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From one of Britain's most distinguished historians comes the stirring story of one of the modern world's most important yet controversial intellectual achievements: atheism. Since Friedrich Nietzsche roundly declared that "God is dead" in 1882, a raft of reflective and courageous individuals have devoted their creative energies to devising ways to live without Him, turnin From one of Britain's most distinguished historians comes the stirring story of one of the modern world's most important yet controversial intellectual achievements: atheism. Since Friedrich Nietzsche roundly declared that "God is dead" in 1882, a raft of reflective and courageous individuals have devoted their creative energies to devising ways to live without Him, turning instead to invention, enthusiasm, hope, wit and, above all, various forms of self-reliance. Their brave, imaginative story has gone untold--until now. In The Age of Atheists, acclaimed historian Peter Watson offers a sweeping narrative of the secular philosophers and poets, psychologists and scientists, painters and playwrights, novelists and even choreographers who have forged a thrilling, bold path in the absence of religious belief. Synthesizing nearly a century and a half of recent history, The Age of Atheists is a stunning, magisterial celebration of life without recourse to the supernatural. From Paul Valéry and George Santayana to Richard Rorty and Ronald Dworkin, from Georges- Pierre Seurat and Constantin Brâncuși to Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg, from André Gide to Philip Roth, from Rudolf Laban to Merce Cunningham, from Henrik Ibsen to Samuel Beckett, from Wallace Stevens and Rainer Maria Rilke to Elizabeth Bishop and Czesław Miłosz, from Sigmund Freud and Benjamin Spock to E. O. Wilson and Sam Harris, The Age of Atheists brilliantly explores how atheism has evolved, deepened and matured, and gained unprecedented resonance and popularity as it has sought to replace an unknowable God in the afterlife with the voluptuous detail and warmth of this life, to be found in art, philosophy and science, all woven into a rational, secular morality. Atheism has had its share of ideologues, tyrants and charlatans, but it is above all a history of brave accomplishment--and one that is far from finished. From Nietzsche and his nihilism to Dawkins and Dennett, Nagel and Habermas, Watson's stimulating intellectual narrative explores the revolutionary ideas and big questions provoked by these great minds and movements. A sparkling and ultimately triumphant history, The Age of Atheists is the first full story of our efforts to live without God.


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From one of Britain's most distinguished historians comes the stirring story of one of the modern world's most important yet controversial intellectual achievements: atheism. Since Friedrich Nietzsche roundly declared that "God is dead" in 1882, a raft of reflective and courageous individuals have devoted their creative energies to devising ways to live without Him, turnin From one of Britain's most distinguished historians comes the stirring story of one of the modern world's most important yet controversial intellectual achievements: atheism. Since Friedrich Nietzsche roundly declared that "God is dead" in 1882, a raft of reflective and courageous individuals have devoted their creative energies to devising ways to live without Him, turning instead to invention, enthusiasm, hope, wit and, above all, various forms of self-reliance. Their brave, imaginative story has gone untold--until now. In The Age of Atheists, acclaimed historian Peter Watson offers a sweeping narrative of the secular philosophers and poets, psychologists and scientists, painters and playwrights, novelists and even choreographers who have forged a thrilling, bold path in the absence of religious belief. Synthesizing nearly a century and a half of recent history, The Age of Atheists is a stunning, magisterial celebration of life without recourse to the supernatural. From Paul Valéry and George Santayana to Richard Rorty and Ronald Dworkin, from Georges- Pierre Seurat and Constantin Brâncuși to Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg, from André Gide to Philip Roth, from Rudolf Laban to Merce Cunningham, from Henrik Ibsen to Samuel Beckett, from Wallace Stevens and Rainer Maria Rilke to Elizabeth Bishop and Czesław Miłosz, from Sigmund Freud and Benjamin Spock to E. O. Wilson and Sam Harris, The Age of Atheists brilliantly explores how atheism has evolved, deepened and matured, and gained unprecedented resonance and popularity as it has sought to replace an unknowable God in the afterlife with the voluptuous detail and warmth of this life, to be found in art, philosophy and science, all woven into a rational, secular morality. Atheism has had its share of ideologues, tyrants and charlatans, but it is above all a history of brave accomplishment--and one that is far from finished. From Nietzsche and his nihilism to Dawkins and Dennett, Nagel and Habermas, Watson's stimulating intellectual narrative explores the revolutionary ideas and big questions provoked by these great minds and movements. A sparkling and ultimately triumphant history, The Age of Atheists is the first full story of our efforts to live without God.

30 review for The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God

  1. 4 out of 5

    Melanie

    "Elizabeth Bishop, who described herself in childhood as "full of hymns", was a fervent admirer of Darwin. She thought he had built up a "solid case" based on "heroic observations", and on her visit to Britain in the 1960s she journeyed by Green Line bus to Darwin's house. She continued to return to his "beautiful books" because she was convinced, as she knew he was, that, as he confided to his notebooks, "the sublime is reached through the commonplace," the "slow accretion of facts." This made "Elizabeth Bishop, who described herself in childhood as "full of hymns", was a fervent admirer of Darwin. She thought he had built up a "solid case" based on "heroic observations", and on her visit to Britain in the 1960s she journeyed by Green Line bus to Darwin's house. She continued to return to his "beautiful books" because she was convinced, as she knew he was, that, as he confided to his notebooks, "the sublime is reached through the commonplace," the "slow accretion of facts." This made her, according to Guy Rotella, "a religious poet without religious faith." Rebecca Stott highlights these lines of Bishop's about a meandering bus journey along the Nova Scotia coastline: A moose has come out of the impenetrable wood and stands there, looms, rather, in the middle of the road. Stott describes this episode as a collective epiphany of the bus passengers, "locked in the otherworldly stare of the moose who is 'high as a church.'" It is a Darwinian sublime, a secular enchantment, but it is not an apotheosis--"the bus departs, leaving only the smell of gasoline behind." In Bishop's work, Stott says, the sublime moment is "giddying" but there is no transcendence, no significance that is above; it is instead a fall, a falling back into the smell of gasoline, or the memory of the smell, an immersion (Stott's preferred word) in this world." Yes. A massive intellectual work that sings. Hang on to your hats, this volume will take you into the minds of Nietzsche, Eugene O'Neill, Wallace Stevens, Hannah Arendt, Andre Gide, Sigmund Freud, James Joyce, Martin Heidegger, Paul Valery, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Musil, Franz Kafka, Henry James, Jurgen Habermas, Henri Bergson, Thomas Nagel, Marcel Proust, Ronald Dworkin, Richard Dawkins, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf and many, many, many more. All in an effort (which feels more like a dance) to understand and synthesize how these writers, thinkers, scientists, philosophers and artists tackled the question of what it means to exist in a world without God and how we should do it. How do you exist fully in this world, with no consoling afterlife. Let the rejoicing begin. As soon as I finished the book, my mind and heart on fire, all I wanted to do was go back to page one and start all over again.

