The cosy atheist: Laurie Taylor interviews Rebecca Goldstein
Laurie Taylor quizzes Rebecca Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, on her novel approach to religion
I’m unusually nervous as I switch on the recorder and prepare to interview Rebecca Goldstein about her much-praised new novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work Of Fiction. Part of my concern is the certain knowledge that she knows a great deal more than I do about physics, mathematics and philosophy. She has not only incorporated a great deal of this learning into her previous novels but has also written enormously erudite non-fiction accounts of the philosopher Spinoza and the mathematician-philosopher Gödel. But I’m also uneasy because of the setting. For although I’m in a large spacious meeting room at the Royal Society of Arts, it’s impossible not to be aware that sitting on the other side of the room and well within hearing distance is Rebecca’s husband, the charismatic best-selling evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker. There’s no getting round it. My interviewing prowess, my grasp of the finer intellectual points of the novel, is about to be displayed before two people who are routinely described as “America’s brainiest couple”.
But although they both readily describe themselves as atheists – not an easy thing to do even in the elevated academic circles in which they move back home – Rebecca’s new novel is essentially a vigorously satirical attempt to show the dangers of dismissing religion as merely a sad delusion or a species of irrationalism.
Its central character is Cass Seltzer, an academic psychologist who has achieved an “indecent amount of attention” for his best-selling book on atheism, The Varieties of Religious Illusion. Initially, it’s difficult not to see Cass as a satirical portrait of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens but it soon becomes obvious that his atheism is of a rather gentler, more eclectic kind. Indeed he’s known among other new atheists of the day as the atheist with soul”. Was he then conceived more as an antidote to his real-life peers?
Rebecca gently disagrees. “I wasn’t so much thinking of him as an antidote to them. But I did want to show that this atheist had a great tendency towards spiritual experience and through him I also wanted to attack the pernicious, offensive idea that without God there can be no morality, no real basis for ethical distinctions. I not only wanted to show that, I wanted people to feel that it was false. Someone who interviewed me for a philosophy magazine said he thought my book was a much more effective argument for atheism because it showed an understanding of religion and a fondness for religion, and a great sympathy for people who are caught in religious dilemmas. People can always say about Dawkins and Hitchens, ‘They just don’t get it. They’ve never experienced it.’”
A glance across the room confirms that Steven Pinker is now thoroughly absorbed with his portable, so I decide to suggest to Rebecca that she is not as happy as her husband to accept the title of “proud atheist”. I remind her of an interview in which he’d used the term to describe himself and she’d demurred.
“I think I bristle more at the term. It sounds oppositional. It sounds like you’re ready to do battle. It’s not like we believe or don’t believe in God. It’s more complex. And that’s the wonderful thing about fiction. It allows you to get in all those nuances about belief and to show how beliefs are so intertwined with emotions, with one’s way of being in the world.”
I suggest that her entire novel can indeed be read as an essay about the nuances of belief, about the different forms it takes. Seltzer is, after all, hardly alone in being moved by what he describes as “powers beyond himself”. His former academic guru, Doctor Elijah Klapper, the sole member of the Department of Faith, Literature and Values, has an obsessive oracular belief in the mysteries of the Kabbalah, while one of Cass’s lady friends, Lucinda Mandelbaum, persistently looks for the secrets of human life in game theory.
But there’s an even subtler way in which Goldstein’s novel validates the significance of apparently irrational or non-rational beliefs. In her treatment of academic life and in her extended portrait of a closed, claustrophobic Hassidic sect, she appears to be celebrating the virtues of community for its own sake. Was she saying that without such localised parochial communities of belief, our lives would be less meaningful?
“I grew up in an orthodox Jewish family and found it very confining. I left it. But there clearly are certain needs that are met in this very organic, holistic way. One of our great evolutionary needs is a supportive community. We’re very fragile, vulnerable primates. For most of history community has come from religion. If we’re going to do away with that we have to find some substitutes. What do we want in our lives, all of us? We want to feel our own potential realised, we want to feel our own humanity recognised and flourishing, we want to feel we live in a secure place that can support our flourishing. And a religious community offers that in a very satisfactory way. It tells us who we are and what we ought to be and what it is to be a good person. It’s a very comfortable place to be.”
