is something like sleep, some say it’s something like heaven). At the end of the world you rejoin your body and live with God on a renewed Earth, which Muslims call “Paradise” and Jews call “The world to come.” But in the modern, post-enlightenment West, this multi-phase process has become too intellectually cumbersome, and we’ve abandoned it—especially in progressive circles.

Third, that “heaven is what you want it to be.” For most of Western history, heaven has not been a realisation of personal desires. The fact that in America we are picking and choosing from among the most personally satisfying visions and leaving aside the rest is testament to our freedom, democracy, and relative affluence. In the West, life is good and we have things in abundance. Heaven, then, is an extension of the best of this life.

When ideas of heaven were first cohering, life for believers was not at all good. The Jews who first conceived of heaven as we know it today were under assault, literally, from their Greek rulers. Christians, at the beginning, were a marginal band, derided by the pagan majority. Islam was established in a uniquely inhospitable part of the world by people who hoped to rectify the social order: to turn the “have nots” into “haves.” For all these groups, heaven—a very specific heaven—was a reward for staying faithful despite oppression and even the risk of death. It was like membership in a special club. The message underlying the original visions of heaven was this: Everything is terrible now, but if you stay faithful you will get x: to live among the stars like angels, pearl gates and crystal streets, a verdant garden with constantly running water. This is why visions of heaven remain so powerful to fundamentalists. They imagine themselves rightly or wrongly to be an oppressed minority in possession of a True view of things, given to them by God. When moderates and progressives fail to articulate a coherent or appealing view of heaven for themselves, they risk ceding the heaven conversation to the other side.

I hope you have all had a happy Easter/Passover/Humanist holiday period and apologies to anyone whose festive day I have omitted to mention.


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