  2. 4 out of 5

    David

    This book is a large compendium of the approaches of philosophers, intellectuals, sociologists, psychologists, revolutionaries, poets, artists, novelists, and scientists to ideas of life without a god. Peter Watson covers an enormous scope of the writings of thinkers over the past 150 years. This is a difficult book to read; many of the ideas are written in an intellectual style that is sometimes a bit foreign to me. I had to work at it, to understand the points that Watson explains. In the begin This book is a large compendium of the approaches of philosophers, intellectuals, sociologists, psychologists, revolutionaries, poets, artists, novelists, and scientists to ideas of life without a god. Peter Watson covers an enormous scope of the writings of thinkers over the past 150 years. This is a difficult book to read; many of the ideas are written in an intellectual style that is sometimes a bit foreign to me. I had to work at it, to understand the points that Watson explains. In the beginning of the book, Watson makes an interesting observation. "In America it is the churchgoers who are the happiest, but worldwide it is those who are existentially insecure (and therefore extremely unlikely to be happy) who most attend church; religion is associated in America with less criminality, but worldwide with more; in America attendance at church boosts income, but worldwide ... it is the poorest who most attend church." While Watson does not back up this claim with evidence or statistics, it is still believable. The book covers the work of intellectuals in more-or-less chronological order, beginning with Nietzsche, who famously proclaimed that "God is dead". The works of numerous philosophers are described, including Richard Rorty, Santayana, Wittgenstein, Hegel, Heidegger, Dewey, Nagel, Bertrand Russell and Rilke. Psychologists including Freud, Jung, Maslow; playwrights including Ibsen, Shaw and O'Neill; authors including Sartre, Tolstoy, Joyce, Kafka and Virginia Woolf; poets including Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Valery, Mallarme, and Stefan George; scientists including Darwin, Pinker, Davies, Edward Wilson, and Dawkins; artists including Monet, Seurat, Matisse, Munch, and Van Gogh ... the list goes on and on. Some of the works of Freud are described in detail. He wrote that religion is emotionally equivalent to mental illness. On the other hand, Freud did not allow consistency to get in his way, as he found that "Devout believers are safeguarded in a high degree against the risk of neurotic illness". Proust argued that "both religion and art have social cohesion as their primary social function". During the nineteenth century, poetry and art were "felt to be far more important than ... now, and artists were looked upon in a different light". Much is made of the potential for great literature to be inspirational. Peter Watson writes that some poets established new "religions" based on poetry, and quotes many poetry excerpts, including Auden's wonderful, If equal affection cannot be, Let the more loving one be me. Watson shows how the two world wars helped break down the belief in a god. The carnage and suffering produced by the wars broke the idea of a merciful, benevolent god. In 1914, many in Europe were converted to the "religion of nationalism". Marxism was also conceived as an alternative to religion. Bertrand Russell wrote that the First World War "was wholly Christian in origin." All the politicians involved in it were "applauded as earnest Christians". In the time leading up to the Second World War, From Hitler's point of view, probably his greatest achievement was in nullifying the oppositional potential that the church--had it so minded--could have mustered. This is worth underlining: at a time when religious faith was most needed, it failed to rise to the challenge. Too little is made of this. Only a very short portion of the book is devoted to the views of scientists with respect to religion. Mention is made of Richard Dawkins, and his belief "that a scientific approach to creation can be just as awesome and fulfilling as religious belief ... Darwin made it possible to be an intellecutally fulfilled atheist." Watson describes the influence of three words coined by E.O. Wilson; "sociobiology", "biophilia", and "consilience". Wilson pointed out that "out of the estimated one hundred thousand belief systems that have existed in history, many have fostered ethnic and tribal conflict, which means that every major religion today is a winner in the Darwinian struggle waged among cultures--'none ever flourished by tolerating its rivals.' He notes that the most dangerous of beliefs is the one endemic in Christianity: I was not born to be of this world. 'With a second life waiting, suffering can be endured--especially in other people. The natural environment can be used up. Enemies of the faith can be savaged.'" My only quibble with this book is in Watson's review of attacks on evolutionary science by Mary Midgley. She wrote that Marxism and evolution are "the two great secular faiths of our day." Moreover, "Not unlike a religion, evolution makes prophecies, in particular that mankind is on an 'upward escalator' as a result of which individuals of the future will be more intelligent and in other ways more complete and talented". Watson does not offer any objection to this statement, even though evolution does not prophesy an escalator, either upward or downward. Evolution does not have a "direction", other than optimizing survival. Also, Midgley wrote in an attack against Dawkins' The Selfish Gene that it is absurd to say we are always ruled by self-interest, which is contrary to the experience of our civilization. Here, Midgley completely misunderstands Dawkins' thesis, that even though the gene is selfish, an individual can be selfless. And, because Watson does not raise this point, I wondered if he understands evolutionary theory. Perhaps he does, as later on in the book, he writes that "evolution is a better authority so far as morals are concerned. It is experimentally confirmed that evolution shows rationally why morality is justified, identifies the benefits, and highlights what is lost when the rules aren't adhered to ... studies show how the requirements of the 'selfish gene' lead to the need for, and justification of, cooperation. Biology links ehtics to morals". This book is not for everybody. It is a well-written, but challenging book. It brings together "under one roof" a lot of important ideas that have developed about replacements for the concepts of god, religion, and faith. (Note: This book was provided to me by Simon & Schuster, in exchange for an honest review.)

  3. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    Peter Watson has produced an impressive book, one which showcases his expansive knowledge of the history of the twentieth century, but one which makes no concession whatsoever to the reader, thus making him feel like a total idiot. The book is nothing less than a chronological encyclopedia of Western cultural and philosophical history of the 1900s, told with an emphasis on secularization, the gradual rejection of religion, the rise of modern atheism. Watson's grasp of the facts, thinkers, authors Peter Watson has produced an impressive book, one which showcases his expansive knowledge of the history of the twentieth century, but one which makes no concession whatsoever to the reader, thus making him feel like a total idiot. The book is nothing less than a chronological encyclopedia of Western cultural and philosophical history of the 1900s, told with an emphasis on secularization, the gradual rejection of religion, the rise of modern atheism. Watson's grasp of the facts, thinkers, authors, and the historical perspective, are amazing. The text is organized masterfully, essentially as a textbook. Each chapter includes a short summary, with a clean transition to the next chapter. All that is good—very good. Where Watson fails, grandy, is in forgetting to make it readable. Yes, some will happily fly through it, self-congratulatorily smiling at all the names they recognize, all the books they've read, all the philosophical nuances they recall. But most readers will want to read it to learn something, not to feel good about themselves. Although Watson exposes the general arc of history to careful readers, he allows only the illusion of understanding it by obsuring the essence with far too much information. Again, it is really an encyclopedia, organized mostly by time. Each chapter presents dozens of people and ideas. Eventually, after many such chapters, it all becomes an overwhelming tidal wave. Even for the most diligent reader the inundation scrambles everything together. Most readers will want to pick and choose where to focus attention—but then, sharpening the irritation, having located something particularly interesting, will find only a paragraph or two (at most a page) on the subject. It doesn't work as a readable text. To be fair, Watson did enormous work to collate the extensive research he did. Going beyond mere recording, he adds value by drawing lines connecting the "dots" of hundreds of individual thinkers and artists. What is missing is the narrative, the story. What's there comes across clinical, in a cold-hearted way. Religion and atheism touch humans deeply at an emotional level. There is no excuse not to give us some warmth. Watson, in his subtitle, does promise, but doesn't deliver on, "How we have sought to live since the death of God". The Age of Atheists deserves a place next to other philosophical summary reference texts—in fact Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy comes to mind as what surely must have been one of Watson's models. If only he was as engaging a writer as Russell, and had his unassuming kindness.