So did this mean that she still hung on to some of her Jewishness, that her break with the religion of her parents was more intellectual than emotional?
“That’s right. That’s exactly right.”
“You hang on to the rituals?”
“Yes. Especially at those moments of great life passages: birth, death, marriage, coming of age. One longs for something to mark their significance. When Steve and I were thinking of getting married we wondered what would we do, how would we do it. And then we found that Harvard has a humanist chaplain who’s also a rabbi. He married us and incorporated some of the Jewish rituals [right: Humanist Rabbi Greg Epstein with Goldstein and her husband Steven Pinker]. There were no prayers. God wasn’t mentioned. But it was a Jewish wedding. There are moments where you want to be lifted out of your own time into a bigger time and for secularists like Steven and me, all we have is the historical narrative.”
There now seemed only one major aspect of religion that Rebecca had not sought to rescue from the cruder assaults of the new atheists. She’d demonstrated the varieties of religious belief (the title of Cass’s best-seller is, of course, a play on the famous William James text). She’d re-asserted the values of community provided by religion, and in her own personal life she’d gone back to religious rituals to mark a significant rite of passage. That still left one religious claim outstanding: its claim to be the principal source of morality. Was that something she was prepared to allow or could atheism rely upon some other account of how we might know right from wrong? There seemed to be a clue in the arguments she put into Cass’s mouth during the final scene in the novel when he debates the existence of God with a well-known believer. When challenged about the basis for a morality without God, Cass turns to the argument by Thomas Nagel called the “View from Nowhere”. “When we’re trying to teach a child why it’s wrong to pick on another child, do we say, ‘It’s wrong because if I catch you doing it again you’ll be spanked’, or do we, rather, say, ‘How would you feel if someone did that to you?’ Was this how she derived her own morality?”
“I’m not going to squirm. I’ll come right out and say yes. I tried to articulate my own view in Cass’s speech, yes.”
“And do you feel that morality is evolving, that our respect for other people’s subjectivity, our capacity for empathy, is enlarging, growing greater?”
“Absolutely. I think it began in a very limited way with those who shared our genes. We have a natural feeling that they’re worthy. And this was widened to the tribe and the nation. It was widened to other genders, and to children, and to other races. Of course, the emotions still lag behind. They have to be educated as well. So it’s an ongoing process. We still respond more viscerally when we see those closest to us undergoing some sort of tragedy. Evolutionally, we’re primed that way.”
Up to this point, I’ve had no real difficulty with Rebecca’s views on religion. She is surely right to argue that we need a more sophisticated approach to the complex idea of belief than can be obtained by simply declaring some beliefs to be right and others to be mistaken. Neither do I have any problem with her insistence upon the importance of community in our lives or with the argument that traditionally it was largely religion that provided this valuable sense of belonging.
But her suggestion that we can turn to evolution for help when we’re asked to tackle the difficult question of where we can find a basis for morality outside religion makes me feel less comfortable. I ask her if she agrees with Richard Dawkins’ contention that morality is not only a trait that confers evolutionary advantages but is also itself undergoing further evolution. Would she wish to argue that the human race is gradually becoming more liberal, more tolerant, more capable of empathising with the condition and the plight of others? And how could she possibly square any such contention with either the tenets of evolutionary theory or the facts of the Holocaust and the Gulag?
“Well, yes, the Holocaust was a great reversion. The Nazis were a throwback, they were anti-Enlightenment, anti-reason. But moral philosophy has been making progress.”
But isn’t it rather odd to use the word “progress” in the context of evolutionary theory? It seems to contradict the fundamental feature of evolution, its dependence upon accident and contingency.
“You’re right. But I think evolution has endowed us with certain things. Because of our evolution we’re able to see logical consequences and logical inconsistencies. We’re able to learn from experience, find out what works and what doesn’t. So we can see the inconsistency when I say, ‘You have to recognise my rights. If you do something that interferes with that then I’m going to feel moral outrage. But that only applies to me. I’m not going to extend it to you.’ Now, that situation is implicitly contradictory. And evolution has endowed us with the ability to see that such inconsistencies exist. And that’s how we make these moral discoveries.”
