Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a novelist and philosopher. Her novels include "The Mind-Body Problem," "The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind," "Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics," and her latest, "36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction" (Pantheon Books).
In 1996 Goldstein became a MacArthur Fellow. In 2005 she was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2006 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Radcliffe Fellowship. In 2008, she was designated a Humanist Laureate by the International Academy of Humanism, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Emerson College, where she gave the commencement address.
Goldstein has taught at Barnard College, in the Columbia MFA writing program, and in the department of philosophy at Rutgers; has been a visiting scholar at Brandeis University; and has taught for five years as a Visiting Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. In 2006-2007 she was a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and a Guggenheim Fellow. Currently she is a Research Associate in the Department of Psychology, Harvard University.
Question: Why did you choose fiction as a mode of inquiry into arguments for God’s existence?
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Yes. I asked myself that, and you know it’s, I did write straight philosophical pieces, but in the last book I had written which was on Spinoza, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave us Modernity I had you know it’s was a straight more or less intellectual biography with a lot of philosophy in it. That book introduced me to communities I hadn’t know about before, organized non religion. It was shocking that non religion can be as organized as religion. Well not quite as organized, but lots and lots of you know associations of pro science, pro reasons, some more or less anti religious and I had the sense that the more… And I got invited to these groups to talk and the more I spoke to people with whom I basically agreed the more dissatisfied I became when they discussed people with whom I don’t agree. I know very well what it’s like to be religious. I know very well what it’s like to experience the world that way and I know that it has to do with more than argumentation and it has in fact more to do than with the belief in God. It’s got to do with community and loyalty and existential dilemmas and fear of death and just so many different emotions and that whether just people often just experience the world very differently than others and for me fiction, which I love, is made for that kind of thing, to show how these big issues are really embedded in lives, how they often are connected with a completely different experiences, that they go very deep down, so deep down that often people who don’t agree are just, they’re just not hearing each other. They’re not grasping each other. They don’t know what it feels like to inhabit the world in that other person’s way. Fiction is made for that and that’s what drove me once again against my self-interest to write another novel.
Question: Why is the “faith vs. science” debate raging now, and why did you decide to jump into it?
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Yes. I mean it’s interesting, as a philosopher it surprised me how suddenly, you know, it all seemed very quiet. When I used to teach you know philosophy of religion or arguments for the existence of God, you know deconstructing them you know 20, 25 years ago it was you know really it was not… didn’t provoke a lot of discussion in the classroom and now it’s really escaped from the classroom. It’s in the public square and it’s interesting why now. Clearly 9/11 had a lot to do with it. The more dangerous aspects of you know absolute belief; undoubting belief is very, very… We’re all in terror of this right now, so this certainly had something to do with it. I think also the alliance, the political alliance that took place in the last administration between you know free market advocates and family values, evangelical Christians as a political, as a large and powerful political movement had something also to do with the pushback from the other side. Important decisions that affect us all like stem cell research or gay marriage being decided by people from a particular religious background with a particular religious agenda it was distressing to other people and so there was a pushback. I also think there is something about the progress in the brain sciences, in evolutionary psychology in particular so that religious belief is now something that scientists are looking at and trying to explain and it’s not a I don’t think an accident that the most prominent atheist writers come from that domain, Richard Dawkins from evolutionary biology. Sam Harris, Dan Dennett also much interested in evolution and evolutionary psychology, so I think that that also, a way to try to now explain religious belief as a way of toning it down.
Recorded on January 20, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen