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Book review

‘The Age of Atheists’ by Peter Watson

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images/Getty

“The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God,” by Peter Watson, renowned British historian of ideas, will strike many as audacious, if not impertinent. Even some readers in the West, Watson’s exclusive arena of focus, will take issue with his point of departure. Nevertheless, religious observance in Western countries is falling precipitously, and for over a century, major Western thinkers, scientists, and artists have grappled with the notion of a universe devoid of a deity.

Perhaps inevitably, “The Age of Atheists” feels overstuffed with these figures’ (often conflicting) theories, making it somewhat unwieldy, a characteristic of several of Watson’s books (“The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New” is a notable exception). Yet the author has a knack for parlaying his erudition and keen insight into pithy synopses and evaluations. “The Age of Atheists” frequently makes for an exhilarating ride through the cerebra of disparate men (few women feature here) who have tried to fashion a Godless yet nonetheless ordered and sustaining worldview. It is a topical book, to be sure, but also one that will stand the test of time as a masterful account of its subject.

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The announcement by Friedrich Nietzsche that God was dead and that we humans had killed him — most famously in “Thus Spake Zarathustra” — didn’t occur in a vacuum. As Watson explains, the late 19th century was the age of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, religious doubt, and Marxism. With time, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, two world wars, and a holocaust would further influence writers, artists, and ordinary people to reject the traditional conception of God.

Along the way, this sometimes proved catastrophic. Writing about Nazism (admittedly not consistent in its atheism) and Marxism (avowedly atheistic), in chapters on Germany and Russia, respectively, Watson depicts a sanguinary fanaticism surpassing even that of religious zealots. (The Nazis in particular venerated Nietzsche’s advocacy of a “will to power.”) But the attempt to make sense of – let alone find meaning in – a world shorn of God has generated other theories and behaviors. Watson identifies three major conceptual outlooks: psychoanalytic, scientific, and phenomenological.

The author notes that Sigmund Freud “is responsible for the dominant shift in thought in modern times, which has seen a theological understanding of humankind replaced by a psychological one,” thanks to the Austrian psychoanalyst’s idea that the unconscious harbors one’s true and otherwise suppressed nature. That many of Freud’s specific theories were later discredited failed to impinge on the popularity of psychoanalysis, which, as Watson illustrates, branched off in different directions. For many, the unconscious became “the secular equivalent of the soul.”

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Charles Darwin, the British naturalist who contributed most to the theory of evolution and natural selection, looms large over the scientific outlook on life, and its concomitant (though not inevitable) dismissal of God’s existence. At one point, Watson quotes well-known (contemporary) philosopher Daniel Dennett, who calls evolution “the most important idea, ever.” Yet the author shows that, even for many people (including biologists) who accept evolution, it doesn’t infuse their lives with purpose or direction.

This brings us to the third worldview, which Watson endorses most fully. He characterizes it as phenomenological, after the school of thought founded by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, who wanted a “metaphysic of the concrete.” Forget about overarching meta-narratives of meaning and other simplifications of the variety of existence, Husserl urged, and instead understand that you are the sum total of the events in your life and your relationship to the people and objects around you. This squared well with Nietzsche’s call to live a Dionysian life emphasizing intensity of the moment. Nietzsche’s belief that each of us has many selves also found a ready echo among phenomenologists, who dismissed the idea that a person could have an unchanging nature.

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Watson detects a phenomenological strain in the works of several literary and artistic (not just philosophical) figures, irrespective of whether or not they were directly influenced by phenomenology. For example, “Chekhov concentrated on the ‘concrete individual’ and preferred ‘small-scale and practical answers.’ . . . Wallace Stevens considered that we are ‘better satisfied by particulars.’ … In turn, this coincides with the idea of the episodic in life, Proust’s moments bienheureux, Ibsen’s ‘flashes of spiritual value,’ [George Bernard] Shaw’s ‘infinitesimal increments’ and ‘moments of infinite consequence.’” Watson is especially taken with poetry, “because, as James Wood has said, the idea of ‘one overbearing truth’ is exhausted in our time, meaning that poetry, the poetic approach, is, at least in theory, more relevant and important than ever before.”

“The Age of Atheists” is an encyclopedic record of modern-day non-belief as well as a careful consideration of its ramifications. Yet there remains one important matter Watson doesn’t explore: whether Westerners’ engagement with the Godlessness of the universe will fizzle out as atheism gains ground. Just as the debate over what should replace Christianity rarely exercises those born into a post-Christian world, so the quest to devise a substitute for God may seem unnecessary to those generations arising after his banishment. Will the period of philosophical and creative tumult Watson portrays in this book therefore draw to a close? If so, we may find ourselves in an intellectually impoverished world.

When it became clear that Christianity in the West was in decline, those lamenting this development included non-believers who valued religion as a social contract, despite scorning its claims to divine provenance. If God’s demise is now inevitable, perhaps we should consider prolonging his death throes in order to keep alive the extraordinary intellectual and artistic ferment sparked by his moribundity.

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Rayyan Al-Shawaf, a writer and book critic in Beirut, can be reached at calaboose@gmail.com.