Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About this Book
A hilarious, heartbreaking, and intellectually captivating novel about the rapture and torments of religious experience in all its variety. After Cass Seltzers book becomes a surprise best seller, hes dubbed the atheist with a soul, and becomes a celebrity. He wins over the stunning Lucinda Mandelbaum, the goddess of game theory, and loses himself in a spiritually expansive infatuation. A former girlfriend appears: an anthropologist who invites him to join her in her quest for immortality through biochemistry. And he is haunted by two people who ignited his passion to understand religion: his mentor and professor, and a six-year-old mathematical genius, heir to the leadership of a Hasidic sect. Each encounter reinforces Casss theory that the religious impulse spills over into life at large.
Through the enchantment of fiction, novelist and MacArthur genius Rebecca Newberger Goldstein shows that the tension between religion and doubt cannot be understood through rational argument alone. It also must be explored from the insidefrom the point of view of individual people caught in the raptures and torments of religious experience in all their variety. And that can only be done from the insider perspective of fiction.
Using her gifts in fiction and philosophy, Goldstein has produced a true crossover novel, complete with a nail-biting debate, and an appendix with the thirty-six arguments (and responses) that propelled Seltzer to stardom.
This novel takes the reader straight to the heart of one of the major debates of the present day, the clash between faith and reason. Why do you think Goldstein decided to write about this topic in novel form, rather than non-fiction? And how is this novel in many ways a cross-over novel, both fiction and non-fiction? Do you agree that it is a cross-over novel?
Describe the title, which is also the appendix to the book in the novel, and the subtitle. What tone is the author setting for the reader before starting the book? Why this title and subtitle? What audience do you think the author is appealing to with the title?
Describe title of Cass Seltzers bestselling book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion. Why does the author allude to William Jamess The Varieties of Religious Experience? If youve read this book, how do the two books concern both psychology and religion?
Do you agree that while religion is shaping world events (both in the US and in the world), a new atheism is playing out in the US? There was recently a New York Times article (12/1/2009), about how the holidays have prompted an aggressive atheist advertising campaign. Though the non-believers seem to have much on their side, people continue to embrace God for meaning and comfort in their lives. Why do you think this is? And in this novel, how does Goldstein show and stress the emotional importance of religion in peoples lives?
A reviewer in Booklist described this novel as being about love in all its wildness. How is this novel about love? What kinds of love?
Compare and contrast Casss three love interests: his ex-wife Pascale, his ex-girlfriend Roz and his current girlfriend Lucinda. Why did things end with both Pascale and Roz, and why is he obsessed with Lucinda? What do you think is in the future on the relationship front for these four?
One of the great figures of the novel is Casss mentor and professor, an extremely cerebral and erudite scholar, who veers towards the messianic with a coterie of adoring students surrounding him. How does Professor Klapper compare and contrast with the other messianic figure of the novel, the young math genius Azarya? By the end of the novel, why have these two geniuses gone in such separate ways?
Why does the novel end with Azarya?
Describe Casss Hasidic background. How has this influenced him, his life and his bestselling book? Why did his mother break with her Hasidic group? Why is Cass so fascinated by it? Why has Goldstein given her protagonist this background?
Do you think this novel is a satire of the academic world? How and why?
Discuss the appendix, the arguments and responses. What is the purpose of the appendix and what do you think of the arguments? Do you agree more with the arguments or the responses? Or both?
Why is Cass called the atheist with a soul? Do you think this is an apt description of him?
Many of the characters of the novel are struggling with finding meaning in their lives and deciding which paths to take. Do any of them succeed?
How and why does Lucinda leave Cass near the end? Why do you think she was with him in the first place? Is she a believable and likeable character? Is she a foil for another character? Why is her purpose in this novel?
Discuss the importance in the novel of Thomas Nagels idea of the View from Nowhere. How does the author weave in philosophy so seamlessly in novel form? And why?
Why does Goldstein tell her tale in the third person, rather than Casss first person voice?
Suggested Reading The End of Faith by Sam Harris The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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