  4. 5 out of 5

    David Withun

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  5. 5 out of 5

    Domhnall

    This book explores suggestions for diverse ways to live in the absence of God. It is far better than my review and I recommend it. The book starts with Nietzsche's Death of God, and that identifies from the outset that the atheism of this book does have its origin in the rejection of a monotheistic faith. The book’s final conclusion, also, makes some pointed competitive remarks about the relative superiority of atheism to religion as a way of living. So we cannot get away from the principle that This book explores suggestions for diverse ways to live in the absence of God. It is far better than my review and I recommend it. The book starts with Nietzsche's Death of God, and that identifies from the outset that the atheism of this book does have its origin in the rejection of a monotheistic faith. The book’s final conclusion, also, makes some pointed competitive remarks about the relative superiority of atheism to religion as a way of living. So we cannot get away from the principle that atheism is not simply a value system without God, but also one in which the rejection of God is a central value. I don’t know if this concept of atheism is only really applicable to those of us having the appropriate God shaped hole, or if a continuing rebellion against monotheism is in itself evidence that we have not yet broken free of its embrace. Those systems that function without reference to God may not fit the definition of atheism, they may even be accepted by religious people but they may exist in competition with or as a substitute for religion; an example is psychotherapy. For that reason, the book is able to take a pretty generous and sweeping view of its subject. An important aspect of Watson’s account is to appreciate two things about atheism. One is its diversity – there are many atheisms. Another is the way it has evolved over time, with good reason to hope that the really terrible ideas are among those that have vanished into history. A significant thread in the history is the realization of GK Chesterton’s prediction, that when people stop believing in God they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything. From Spiritualism at the start of the 20th Century to New Age fringe beliefs at the end, with special attention to the huge role of the “counter culture” in and around the Sixties, this history incorporates a whole variety of “alternative” belief systems which had an impact in their day and left at least some traces. In reality, direct opposition to God or to religion does not dominate this history and does not even play a starring role. It certainly does give proper weight to the evidence that atheists did indeed attack religion throughout the 20th Century, sometimes with extreme violence. The scientific atheism of Soviet Russia, and the Nazi project to contain and stifle Christianity as a platform opposed to Nazi ideology, both fairly described here, attained levels of stupidity that ensured they would not survive their temporary political functions. However, in each case the driving force was not atheism per se but the fear of religion as a potential platform for political opposition, something that did not seriously materialise. Out of its 26 chapters, in addition to a conclusion and an introduction, it seems to me that only one (Chapter 24) addresses the so called "New Atheism" and the currently still fashionable wars of science and religion, and this chapter does not make any contribution to the key arguments of the book’s conclusion. So very little of the book is particularly interested in attacking either God or religion. That is simply not the tone of the book. The book does describe some major historical events that induced widespread dismay with traditional religion, in order to discuss the way people responded. The barbarity of the First World War shook the confidence of many in the concept of a just God; the outrageous abomination of the Holocaust was even more radically shocking; the prospect of nuclear war was again too stark for trite answers to suffice. Scientific developments also provoked discomfort, since the monotheistic religions make assertions about the material world that are incompatible with Science. For many thinkers, the search for a new value system was motivated by the need to properly engage with these problems, when traditional religion was simply no longer equal to the task. In practice, the most satisfactory answers arrived at have not, in Watson’s opinion, taken the form of new, all embracing or unifying grand theories. Whether in Science, the arts or in philosophy, the trend has been towards more intimate and more fragmentary solutions. On the one hand, Watson does see Science offering a much more satisfactory way to comprehend our world than religion. On the other, he does not suggest that this results in a reduction of experience to a few deterministic laws – rather, it has enabled us to put names and reasons to a growing multiplicity of things which simply had no place in any religious account of “Creation.” In other words, we are able to see and to appreciate and wonder at more of our world in more complex ways than were ever possible in the past. In a similar way, he credits artists, poets and also therapists with enabling to us give new names to our inner feelings and our subjective experiences, again not reducing our private nor our social lives to mechanistic formulae, but opening up an expanded field of possibilities both to appreciate and to accommodate. An example that struck me was Dr Benjamin Spock, whose 1946 book Baby and Childcare advocated treating children as basically good at heart, flatly contradicting the conventional Christian (Calvinist?) attitude that saw Children as intrinsically sinful and in need of correction. The point is that such transformations were not superficial but very profound, very tangible in their effects and often unquestionably desirable. This history has space not only for cognitive models, but also for the non verbal procedures of dance, music and the visual arts. It also discusses the expanding awareness and acceptance of human desires, and the prospects of greater freedom for women, for homosexuals and for others, while noting areas of failure such as the continuing prevalence of genital mutilation. It is rather futile, however, to try and convey the contents, the arguments or even the conclusions of this book to anyone who has not taken the time to explore its detail. The book is as much an experience as an argument. The accumulation of evidence and examples is its point. The book accumulates one example after another of proposals, observations and points of view to produce a convincing and detailed mosaic of the way ideas about life without God have evolved over the past 150 years. It is not an encyclopaedia. It rarely gives enough information about any source to enable anyone unfamiliar with it to get by without Google, Wikipedia or something similar but frankly there is nothing difficult today in reading with a smart phone or tablet in hand. I made liberal use of those facilities in my reading, as well as adding a number of new titles to my wish list for future reading. It is encyclopaedic. Much of the pleasure in the book is to spend time with the many illuminating and thought provoking voices within. Watson presents each source's point of view in its own terms, usually in a fair way, and only occasionally enters into a direct debate with the source by citing objections and criticisms. This cannot possibly mean he agrees with everyone mentioned - the sources do not agree with each other. Many of them self destruct anyway without Watson’s intervention. In some cases I certainly wanted to dispute Watson’s commentary, but that is part of the experience of active reading. In short, the material in this history supports an optimistic, upbeat understanding of new possibilities opening up for human well being as a result of the Death of God. A question he attributes to the poet, Czeslaw Milosz, is one that I suspect fits with Watson’s own conclusions: ”Is the disappearance of religion in our lives any different from the disappearance of some of those other nineteenth-century myths, embodied in imperialism, racial superiority and colonialism? .. No one mourns their passing and no one foresees their return.” [p452] The point is excellent, though unfortunately I do not agree that any of those myths ever did disappear, which is a great pity.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Adam Lee

    Despite the title, this book had basically nothing to do with atheism. The vast majority of its 400-plus excruciatingly boring pages are about 19th-century European artists and artistic movements, followed by a brief, shoehorned-in final section about the books of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. Read Jennifer Michael Hecht's far better "Doubt: A History" if this is the kind of subject you're interested in. Despite the title, this book had basically nothing to do with atheism. The vast majority of its 400-plus excruciatingly boring pages are about 19th-century European artists and artistic movements, followed by a brief, shoehorned-in final section about the books of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. Read Jennifer Michael Hecht's far better "Doubt: A History" if this is the kind of subject you're interested in.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Roof Beam Reader (Adam)

    Thoughts available at https://wp.me/p1n6kW-2xO Thoughts available at https://wp.me/p1n6kW-2xO

  8. 4 out of 5

    Gary Beauregard Bottomley

    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 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.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Todd N

