Did God die at the end of the nineteenth century? Watson asserts, “The world has never forgotten—and some have never forgiven—Nietzsche for saying, “God is Dead,’ and then going on to add that ‘we have killed him’” (23). What is God anyway? If there is no deity, then the question of that deity’s death is surely absurd. What never existed cannot cease to be.
Further, if there is indeed no god, no transcendent creative being as the fount of all moral order, then how do we develop an ethical sense and live a moral life? What is a moral life when there is no individual or social responsibility to a deity? If there is no god, do we need to invent one or a pantheon of gods, or is it possible to live without a god centred world-view? Can we live with a mystery of unknowing? Must we take a leap of faith into religion or into atheism? Are there certainties? Can what we understand of quantum mechanics, neurology and consciousness, and poetry help us live a moral life based on a sound ethical code?
The Age of Atheists addresses these questions and more. It “aims to be an extensive survey of the work of those talented people—artists, dramatists, poets, scientists, psychologists, philosophers—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, other ways to overcome the great ‘subtraction,’ the dreadful impoverishment that so many appear to think is the inevitable consequence of losing the idea of supernatural transcendence.” He “hope[s] to show that such an eventuality is far from inevitable. . . .”asserting that “far from atheists leading less than full lives, neither God nor the Devil has all the best tunes” (21-22).
I enjoyed this book so much that as I approached the end, I paused, reluctant to be done with the work, but the end had to come. As a history of moral thought since Nietzsche, The Age of Atheists is an excellent resource. Watson divides the book into three sections: The Avant-Guerre: When Art Mattered, One Abyss after Another, and Humanity at and after Zero Hour. He integrates his summaries of philosophical ideas with the related changing aesthetics positioning both art and philosophy within their social and political contexts.
I do have a minor negative comment about the book. The documentation convention of numbered references (no parenthetical citations with footnotes only for side commentary) sometimes made it a little difficult to grasp immediately which particular thinker Watson was dealing with. At times, I found myself having to reread a paragraph or two (not necessarily a bad thing, but it can disrupt a train of thought as can flipping back and forth between the chapter text and the Notes and References section) just to ensure I was attributing the source material being discussed correctly. A further quibble is the lack of detailed Bibliography. Yes, indeed, the Notes and References at the end of the book do indicate sources, but an annotated bibliography would be a great addition to the book.
That said, I found Watson’s style personable and engaging, and totally lacking in academic persiflage. He himself is critical of writers whose style is characterized by “opacity” (555) and “lock-jaw syntax” (556). His presentation of his material is informative, even-handed, and thought-provoking and made me realize that there is so much more I really need to read.
It provides a good starting point for considering what remain perhaps the most important questions we have to deal with: What constitutes a “good” life and how do we live it?
I found this post rather difficult to write. There was so much more I wanted to say particularly about the relationship between beauty and morality, for example, and my sense that fostering an aesthetic sense fosters a moral sense. And there is so much to be said about how to understand and define evil and sin. But to begin a examination of those issues would take me into much larger discussions and ultimately take me away from a review of Watson’s book. Suffice it to reiterate The Age of Atheists is an excellent resource for those larger discussions.
The pictures are the Mazes in the Getty Center Gardens, Los Angeles and in the Real Alcazar Gardens, Seville.