The Age of Atheists
(Simon & Schuster: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God)
US: Feb 2014
Who will choose this enriching and rewarding removal from reality TV and manufactured distraction? Who will walk the course mapped in these heady pages, along a sobering path of self-awareness of our fragile presence surrounded by darkness and mystery?
If neither science nor religion suffices, how do we get past our present impasse? Do we lament our lack of progress, or welcome possibility? Seven years to the day, I finished reading The Age of Atheists after the same author’s Ideas: A History of Thought from Fire to Freud. Both hefty works share this veteran journalist and now intellectual historian at Cambridge’s dogged devotion to rational thinking over supposition and the view, as his 2006 book concluded, that our human perspective is better suited to watching our world pass by and act out as if we peer at a zoo rather than a monastery.
Watson acknowledges the scientific mission to dissect and pin down all that we observe, yet he nods to the atavistic tendency embedded within many of us to yearn for transcendence. That impulse, his new book agrees, will not fade soon, but the 20th century charted here (although starting with Nietzsche towards the end of the 19th) celebrates the triumph of evolution, the breakthroughs in physics, the insights of psychology, and the wisdom of philosophy, art, literature, and communal engagement which enrich our current times and allow us so much liberty.
Ideas took me a month of evenings to study, given its 740 pages and 36 topical chapters, book-ended by a substantial introduction and conclusion, to chart the multi-millennial span of civilized endeavor. By contrast, I fairly raced through about 540 pages of the present book, which I highlighted (on a Kindle advanced copy, which had many flaws in format) in 85 instances that show my engagement with its provocative exchanges, cover roughly 125 years; Watson has also written The Modern Mind (2001) about the 20th century, so I wondered how much of that third big book overlapped with The Age of Atheists.
Ideas anticipates many of the newest book’s themes. Progress continues despite those who fear it. The brain battles those who fear it. Meaning beckons but floats out of our grasp. Science discovers more only to ponder ultimate questions to pursue. Unsurprisingly, William James’ pragmatism and Max Weber’s sociology return, prominently among the hundreds of thinkers summarized and paraphrased here. That is both Watson’s skill and this book’s necessary limitation: he quotes and cites nimbly, making recondite concepts accessible. Yet, this popular touch and the breadth required to survey so much as an historian with his own biases and predilections may leave the specialized reader frustrated that his or her pet theory or favorite thinker suffered by its few pages meted out per topic.
That caveat addressed, an inevitable result of a one-volume book able to be held in two hands, this presentation conveys a firmly Western-centered, by-now familiar, point-of-view. Nietzsche remains its driving force, and his fervent denial of a divine presence outside of the alienated, defiant human imagination reverberates through mavericks as diverse as Lenin and Joyce. Watson recognizes that German iconoclast’s insanity, even as he roots for this raw challenge to Christian hegemony which encouraged his subjects, American and European rebels who rejected God and welcomed inquiry.
Watson’s investigation roams as widely as one expects for an historian tracking modernity’s slow march away from credulity and comfort found in the ethereal or emotional, to where more and more of us wind up today, in the post-modern predicament of a worldview where neither cold science nor warm faith eases the loss of grand meaning or ultimate purpose which many contemporaries lament. He addresses, as an early example of his wide-ranging bent, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart’s assertion that charts richer nations’ secularization offset by declining birthrates, whereas poorer nations’ perpetuation of belief-based systems as a solace for suffering and privation leads to a more populated humanity with “existential insecurity” which, overall is becoming more, not less, religious.
Secular proponents, therefore, must contend with sociological explanations for belief, as well as psychological ones. Atheism, Watson finds, may be in the ascendent among the cohort he supports, but a growing sense among developed nations and educated societies of pervasive personal and social disenchantment reveals that consumerism cannot assuage the longing for meaning deep within us. William James agreed that religion emanated from what Watson phrases as “born of a core uneasiness within us” and that for many, faith was seen as the solution. Replacing that with the inspiration of music, the escapism of art, the thrill of scientific discovery, the plunge into sex or drugs, drove many in these chapters to attempt to fill up their empty souls with a spirit energized by bold possibilities.
The usefulness of religion, for James, might be succeeded by the vocabulary of reason; others who followed his suggestions looked to fields as different as dance or fashion to apply more daring experiments. Stories we tell ourselves, as Watson portrays Richard Rorty’s model, move beyond the transcendental to the empirical and experiential narratives and scenarios which ground themselves in the body. Watson presents the Swiss art colony at Anscona, the critical faculties generating doubt as explored by Stefan George, and the Symbolist poetry of the early century as settings within which ecstasy might sustain itself, as generated within a movement breaking down distinctions between individuals and between concepts so as to release a mystical jolt, or a disorienting confrontation. These encounters, which would engender the cult of the body and the New Age or therapeutic trends which would return with the “religion of no religion” at Big Sur’s Esalen in the ‘60s, carry a charge that Watson credits by way of many current approaches in which we treat and regard each other.
George Santayana mused: “There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval by discerning and manifesting the good without attempting to retain it.” A common sentiment among those Watson favors, as resignation to mortality and the impossibility of knowing the secrets behind all of creation appears to gain pace as the century’s wars and brutalities weaken rational explanations. Impotence to change human nature contends against discontents driven to improve the human condition. Freud represents the latter contingent: Watson credits him for the dominant shift in modern times, “which has seen a theological understanding of humankind replaced by a psychological one.”
Watson observes intriguing indicators of this shift, across the creative spectrum. The cover illustration of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon at the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-1886) depicts people not worshiping, but picnicking and promenading. One couple, dressed in black, appear to be looking on, “from the (moral?) higher ground” at the crowds “enjoying themselves in very secular ways, most with their backs turned.” Additionally, this French painting continues a tradition of “public contemplation” as its many figures reveal serious play. This happens despite a breakdown on the canvas of perceived or imposed order into a teasing shimmer of reality manifesting itself more subtly. The satisfaction for the viewer emanates in impressions “as a web of tiny, distinct stillnesses.”
