Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is an interesting writer — a novelist and a philosopher with a PhD from Princeton and teaching gigs at one time or another at Barnard, Brandeis, and Harvard. She’s a former Guggenheim Fellow and MacArthur Fellow. (Plus, she’s married to Steven Pinker, the Harvard professor and best-selling author. I wonder what those two brainiacs talk about over morning coffee. The latest discoveries in cognitive psychology? The philosophical implications of insights from neurology on the problem of free will? Whose turn it is to do the dishes? But I digress.)
I enjoyed Goldstein’s novel The Mind-Body Problem when I read it a few years ago, and her other novels are on my reading list. Now she has a new novel coming out in January called 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. The title is a bit misleading — the novel is about a fictional psychologist, an atheist who studies religion, and finds his career unexpectedly boosted by the God wars.
Goldstein’s agent John Brockman has an intro and excerpt that make the book look worth reading. The most interesting part for me are the 36 arguments for the existence of God of the title, printed in full and followed by rebuttals. Although the novel presents these as the work of the protagonist, they’re the best condensation of the intellectual argument about the existence of God that I’ve seen.
I should add that I found Brockman’s introduction objectionable. As Richard Dawkins’ agent, he’s been on the front lines of the New Atheist movement. It can get pretty ugly up there, fighting off the Creationists and the Intelligent Designers and a horde of opponents happy to consign you to hell. It’s tough work, and I’m glad somebody’s doing it.
But like a fundamentalist preacher castigating other denominations for theological impurity, Brockman reserves special scorn for those who are not quite atheist enough. He calls it the “I am an atheist, but” phenomenon, as in:
I am an atheist but… other people, not as smart as I am, require religion (a) to get through the day, (b) to create sustainable societies, (c) to have moral values, etc.
That stings a bit, since I’m also an “I’m an atheist, but.” In my case, though, the “but” isn’t a concern about the beliefs of stupid people. It’s about all those smart people who have thought just as long and hard about God as I have, and still believe. For me, the real question about religion isn’t, “How can anyone be that dumb?” It’s, “How can people be that smart, and still reach a conclusion that seems to fly in the face of all reason?” I’m still trying to figure that one out.