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
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
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.