Revolutions and conflicts darken chapters; from the Soviet triumph, “one propaganda poster posited ‘prayers to the tractor’ as alternative ways to produce change and improvement in the community.” Watson emphasizes the substitution of idolatry and worship within totalitarian societies and parties. He also notes that religion was not eradicated in many regions of the USSR, except by elimination of believers during Stalin’s purges. An underlying message persists: belief will be a fallback for humans caught in difficulties, and faith may be wired into human nature despite rational powers.
Rilke sought in the foreknowledge of death, which appears to distinguish humans from other mammals: a direction to guide searchers towards a sense that mortality “drives the plot of life”. He recognized that consciousness itself, as Watson puts it, may be “a crime against nature”. Why evolution may have embedded within humans the powers of song, the aleatory, musical ability, or a sense of beauty, as well as a tendency in many to interpret phenomenon as supernatural, sparks some of the liveliest later chapters. Suffice to say that many arguments arise, and as many suggestions.
Virginia Woolf’s often-quoted observation that around “December 1910” a change happened, so that “reality was no longer public”, accompanies modernist plunge into the interior response rather than the recording of the focused, outward observation. The loss of confidence in a shared vision and the gain in conviction that a personal reaction conveyed the spiritual experience that whirled within the intimate sphere and not in the emptying cathedral propels the writers and creators Watson introduces. Oscar Wilde sums up the leap forward: “It is enough that our fathers believed. They have exhausted the faith faculty of the species. Their legacy to us is the skepticism of which they were afraid.” Kafka throws up “the sediment left by the great monotheisms: that the mind of God can never be known, we shall never solve the mystery of God because God is the name we give to the mystery itself.” (Watson astutely footnotes, if half the book away, an apposite aside that St. Augustine had a similar opinion.)
Through Chabad and Beckett, Salman Rushdie and The Doors, Philip Roth and Theodore Roszak, Boris Yeltsin and Timothy Leary, as the second half of the century progresses, Watson explores the impacts after the purported death of God within academia, theological disputes, and popular culture. He delves into less-familiar texts such as the forgotten bestseller Joshua Liebman’s Peace of Mind (1946) to prove how the post-WWII merger of religion with psychology enticed clergy into roles as counselors, and how this promoted the therapeutic rather than theological cure across America. Such a range of references and examples accounts for much of the bulk of this book, but its contribution towards an accessible account from which a patient, intelligent, and reflective reader will benefit greatly cannot be diminished. Predictably, those immersed in a particular school of thought may cavil at the generalizations and judgments Wilson must convey by such compression given three-dozen chapters. However, the documentation he provides and the stimulation he generates merit respect.
Counter-cultural chronicler Roszak, to whom Watson gives welcome and lengthy attention, repeated José Ortega y Gasset’s reminder: “Life cannot wait until the sciences have explained the universe scientifically. We cannot put off living until we are ready.” An urgency boosts these late-last-century sections. Their pace quickens as Watson weighs dozens of competing or compatible attempts to forge a third way, apart from the calculated certainties of a stolid scientific method or the fervent claims of a fundamentalist religious precept. Roszak (following Roth and Beckett in Watson’s interpretation) maps out a humanist response looking hard at death if perhaps a bit more softly at mortality. This laments the “boundless proliferation of knowledge for its own sake” and the exclusion of many seekers who cannot enter this closed system, and who find themselves alienated as democratic culture weakens.
Watson encourages in his closing chapters those who strive to build meaningful structures by which ecological imperatives and economic equality might co-exist. He rejects those who by faith in a better life to come justify the rape of the earth and the pain of its inhabitants. He accepts that science may not provide comfort for those who, however irrationally, search for truth and beauty beyond what can be calculated or purchased. Mark Kingswell’s philosophical rejoinder to a capitalist culture “based on envy, and advertising, the main capitalist means of ‘selling’ consumerism, works by ‘creating unhappiness’”. Happiness, if God is removed from the window through which we view Watson’s earlier model of the zoo vs. the monastery, may emanate from a rejection of what for many people in Western society supplants or supplements fading religious belief: the “pathography” (he credits Joyce Carol Oates for this coinage) of the dysfunctional, confessional, survivor-strutting meta-narrative that has drowned out the traditional monotheistic, and arguably I may add, modernist world-views today.
Ronald Dworkin may speak for many of his colleagues in the seminar or clinic: “Philosophers used to speculate about what they called the meaning of life. (That is now the job of mystics and comedians).” Thomas Mann cautioned that the concept of “one overbearing truth” has been exhausted. Jürgen Habermas directs us to look not above for answers but to listen to each other, for communication may produce critical meaning, and within an informed public sphere, guidance can be generated. Watson finds truth in pragmatism. “We make our lives tiny diamonds in the cosmic sands.”
Few will choose this enriching and rewarding removal from reality TV and manufactured distraction? Few will walk the course mapped in these heady pages, along a sobering path of self-awareness of our fragile presence surrounded by darkness and mystery? Even fewer choose Kafka over Chopra, and fewer may finish this book than the latest novel by even Oates herself. But those who persevere will glimpse in Watson’s closing chapters spirited and moving testimony by wise professors and writers exchanging their versions of what Sartre phrased as “lyrical phenomenology”: what Watson calls “the sheer multiplicity of experience as the joy of being alive”. This quest for meaning may endure, parallel to or divergent from science. This search embraces a persistent appreciation that beyond facts hovers that which may forever suspend itself apart from our perception, no longer named God, still ineffable.