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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.

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But Goldstein's return to the official domain of philosophy might easily not have happened: she initially hesitated to write the book on Spinoza. She was invited to write for "Jewish Encounters," a book series that looks at Jewish thinkers through the prism of Judaism. "The only philosopher who came from a Jewish background who I would want to write about was Spinoza. But I couldn't write about Spinoza in a Jewish series." If she did, it would feel like betraying Spinoza. After all, wasn't this the philosopher whose religious skepticism she had connected to as a child? He was the one person who had ever been banished for life from the Jewish community in Amsterdam: to include him in a Jewish series ridiculous to her.

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Goldstein initially declined the offer, although the series' editor allowed her to write about the thinker as a heretic. Unable to put Spinoza out of her mind, she started to read about his life and was reminded of the kinship she had once felt with the philosopher – both of them atheists who kept up appearances for the sake of family. She changed her mind, and did write the book, but paid tribute to her original hesitation in the title of the book.

WHEN GOLDSTEIN AND PINKER arrive at Cambridge's Hyatt Regency Hotel for the annual American Humanist Association's conference, the hosts of the event rush over to greet them, as do several students in attendance, asking for pictures. Pinker, known not only for his psychology, but for his abundant grey curls, stands close to his tiny wife, blessed herself with long, golden locks, and they both smile for the cameras. Richard Dawkins is signing his books at one of the tables to the right, and after briefly shaking hands with him, attention turns to Greg Epstein. Epstein is not only Harvard's humanist chaplain, he is also the one who married Goldstein and Pinker.

Pinker and Goldstein had known about each other for a long time before they met. He had admired her writing and cited one of her works, "A Late Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind," in a discussion of the beauty of irregular verbs. When Goldstein came across her own name in his writing, she felt both honored and emboldened to ask her editor to approach him to blurb her book. They met for coffee several times in Cambridge, but Goldstein moved back to New York with Danielle, and the time wasn't right. "The first time I met her, she was going through a hard time in her life. I was surprised that she seemed much more subdued [than] the voice that I heard in all of the novels," Pinker remembers. They finally got together about three years later, after having done an interview for Seed magazine in 2004. "After a couple of years had passed, I saw such a lively and cheerful, exuberant person," Pinker says. He finally saw the person that the novels had promised him.


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