on April 5, 2014
The book was slightly different then what I expected. It's a survey book that broadly covers poetry, prose, painting, philosophy, dance and science after the time of Nietzsche and his pronouncement that "God is dead". It looks at each topic separately and he'll spend a couple or so pages on a person within each topic and than quickly moves on to another person within that topic.
I know so little about most of the people (writers, poets, painters and philosophers) he covers in the book. I enjoyed learning about all those people whose thoughts and works I know so little about (William James, James Joyce, other writers, all the poets he mentions, and almost all the artist are people I've ignored through out my life). I don't have the ability to understand what they were saying or trying to say with their works, but now I got a feel by having read this book.
The book doesn't really have an overriding narrative that ties everything together. The author tries to show how each person mentioned (and there's probably over 200 who are mentioned and their works are discussed) handles the big questions in life. Most of them don't even seem to be atheist in the strict sense of the word. They all were worth learning about.
This book is a delight to read on the kindle. When he mentions a painting or a poem, for example, I could easily do a Google search on it and read the whole poem or look at the painting. I downloaded 20 or so of the books he mentions (which were free) and put them on my kindle.
The book is a great survey of recent thought, but it's not what I fully expected because of it's lack of an overriding narrative tying the pieces together because he constantly jumps around from person to person.
Seven years to the day, I finished this after the same author's "Ideas: A History of Thought from Fire to Freud" (reviewed by me Feb. 2007). 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 in a zoo rather than a monastery. He 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 twentieth century charted here (although starting with Nietzsche towards the end of the nineteenth) 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 was wildly and incompletely formatted; this presumably is cleaned up in the copy you may download) in eighty-five instances that show my engagement with its provocative exchanges, cover roughly 125 years; Watson has also written (unread by me) "The Modern Mind" (2001) about the twentieth 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 1960s, 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 U.S.S.R. 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 that 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.
Countercultural 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-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 for Watson in mapping a humanist response looking hard at death if perhaps a bit more softly at mortality, 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, along the course mapped in these heady pages, to a sobering path of self-awareness of our fragile presence surrounded by darkness and mystery. 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.
on May 10, 2014
It is perhaps worth saying first that this book is NOT about the debate between traditional religion and atheists. While acknowledging the continued formal attachment of the majority to supernatural-based religion, Watson treats traditional religion, both institutionally and intellectually, as dead in fact --- and he picks up the discussion from there. One might say that the subtitle of "How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God" better describes the book than "The Age of Atheists."
In roughly chronological progression from Neitzche to the present, Watson provides an extensive survey of recent, mostly Western ideas for addressing the "meaning" of life or what makes living worthwhile. In short: Having rejected the idea of a supernatural being, how have very diverse modern people (again, primarily in the West) struggled philosophically, psychologically or practically to supply an alternative source for values and purpose?
Like most "surveys," this book covers a lot of ground. It is one of Watson's strengths that he is able to explain succinctly fairly complicated ideas in many areas, and his grasp of fundamental arguments and concepts in such diverse areas as contemporary art, poetry, psychology and physics is impressive. Also like most surveys, the book is not able to devote detailed attention to many of his topics, and the analysis and comparison of arguments sometimes suffers. Nevertheless, it not only covers a lot, but generally covers it very well.
My principle criticism or caveat is that Watson does not do justice to the devotion to (and devotees of) scientific methodology and its exploration as an alternative source of values for much of the secularized west over the last century. It certainly is not that Watson is unaware: Indeed, he not only makes recurring reference to non-social science throughout, but devotes the better part of two of his later chapters to some current thinking about biology and physics. But it is evident that his own heart lies with efforts in literature and the arts. In most respects, he ultimately treats science as he treats traditional religion: As an evidently failed alternative, i.e., something to be acknowledged, but not requiring much detailed exploration in the present volume. I am not unsympathetic to his inclination, and I found his discussion of poetry and other arts quite compelling. However, I think that the failure to deal more serioulsy with the appeal and (at least in terms of social impact) the success of science-based thinking is a weakness. Watson fails to recognize adequately that adherents of science make many of the same claims for ehanced or clarified meaning that he attributes to proponents of the humane arts.