    I bought this as a birthday present for myself back in March, and I’ve been side-eyeing it as it sat on my nightstand ever since. After a few abortive attempts, I finally made it through the book with the help of an old Kindle Touch that read to me while I drove and a Kindle Paperwhite with backlight that I read in bed. So God died in 1883, or at least that was when Nietzsche found the corpse stuffed behind a sofa. And the big question since then has been how are we supposed to live until such ti I bought this as a birthday present for myself back in March, and I’ve been side-eyeing it as it sat on my nightstand ever since. After a few abortive attempts, I finally made it through the book with the help of an old Kindle Touch that read to me while I drove and a Kindle Paperwhite with backlight that I read in bed. So God died in 1883, or at least that was when Nietzsche found the corpse stuffed behind a sofa. And the big question since then has been how are we supposed to live until such time as the last priest is slaughtered and we are ready to upload our consciousnesses into computers that blast off to explore the galaxy. If we have read our Hitchens then we are told that lunch with friends is as spiritually nourishing as a High Mass with a full choir. And if we have read our Dawkins then we are idiots for almost allowing the word “meaning" to slip through our mouths, which certainly did not evolve in a cold, unfeeling universe to utter words like “meaning.” But then along comes Mr. Watson, who has apparently read every book available on Amazon, to show us how a bewildering array of scientists, artists, poets, philosophers, dancers, moralists, religious scholars, historians, politicians, mathematicians, etc. have approached the question of how to live since 1883 under a wide variety of God-ful-ness, religious-ness, and secular-ness. This is the third massive book of Mr. Watson’s that I have read, and they never disappoint. In this case I came away with seven legal pad pages worth of notes on authors, books, and concepts to follow up on. The book is arranged roughly chronologically and roughly thematically, so if you’re not in the mood for, say, poetry or those reductive evolution guys, you can zip right over those parts. In the interest of saving you the time it takes to read the book (or maybe entice you into reading the book), I kept a running list of the various things that have been successfully tried, rejected out of hand, and tried and then rejected. Relatively successful (so far) responses: — Reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra over and over — Colony of dancers and vagabonds — Phenomenological approach to life and its moments — Rejection of fixed human nature (self is constantly changing; “existence before essence”;Sartre: Belief in a “supernatural artisan” leads to belief in fixed human nature which leads to fascism) — Awareness that the experience of living lies beyond the reach of language — Consequential life (this is left pretty vague other than a warning not to collect matchbook covers) — Poetry (very nicely described as “a companion of humanity from the start” sort of like dogs) — Direct experience of the world (vs. abstraction; Rilke recommended singing) — Being “Dionysian” — Darwinism (in the sense that it moved philosophy from the leisure class to the masses) — Gide’s “gratuitous act” (acting quickly without thinking) — Intensity of living — Dr. Spock’s parenting books — Constantly attacking authority, church, and morality (this isn't for everyone) — Agathotopia (literally “good enough society”) — Solitude (followed by huge list of great people who never married) — Life-long commitment to education — Being “rational” (Neatly defined as "being willing to submit all of one’s beliefs to one’s peers" but not one’s hopes and desires necessarily) Responses that were pretty much rejected out of hand: — Science (It turns out that science is bad. Among it’s crimes, it: impoverished the world, was co-opted by capitalism, has no moral authority, is too reductive for meaning, makes us feel less at home in the world as it explains more and more with fewer theories, stole back the liberty and moral freedom that was grasped from dead religions) — Reason (It turns out to be a “quasi-mystical substitute for God,” big mistake from the Enlightenment; "Reason failed to bring improvements, it was just a higher superstition.") — Abstraction — Transcendence of any kind, transcendent moments — Wholeness, oneness, all-encompassing meaning (left over from monotheism) — Darwinism (see science) — Metaphysics — Happiness (“As soon as one is aware of it, it has ended”; “It’s a holiday camp kind of word”; serotonin levels can be manipulated; even Maslow grew bitter in his old age) — Consumerism (based on envy, works by creating unhappiness) — Radical politics (dismissed as “secular salvation” true aim is establishing identity or filling emptiness in lives -Lasch) Responses that were tried but then rejected: — WWI (There is a strange section that lists quote after quote of great thinkers who were pretty excited about WWI; later derided as the "Euro-Neitzchean war") — Bolshevism/Proletarianism — Marxism — Theosophy/the occult — 200 years of alternative religions and pop-psych movements documented by Harvard historian Eugene Taylor — Freudianism (though the experiment still continues) — Jungianism — National Socialism — Dadaism — Hipsterism — the Counterculture (though praised as a defection from “skeptical, secular intellectuality” and an “occult Jungian stew”) — Middle class secular humanism (it “eschews mystic flights…limiting itself to this world and its concerns which fortunately turn out to be largely subject to precise formulations, and hence have a limited but comforting certainty” - Roszak) — Zen Buddhism/Yoga — Drugs/LSD/psychedelics (“essentially an appeal to their own authority”) — Therapy/therapeutic sensibility (anti-religion in which submission is intolerable; impulse and gratification is goal; therapy produces self-limitation and the self as feeble or fragile and never cured; Freud’s original promise: "a normal level of unhappiness") — Liberal Democracy (they are really oligarchies of corporate liberalism/capitalism that derive power from fragmenting society; Liberalism is neutral on values but this is disguise which helps those in power maintain control) Mixed in with these (and I left a lot out) are a bunch of arguments/critiques of religion, society, science, and (of course) each other’s writings. Much of that was what I found the most interesting part of the book. The chapter on The Holocaust is most illuminating. Mr. Watson includes some quotes from (Jewish) religious scholars that I found appalling. I already knew about the Catholic Church’s appalling behavior. The chapter ends with the point that when religious faith was needed most, it failed to rise to the challenge. I’m not Jewish, but that's definitely a Covenant-breaker. Another chapter deals with the Dawkins/Nagel/Deutsch axis. Mr. Watson trots out some critic lady who accuses the scientists of turning science into it’s own religion and meaninglessness into its own tenet of faith. That’s the only weak part of the book, and I would have called out the false equivalence fallacy if I were Mr. Watson, or it’s quite possible I missed something. Other parts of the book call of religion to be studied as a natural phenomenon (like St. Elmo’s Fire or Ebola) since it has emergent properties and tends to affect the populace from time to time. Even if religion is dead, actors like Mohammad Atta or Jim Bakker will still try to animate the corpse for their own purpose. Another philosopher points out that many of the concepts that we Westerners are so fond of had its start or were preserved by religion. So far from kicking religion down the stairs, it’s really an honest look at (mainly Western) culture, or lack of it, from the past 130 years. Highest recommendation. So far this is best book I’ve read this year.

  10. 5 out of 5

    David

    The main idea: How to behave in an age of science, where the old traditional framework is breaking down? How does one live? What commitments should one make? What are the possible sources of meaning, without a framework of Meaning (i.e. religion)? If meaning is no longer externally given, then what meaning shall we create? To read deeply into this book, one must recognize the separateness of religion with ethics (or piety and goodness), which Plato highlighted 2,400 years ago in the Euthyphro di The main idea: How to behave in an age of science, where the old traditional framework is breaking down? How does one live? What commitments should one make? What are the possible sources of meaning, without a framework of Meaning (i.e. religion)? If meaning is no longer externally given, then what meaning shall we create? To read deeply into this book, one must recognize the separateness of religion with ethics (or piety and goodness), which Plato highlighted 2,400 years ago in the Euthyphro dialogue. If the reader cannot make this distinction, then all that follows may be opaque to you. ---- This is a selective, but epic intellectual history of how "atheists" (philosophers, scientists, psychologists, visual artists and dancers, novelists, playwrights and poets from 1880s-2000s) create meaning through their lives and work, explicitly or implicitly responding to Nietzsche's notion that "God is dead." (It would have been nice to get a full quote of that Nietzsche passage, which is not long at all.) Watson's synthesis is impressive, yet many omissions stick out, namely musicians, politicians, and other notable humanists and organizations. His approach is what I call the "Great Man" or "St. John's" tack of playing historical caroms with famous dead people and their life-projects. He does it well, but there are other ways to present a history. This approach can be criticized for excessive name-dropping, which is usually alleviated by an appendix of names, here absent. Also, familiarity with diverse subjects is mandatory, even though he stitches together ideas and themes together brilliantly. A full account of this subject would run several volumes, so this instance of introduction, recollection and collation, is very well done. I would echo the other reviewers saying that bringing in Mary Midgley's criticisms are a distraction, which should have been mentioned in passing or not at all. I would recommend this book to those committed readers interested in intellectual history, the consilient crossroads of science & philosophy & the arts, or swimmers in the current of ideas like myself. A Nietzschean idea: there are no swimming paths drawn on the water of life - sink or swim! --- A word about Nietzsche - it always bothers me when authors call his philosophy 'nihilistic', because this seems a false representation. What he wrote was "transitional nihilism" which is the equivalent of cleaning off your desk before you begin to work on a project (e.g. of creating values). There is no value in 'nothing', and N. does not value nihilism, except instrumentally as a way to get busy creating your life - live your values! It is contradictory to be both nihilistic and promote a "Ja-sagen" ('yea-saying') approach to life, which is a key component of his work. The former must be false. -the Nietzsche police --- Further, Watson presents N.'s idea as if without precedent, except N. appears after the story had already begun. It is useful and convenient to start a book with a big idea, but the notion 'Gott ist tot' did not begin with Nietzsche: the elder Wagner, who could quote Schopenhauer chapter and verse, for one; possibly Max Stirner's Der Einzige und sein Eigentum ('The Ego and Its Own'), published ~1845 - roughly 40 years before Die Froehliche Wissenschaft; and not a single mention of Ludwig Feuerbach's work in the 1840s or the work of other Left Hegelians (Marx & Engels; David Friedrich Strauss's Life of Jesus) who laid the groundwork.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Murray

