The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God, by Peter Watson (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014, ISBN 978-1-4767-5431-4) 587 pp. Hardcover, $35.00.
Peter Watson is a difficult man to categorize. He’s had a long and successful career at the higher reaches of English journalism. He’s a polymath whose first books were explorations of aspects of the art world: the spiraling art market, the trade in stolen artworks, and intellectual histories of particular paintings. After that came even more ambitious surveys of the intellectual climate of European thought and then, in 2005, the still more wide-ranging work, Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention from Fire to Freud. Since then, Watson has written a long study of the German contribution to the development of art, thought, and culture and an account of the great migrations from Asia to the Americas across what is now the Bering Strait and their subsequent impact. Whatever their subject, all Watson’s books are supported by prodigious reading. And Watson likes to write long books.
His latest is The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God. Watson takes as a starting point the claim of Charles Taylor that living without God is going to be somehow flat, uninteresting, and limited. With philosophers such as Ronald Dworkin and Thomas Nagel, he explores the sense that secular lives can indeed feel the lack of a certain something. But, he asks, is this a default condition of secular living, or have we just been looking in the wrong places? Science has shown us that the religious views of the world cannot be true, but, he complains, it has not shown how to live with the implications of religion being untrue. With these questions in place, he embarks on a historical study of atheists since Nietzsche’s declaration of the death of God.
If you pick up this book expecting discussions of people such as Robert Ingersoll, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Charles Bradlaugh, H. L. Mencken, and Paul Kurtz, you will be disappointed. None of them get so much as a mention. Neither do a host of other atheists and agnostics important in their respective countries. But that is not a reason to stop reading. Watson’s study concentrates on his core area of interest: the poets, novelists, and artists. At this point, the book becomes exhilarating because we are introduced to a whole new world of people who have lived godless lives full of meaning and significance.
Watson is completely uninterested in the distinctions between atheist and agnostic, let alone the other labels that have been suggested, such as nontheist, igtheist, and misotheist. Many of the people Watson discusses are committed antinaturalists, antirationalists, and antihumanists. But they are atheists—in the general sense that Watson works with—and therefore warrant consideration. For secular humanists, this can make for uncomfortable reading. Bolsheviks, some Nazis, and more than a few other miscellaneous racists, irrationalists, and single-issue fanatics have also been atheists. All get coverage in The Age of Atheists. This can get a bit tiring, but it should not be a surprise for secular humanists. After all, we have known for a while that atheism on its own is an incomplete foundation for a satisfying life after the death of God. The slogan used by the Council for Secular Humanism—“Beyond atheism, beyond agnosticism, secular humanism”—attests to this insight. Atheism is only about what we’re not. Rationalism is about how we operate, and humanism is about what we commit our lives to.
Watson’s assumption that science cannot be an agency of salvation is one with which some secular humanists might take issue. Science for him is not the key vehicle to constructing an understanding of the world and our place in it. While he is not antiscience, neither is he satisfied with the various science-flavored attempts to frame our lives without resort to religion. It’s not that they are wrong, Watson argues; it’s that they are inadequate. Alongside the realm of science is what he calls the “phenomenological realm” of poetry and art, which looks toward making some meaning from the bleak scientific understanding of our total irrelevance to the cosmos. And there is the realm of desire, which takes little notice of all that surface noise and pursues altogether different goals and urges.
So, to make meaning in our lives in a world without God, we need some sort of balance between the realms of science, phenomenological meaning, and desire. And for Watson, it is the poets, novelists, and artists who do this most profoundly. Whether one accepts this framework or not, there is much to be learned from Watson’s account of the wealth of insights the poets, novelists, and artists have arrived at over the past century and a half. The reader gets a sense of a broad tradition of thought, debate, conjecture, anguish, argument, and acceptance from some of the most prominent names of the modern world. Secular humanists are so used to thinking of themselves as a small minority fighting against the tide on these sorts of questions that it is edifying to realize that’s not the case.
The whole framework of thought has changed irrevocably over the past few centuries, and the primitive religious stories that pander to human hubris no longer stand up to the hard new truths. The need now is less for lengthy contests over the existence of God. For a growing number of people, that issue has been decided. The urgent question now is: How do we live then?
Peter Watson’s book is part of this next wave of humanist thought. The Age of Atheists is a powerful, thoroughly researched, and clearly written guide to living well once the transcendental temptations have finally been put way. And by ranging as widely as he does, Watson shows how impoverished the doom-saying of people such as Charles Taylor really is. The mistake Taylor and those like him make is to assume that because their preferred dogmas are in decline, then the sense of mystery must also be fading away. This, of course, is simply not the case. The fading away of dogmas does not also mean a life without mystery and wonder. Indeed, Watson adds insightfully, there is a great deal more to know now than there was before the death of God. And the broad range of thinkers Watson surveyed all sought out contemplation of that in their various ways. And we, reading of their experience, are richer for it.
Bill Cooke is international director for the Center for Inquiry and author of A Wealth of Insights: Humanist Thought Since the Enlightenment (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011).