I suspect that some will consider a second major deficiency to be a failure to emphasize the importance of polticial ideology as an alternative to traditional religion in much of the 20th century. As a matter of practical importance, this criticism is fair; moreover, Watson arguably underestimates the continuing degree of influence of ideologies, particularly including ethnocentric nationalism, in the 21st century. That being said, his book evidently is not intended to supply an analysis of the politics or sociology of the period, but rather to explore the struggle for individual meaning in the absence of a compelling traditional reglious/ethical system. He makes no claim about broader historical or political analysis.
Despite the caveats above, I rate this book highly because it generally does very well what it sets out to do: That is to survey critically many recent, contending ideas for alternative sources of values and purpose. Although generally limited to western societies, Watson's narrative is informative and stimulating, and should make the book a worthwhile read for those interested in wrestling with the dilemma.
on February 5, 2015
There are 179 SECTION NAMES! in the whole book, and there are neither numbered nor are shown in the Table of Content of this book. Therefore, while reading it in a Kindle, it is almost impossible to go back to any on these Sections without loosing a tremendous amount of time flipping through the pages. To solve this problem, I built up a complete Table of Content with location numbers for each of these 179 Sections, which I make available through Amazon to the interested readers. I have a printed copy of it to guide my reading of the book and my searching for particular subjects within those Sections, which now I can easily locate by their numbers in my Kindle.
Perhaps this also will call the attention of publishers of books for Kindle of the need to facilitate to readers as much specific locations as possible.
COMPLETE TABLE OF CONTENT
0. Introduction: Is There Something Missing in Our Lives? Is Nietzsche to Blame?
...0.1 NO "AMEN": THE TERMS OF OUR EXISTENCE AND THE IDEA OF A MORAL WHOLE loc. 134
...0.2 POROUS VERSUS BUFFERED SELVES loc. 208
...0.3 ARE WE IN A SPIRITUAL RECESSION? OR, ARE WE AS FURIOUSLY RELIGIOUS AS WE EVER
.......WERE? loc. 253
...0.4 RELIGION AS SOCIOLOGY, NOT THEOLOGY loc. 300
...0.5 TRANSCENDENCE VERSUS POVERTY loc. 344
...0.6 "THE THINGS WE HAVE ARE DEVALUED BY THE THINGS WE WANT NEXT" loc. 435
...0.7 THE PHENOMENON THAT WAS NIETZSCHE loc. 506
...0.8 THE WHIFF OF DANGER AND THE CARGO OF LIFE loc. 539
...0.9 DOUBT'S BID FOR A BETTER WORLD loc. 584
...0.10 THE UNFITNESS OF FAITH AND SCIENCE loc. 598
PART ONE The Avant-Guerre: When Art Mattered
1. The Nietzsche Generation: Ecstasy, Eros, Excess
...1.1 HARD WISDOM loc. 662
...1.2 NIETZSCHEAN KITSCH loc. 707
...1.3 ALL ARE EQUAL IN REGARD TO INSTINCT loc. 777