    It's hard not to call Peter Watson's Age of Atheists a great book. Great, as in epic. As before, in reading Ideas and German Genius, I am humbled by Watson’s brilliantly smooth and accessible prose. He has a unique proficiency for bouncing between thoughts and writers from all over history to collect an inspiring, thought provoking, and engaging read. A review of this book that doesn't acknowledge its subject and approach would be amiss. It is important that potential readers consider this is not It's hard not to call Peter Watson's Age of Atheists a great book. Great, as in epic. As before, in reading Ideas and German Genius, I am humbled by Watson’s brilliantly smooth and accessible prose. He has a unique proficiency for bouncing between thoughts and writers from all over history to collect an inspiring, thought provoking, and engaging read. A review of this book that doesn't acknowledge its subject and approach would be amiss. It is important that potential readers consider this is not a book about atheism. This is an intellectual history of cultural and scientific thinking in the period following the death of Nietzsche (who proclaimed, ‘God is dead.’) through to the almost present. This is the period Watson alludes to as the Age of Atheists. Watson offers an account of a very diverse collection of subjects and thinkers touching on Dance, Poetry, Philosophy, Biology, and Psychology to name a few. Of particular surprise, and now delight, was the emphasis on Poetry’s spiritual thinking. As a subject I’ve only observed from a distance I have never considered Poetry to have such a great impact on philosophical thinking. Further, I have seldom considered Poetry the inspiration it appears to have been for so many great minds. I am now, a little bit more, enlightened. This nugget of sentiment is but one small serving of what this book has to offer a broadly interested and receptive audience. (If measurement is your thing; consider, I like to write down bits of information that interest or intrigue me. I wrote down more than 30 little bits of such information in reading this book.) On to the critical then. Age of Atheists fails to deliver flawlessly, unlike Watson's aforesaid works. As a fellow reviewer has suggested the work is a little ‘winding’, I would add, ‘at times’. Particularly, I found the middle of the book less engaging than its first and final thirds. I believe this is the result of the subjects being slightly less well fleshed out than before, or after, and thus failing to stimulate the same level of excitement.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Adam S. Rust

    Intellectual historian Peter Watson has produced a fascinating, if meandering and unfocused, book about how various American and European intellectuals in art, science, and literature responded to Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of God in the late 19th century. Watson argues that Neitzsche's inquest promoted a larger variety of responses than just the scientific triumphalism advocated for by the recent New Atheist movement. Watson's thesis is amply supported by the text. This is probably t Intellectual historian Peter Watson has produced a fascinating, if meandering and unfocused, book about how various American and European intellectuals in art, science, and literature responded to Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of God in the late 19th century. Watson argues that Neitzsche's inquest promoted a larger variety of responses than just the scientific triumphalism advocated for by the recent New Atheist movement. Watson's thesis is amply supported by the text. This is probably the most inclusive history of unbelief in the Europe and America available. Existentialism rubs shoulders with bebop jazz, Victor Frankel appears in the chapter on German National Socialism. This book made me acutely aware that there are almost as many ways to not believe in the idea of God as there are to believe in the idea. There are, however, downsides to this approach. Watson's inclusiveness sometimes creates a lack of focus: in his narrative as well as the reader's attention. Additionally, his interpretations are occasionally not persuasive (Lenin as a Marxist Übermensch jumps to mind). Finally, certain points are intriguing the first time, but become redundant when brought up over and over again (get ready for several chapters on modern poetry saying exactly almost exactly the same thing, but with different poets). I would definitely recommend this book if you are interested in the topic of unbelief in the modern West. If your interest is less substantial though, the commitment of slogging through the excess text and repetition might not be worth it.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Justin Powell

    Warning - I fear that many will expect things out of this book that it will not deliver and thus fail to appreciate what it does. This is a compendium of various figures that have been involved in a-theism(or it's related titles) since Nietzsche. Watson is not putting forth arguments of his own within this book, or making a-theistic arguments. He has simply compiled the thinking of those who have done that into a "history" of atheism. On a side note, why on earth did he bring up Mary Midgley and Warning - I fear that many will expect things out of this book that it will not deliver and thus fail to appreciate what it does. This is a compendium of various figures that have been involved in a-theism(or it's related titles) since Nietzsche. Watson is not putting forth arguments of his own within this book, or making a-theistic arguments. He has simply compiled the thinking of those who have done that into a "history" of atheism. On a side note, why on earth did he bring up Mary Midgley and her insanely idiotic comments on Marxism and evolution being secular "faiths". I see no purpose in doing this in relation to the rest of the content and it was frustrating to see her remarks and content go unaddressed. Conclusion - you will most likely either love or hate this book. It will either be fascinating or boring. Maybe some will fall in the middle?

  14. 5 out of 5

    ShawnLeeZX

    Along with *Modern Mind*, *The Age of Atheists* sketches the fundamental ideas that shape the 21st century. *Modern Mind* focuses on the intellectual development, much of which is the development of science, while *Atheists* focuses on the life philosophy. Broadly, the life philosophy discussed in the book can be categorized into two parts: the first is "Faith in Details"; and the second is the Life with a "large size". The two parts corresponds to the categorization of the positive psychology, w Along with *Modern Mind*, *The Age of Atheists* sketches the fundamental ideas that shape the 21st century. *Modern Mind* focuses on the intellectual development, much of which is the development of science, while *Atheists* focuses on the life philosophy. Broadly, the life philosophy discussed in the book can be categorized into two parts: the first is "Faith in Details"; and the second is the Life with a "large size". The two parts corresponds to the categorization of the positive psychology, where the happiness in life is categorized into three categories: pleasure, eudaimonia, i.e., the enjoyment from the state of flow, and meaning. The efforts of agents in the book mostly fall into the eudaimonia and meaning category, since afterall, not much could be said on pleasure, which is at large more or less animal instinct. The two themes reoccurs over and over again, "faith in details" interleaving with the theme of life of a "larger size". In a way, the book is magnificent in its encyclopediacal breadth of content covered. The only drawbacks is that it is very cdense, and need some basic familiarity of the core insights of the ideas surveyed to be able to follow. It would be called a master piece, if the general theme could be distilled, like the theme of "Emancipation", "Self-consciousness" in the *From Dawn to Decadency* by Jacque. The poetic "faith in details" includes mostly poets, and the life of "larger size" includes John Dowey, E. D. Wilson, Dawkins, etc who offer society oriented life philosophy, e.g., pragmatism, evolutionary morals, social hope, situational ethics etc. Overall, a constructive life philosophy has been emerging in our contemporary time. It is somehow a blending of the poetic living, and the life meaningful in a large humanitarian context. What has been lacked, in my opinion, is the infrastructure that supports the kind of life identified by these philosophers, experiments the ideas in a large scale, and ultimately institutionalize them. This is the thing I am going think over for a very long time.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Lachlan

