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Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: secular humanist with a soul

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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.

The story about Seltzer is interweaved with that of Azarya. The young Jewish prodigy lives in the orthodox village Seltzer's mother grew up in and is destined to be the next rebbe. Both Azarya and Jonas Elijah Klapper, a megalomaniac scholar who used to be Seltzer's mentor, have deeply influenced Seltzer's life and thoughts.

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