The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God
Simon & Schuster, 2014
640 pp., 34.99
The Age of Atheists
Artists and poets we meet aplenty in Watson's 556 pages. Besides Nietzsche we encounter Monet and Seurat, Freud and Maslow, Proust and Sartre, Dewey and James, Rorty and Wittgenstein. If you need more names, the back of the dust jacket lists 95, and there are many more in the index. The anecdotes introducing these figures and the exegesis of their works are all finely drawn; Watson is a gifted storyteller. Yet it is not always clear what purpose the narrative about any given individual serves, or exactly what necessary thread links the artists around the time of Nietzsche to the American pragmatism of William James and John Dewey to the European phenomenology of Edmund Husserl to the twin terrors of Stalinism and Nazism, or psychologists like Abraham Maslow to the Beatniks and thence to the New Atheists who depend on evolutionary biology, as the book proceeds without discipline from the exposition of one painting to another poem to yet another novel. This is not so much a history of a movement with a logic to it as a catalogue of various atheist lifestyles. The overwhelming feeling of the book is one of plenitude: that there have been enough atheists and agnostics creating enough art and poetry to make the possibility of enough moments of fullness that there might be a way to live in God's absence.
After this comprehensive treatment, no one can seriously doubt that in the past 130 years atheists have found many ways to live lives of meaning and morality. The book does not adequately account for how atheism could also produce the triple moral catastrophes of the 20th century, Nazism, Stalinism, and Maoism, though to his credit Watson does not dodge the question. He is unable to answer it satisfactorily because he has limited his study mostly to atheists who felt the need for a non-theistic religion. Most of them led highly individualist ways of life; why should they receive more attention, be considered more authentically atheist than the mass atheistic system of the Soviet Union? Yet even with that selection, the modes of living described in this book seem, to me, to have been merely so many proposals. We meet so many people and in this lengthy book because there was no central figure, no single mode of life apart from God found to be compelling. The only thing that unites these figures is that they were trying to find the good life. Indeed, that is Watson's conclusion, as he puts it in the title of his final chapter, borrowed from Alasdair MacIntyre (who is of course not an atheist): the "good life is the life spent seeking the good life."
This is a book that I admire and do not understand. I admire it because it is a full, engaging account of a way of life not my own. I do not understand it because, if the fullness proffered by atheism amounts to a little poetry, a little art, and the endless search for more of the same, I cannot understand its appeal. Most Christians, I suspect, will find that the system Watson describes so vividly is not a live option for them. A useful history, though, is one which develops a sympathetic understanding for a foreign group, and that sympathy is a part of the Christian discipline of love. The encounter between Christians and atheists is unloving (to say the least) because it is not sympathetic, and it is not sympathetic because of the inability of either side to understand the moral system of the other. This book is a way towards understanding what is rapidly becoming in the West one of the dominant moral systems of our time.
Lincoln Mullen is assistant professor of history at George Mason University. He is writing a history of conversions between religions in the 19th-century United States.
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