The Books Interview: Rebecca Goldstein

Do you ever worry whether writing novels is what you ought to be doing?
Oh, yes, always. I think that this anxiety is finally quieted, but it does compel me to write a certain kind of novel. I always have to justify it to myself when I write a novel, and answer Plato. I'm trying to write novels that he might possibly approve of. Plato was my first love, and his judgements matter to me tremendously.

Cass Seltzer, the protagonist in your new novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, sounds like a character you conjured into existence because we need him.
Yes. We need an "atheist with a soul". Spinoza was an atheist with a soul. He had this thoroughgoing, secular point of view, a rejection of a transcendent God and yet the capacity for great ontological wonder, revelling in existence itself. Existence is all we have, but who needs anything else? That kind of expansive, almost transcendent being carried out of oneself - I just think it's one of life's most worthwhile experiences. All sorts of things can do it - art, music, but science and mathematics as well. And trying to show that it's compatible with the rejection of a transcendent God seemed very important to me.

As a non-believer, what's the reason for not being an atheist that gives you most pause for thought?
Spinoza's argument for God's existence, number 35 in the appendix to my book. That one I'm very susceptible to, but it's for a non-transcendent God. If Spinoza's God is possible, then that pulls the rug from under a transcendent God, and all of those arguments don't work.
Am I such a committed atheist that nothing would convince me? There could be empirical evidence, of course. If something dreadful was about to happen, and for no obvious reason it ceased to be and something seemed to have interceded, that would really convince me.
I suppose the way you judge somebody's metaphysics is: "How surprised would they be to discover the world is other than the way they think?" I would be so very surprised to discover there was an omniscient, beneficent God running things. The only thing that would convince me would be something empirical. That makes me sound awfully dogmatic. I think I'm as dogmatic an atheist as any of these new atheists, which makes my sympathy for religion all the odder.

You put 36 logical arguments for the existence of God in the appendix of the book. Why do you put them there and not in the main body of the novel?
I try to make them very good arguments, and I try to come up with arguments that have never been formalised before, make them formal, and then knock them down. I hope the body of the book says, "That's not enough." There's just much more to this debate between faith and reason than you can get at through simply showing what's wrong with the arguments.

Do you think that by portraying religion sympathetically, you might be making it easier for some people not to believe it?
I hadn't thought about it that way. I'm not interested in converting people in the least. The one thing I've always been interested in is getting people to entertain different points of view, so that whatever views they hold, they hold them with a certain degree of doubt. But I myself don't seem to have any doubt about my own atheist position, so I haven't really followed my own lesson here! Cass Seltzer enjoys a success that makes him feel as though he is walking around in someone else's clothes.

Do you ever have that feeling?
Yes. I was born into this Orthodox Jewish family where girls were not supposed to be heard, so the fact I am such a noisy person who gets heard so much is surprising. I had this set of questions that mattered to me, and all I was doing was trying to find ways
of thinking them out and doing justice to them. And then people read it and take it seriously. There's a way in which I often don't believe I'm living this life.

What's the question you get asked the most and wish you weren't?
Is Steven Pinker [Goldstein's partner] Cass Seltzer?

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!