...1.4 A NEW HUMAN TYPE: THE VAGABOND AND THE DANCE Loc. 796
...1.5 LABAN'S DANCE FARM loc. 845
...1.6 EURHYTHMICS AND ETHICS: THE DANCER SPIRIT loc. 890
...1.7 WHAT THE HERD CAN NEVER KNOW loc. 951
...1.8 THE ÜBERMENSCH ETHIC loc. 986
2. No One Way That Life Must Be
...2.1 THE LIMITS TO HAPPINESS loc. 1031
...2.2 "DAMN THE ABSOLUTE!" loc. 1070
...2.3 A CORE UNEASINESS IN US loc. 1096
...2.4 "GROWTH IS THE ONLY MORAL END" loc. 1127
...2.5 NEW CONCEPTIONS OF POSSIBLE COMMUNITIES loc. 1190
...2.6 A NEW TRINITY: TRUST, MORAL AMBITION, SOCIAL HOPE loc. 1225
...2.7 SANTAYANA'S COMIC FAITH loc. 1250
3. The Voluptuousness of Objects
...3.1 METAPHYSICS OF THE CONCRETE loc. 1354
...3.2 "THINGNESS" loc. 1391
...3.3 ASSENT TO THE WORLD loc. 1420
...3.4 SPIRITUAL ELITISM loc. 1462
...3.5 WHAT OUGHT TO EXIST loc. 1517
...3.6 NEUROSIS AS A PRIVATE RELIGION loc. 1567
4. Heaven: Not a Loc. but a Direction
...4.1 THE MECHANICAL PARADISE loc. 1691
...4.2 FLASHES OF SPIRITUAL VALUE loc. 1735
...4.3 DESIRE AND CRUELTY loc. 1823
...4.4 "MOZARTIAN JOY" IS THE AIM loc. 1864
...4.5 DO NOT LOOK INTO THE DISTANCE loc. 1983
5. Visions of Eden: The Worship of Color, Metal, Speed and the Moment
...5.1 AN UNTROUBLED SENSE OF WHOLENESS loc. 2088
...5.2 COLOR AS MEANING loc. 2140
...5.3 THE MAGIC OF METAL, THE WORSHIP OF MACHINES loc. 2174
...5.4 NO MEANING IN THE PAST loc. 2211
...5.5 THE FOUR TRAITS OF THE "NEW SPIRIT" IN ART loc. 2277
...5.6 WHOLENESS VIA JUXTAPOSITION loc. 2326
6. The Insistence of Desire
...6.1 STIRRED BY SELF-LOSS loc. 2365
...6.2 LIES AND SHARED FICTIONS loc. 2438
...6.3 THE COLLECTIVE MIND AND THE GENERAL PURPOSE loc. 2524
...6.4 MEMORY AND DESIRE loc. 2636
7. The Angel in Our Cheek
...7.1 GOD'S ORPHANS loc. 2738
...7.2 PRAISE AND THE VERTICAL AXIS loc. 2796
...7.3 SHAKESPEARE, NOT YAHWEH loc. 2897
...7.4 SECRET GERMANY: A SPIRITUAL STATE loc. 2931
...7.5 LIVING WITH DISAPPOINTMENT loc. 2987
...7.6 EVANESCENT ORDER loc. 3055
8. "The Wrong Supernatural World"
...8.1 THE CASTLE OF THE HEROES loc. 3171
...8.2 EXALTED YEATSISM loc. 3239
...8.3 AMERICA'S SHADOW CULTURE loc. 3293
...8.4 AN EPIDEMIC OF THE OCCULT loc. 3342
...8.5 CONCERNING THE SPIRITUAL IN ART loc. 3362
PART TWO One Abyss after Another
9. Redemption by War
...9.1 THE PHENOMENON OF 1914 loc. 3448
...9.2 COMMUNITY: THE PERVASIVE THEME OF 2014 loc. 3499
...9.3 IRONY AND INNOCENCE loc. 3574
10. The Bolshevik Crusade for Scientific Atheism
...10.1 A NEW STAGE IN MANKIND'S DEVELOPMENT loc. 3711
...10.2 STEEL, HAMMER AND STONE loc. 3748
...10.3 SOBORNOST AND CREATIVITY: BREAKING FREE OF GOD loc. 3801
...10.4 THE PLAN: THE IDEAL "AHEAD," NOT THE IDEAL "ABOVE" loc. 3844
...10.5 GOD DEFIED loc. 3891
...10.6 "A HIGHER SOCIAL-BIOLOGIC TYPE" loc. 3910
...10.7 THE CHURCH OF COMMUNISM loc. 3948
...10.8 PRAYERS VERSUS THE TRACTOR loc. 4008
11. The Implicitness of Life and the Rules of Existence
...11.1 WEBER'S UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE loc. 4059
