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Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: secular humanist with a soul

Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a humanist whose life and work have been shaped by religion.

By Merel van Beeren / June 10, 2011

Goldstein's career has taken some unusual zig-zags between philosophy and fiction.

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"There's a Hassidic legend, that in any point of history, there are 36 pure souls for the sake of whom God doesn't destroy the world. And they don't know who they are," Rebecca Newberger Goldstein tells me. It's early Saturday morning, and we're having breakfast in New York's Washington Square Hotel. The dining room is small, put in almost as an afterthought, and barely has room for the guests waiting anxiously for a fresh batch of coffee. Goldstein is dressed in a simple long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans, not completely awake – the consequence of constant travel and an inability to sleep in unfamiliar surroundings.

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As a young girl, Goldstein suspected that her father, a cantor in White Plains, New York, was one of those 36 pure souls. In her latest novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, the figure of Azarya, a boy genius who has to choose between science and his orthodox Jewish community, is another one. Secular saints, Goldstein calls them both, comparable to Spinoza.

Goldstein, 61, has a powerful presence and a mind that seem too large for her petite figure. She is a philosopher, novelist ( "36 Arguments" is her seventh work of fiction), and author of two nonfiction books. Goldstein has received numerous awards and grants, including a MacArthur fellowship, or "Genius Award." In 2011, she was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association. She and her second husband Steven Pinker, professor of Psychology at Harvard, are considered one of Cambridge's true power couples.

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"36 Arguments," which came out in paperback recently, is Goldstein's first novel in a decade, after she thought she had done with fiction. Last February, she told the Monitor that she had "sworn off writing another novel" when the idea of Cass Seltzer, the protagonist of "36 Arguments" came into her head. Seltzer is a psychologist of religion whose book, "The Varieties of Religious Illusion," is an instant bestseller. It discusses people's need for spiritual experience, but dismisses the role of religion or God in that experience. Seltzer becomes famous overnight, and the media playfully refer to him as "the atheist with a soul." As much attention as the text receives, the book's most famous feature is actually its appendix. In it, he lists 36 arguments for the existence of God, along with their refutations – a list that's also tacked onto Goldstein's novel as an appendix.

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