    Humans have been attempting to orientate themselves in the universe for millennia. Once our physical needs of food, water and shelter are met, we tend to pursue the higher goal of living a good or meaningful life. Some try to master this art of living intuitively, but others seek to formalise and classify experience to bring their lives under the service of some theoretical value. This is the purpose of philosophy: to study existence in order to better know ourselves, and to determine what is mea Humans have been attempting to orientate themselves in the universe for millennia. Once our physical needs of food, water and shelter are met, we tend to pursue the higher goal of living a good or meaningful life. Some try to master this art of living intuitively, but others seek to formalise and classify experience to bring their lives under the service of some theoretical value. This is the purpose of philosophy: to study existence in order to better know ourselves, and to determine what is meaningful or worth pursuing. Whether or not you believe Objective Truth is accessible to humans is almost incidental, for, even shorn of its lofty goals, the act of philosophic self-examination provides a way for humans to slowly mould and direct the way they live their lives. The practice of philosophy is the cultivation of consciousness; a method by which we can ‘self-create’ and imagine new forms and ways of being in the world. This passion for philosophy is what brought me to Peter Watson’s heavy, grey tome, The Age Of Nothing: How We Have Sought To Live Since The Death Of God – a book which attempts to chronicle the incredible varieties in ways in which humans (predominantly Westerners) have approached the question of life in a post-religious context. That might sound a little dry, but what makes The Age of Nothing so engaging is that it doesn’t limit itself to discussion of academic philosophy. Watson analyses dancers, painters, and musicians; political movements, New Age spiritualists, and scientists; psychologists, poets and playwrights, in addition to the ideas of some of the greatest philosophers from the last century. This is wholly appropriate, for the art of living is not merely a question of constructing theories about living, but about action and dynamic engagement with the universe. The book’s starting point is Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God, as published in 1882’s The Parable of the Madman: "The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us – for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto." The parable is a concise expression of the existential crisis Nietzsche saw threatening mankind. In a Christian world all value comes from God; an entity who has pre-ordained an order of what is good and bad, right and wrong. When that paternalistic overseer is removed from the equation, the universe – and all human striving – loses all meaning. Fearing civilisation’s potential collapse into debilitating nihilism, Nietzsche attempted to forge a new system of post-religious meaning that would allow humanity to continue to build, dream and survive. Innumerable people followed Nietzsche in this goal, and the diversity of ways in which they did so is mesmerising. Watson chronicles the diverse movements which sprung up on the wake of Nietzsche, including the development of Impressionism, Dadaism, and Surrealism; Phenomenology and Existentialism; the Dionysian body-affirmation of modern dance; the changing role of poetry; the rise of nationalism as a substitute for religion; the philosophy of jazz and bebop; the disaster of the Russian Revolution; the theological core of National Socialism; and the incredible impact the development of psychology had on philosophy and religion. His tome also acts as a brilliant primer to the artistic, philosophical and cultural developments of the 20th Century, introducing readers with figures such as Richard Dworkin, William James, Freud, George Santayana, E. O. Wilson, Lenin, Van Gogh, Heidegger, Kafka, Dali, Rilke, Beckett – the list could go on. While many people fear the idea of a world without God, I couldn’t help but feel uplifted by humanity’s immense potential after reading The Age of Nothing. In the past few centuries we’ve begun to suspect there is no mythical entity to absolve us of the incredible responsibility we have over our actions. As Nietzsche anticipated, the rules we once imagined have disintegrated in our hands, leaving us to directly confront the incredible chaos and complexity of the universe. As a result, we’ve slowly awakened as self-creators of meaning. At times this terrifying freedom has caused us to surge desperately towards man-made systems that promise to resolve life’s ambiguity. Some of these systems have caused immeasurable suffering – as with the horrors of the Red Terror and Auschwitz, or even the egoist absurdity of Scientology – but we have also created beautiful, new constellations of the mind. Peter Watson’s The Age Of Nothing is a beautiful tribute to the creativity, ingenuity and diversity of the human spirit. At 600 pages – and with language that can at times be quite technical – it is certainly no easy read, but those who take the time will arm themselves with powerful tools to help attain peace and purpose in life. Originally published: http://www.lachlanrdale.com/the-age-o...

  16. 5 out of 5

    D.L. Morrese

    How has the cultural shift away from theistic beliefs been reflected in literature, art, and philosophy? Historian Peter Watson provides a painfully detailed response to this question. Admittedly, I ended up skimming a lot, well, most of this book after the first 200 pages. The overall insight I inferred from all of the minutia presented here is that there must be some kind of instinctive human aversion to uncertainty about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Abandoning one seemin How has the cultural shift away from theistic beliefs been reflected in literature, art, and philosophy? Historian Peter Watson provides a painfully detailed response to this question. Admittedly, I ended up skimming a lot, well, most of this book after the first 200 pages. The overall insight I inferred from all of the minutia presented here is that there must be some kind of instinctive human aversion to uncertainty about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Abandoning one seemingly nonsensical explanation leaves a kind of vacuum that makes a person susceptible to other, often equally nonsensical, explanations. Watson provides an historical account of several of these (although, oddly, not the most succinct: 42). They are like examples that demonstrate a conclusion that Watson never explicitly states (not that I noticed, but I did skim most of the book)—Humans are extremely good at creative rationalization and fooling themselves.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Emily Rosewater

    Age of Nothing is actually no more than Age of that-thing - an aged thing which was never a 'thing' in itself - just an expression of speech (or even impression of speaker). I certainly can't recommend to read it to anyone who truly interested in concept of "the Almightiest Being" and never-ending Fall of its Empire in one's (body or) mind. Anyways,book is have usual for this kind of compilations points of interests: for example, "on jews", socialistic revolution and general psychologies - but the Age of Nothing is actually no more than Age of that-thing - an aged thing which was never a 'thing' in itself - just an expression of speech (or even impression of speaker). I certainly can't recommend to read it to anyone who truly interested in concept of "the Almightiest Being" and never-ending Fall of its Empire in one's (body or) mind. Anyways,book is have usual for this kind of compilations points of interests: for example, "on jews", socialistic revolution and general psychologies - but the way 'conclusion' been written is making the whole process of informing us kind of.. useless? ... By the way, didn't you know that adding certain surnames to concept of your work is guarantee the rise of demand on the Global "Intellectual" Market? ... Kind of "review the review" (rethink, of course, but without much thinking) day or two later by adding one star (why no halves?).

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Belle

    Peter Watson’s monumental intellectual history covers atheism’s influence in dance, poetry, philosophy, theater, psychology, literature, and so on. Watson strikes me as a modern-day Diderot, and this work as his Encyclopaedia (of atheism). Watson develops a subtle, but ambient thesis on the atheistic life, that, as Watson quotes Joyce, “lives down to fact”--lives without a transcendental “singular,” but rather with an artist’s sensitivity to the phenomenological particulars of everyday experienc Peter Watson’s monumental intellectual history covers atheism’s influence in dance, poetry, philosophy, theater, psychology, literature, and so on. Watson strikes me as a modern-day Diderot, and this work as his Encyclopaedia (of atheism). Watson develops a subtle, but ambient thesis on the atheistic life, that, as Watson quotes Joyce, “lives down to fact”--lives without a transcendental “singular,” but rather with an artist’s sensitivity to the phenomenological particulars of everyday experience.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Mason

    A fabulous overview of secular philosophy, literature, drama, and art following Nietzsche's declaration that "God is dead." With skilled, lucid prose, Watson does a stellar job explaining an array of topics, introducing the reader to myriad texts that merit exploration on their own. A fabulous overview of secular philosophy, literature, drama, and art following Nietzsche's declaration that "God is dead." With skilled, lucid prose, Watson does a stellar job explaining an array of topics, introducing the reader to myriad texts that merit exploration on their own.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Talal

    These pages summarise the most profound ideas of the last century. Although the book is mainly an expanded, rich literature review, it is still highly stimulating and engaging.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Roland

    Brilliant philosophical history of post-Nietzsche atheism.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Wray F