...11.2 UNDISCLOSED EVERYDAY ABUNDANCE loc. 4086
...11.3 THE GIFT OF SURRENDER loc. 4115
...11.4 WHAT WE KNOW IN OUR BONES loc. 4128
...11.5 RADICAL PASTORALISM loc. 4149
...11.6 THE CENTRAL SANE HUMAN ACTIVITY loc. 4170
...11.7 SHORTCUTS TO LIFE loc. 4254
...11.8 "TWO WAYS OF BEING IN THE WORLD" loc. 4274
...11.9 THE OTHER CONDITION loc. 4333
12. The Imperfect Paradise
...12.1 MONEY REPLACES GOD loc. 4384
...12.2 SOMETHING GORGEOUS THAT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH GOD loc. 4471
...12.3 THE NEXT GREATEST POWER TO FAITH loc. 4485
...12.4 SO HAPPY FOR A TIME loc. 4590
...12.5 THE SPIRITUAL MIDDLE CLASS AND THE LIFE-LIE loc. 4668
...12.6 FORGIVENESS--AND FAITH--IN THE FAMILY loc. 4696
13. Living Down to Fact
...13.1 CHARISMA AND EVERYDAY LIFE loc. 4745
...13.2 IDEALISM AS RUIN loc. 4841
...13.3 A COMIC GOSPEL AND THE ANDROGYNOUS MAN loc. 4906
...13.4 BIOLOGICAL WARMTH AND WARM OTHERNESS loc. 4943
14. The Impossibility of Metaphysics, a Reverence for Metapsychology
...14.1 WHAT CAN AND CANNOT BE SAID loc. 5051
...14.2 THE CRUELTIES OF CONSOLATION loc. 5122
...14.3 THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE loc. 5193
...14.4 THE FOUR PALLIATIVES loc. 5218
...14.5 NO REFUGE loc. 5260
...14.6 THE MYTH OF WHOLENESS loc. 5346
...14.7 THE MODERN TRADE-OFF loc. 5394
15. The Faiths of the Philosophers
...15.1 DEWEY'S COMMON FAITH loc. 5434
...15.2 WITTGENSTEIN'S WORDLESS FAITH loc. 5496
...15.3 WHITEHEAD'S FAITH IN PROCESS loc. 5569
...15.4 RUSSELL'S FAITH IN KNOWLEDGE AND LOVE loc. 5633
16. Nazi Religions of the Blood
...16.1 THE GERMAN THEOLOGICAL RENAISSANCE loc. 5717
...16.2 THE NAZI FORM OF CHRISTIANITY loc. 5768
...16.3 "RACES ARE GOD'S THOUGHTS" loc. 5804
...16.4 THE "UNDENIABLE HARDNESS" OF THE WORLD loc. 5931
PART THREE Humanity at and after Zero Hour
17. The Aftermath of the Aftermath
18. The Warmth of Acts
...18.1 RESISTANCE AND RITZKRIEG loc. 6081
...18.2 THE BATTLE OVER TRANSCENDENCE loc. 6136
...18.3 INTENSITY AS MEANING loc. 6175
...18.4 LOVE AS REFUGE loc. 6206
...18.5 INSPIRATION BEFORE PERSUASION loc. 6235
...18.6 LIFE WITHOUT ALIBIS loc. 6296
...18.7 SCORN, AND THE BREATHING SPACES IN LIFE loc. 6364
19. War, the American Way and the Decline of Original Sin
...19.1 SELF-UNDERSTANDING, NOT SELF-CONDEMNATION loc. 6400
...19.2 A "SHRUNKEN" GOD loc. 6450
...19.3 THE ORIGINS OF SELF-HELP Loc. 6497
...19.4 A WARMER GOD: PASTORAL PSYCHOLOGY loc. 6551
...19.5 "OOZING" INTO THE FUTURE loc. 6591
...19.6 A HIGHER HUMANISM: THE NEW INTIMACY loc. 6628
...19.7 SITUATION ETHICS loc. 6652
...19.8 THE APOTHEOSIS OF OPTIMISM loc. 6669
...19.9 HEIGHT PSYCHOLOGY loc. 6697
20. Auschwitz, Apocalypse, Absence
...20.1 HITLER, THE NEW NEBUCHADNEZZAR loc. 6778
...20.2 A NEW MEANING FOR PRAYER loc. 6820
...20.3 BEING JEWISH WITHOUT GOD: THE RELIGION OF THE HOLOCAUST loc. 6842
...20.4 APOCALYPTIC FULFILLMENT loc. 6880
...20.5 THEOTHANATOLOGY loc. 6911
21. "Quit Thinking!"
