“What is this stuff, you ask one another,” says the narrator in Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's new novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, “and how can it still be kicking around, given how much we already know?” We have very short memories. It was in April 2006 that President George W. Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Senator John McCain all announced their support of teaching Intelligent Design in public schools. This assault on science and on the separation of church and state was a mobilizing moment for the Edge community which responded to this initiative with book of essays by 16 eminent scientists entitled Intelligent Thought, excerpts from which appeared on Edge. At the time, three and a half years ago, no one was using the phrase “the new atheists”. In fact, in early 2006 only Sam Harris's book The End of Faith (2004), and Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell (February, 2006) had been published. It was in response to the highly organized and well-financed campaign by the religious right that led champions of rational thinking such as Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, A.C. Grayling, and P.Z. Myers to mount an unrelenting campaign against the purveyors of superstition, supernaturalism, ignorance … and their apologists (the self-proclaimed “moderates”, or to use more apt terms, the “accommodationists”, or the “faitheists”).
The term “the new atheists” came into play in early 2007, followed by “I am an atheist, but”. This is hardly the lingo of the far right. In fact, you don't have to leave the pages of Edge to read variations on this meme from some very distinguished and respected scientists. But what some appear to be saying is “I am an atheist but… other people, not as smart as I am, require religion (a) to get through the day, (b) to create sustainable societies, (c) to have moral values, etc. Others, intellectually lazy, afraid, or unable to invent their own personal narratives, simply wear their parents' old ideas like a hand-me-down suit, defaulting to the maudlin sentimentality that is the soundtrack to the American mind. Now, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, known to Edge readers as a philosopher who has interesting things to say about Gödel and Spinoza, among others, enters into this conversation, taking on these and wider themes, and pushing the envelope by crossing over into the realm of fiction.