    I actually finished this book a few days ago, but the thought of writing a review seemed too intimidating to jump into right away. I took this with me on a European vacation, and wondered before I left, if it would be too heavy of reading for a summer vacation, but I’m more than glad I did. Seeing some of mankind’s greatest sights in the world, while reading some of its greatest ideas, made for a very satisfying combination. This fantastic text provides, chronologically, a succession of creative I actually finished this book a few days ago, but the thought of writing a review seemed too intimidating to jump into right away. I took this with me on a European vacation, and wondered before I left, if it would be too heavy of reading for a summer vacation, but I’m more than glad I did. Seeing some of mankind’s greatest sights in the world, while reading some of its greatest ideas, made for a very satisfying combination. This fantastic text provides, chronologically, a succession of creative thinkers since Nietzsche who dispelled with religion and struck out on their own. Although the nature of the book doesn’t allow as much depth to the easily more than a hundred personages that Watson expands upon, the innumerable works mentioned within make for a great jumping-off point for the reader to delve into ideas they find agreeable or intriguing elsewhere. Arm yourself with a pencil, because you’ll likely find a constant urge to underline and jot down notes throughout. Watson acknowledges early on that religion has failed to sustain society because, at this point in our time, most people clearly understand it as mythology. Not that narrative is a bad thing. Stories sustain us in meaningful ways, but, at its heart, the foundations of religion are mostly groundless. While science has made great advances and has answered many of our most enduring questions, it too, remains suspect, because it is guilty of, at minimum, taking away much of the mystery and romance out of the world by its analyzation and, more importantly, by adding to the idea of an overall meaningless existence. Sure, you can accept the findings of science and its many valid truths, but doing so does not necessarily make one sleep any better at night. Although I may miss the mark some, much of Watson’s thesis seems to be that, after surveying all these great thinkers since Nietzsche, one starts to find patterns of thought. Many of the same ideas begin reappearing in some form or another. Writers, artists, philosophers, scientists and other great minds will often springboard off the ideas that came before and use these to create new schools of thought that engage and even enlighten society. In the time frame Watson begins to describe, that of the late 19th century, religion is quickly replaced with the ideas of Freud. The age of psychiatry and psychology takes off and the focus ceases to be on the heavens, but on man himself. As the chapters progress, decade after decade of some of the most enduring, yet sometimes forgotten, thinkers are presented. Some can be more easily dismissed, yet others will likely resonate and send you scrambling off to the bookstore (do people still use those? Maybe Amazon..) to find out more. In a nutshell, maybe we should stop looking for some unifying, objective great “meaning” out there, particularly those metaphysical or transcendent. Perhaps meaning like this simply does not exist. Small moments of transcendence and connection to the rest of humanity are found while engaging with art, literature, poetry, music, travel, science and appreciating time spent with family and friends. I make it all seem too simple here. This book is incredibly engaging, will provide much to mull over and will stir your intellect in countless ways. Can’t recommend it enough. I’ll likely go back and reread it again in the not-too-distant months ahead…

  23. 5 out of 5

    Eric Wojciechowski

    The Age of Atheists is, by far, my favorite book in the on going discussion of the end of God. Unlike most books on the subject that spend most of the time debating whether or not god exists, The Age of Atheists discusses the people who have already cast off the bonds of religion and god. Peter Watson begins with Friedrich Nietzsche, late 1800s. Nietzsche declared that god was dead and from there, the baton was passed to numerous authors, novelists, painters, poets, musicians, and free thinkers The Age of Atheists is, by far, my favorite book in the on going discussion of the end of God. Unlike most books on the subject that spend most of the time debating whether or not god exists, The Age of Atheists discusses the people who have already cast off the bonds of religion and god. Peter Watson begins with Friedrich Nietzsche, late 1800s. Nietzsche declared that god was dead and from there, the baton was passed to numerous authors, novelists, painters, poets, musicians, and free thinkers who went about trying to replace the void. And this is where I continued to furrow my brow. Why replace god, a false conception in the first place? When the world rejected the Earth centered solar system, no one needed to replace the loss, to fill a need for Earth being number one. Sure the sun centered solar system replaced it but what about the people who had real comfort with Earth being at the center? Were they off painting pictures and writing music about it? Maybe, I don't know. I doubt it. Yet this is what's happening with the loss of god. It seems the idea of god is rather ingrained into human consciousness. For a long time, man has projected this idea into outer space, into the ground, into tress, into the wind and into the oceans. Yet as the veiled “mysteries” of nature are pealed away and completely natural explanations supplant mystical ones, the existence of an entity moving and shaking the world gives way. Since no such entity exists, man needs to fill the void. This leads me to Carl Jung's Archetypes or, older still, Adolf Bastian's Elementary Ideas. Somewhere in the brain, the human mind holds a need to believe that what is before his five senses is not it, that there is more. There's this desire that something is out there, even if it's just watching. And all this is a doctoral thesis on its own, no need to develop it here. In fact, if you wish to pursue this, check out the works of Joseph Campbell, particularly the Masks of God series. In The Age of Atheists, we meet so many poets, artists, philosophers, novelists, etc that just trying to keep up is a chore in itself. This is not a bad thing, but bring a highlighter with you to the read. What we are treated to is a summary of numerous players trying to fill the void after Nietzsche declared god was dead. I read about them all and took note of the figures that warranted a deeper review, the ones who I'd seek out later for examination of their works in detail. Some I was familiar with, some I'd never heard there name until this book. The Age of Atheists is a treasure trove of those who have been molding the god Archetype ever since Nietzsche. Consider this book a primer of those in the movement of Atheism from past to present. And don't forget that highlighter.

  24. 5 out of 5

    NJ Wong

    Although I enjoyed Peter Watson's "Ideas", I did not find his new book "The Age of Atheists" as enjoyable. TAOA attempts to describe how society has changed from the starting point of Friedrich Nietzsche's "God is dead" sentiment in his 1883 book "Thus Spoke Zarathustra". Prior to the free-thought sentiment, much of Western culture was premised on Christianity - which affected much of literature and the arts. Nietzsche's book affected so much of Western culture, the zeitgeist if you will, which T Although I enjoyed Peter Watson's "Ideas", I did not find his new book "The Age of Atheists" as enjoyable. TAOA attempts to describe how society has changed from the starting point of Friedrich Nietzsche's "God is dead" sentiment in his 1883 book "Thus Spoke Zarathustra". Prior to the free-thought sentiment, much of Western culture was premised on Christianity - which affected much of literature and the arts. Nietzsche's book affected so much of Western culture, the zeitgeist if you will, which TAOA sought to describe. The book covers areas such as: philosophy, poetry, plays, paintings, psychology, music, movies, politics, social norms, and of course, religiosity. In the chapters where a historical narrative can be provided, such as the history of the World Wars and the impact of social norms such as the "hippie generation" and LGBT movement, TAOA is very good. However, I found the chapters on literature, art and poetry to be less impactful or interesting. Perhaps I just wanted a straight forward account of history, and articles about fictional characters, art, and poetry are just to subjective. The fact that only Western influences are described is also a drawback. There seems to be very little about Zen Buddhism or how Buddhist literature could have impacted the thinking of the time. There is a lot of atheism in Buddhist writings and art. To me, the age of atheism has been helped by the age of science. Scientific thinking is the mark of an advanced culture and civilisation. It is truly amazing how science has helped us see further into the universe, see deeper into the quantum world, advanced a million-fold the technology of our every day gadgets, improve knowledge acquisition and the transmission of knowledge. To me, the age of atheism dovetails the age of modern science. It is the stories of science that has led us to new genres such as science fiction, which leads us to envisage new possibilities that we know cannot be limited by a non-existent god. Although I didn't enjoy this book as much as "Ideas", my gripes is mainly based on the presentation. I think the book can be shortened without losing its comprehensiveness. However, Peter Watson's book introduced me to a lot of new areas that is worth exploring further, and is thus still worth recommending. However, I feel the better book of history on atheism is still "Doubt: A History" by Jennifer Michael Hecht.

