Book Review: Age of Atheists by Peter Watson

Peter Watson here provides a tour of modern intellectual history as it has grappled with questions of meaning since Nietzsche’s famous proclamation of the death of God. In this tour, Watson guides us through the greatest and most influential thought of the past 130 years, such as the insights of William James and Sigmund Freud, as well as through the muck, mire, and depravity, as in Stalin’s Russia and the racial mythology of the Nazis. The guiding force throughout is the drive to discover how man can make sense of the world and of himself in the absence of a belief in a transcendent and eternal deity.

The sheer multiplicity of answers to that question is nearly overwhelming. Watson turns to a new thinker with a new idea in each chapter, and sometimes even several times within a chapter. Each of them proposes some radical alternative to the antiquated mythologies of early ages and each of them departs from his own forbears and contemporaries in his own way. What the modern age, in all of these, may demonstrate more than any other that came before it is the great range and diversity of the human experience. Whereas earlier generations often emphasized the commonality of the human condition, the modern age has demonstrated that the experience of this condition is personal and therefore multivalent.

One question that continued to draw my attention throughout the book, as I examined and evaluated each of these attempts to live in a world where God was no longer a dominant force in human consciousness and society, is the question of the relationship between the humanities and the sciences. One might even phrase this as a question of the relationship between knowledge and humanity itself. The human experience as documented in the humanities is quite different from that reported in the sciences. There seems here to be a disconnect between the objective facts of reality, if such a thing can be attained at all (and even its very existence is a matter only taken on faith), and the subjectivity of lived experience. As scientific knowledge has increased, this gap has only widened.

The common reaction to this growing gap among the modern scientific materialists, which is the currently prevalent mode of living without God, is to reject the dichotomy altogether. Dawkins, for example, as Watson points out, holds that a thing of nature can be appreciated both scientifically and poetically, each in their own way. This is, however, an unsatisfactory answer, to me. It seems to require that we cultivate a split personality, that we live in two worlds simultaneously.

In addition, I find it problematic that each advocate of a new truth about how to best live without God (for that matter, those who advocate a return to living with God generally fall into the same category) insist that their route is the path to happiness. There is no good reason why truth and happiness should be coterminous, however. And here lies the crux of the problem: the humanities have long said — since Aristotle, and longer — and man seeks after happiness. And they have presented a path that does indeed seem to make man authentically happy, in some sense of that word. Yet, the scientist must seek after truth, no matter how unsettling or terrible that truth may be. And the truth, as science states it today, is indeed unsettling and terrible. A vast empty cosmos, a meaningless existence, a randomly assigned consciousness, an ethics evolved for the purpose of survival, and a final end in a great apocalyptic heat death, all without any redemption or resurrection: this is the world that science presents to us. How can a human being, as human beings exist, be “happy” with this? We can, perhaps, be resigned, but not happy. Yet the same who insist on meaningless, valuelessness, and the slow permanent death of the cosmos also insist that this is a model in which humans can still find fulfillment, that they can, in fact, derive fulfillment from this very model. It seems more honest to admit that truth and happiness have parted ways and we must face the consequences of our own compulsions toward these two mutually exclusive goals.

This book is not an easy read. Those who like simple answers to complex questions will not enjoy this book. It will be painful and frustrating for them to read. Those who are willing to live in a world that is difficult, if not impossible, to fully comprehend, however, and who are willing to sit in awe before the tremendous thing that is human existence, will find this book one of the most enthralling, insightful books of this year.

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