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Interview with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of "36 Arguments for the Existence of God"

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein talks about her novel "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" – a book that goes places bestselling fiction normally avoids.

By / February 10, 2011


If there ever was an unlikely protagonist for a bestselling novel, it would be Cass Seltzer, the good-natured atheistic academic who stars in Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. But then again, Goldstein herself – a philosophy professor and biographer of Spinoza – is an unlikely candidate for popular novelist.

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Yet last year critics and readers alike rained praise on "36 Arguments for the Existence of God," her fifth novel. ("[D]azzling, sparked by frequent flashes of nonchalant brilliance," said The New York Times. "Thoughtful, witty, and – I cannot stress enough – really entertaining," proclaimed the Monitor's review.) This year, with the book newly released in paperback, Goldstein took a moment to talk with me about "36 Arguments for the Existence of God," how it came to be, why questions of faith never really go out of style, and whether or not she'll be willing to jump into fiction again.

What drew you to the notion of an academic satire with a sweet, earnest atheist as its protagonist?
My last book was a nonfiction about Spinoza. It was [subtitled] “The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity." Through that book I got drawn, in a peripheral kind of way, into the debate between the so-called "new atheists" and others. I started being invited to speak at various of the conferences of the new atheists, and I was just struck by the lack of communication between [atheists and believers]. I was struck by the lack of charity and the failure – on both sides – to understand what the other was getting at. And the amount of emotion that was involved.

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And that’s when I started thinking about fiction. Because that’s where I think fiction can play a role. Fiction can always help us to understand the other side, to inhabit the other point of view. So even though I had sworn off ever writing another novel, this character, Cass Seltzer – someone who really sympathized with religion even though he had his arguments with it – just came to me.

Did you model Cass Seltzer on any real person or was he just a character who came to you from within?
People have asked me, “Who’s the atheist with the soul?” But he just appeared to me. There’s a lot of me in him, I would have to say. He’s not really based on anyone.

Do you have any literary heroes who have done what you have done – combine questions of faith with literary satire?
One of my literary heroes is George Eliot. I think she was a great ethicist with a great philosophical mind. I have always so much admired what she does because she thinks you can do ethical work through fiction, that you can really move people to sympathize with points of view that they wouldn’t otherwise have any use for, by working on the emotions. She’s always been my great hero.

When I first read "Middlemarch" when I was in my early 20s, the character of Mr. Cassabon – a dry pedant who’s forgotten what thinking is all about – resonated very deeply with me .

Iris Murdoch is also a very important writer to me.

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