  25. 5 out of 5

    John Barbour

    This morning I read 10 chapters in the Gospel of John. Later I skimmed this book. What I discovered is that after the reading out loud of John and praying through it; I found myself at peace and had joy in my heart. I even sang some hymns and praise songs and even hummed a classical piece. However, after skimming this book; I found myself depressed. "Better is one day in God's courts than a thousand elsewhere". Peter Watson makes a valiant attempt to show us how atheists have benefited culture. This morning I read 10 chapters in the Gospel of John. Later I skimmed this book. What I discovered is that after the reading out loud of John and praying through it; I found myself at peace and had joy in my heart. I even sang some hymns and praise songs and even hummed a classical piece. However, after skimming this book; I found myself depressed. "Better is one day in God's courts than a thousand elsewhere". Peter Watson makes a valiant attempt to show us how atheists have benefited culture. I'll give that to him but could it possibly be because they are in God's image and God benefited the culture through them while they themselves denied Him? Watson gives a tour de force from the turn of the century through the bloody 20th century and on to the 21st century by showing us the different faces of atheism and how it developed. But could all these expressions just be substitutes for God? He mentions beauty, poetry, art, the will to power and many more expressions besides the usual angry scientific ones found in people like Richard Dawkins. Something still is missing. In the end the atheists are nihilists. You can dress it up anyway you want but in the end there is nothing. They see themselves as heroic warriors in this Promethean struggle against the void. In the mean time they can say goodbye to any kind of sexual morals especially the ones they inherited from Christianity and Judaism. I will stick with Jesus ( Yeshua Messiach) who is Life and gives life more abundantly. He writes to me so that my joy may be full and He gives me peace like a river. These are all things that existentialists desire but they have denied the source. One more thing: Secularists, "Liberals", and all atheists ( even religionists who act like God doesn't exist in their daily lives) have reduced theology to religion and religion to psychology and sociology. This has not been an enrichment but a diminishing of human flourishing.Now we are left going to atheist psychologists, begging our bread from a secular, impersonal, and bureaucratic state run by social workers, and attending dead churches gagged by tax exempt rules and regulations.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Tiffany

    Peter Watson's THE AGE OF ATHEISTS: HOW WE HAVE SOUGHT TO LIVE SINCE THE DEATH OF GOD isn't an argument for or against the existence of God (though the author's belief occasionally creeps in), but a comprehensive history of the cultural and philosophical secularization of western society. The title is a play on Nietzsche’s famous proclamation that “God is dead!.” The chief criticism of this book is just the sheer amount of stuff that Watson tries to cram in. He throws you directly into the histor Peter Watson's THE AGE OF ATHEISTS: HOW WE HAVE SOUGHT TO LIVE SINCE THE DEATH OF GOD isn't an argument for or against the existence of God (though the author's belief occasionally creeps in), but a comprehensive history of the cultural and philosophical secularization of western society. The title is a play on Nietzsche’s famous proclamation that “God is dead!.” The chief criticism of this book is just the sheer amount of stuff that Watson tries to cram in. He throws you directly into the history of secular thought without much introduction, requiring me to Google some of the names, philosophies, and even incidents to learn some basic background. It makes for a confusing start to an already large, confusing, complex history. This history also focuses almost entirely on Western secular thought, primarily American and European. It leaves a large portion of the world out, but Watson does note that one American philosopher said that departmentalization does not come easily to religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism. Western thought excels in compartmentalizing, making the focus on Watson’s book understandable, if a little limiting. Watson also does not explore the role of women in secular thought; at almost 600 pages, Watson probably made that concession to avoid creating a doorstop of a book. But it’s still a little disappointing. Women’s role in history is already minimized heavily, making the near total absence of women in the book more obvious. Watson's book is interesting, but not a great introduction to secular thought in the Western world. A little more thought and focus would have made this more readable and less an amalgamation of quotes and summaries of philosophies.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Caroline

    I abandoned this book, not because I found what he was saying wrong or annoying or badly written or badly argued. I found it kind of befuddling. He wasn't writing a chronological story of the evolution of thought about God or the lack thereof, he was writing essays on different types of thought that didn't take God into account. To me, most of it at least in the first 1/4 of the book didn't seem to be atheist thought. I returned it to the library today, and when I mark a book finished it seems t I abandoned this book, not because I found what he was saying wrong or annoying or badly written or badly argued. I found it kind of befuddling. He wasn't writing a chronological story of the evolution of thought about God or the lack thereof, he was writing essays on different types of thought that didn't take God into account. To me, most of it at least in the first 1/4 of the book didn't seem to be atheist thought. I returned it to the library today, and when I mark a book finished it seems to delete my in-progress comment, so I can't cite the exact quote, but in the chapter including Henry James's novel The Golden Bowl, he said that "James's point" was that in the absence of God we have to find other things to agree to find sacred, and what are they and how do we handle them. James's point?? I don't think I'd go so far as to say that the point of that entire fat and complex book was that we have to find things sacred. I found some of the groupings of thinkers confusing. His first chapter was about Nietzsche who declared God was dead; after that, I sometimes found the people he put together a little oddly sorted. Just because Ibsen and Strindberg and Shaw were all playwrights who didn't write about God doesn't mean their thought was similar, I guess they were grouped together because they were playwrights. Overall I think that while he knows TONS about literature and philosophy, more than I will ever know, he may have overworked his material just a little to fit all these people into his thesis... anyway I decided I wasn't up for spending a month and half working through this book. Maybe another time.

  28. 5 out of 5

    William Nist

    This work is not a history of Atheism; it is a history of western thought without God beginning with Nietzsche. Nietzsche marks the beginning in intellectual history of the "death of God" and it is the attempts by philosophers, scientists, poets and writers to deal with this death that is the subject of this work. It surely is a tour de force, most likely above my humble abilities to fully grasp. The issues did resonate as the history unfolded, and the status of our lives in this postgod world w This work is not a history of Atheism; it is a history of western thought without God beginning with Nietzsche. Nietzsche marks the beginning in intellectual history of the "death of God" and it is the attempts by philosophers, scientists, poets and writers to deal with this death that is the subject of this work. It surely is a tour de force, most likely above my humble abilities to fully grasp. The issues did resonate as the history unfolded, and the status of our lives in this postgod world was about the same as my personal status. The idea of creating a life performance that is coherent, seeking truth through both science and awe, creating dignity for oneself and all others, emancipating our societies from oppressions, recognizing our desires as fundamental; these all provide both a ground for meaning and for ethics. Western monotheistic gods are certainly not up to this task.

  29. 5 out of 5

    David Melbie

    First Reading, September 12, 2014 to September 29, 2014. I really enjoyed reading this book. I was impressed with the style and learned a lot from this writer. I know that my friends and family that are believers would cringe at the title of this book but, to be fair, the subtitle really does describe the idea(s) that Watson is trying to bring forth. Very well done, and worth another read. And another. ------- Second Reading, March 6, 2016 to March 20, 2016. This is a wonderful book, full of so many First Reading, September 12, 2014 to September 29, 2014. I really enjoyed reading this book. I was impressed with the style and learned a lot from this writer. I know that my friends and family that are believers would cringe at the title of this book but, to be fair, the subtitle really does describe the idea(s) that Watson is trying to bring forth. Very well done, and worth another read. And another. ------- Second Reading, March 6, 2016 to March 20, 2016. This is a wonderful book, full of so many questions -- answered and unanswered -- and I caught a better glimpse of a couple of ideas that I overlooked the first time a read it. One, the idea that poetry is one of the best ways that humans have for expressing themselves, the second being singing. Well, I see my path before me set out much clearer, thank you, Peter Watson!

  30. 4 out of 5

    Bill

    This is a long book mostly about modern philosophy but it includes some art and literature as well. The book is about the death of god and thinking people's response to this idea and where to go once you have decided god is dead. It is a book you will either love or hate. It could well be a college survey book for a beginner philosophy course. This is a long book mostly about modern philosophy but it includes some art and literature as well. The book is about the death of god and thinking people's response to this idea and where to go once you have decided god is dead. It is a book you will either love or hate. It could well be a college survey book for a beginner philosophy course.

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