...21.1 "THE ABLATION OF DESIRE" loc. 7005
...21.2 DOUBTS OVER DEPTH loc. 7079
...21.3 THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE EGO loc. 7108
...21.4 IMPROVISATION AND THE BODY loc. 7155
...21.5 PLASTIC DIALOGUE: THE REVELATION IN THE ACT loc. 7183
...21.6 KINETIC KNOWLEDGE loc. 7239
...21.7 CONVERSATIONS WITH CLAY loc. 7271
...21.8 PROSODY AS MEANING loc. 7289
...21.9 NEGATIVE EXUBERANCE: THE INTENSITY OF THE INVERTED LIFE loc. 7347
22. A Visionary Commonwealth and the Size of Life
...22.1 THE RELIGION OF NO RELIGION loc. 7479
...22.2 BETTER LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY loc. 7531
...22.3 "MUSIC AND DRUGS WORK WONDERS" loc. 7620
...22.4 "OUR GODLESS CIVILIZATION APPROACHING THE ZERO POINT" loc. 7665
...22.5 AESTHETICS AND MORALS loc. 7706
...22.6 ENCOUNTER GROUPS IN THE WHITE HOUSE loc. 7740
23. The Luxury and Limits of Happiness
...23.1 THE ART OF DIMINISHED EXPECTATIONS loc. 7855
...23.2 UPGRADE ANXIETY loc. 7888
...23.3 A LEGITIMATE PALLIATIVE? loc. 7976
...23.4 SOLACE BY DIAGNOSIS loc. 8015
24. Faith in Detail
...24.1 RECOGNIZING OUR TRUE DESIRES loc. 8141
...24.2 OUR ACHIEVEMENTS AND OUR LIMITS loc. 8191
...24.3 A PREMONITION OF HARMONIES DESIRED loc. 8264
...24.4 AUDEN'S QUARREL WITH MEANING loc. 8314
...24.5 A HOLIDAY FROM RATIONALITY loc. 8333
...24.6 NAMING loc. 8370
...24.7 "THERE IS MORE TO THIS LIFE THAN WE HAVE EVER IMAGINED" loc. 8430
25. "Our Spiritual Goal Is the Enrichment of the Evolutionary Epic"
...25.1 THE CONCEPT OF CULTURAL HEALTH loc. 8537
...25.2 NEW RULES TO LIVE BY: TRUST, TRADE AND A TRAGIC VISION loc. 8602
...25.3 RELIGION WITHOUT THEOLOGY loc. 8706
...25.4 THE BIOPHILIA REVOLUTION Loc. 8715
...25.5 A MODERN SCIENCE OF THE SOUL loc. 8790
...25.6 THE PLENITUDE AESTHETIC loc. 8812
...25.7 EVOLUTION AS A RELIGION, SCIENCE AS SALVATION loc. 8827
...25.8 THE NEW DOGMA AND THE NEW METAPHYSICS loc. 8854
...25.9 GOD AND THE COSMOLOGISTS loc. 8881
...25.10 THE PHYSICS OF IMMORTALITY loc. 8919
26. "The Good Life Is the Life Spent Seeking the Good Life"
...26.1 THE END OF METANARRATIVE loc. 9020
...26.2 BRICOLAGE BELIEFS loc. 9045
...26.3 WHAT IS MISSING IS "PRACTICE" loc. 9070
...26.4 ART AS ESCAPE FROM TIME loc. 9120
...26.5 MEANING AS OPPRESSIVE ILLUSION loc. 9148
...26.6 THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF TRANSCENDENCE loc. 9178
...26.7 THE UNSATISFIABILITY OF LIFE loc. 9256
...26.8 BELIEVING IS PUBLIC loc. 9284
...26.9 WHY DO WHAT IS RIGHT? loc. 9355
...26.10 THE DUTY TO LIVE RESPONSIBLY loc. 9412
...26.11 THE BEAUTY OF MYSTERY AND THE MYSTERY OF BEAUTY loc. 9470
...26.12 A SYNTHETIC UNITY HAS HELD US BACK loc. 9512
...26.13 THE RATIONALITY OF RELIGION: A POST-SECULAR SOCIETY? loc. 9534
27. Conclusion: The Central Sane Activity loc. 9600
...27.1 MEANING IS NOT A SECURITY BLANKET loc. 9697
...27.2 "A WANT OF LIVING GLOW" loc. 9782
...27.3 "THE METANARRATIVE OF EMANCIPATION" loc. 9887
...27.4 TRIVIALITY AND CONSEQUENTIALITY loc. 9900
...27.5 SECULAR REVELATION: WHAT WE DIDN'T KNOW WE HAD WITHIN US loc. 9923
...27.6 NAMING THE WORLD loc. 9940
...27.7 "WE WILL GRIEVE NOT, RATHER FIND / STRENGTH IN WHAT REMAINS
.........BEHIND" loc. 9997
About the Author
Notes and References
on May 10, 2014
Peter Watson has writen a comprahensive overview of the history of unbelief since Nietzche declared the death of God. Mostly literary and philosophical in scope, a few errors unfortunately sneaked through. For example, Watson mentions the KGB as if it always existed as a represive entity since the Bolshevik revolution, when in reality it was the latest manifestation of other security organizations, such as the Cheka and the NKVD. Also the glib statement that Bertrand Russell was an admirer of the Soviet Union.is made out of context. Russell was originally sympathetic to the Bolshevik revolution , but after a visit to the Soviet Union in 1920, he wrote the critical The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism and stated that he was "infinitely unhappy in this atmosphere stiffled by its utilitarianism, its indifference to love and beauty and the life of impulse.' Russell further characterized Lenin to being like a religious zealot, cold, and possessing no love of liberty. Does this sound like an 'admirer' of the Soviet Union?