I can recognise that this is a rather more subtle way of using evolution as the driving force behind moral progress but, as with other arguments based upon evolutionary psychology, it is essentially deterministic. It suggests that we can only derive an understanding of our present nature from an examination of how certain traits, certain predispositions, have been selected for their adaptability in evolutionary history. It is an argument that hands all the best cards to nature rather than to culture. In a finely argued review of Steven Pinker’s 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, philosopher Simon Blackburn provides this telling characterisation of evolutionary psychology.
“At its simplest, we find some allegedly common human trait, and we explain why we have it by imagining how a propensity towards it might have been beneficial in the Flintstone world, or in the Pleistocene conditions in which apes evolved into human beings.”
Although a glance across the room suggests that Steven Pinker is applying himself even more assiduously to his computer screen, I decide that this is hardly the moment to raise any fundamental questions about evolutionary psychology. Instead I ask Rebecca Goldstein more about her argument that morality is progressing. Evolution might, as she suggests, have provided us with a brain that can detect inconsistencies in arguments about human rights and can thereby lead us to extend our empathy outside our immediate group or tribe. But in what ways might that empathy be further extended so that it embraces even less proximate groups? I seemed to remember that she had written somewhere about the role of literature and fiction in this process.
“Yes, this is an amazing thing and part of my ongoing argument against Plato, who banished the epic poets. Reading literature, the phenomenology of reading literature, separates you from your own identity in some strange way. It allows you to really inhabit other points of view. One gets emotionally involved, one laughs, one weeps, one’s heart pounds. This ability to detach from our own experience and plump ourselves down into the world as it exists for someone else is the magic, the enchantment of fiction. When I create a character, what I’m doing is creating a way of being in the world, quite different from my own way of being in the world. I’m inhabiting another point of view. In one of my novels, The Dark Sister, there’s a woman who is six foot two inches tall, a very fierce feminist. When I was writing that thing I would go strutting through my little town, picking fights with people. I inhabited her.”
But surely there was plenty of evidence that the leaders of the Nazi party were familiar with a great deal of empathy-enhancing literature? They’d read their Goethe, their Mann.
“I would say they weren’t reading widely. One of my favourite examples is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This was the first time that the lives of the slaves were actually represented from the inside, so that we knew what it felt like to be a slave, a fully human being who was undergoing this suffering. It caused an enormous change in the sensibility of Americans.”
So reading literature could help to immunise oneself against the kind of brutality practised by the Nazis?
“It takes more than that. What can I say? I’m not saying it’s foolproof. But I think it’s all we have.”
I’m not at all convinced by Rebecca’s argument about the sensitising power of literature but it’s impossible not feel sympathetic with her wish to use something other than science and rationalism to provide an adequate account of the human predicament. I decide to press further. Would she accept the idea that some forms of extreme empathy needed to be characterised by some more transcendent term, by the notion of “love”?
“I think so. After all, the etymology of the word ecstasy is to stand aside, to be taken out of yourself.”
But wasn’t it the very irrationality of love that had so often given it religious connotations? Love, like the experience of the divine, was somehow inexplicable.
“I think that religious language is a natural way for us to express that feeling. But I don’t think that it’s an intrinsic part of that feeling. This is the problem for my atheist hero, Cass Seltzer. Even when he’s in the grip of the feeling that the universe has been divinely kind to him he has to resist religious language. It is the language which comes most naturally. And I often think that people who are religious think that those who reject religion are also incapable of that emotion. Some of the spokespersons for the New Atheism do indeed seem incapable of that emotion.”
So she was ready to accept that some people might wish to regard some senses of love as intimations or representations of the divine?
“It’s a purely subjective feeling. It’s not going to lead to any notion of a God worthy of being argued against by atheists. But you can call that feeling God. It’s what Spinoza ends up doing. It’s an intellectual love of God, the awe that comes from just contemplating the universe itself, its complexity, its intricacy and coherence, its beautiful coherence. And its incompleteness. Call that God. Why not call that God? Call our awe before that world the love of God. I’m fine with that.”
Time is up. Rebecca now has to turn to the next stage of the publicity trail for her new novel, a lunchtime event at the RSA in which she will be quizzed on the meaning and the merits of her work by her husband, Steven Pinker. A colleague who attends the event tells me afterwards that it was “somewhat cosy”.