Peter Watson. The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God. Simon and Schuster, 2014. See here to buy the book.
There are many who believe that, without God or religion, there is a huge hole in people’s lives. Some go so far as to say that atheism does not provide any basis at all for morality, and some maintain that life would be meaningless and hopeless if God did not exist. Even some atheists have wondered how we can have hope if we only have ourselves to fall back on. In The Age of Atheists, Peter Watson explores how atheists during and since the time of Friedrich Nietzsche have sought to have a good live, and to encourage others to do the same.
Watson profiles a variety of prominent figures throughout history—-poets, philosophers, playrights, scientists, psychologists, artists, and writers of fiction. Not all of the people whom he profiles are technically atheists—-some are deists, some believe in an energy underneath nature, some want to commune with a version of God (Timothy Leary sought to do so through LSD), and some believe in a God who is wholly other and distant. Their view of God is not exactly consistent with Jewish and Christian monotheism, though.
How have people tried to find meaning without God, according to Watson? Some looked to dance to find an authentic expression of humanity. Some have sought inspiration, a different perspective, a sense of order, or empathy for others in poetry or fiction. Some look to nature itself, or the universe, to find a sense of wonder. Some try to transcend themselves by showing concern for others and by emphasizing the community above themselves. In contrast to believing in an unchanging God and unchanging moral principles, many of the people Watson profiles maintain that life is changing, and they either embrace that as a possible sign of hope, or they exhort people to cope with it. Watson is largely sympathetic to these enterprises, yet he acknowledges times when such enterprises have gone in horrible directions (i.e., Alfred Rosenberg’s attempts to provide an intellectual foundation for Nazism).
Because a lot of the same ideas appear throughout the book, the book could be rather repetitive. Still, Watson does highlight the differences between various thinkers in his conclusion, on such issues as whether science is sufficient to provide people with a sense of awe or a moral basis, and whether language is limited in expressing certain realities (for Watson, science has made more things explainable). Moreover, the book may be helpful to people who are seeking a lucid summary of the philosophies of various prominent thinkers. One challenge for me was that I would read Watson’s summaries and be a bit disappointed because I was hoping that the thinkers would have had deeper thoughts. “That’s it?”, I wondered after reading some of Watson’s summaries. But the thinkers may have had deeper thoughts than what Watson presents, and Watson’s summaries may be helpful in providing context, a framework, or an introduction for those wanting to study these thinkers further. I did not know enough about a lot of the thinkers to evaluate Watson’s summary of them, but I have read a lot about Karl Barth, and I can say that there is more to Barth’s thought than what Watson presents. Maybe that is true with the other thinkers Watson profiles.
I could identify with some of the thoughts that Watson was presenting. For example, my Grandpa Pate’s favorite play is Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, and Watson quotes someone who comments about O’Neill’s work by saying that various factors have shaped who we are and have often moved us away from being the types of people we want to be. I can identify with that in the sense that circumstances (or my reactions to circumstances) have made me bitter and jaded in areas, and that can make it difficult for me to be the open, winsome person I was in my younger years.
There were also parts of the book that I found very intriguing. Watson profiles a couple of scientific thinkers who maintain that, not long prior to the destruction of the earth by the sun, human beings will be able to enter a virtual reality and will experience eternity there. Their views have been controversial, and yet they have sought to back them up with scientific reasoning.
I am not surprised that people are able to find beauty, a sense of morality, inspiration, profundity, and inspiration, without embracing a fundamentalist theistic creed. In my opinion, God has put these things into the universe and they are good for human beings to follow, and I am not astonished that people can find them apart from an explicit acknowledgment of God. Why should we assume that our only choice is between believing in God, and a barren, meaningless existence? Yes, I believe in God, but I am not shocked that people can find meaning or arrive at values apart from believing in God.
I also appreciated that many of the atheists whom Watson profiled were not entirely negative about religion: they have acknowledged that religion has played a useful role for humans throughout history, in terms of providing them with a framework of meaning, community, morality, encouragement, and just plain survival. That is true with me, personally. Others can find meaning outside of a theistic context, but I do so within a theistic context. Plus, I cannot give up on believing in a personal God who cares for me and can intervene in my behalf.