These errors could be considered minor in the overall picture Watson paints, but the do detract from what could have been an excellent overview of unbelief in the twentieth century. The problem is that there is much material to cover and it is easy to overlook a detail or two.
on May 7, 2014
Comprehensive in scope and ambitious in its aim, I will use this thoughtful book as much for its rich sources as its argument. Watson overturns all stones, even those I reckoned added little to the discussion, in this compendium overview. Man Searching for Meaning would be as descriptive a title as his, even though it would not indicate the two giant sticks he rubs together throughout: religion and secularism.
I enjoyed re-reading about thinkers I know and being introduced to those I didn't or knew only by name. It's as if Watson wrote a long series of wikipedia articles about various philosophers, scientists, artists, and theologians - and then wove the articles into a narrative about the search for meaning. It is a buffet that one cannot sample in one sitting. Prepare to have your appetite sated many times.
A condensed version of the arc of his argument would be terrific, even if hard to develop. As I read I could imagine nearly any religious or secular person pausing at certain points and exclaiming, "see there - I am right!" Which is one of the things I appreciate about the book.
Watson starts with Nietzsche's exclamatory about the death of god. He ends with proposing god is simply an early, and perhaps best retired, method of finding meaning in life. The absence of god doesn't end the search for meaning (nihilism) but stirs our sense of wonder, thinking, improved investigatory tools, and our shared humanity to continue to improve our search. We gain more than we lose in improving our means of understanding. Searching is as profound as finding.
on February 1, 2016
Peter Watson has authored several very good books, including the brilliant "German Genius' and the impressive 'Ideas'. Both of those efforts combine a remarkable breadth of knowledge with a nuanced sense of history and an appreciation for the complexity of life and thought. In 'The Age of Atheists' he delivers the breadth of knowledge, but sheds the nuance and objective sensibility. While it is a good survey of the Post-Enlightenment search for meaning in what is, for many, a life without an orthodox God, he appears to reveal a staunch anti-religeous bias (which is the significant flaw of this book). In doing so he undermines any appearance of objectivity and forfeits any claim upon thoughtful consideration of the human condition and what exactly atheism is an alternative to.
Early in this book he offers up a reading of Charles Taylor's 'A Secular Age' and this reading is itself seriously flawed, claiming that Taylor posits, "… a fulfilled life - can be achieved only via religion" (p. 6, a footnote directs us to pages 20 and 44 of 'A Secular Age' where that sentiment can't be found). A fairer reading of Taylor might conclude that Taylor writes that for religious-minded souls the ultimate "fullness" of life is achieved through transcendence and is made possible by their relationship with God, while for non-believers the ultimate "fullness" is achieved entirely within an earthly existence. Contrary to Watson's claim, Taylor does not insist "fullness" is only achievable through religion, but rather that supernatural transcendence, or rising above our corporal lives, is.
Watson's attitude toward Taylor is fully revealed by following up his convoluted (and intentionally comic) reading of Taylor with a sarcastic dismissal, "Phew" (p. 6). Watson's dismissal of Taylor reflects his dismissal of all religions, which is made obvious by various comments:
- "What are we to make of this state of affairs, in which atheism has the better case …" over religion with its "manifest horrors and absurdities" (p. 11). Well, it may be possible to make a good case for atheism, but Watson never makes it (and if I'm not mistaken, "manifest horrors" have been committed by atheists, too) and instead assumes the conclusion is a priori. Any consideration of religion must admit to "horrors" performed in its name, but one would also think of the many benefits mankind has reaped from persons inspired by their religion.
In Watson's own 'German Genius' he writes admiringly of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, along with about 2,000 Lutheran pastors, organized an alternative church to the Nazi's state church and then he went on to actively participate in resistance efforts (GG, p. 680). He also provides a short account of Albert Schweitzer's life, where his religion inspired him to become a missionary and conducting his life in such a way that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (GG, p. 681). The list could go on and on from other sources … see Adam Hochschild's 'Bury the Chains' about religion's influence upon the abolition movement or see Martin Gilbert's 'The Righteous' for examples of moral behavior by religious persons during the Holocaust (or Peter Grose's 'A Good Place to Hide" for that matter) … et cetera, et cetera.
- "… the absurd, tragic and horrific dimensions of recent religious history" (p. 21). It's fair to assume that Watson is referring to terrorism initiated by radical Islamist terrorists, which is "horrific" but not representative of the vast majority of Muslims who peacefully practice their religion. Can all religious persons be condemned for the acts of a few? One expects more than a Donald Trump view of the world from Watson.
- And speaking of the absurd, Watson quotes Dewey, "… moral progress as a matter of increasing sensitivity, increasing responsibility to the needs of a larger and larger variety of people and things." To which Watson appends an apparently personal declarative sentence, "Doing away with religious groupings helps this" (p. 65). So apparently diversity is a legitimate goal, as long as it doesn't include anyone who identifies with an organized religion. Really?
This antagonistic attitude toward religion goes on and on. You may ask, "What did you expect from a book titled "The Age of Atheists'?" Well, from Peter Watson I expected more, in fact I expected, in his own words, "… an extensive survey of the work of those talented people - artists, novelists" et al, "who have embraced atheism, the death of God, and have sought other ways to live, who have discovered or fashioned other forms of meaning in the world" (p. 22). He has delivered on that intention, but he has wrapped it in a cloak of polemic rhetoric void of any appreciation for the multitude of people who derive "fullness" and meaning in their lives through religion (and who do not commit acts of "horror" in the name of their faith). There is no nuance, no appreciation for the complexity and the dilemmas of modern life.
One would think that any full appreciation and consideration of atheism would require a thoughtful consideration of its alternative, not quick dismissal. In weighing religion Watson limits religion to its frailties, and doesn't place any of its benefits on the scales.
Watson appears so smug of his point of view that he writes, "The overall intellectual trajectory of the long twentieth century, of modernism and postmodernism, has been to reinforce the argument that there is not - there cannot be - any privileged viewpoint from which to look out upon the world" (p. 535), an ironic comment in that he is privileging his own viewpoint over that of others (because, one suspects, he considers his viewpoint to be so obviously "right" with history). It is Watson who sounds "overbearing" to me (see p. 535 for reference).
Returning to Taylor, he writes, "We live in a condition where we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on" (SA, p. 11). Taylor concedes that those with a different worldview to his can find "fullness". Watson's apparently closed mind betrays no such good will, and serves to highlight the difference between intelligence and wisdom. Self-righteousness is unpleasant in both religious fundamentalists as well as militant atheists, and human empathy is unlikely to flourish under either of those extremes.
Perhaps an ideal to aspire to is to hold a viewpoint (maybe even a faith), without succumbing to self-righteousness, and holding to an orthodoxy without succumbing to intolerance. On those terms Taylor succeeds and Watson is left wanting.
If you're an unabashed rooter for Watson's home team, you might assign five stars. If you are looking for more, four stars may be generous.
on January 31, 2016
A well written book that give the short history of Atheists. I am Christian who enjoy reading it and now have better understand of modern age, those I think claiming this era as secular. Is not true, because as we know 80% of American believe in a god. I enjoy and read all 556 pages of this work.
on November 13, 2014
The title is very misleading. This is not a book about Atheists but a history of the Illuminati from 1880 when Nietzsche declared that "God is Dead" until the present with emphasis on Psychology, Psychiatry, the Fine Arts, Poetry, Biology and Philosophy. Movements and styles in literature are covered but not as much as the others. Mr. Watson interweaves and illustrates for the modern "Illuminati" the interrelationships between the various areas in very interesting ways.
on May 24, 2014
This is one of the best books I have come across in years in this field, but also generally.
After reading a little more that half of the book, I decided to order two more copy. I could think of a number of people who would really profit, and also very much appreciate Peter Watson's most recent contribution to our understanding. Having completed my first reading of this book in total, I remain equally impressed.